October 20, 2019

Jerry Seltzer, Who Revived Roller Derby, Elbows and All, Dies at 87

Jerry Seltzer, Who Revived Roller Derby, Elbows and All, Dies at 87


“There were gay skaters from the ’30s on,” Mr. Seltzer wrote on his blog, Roller Derby Jesus, last year. “We integrated African-Americans, Mexicans, Samoans, etc., early. The apex was reached in my era, when one of the strongest and best teams was virtually all gay, men and women.”

Gerald Edwin Seltzer was born on June 3, 1932, in Portland, Ore., to Leo and Rose (Weinstein) Seltzer, a homemaker. After his mother died when Gerald was about 12, he moved to Chicago with his father and his sister, Gloria.

Leo Seltzer, a theater owner, had successfully promoted Depression-era walkathons — grueling endurance contests much like the era’s dance marathons — when he conceived of roller derby in 1935, after reading a magazine article that said that more than 90 percent of Americans had roller-skated in their lives. He saw roller derby as an endurance event as well: a race of 57,000 laps, or 4,000 miles, on a track, with alternating teams of men and women.

The sport’s rules evolved, eventually calling for sprints between teams of five. Perhaps inevitably, rough physical play became part of the game. Around 1938, acting on a suggestion by the writer Damon Runyon, who had met Mr. Seltzer at a roller derby event in Miami, he formalized the use of body contact, making roller derby even more of a spectacle on wheels.

Jerry Seltzer grew up in the sport, traveling to games with his father. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Northwestern University, he sold sporting goods and worked part time for his father as a trackside announcer. After nearly 25 years in charge, Leo Seltzer passed the business to Jerry.

“One of the reasons Leo gave him the company was he wanted to see if his son could make good,” Jerry’s son Steven said in a phone interview.

In addition to creating an early version of television syndication by sending videotapes to local stations, Jerry Seltzer produced a documentary, “Derby” (1970), and reduced both the size of the roller derby track and the angle of its banking to allow for easier viewing.



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