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'Bay Area Roller Derby' Celebrates a Once Wildly Popular TV Sport

Jerry Seltzer and Keith Coppage illustrate the rise, fall and rebirth of skate-a-thons.

A sport that began humbly during the "dreary days of the Depression" and grew to a wildly popular TV attraction is celebrated in a new book by Sonoma Valley resident Jerry Seltzer and Keith Coppage of Concord.

"Bay Area Roller Derby" is part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing.

It chronicles the sport from its hey day in the 1930s to '50s, when young teens on roller skates would gather in co-ed pairs and alternate for 11-hour skate-a-thons. Seltzer is the son of the sport's founder, Leo Seltzer. Jerry Seltzer took the sport around the country in the 1960s and '70s and it became a popular syndicated TV show. Banked roller tracks caused entertaining jostling, tumbles and an occasional brawl. The games brought out the beauties and occasional hysteria, according to the book.

In the 1960s, a team called the San Francisco Bay Area Bombers was popular at the Oakland Auditorium. Click here to see rare footage of a game of that era between the Bombers and Northeast Braves, at the Oakland Coliseum—it was held outdoors due to the size of the audience.

Leo Seltzer, Jerry's dad, started the sport in Chicago. He was a former Universal Pictures employee and movie promoter, according to the book.

"The game was invented by my father in the thirties; I promoted it in the 60s and 70s, and it has had an amazing  amateur rebirth in the past 10 years," Seltzer told Patch. "It is the fastest growing women's sport in the world, with 1280 leagues in 38 countries involving some 100,000 participants. 

"Today's skaters have given me the official Roller Derby title, The Commissioner, although I have no power except to try and guide them," Seltzer said.

In the early days, skaters had to have vaudevillian skills. Dancing, singing and stunts were part of the entertainment.

Roller Derby found its home in the San Francisco Bay Area, then moved to Los Angeles and Fresno.

The sport's popularity became a reason for its demise, however. The derbies were "constantly on television," according to the book. Many viewers grew annoyed.

The sport has made a comeback as an amateur pastime in the past few years. Now quad (8-wheel) skates are used. "Bay Area Roller Derby" takes readers from the sport's roots to the modern day.

Sonoma County's "Resurrection Roller Girls" were at a signing and reading of the new book at Readers Books in Sonoma recently. The recreational and competitive league is based in Rohnert Park.

A variety of Roller Derby enthusiasts gathered at the signing. Derby skater Carol "Peanuts" Meyer came with her son, Mark Roman. She and Roman's dad, "Dynamite" Tony Roman, skated for the San Francisco Bay Bombers for more than 17 years, Mark told Patch.

Seltzer and Coppage have also authored another book, "Roller Derby to RollerJam," referring to the modern version of the sport, which is also televised.

Coppage is the official historian of roller derby. He is a Bay Area educator and writes about popular culture.

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