Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Michella Marino
Beckley: Hello and welcome to Giving Voice. If you haven’t listened to our most recent episode, you might want to go do so now as this conversation uses that as context. I’m here with Dr. Michella Marino, the author of the recent book roller derby the history of an American sport. Also, I would be remiss to leave out that she is my boss at the Indiana Historical Bureau. She’s the deputy director of the historical bureau. Welcome, Michella.
Marino: Thank you for having me. And I also want to be clear, I am not making my team interview me for this episode.
Beckley: Well, it just fit too well. So, first of all, I want to talk about kind of motherhood and roller derby, we get into it a little bit in the main episode, we touch on how Monta Jean was able to balance having a family and a career in athletics, and how that is maybe a little bit of a oddity in the professional sports world, especially for women. Could you talk a little bit more about how that played out across roller derby?
Marino: Yeah, and you hit on a an important point right there that I wouldn’t even say, oddity. I mean rarity, for sure we can, maybe oddity is the correct word. But that is not something that the sports world has done well throughout the course of the 20th, and even into the 21st century, of allowing women to inhabit multiple roles of being a professional athlete or even on, you know, to some extent on the amateur level of, you know, being a mother and also being an athlete. But again, particularly at the professional level. Oftentimes, women are sort of forced out of sports, blatantly, or at the very least, it’s just too difficult to juggle and bring your children with you on the road as you’re traveling. That being said, roller derby, though, is really the only sport at least that I’m aware of that worked it out – that figured out that women were important to the sport that they needed them to survive. And that after the first few years, they were going to make it work that women could bring their kids on the road. If that was the decision they made. Not all of the female skaters did so. But that was something that the roller derby owners the Seltzer family, first Leo Seltzer, and then later his son Jerry, were willing to work out with the families themselves. And you mentioned motherhood in particular. And of course, that’s the emphasis that I have in my book in my research, but really for fatherhood, too. I mean, that’s something that the sports world hasn’t really done well for men, either. Is allowing them to be equal parents, and sort of forcing that on their partners, in terms of like, majority of childcare, but the roller derby again worked out for both parents.
Beckley: Do you think that the kind of nature – unique nature of roller derby being a co-ed sport, kind of forced them to figure it out a little bit more than the sports that are divided by gender?
Marino: Um, partly. And why I say partly is because the women were really a large draw for the roller derby. That is what the audiences loved. I mean, they liked the male athletes as well. But it was a novelty to see women compete in this, you know, full contact co-ed sport. They’re – so, they’re doing, they’re playing a game, playing a sport, that is different than a lot of other things available for women in the mid-20th century. So again, because of that, they knew that they needed women more so than, say, other professional sports that the audience wasn’t as drawn to women, or they didn’t have as big of a draw. So yeah, I do think that sort of forced them to figure it out in some ways. I mean, the Seltzer family was pretty liberal and open minded. I mean, liberal, not in the political sense, but in, you know, we’re going to do whatever it takes to work to keep our athletes here. But again, because Leo Seltzer, the original owner of the roller derby, understood that women were bringing in the audience’s, he often remarked that, you know, women were not the weaker sex that they were actually tougher than the male skaters. And that the audience’s knew it and, he also wanted to tap into a female audience. That really, he sort of was of the mindset that where the women go, the men will follow. And so if we can get women into the crowd into the seats, you know, buying the tickets, the men will come to and so again, whatever it takes to accommodate that or to make that happen, you know, they were willing to do
Beckley: It strikes me as a little bit – they were kind of a little bit of a double edged sword that they were, I’m mixing my metaphors but like they were right, walking a tightrope between women as kind of not brutes, but but women being in this very physical sport, where there’s altercations and often injuries and kind of casting the women as I think that there was a quote about them being like, more vicious than the men. And then on the other side, they’re also sometimes kind of trotting out their motherhood as like a softening to that other side. Could you talk a little bit more about that? And like, how they used how the sport and the Seltzers used motherhood as a kind of foible for the tougher parts of the sport?
