The International Gazette Philadelphia, PA Spring 2013
Hazel Roop Recalls Her Roller Derby Days
By David Block
Hazel Roop, 97, was inducted into the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame onNovember 13, 2010. “It was wonderful to get the honor,” Roop said. “I felt like I did something that was good.” Two years earlier, she received the first ever Roller Derby Pioneer Award.
When Roop was young, she wanted to be a nurse. Due to an unexpected turn of fate, she became a roller derby skater.
“Because I was too young to start nursing school inColumbus,Ohio, my aunt had me come live with her inChicagofor a year. I got bored.” Roop attended her first roller derby event at the Chicago Coliseum in 1935. “I went to the games because I had nothing else to do,” said Roop. Some of the skaters noticed her regular attendance, and they invited her to compete. “I told them I didn’t know how to skate, so they offered to teach me.”
Learning to skate was nerve-racking because roller derby was skated on a banked track. Roop remembered falling a lot while trying to master the banked track. By 1936, she was confident enough to compete.
“Roller Derby was so different when I skated,” said Roop.
Leo Seltzer invented roller derby in Chicago in 1935. Transcontinental Roller Derby was an endurance contest where men and women skated as couples around a banked track, to see which couple covered three thousand miles first.
Before the end of the 1930s, Seltzer and sports writer Damon Runyon changed roller derby from an endurance race to a five-on-five contact sport. Two teams of five men and five women played against each other for eight fifteen-minute periods, with men and women skating alternate periods. The two offensive players – the jammers – scored points by passing opposing skaters, while two blockers tried to stop them. The pivot had the option of blocking or jamming. Eventually, skating periods were reduced to ten minutes.
“I started skating in Chicagoin 1936,” said Roop. She and her partner, Wes Aronson finished the 3,000 mile race in second place. She skated about two dozen races. Her favorite partner was roller derby legend, Buddy Atkinson, Sr.
The Good Roller Derby has done
Over the years, roller derby has been compared to the predetermined outcomes and theatrics of professional wrestling. Many people don’t realize the good that roller derby has done for women, minorities and people with disabilities.
According to Roop, in the 1930s, roller derby was the only sport where a woman could be a professional athlete. She elaborated that there were no opportunities for women to do other sports and get paid.
Roop remembered fellow skater Jay Levy, who was deaf. Because Levy could not hear the whistle blow, officials turned on strobe lights whenever a jam started, so that he would not be caught off guard.
Slamming Sammy Skobel skated from 1945-1965. Legally blind and unable to see faces or read uniform numbers, Skobel recognized his teammates and opponents by the way that they skated.
From the beginning, Roller Derby welcomed African Americans and all other minorities. Roop said that some of the organizers conducting roller derby tryouts had seen African Americans excel at professional wrestling. They knew that African Americans would enhance roller derby and they were right.
When unruly fans harassed African American skaters, the ushers threw those fans out.
Fights & Theatrics
Numerous fans and young skaters assumed that fights became part of roller derby after it transformed to a five-on-five game. According to Roop, fights were part of the sport from the beginning. “A couple skaters would get mad at each other off the track, so on the track, they’d let it out.” During a game you could get away with pushing, shoving, elbowing and hitting. “I avoided fights because I was a real goody,” Roop said.
As a roller derby skater, Roop, the young girl from Columbus, Ohio, competed in cities all across the U.S.- San Francisco,Miami, andNew York- and parts of Canada.
After the transcontinental era, roller derby teams consisted of good guy teams and bad guy teams. The drama and rivalries drew fans to the games. “Only some of those fights were fake,” said Roop.
Roop competed from 1936 to 1941. World War II ended her career.
On December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Roop was skating in St. Louis, Missouri. “The (roller derby) announcer said that war had been declared,” said Roop. She and some of the other skaters enlisted in the service immediately.
“I had basic training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.” Roop entered the armed forces as a private. When she was discharged several years later, she was a sergeant.
“I spent time in England,” said Roop. “That was bad because sometimes they had bomb scares every half hour.” After theU.S.dropped the Atomic Bomb, Roop was transferred to the Pentagon, where she worked with some of the Japanese victims of the Atomic Bomb, who were brought to theU.S.for medical treatment. “I had nightmares about a male prisoner because the whole side of his face was missing,” said Roop. “After I was discharged from the service, I was the secretary for some lawyers in Atlantic City (New Jersey).”
Today, Roop’s granddaughter, Tracy Smith, 42, skates for the Penn Jersey Roller Derby League. “I wanted to be a skater because of my grandmother,” said Smith. “She used to tell me exciting stories about her roller derby days. She told me about the wonderful people she met and all the places she traveled to. When I told her I joined (the roller derby) she said, ‘you’re crazy; you’ll break every bone in your body.’ So far I only broke my wrist.”
Smith said, “roller derby is in my blood.” Roop gave her granddaughter pointers on how to skate on the inside of the track. Her uncle, Bill Bogash Jr., also a roller derby skater, gave her additional useful tips.
“Roller derby saved my life,” Smith said. Before she joined the roller derby in 2005, Smith had a serious drug problem. She joined Penn Jersey and her life improved. “I now had a purpose. Roller Derby got me through hard times. My 10-year-old son used to worry about me getting hurt on the track, but he remembers how I was unhappy before it became part of my life.”