When Roller Derby came to Memphis in 2006 — organized into teams with such catchy names as the Legion of Zoom and the Priskilla Presleys — lots of fans thought it was a reincarnation of the matches they watched on television back in the 1960s. But it turns out the sport is actually much older than that, and the Lauderdale Library has recently acquired a souvenir program for a 1939 event with the long-winded title of Leo A. Seltzer’s Trans-Continental ROLLER DERBY or Coast-to-Coast Roller Skating Race.
This is a pretty amazing document, because Seltzer, it seems, is the fellow who pretty much invented roller dergy. I have no idea how this particular race could take place “coast-to-coast” since the participants, then as now, raced around in a circle. But that’s how they promoted it, anyway. And this entertainment spectacular took place here in Memphis every night from 7 to 11 p.m. for two entire months — January and February 1939 — at the Municipal — better known to Memphians as Ellis — Auditorium.
The program is interesting because it lists the members of the two competing teams. Forget names like “Legion of Zoom.” These teams were simply called the Reds and the Whites, and though most of the racers came from all across America, one of them was a Memphian: a woman named Honey Thomas. As you can see, she raced on the White team. What also distinguishes the 1939 version of roller derby from today’s matches is that the 10-member teams also included men, which must have made for some especially bruising matches. In fact, the program itself proclaims, “We use Norwich products exclusively — makers of Unguentine,” which (for those youngsters out there) was a popular rub-on pain reliever.
Then as now, nobody can make sense of roller derby rules. But here, I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here’s how the old program tries to explain the game:
“The position of the Teams in the race will be determined by the number of points gained during the course of the derby. Points are gained by skaters who are successful in circling the track and passing a member of a rival team at the rear of the pack. The action in gaining points [is] referred to as a JAM. Jams are limited to two minutes. A JAM occurs when one or more skaters break away from the rest of the skaters in an an effort to gain a point.”
Uh, okay. Now how about points? Well, you get points:
“For completing a JAM by circling the track and passing a member of a rival TEAM (1 point). Passing three members of a rival TEAM (2 points). Passing all members of a rival TEAM (5 points). For skating in ahead of the field carrying a Red Flag at the conclusion of Open House (2 points).”
Red Flag? Open House? There are all sorts of other rules and regulations. The one that I liked referred to this special circumstance: “Should a skater sit down intentionally [which is what the Lauderdales would most certainly do, the second the race began], the referree has the power to let the jam continue.”
To make things even more confusing, roller derby in 1939 also employed a system of signal lights: “A RED light is used when a fall occurs, a JAM is concluded, or when the field is not intact. When the RED LIGHT is on, the action is at a standstill. A WHITE LIGHT signifies that a jam is on. RED AND WHITE FLASHES signifies [the] last five seconds remaining in a jam.”
Got that? No, me neither. I think back then, just as today, the whole purpose was just to watch pretty girls skate around and around and around and smack into each other. The Lauderdales used to do this all the time, when we converted our little-used third-floor ballroom into a roller-skating rink. Boy, Grandma Lauderdale could really knock the stew out of you, too. And with her pointy elbows and knees, she left bruises!