Marino: Yeah, for sure. And so the the metaphor, the sports metaphor that I like to use here is they’re skating a thin line, right? So you can you can use that one, if needed in the future. But yes, you’re absolutely right on that. So the Seltzers used motherhood and femininity in very particular ways, one to soften the image of the female skaters by highlighting, look, their mothers, they’re just like every other woman, you know, look how sweet they are with their children. So they’re trying to counter that and to draw on a particular audience with that, at the same time, they’re very much highlighting and pushing this idea that, you know, this is an equal sport, the women are just as rough as the men. And that’s what’s exciting about it, right, that women are out there taking these hard hits, giving these hard hits, they’re getting injured. I mean, not that they’re promoting injury, but there’s no difference between the men and the women in that regard. And they knew that that also sold. That that’s bringing in a particular demographic, and that people loved it, because you’re not seeing that anywhere else. They’re only seeing that in the roller derby. But so part of the reason that they’re doing this is that Seltzer very much wanted to be taken seriously as a real sport, even as they have all these theatrics thrown in and sometimes would fake fights or do these staged, theatrical plays. Games usually weren’t fixed, but really, the outcome of a games didn’t matter. Because it was more about what you the action you were watching on the track than who won or not. I mean, there’s moments where it matters, like the World Series or whatever, but like for a general game, it really doesn’t matter that much. So Seltzer, basically, he, he understands that it’s important to promote this aspect of what they’re doing on the track, and that they are, you know, as good of athletes as the men in their in this, you know, full contact co-ed sport, and he wants it to be a true sport. However, the media was always super skeptical of the roller derby. Rightly so in some regard, because there was always a measure of spectacle and showmanship attached to it. But on the other hand, the media also just disregarded it, because women were competing on par with men. And because, you know, what did that mean for other professional sports, if women could do it the same as men, and were just as fierce competitors that sort of undercut the whole male dominance of the sporting world. So um, you know, Seltzer is always trying to, you know, advertise roller derby, talk about roller derby, get the media to cover roller derby, as a true sport, while also having to balance and push back against the media, who’s trying to immediately write it off as spectacle and show mainly because women were involved. Yes, there was a level of course of spectacle and show and that sort of a different conversation to have. But the fact that women were doing it was one of the main factors that the media just disregarded it,
Beckley: Seeing some of the coverage of it, especially when it came to the women when I was doing research for the episode – like when I was looking into Monta Jean in particular – you would often see “Monta Jean: prettiest girl in roller derby” and she was always it was always talking about her looks and I’m sure that maybe not sex appeal, exactly, but something about seeing these quote unquote, like pretty ladies, on the floor being rough and being physical was part of the draw for both men and women, I’m sure. I’ve seen the pictures of women who are at the roller derby – spectators -like, really getting into it and looking like they are. I know like their faces. I don’t know if you have seen probably, I’m sure you’ve seen the picture I’m talking about of women there in the crowd, and they look like they’re like, I don’t know about to tear something apart. Like they’re so excited. And so like into it and so almost, I don’t know – visceral.
Marino: Yeah, yeah. And they couldn’t be vicious the female fans. I mean, there’s all sorts of stories of them, like hurling stuff on the track and like trying to attack skaters at various points. I mean, the Yeah, the roller derby riled up female fans in ways that you do not see in any other sports and really male fans, too. There’s a part in the book where I just talk about, there’s a fan sporting phenomenon, usually associated with soccer called hooliganism, and it’s really more with like, European sports, but we’re fans just like become crazy. And you know, try to insert themselves in the game or whatever. And there’s often violence. And I wouldn’t say ever reached that level here in America with roller derby, but it certainly incites female fans in ways that other sports don’t in. You don’t see in the coverage of that. And yeah, so there’s some great New York Times photos, and I think Chicago Tribune photos of like the female fans just losing their mind. But back to your original point with that too. Seltzer both encouraged and then had to counter some of that coverage, because they did like that coverage of their female skaters as being pretty as being sort of this all American woman. And again, that she’s every woman, and she’s just like, you know, the average the average sort of housewife or whoever it was, you know, not that they always were necessarily, but because that normalized it and like tried to counter that idea that they are rough on the track and they are doing the stuff at the same time, he also wants that coverage going out to because it draws in these fans and gets them riled up and invested in ways, you know, the other women’s sports of the mid-20th century, really, they just didn’t have that outlet or opportunity.
Beckley: It seems like I know, we talked about in the episode a little bit about how he has total control over the sport because it is a family business rather than, like the NBA or something like that, where it’s more of a corporation. And it seems like he was pretty savvy in his targeting audiences like this whole time I’ve been thinking about like, he’s target targeting a certain kind of audience with the press about the prettiest skaters and the motherhood. And then he’s targeting a different audience with the coverage about them being rough on the track, and all the injuries that they’re getting and stuff. So it’s interesting to see his kind of business mind behind it, and just how that has affected the whole sport.
