Roller derby history: How the women lit the fire

From surprising origins, the sport has become a national phenomenon with hundreds of leagues for women serious about sport, exercise and camaraderie.

Roller-skating has been a bit badass since the late 19th century.

The quick history until then consists of the first skaters being a London theater stage prop in 1743; skates evolving in the 19th century; and Rhode Island seeing the first American rink in 1866.

In 1885, the Saturday Evening Post harrumphed that skating corrupted the nation's youth, citing a Brooklyn preacher expelling people from his church for visiting roller rinks. Later that same year, the Post wrote: "As a vehicle for the promotion of impure associations or unbecoming conduct, it is no better than numberless other methods. ... for gratifying innate propensities to evil which are bound to find outlets wherever they exist."

Roller derby's father was Leo Seltzer, an Oregon theater chain owner turned dance and walking marathon promoter. In 1935, he read an article about most Americans roller-skating at least once, and came up with the idea of touring professional marathon roller skating races with a bunch of two-person coed teams. Sprinting mini-races during those marathons became known as "jams."

Roller derby's midwife was Damon Runyon, a famous sportswriter. He was also a prominent crime reporter who once described a murderess as a "blonde throwback to the jungle cat." And he wrote short fiction stories about New York bookies and small-time crooks, one of which became one of then-6-year-old Shirley Temple's earliest hits "Little Miss Marker."

In 1937, Runyon checked out a derby match in Miami and thought the collisions were the best parts. He then sat down with Seltzer and convinced him to redesign the marathons into a contact sport with teams divided into male and female squads.

The first women's derby superstar was Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn, an 18-year-old who joined Seltzer's league in 1941. She was 4 feet 11, 135 pounds. "You wouldn't call her heavy. She was firm. More chunky than heavy. And she looked fairly big on the track in her skates. She was very aggressive. The other girls had to respect her, or she'd knock their heads off," wrote her skater husband Ken Monte. Brasuhn was known to knee opponents in the jaw. She and her fiercest rival, Chicago glamour girl Gerry Murray, both mentored the sport's first black woman skater, Darlene Anderson, in 1958.

Brasuhn once had a 6-inch splinter driven into her thigh during a match. She refused to take off her skates in the ambulance or at the hospital and she returned to the track that same night. 

Derby has a convoluted history of leagues coming and going, closely tied to television ratings rising and falling. Sometimes the rivalries and action were fabricated bombast. Sometimes, derby was a pure sport without the fakery. Derby jumped the shark when the alligator pit arrived in 1989 with the introduction of a TV series, "RollerGames," which featured a figure-eight track heavily banked on one side. The coed league faked pro-wrestling-style rivalries. In the event of a tie, two skaters would race around a pit of alligators. Victory came from finishing five laps first, or from pushing the other skater into the alligator pit. The tie-breaking pit race was used only once.

The show died after one season, and derby fizzled until the 21st century.

Today's roller derby was born in 2000 in Austin, Texas. It's daddy was a drifting guitarist called Devil Dan (Daniel Policarpo), who had a thing for reading Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski. In a 2008 New York Times interview, he talked about moving to Austin to study literature. Somehow, he got it into his head to revive women's roller derby for the umpteenth time, including a vision for "a crazy circus with these clowns unfortunately stabbing each other, these bears on fire on these unicycles” — wrinkles that never made it beyond a daydream.

The Times said Devil Dan "liked that the sport was circular. He liked that part a lot. He liked the kinetic energy. He envisioned low lighting, quick flashes of red, blue and green, glow sticks, drummers, a cramped track, violence and microphones everywhere. He wanted women 'with tattoos, Bettie Page haircuts and guts.'”

Elsewhere in its story, the Times said: "Sleeping in his car, pounding Jack Daniel’s and posting fliers along a raucous strip of downtown rock clubs, he managed to recruit dozens of women to a highly disorganized organizational meeting at a playfully sinister bar called Casino el Camino."

Egos. Money. Different visions. All those led to Devil Dan and his recruits to split quickly. The women then mapped out their own vision of derby, which was widely copied and evolved into today's nationwide Women's Flat Track Derby Association of roughly 300 leagues, including the Dockyard Derby Dames and Seattle's Rat City Roller Girls. 

“I didn’t want anything to do with the roller derby after that. I could have gotten a bunch of lawyers, put a stop to all that, but I would have been in litigation for a year after that. So I didn’t,” Devil Dan told the Times.

One of those original recruits, April Ritzenhaler, a.k.a La Muerta, wrote a long poem about him, which the Times reported began with: “Devil Dan was a man, a man with a plan."

It finished with: "No trouble to us, nevermore, not today/But I’m thankful for Dan and his vision so bright/He stacked wood for the fire but we girls made it light."

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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