Marino: And sometimes, too, like, I guess I should clarify, he does like it when they call them pretty or talks about their looks and stuff too, because that gives off a certain vibe. On the other hand, he often would push back when the media did that specifically to like, disenfranchise the sport or to like counter it. So again, that was a thin line, he was always walking as well. But, you know, in terms of him having control in it being, yea, it was a family operation. And it wasn’t in various points, there would be like ownership of specific teams, but he still had the trademark on roller derby overall. And you could only use term, the name roller derby if it was part of like a Seltzer family organization, he still had a lot of control over, you know, the business decisions and the management, for certain. But what’s interesting is like he was a sports promoter, but he hated it when people used that term, because he thought that had like, specific sort of like slimy connotations. But he was absolutely a savvy businessman, and he knew how to kind of work the media, you know, work the crowd, we talked a lot about him, recognizing that the female fan demographic was not marketed to in the mid-20th century, other than, you know, you have an occasional ladies day at the baseball diamond, or whatever it was. And so, he was like, no, we need these we need their butts in the seats. That’s how we’re going to make money in part. And so he would sell tickets at grocery stores, at places where women would be at beauty parlors, and would offer discount tickets, knowing that this is where women go in society right now. And that’s how we’re going to get them into the arenas.
Beckley: That’s really interesting. I always wonder with that kind of thing – and it’s hard to totally answer this or to, like detangle the two but do you think that…do you think that Leo seltzer was a feminist or do you think he was just a good businessman?
Marino: Um, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know that I can fully say one way or the other. Other, but I mean, I think it probably falls more on the side of being a businessman and doing whatever it takes. But I think he did have a fair amount of like, you know, equality within him. I don’t know that he would call it feminism per se. But you know, in my interviews with his son, and other people who were around the sport, namely Frank Deford, who was a longtime sports writer for Sports Illustrated, and then later was the sports person for NPR. I had an interview with him about a decade or so ago, and he just said, you know, when I talked about the roller derby, I never saw the equality in other sports, like I saw it there. And he was also talking racial equality and sexual equality too. But I think that goes all the way back to the beginning with with gender equality, you know, again, would have Leo Selter use the term feminist, probably not. But he and later his son Jerry looked at who’s going to bring in the fans who is going to help us be the most successful sport. And if that is going to work for us, that’s what we’re going to do, we’re not going to discriminate against anybody. And again, that that went beyond just feminism or gender equality too. And you see that in a variety of different ways with the sport. You know, the three really biggest sports stars of the heyday of roller derby, you have the sort of golden era that top two skaters were Gerry Murray and Tuffy Brasuhn, both women, so in the golden era of the sport, those are the top draws, or at least amongst the top, but those were the top two names. And then later in the 60s and 70s, when it’s at its height there, two of the three main sports, main stars of the sport were women – Ann Calvello and Joanie Weston and then Charlie O’Connell. So I mean, they’re always at the top, they’re being compensated fairly for that. And because they’re the star skaters, regardless of gender, and again, that trickled down through the ways in which he incorporates mothers and in wives and didn’t make them choose between being a professional athlete and these other identities as well.
Beckley: So we kind of have touched on the various aspects of feminism in the early days of roller derby. Do you think that those feminist roots, like inspired the women who led the resurgence in the early 2000s?
Marino: That is also an interesting question. So, what emerged is that post 2001, very quickly morphs into sort of this feminist undergirding of the sport and the modern theology of it, if you will. And I think that when they started looking back to the sport, they did see that and recognize that, but I don’t know that it was there in the beginning in the very same way. And what I mean by that is when the resurgence came about in the early 2000s, they were kind of flying by the seat of their pants and making it up as they went. And so they instilled their own feminism in it as they moved forward. But it wasn’t, in those early months, when they were trying to figure out what it was going to be that they were really looking back at the sport. Obviously, they had to, to some extent, to figure out some of the general rules and how it worked. But I don’t think that was something that they were particularly looking at, at that very moment. I think that has infused it moving forward it within the first 5-10 years of the sport, they’re grasping onto that history a little bit stronger, but I’m not sure in the early months that that I think it was more about the culture that it came out of in Austin, Texas, and the women that helped start it. That was sort of their worldview, and they fit it in there. And then that aligns nicely with what had been. But that’s also another interesting issue, because modern roller derby has, by and large, been feminist and for women. But roller derby has also been one of the only coed sports that operated equally for men and women historically. So it’s interesting that now it’s mostly female, although there are men’s leagues and men’s organizations, and they do get along generally with the female national organizations too. But it’s been dominated by women. Whereas again, historically, it’s been a code sport.
Beckley: It’s interesting. It’s almost like a roller derby has just intrinsically feminist no matter, you know, where you’re starting it or who’s running it is gonna turn out that way.
Marino: Well, I think, you know, just by participating in a contact sport, I mean, that is a feminist engagement like what you’re saying by taking that action, whether you even really think about it deeply or not. placing that even in modern society that’s still sort of an act of rebellion in some ways.
Beckley: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Um, to kind of round us out here, I was wondering if you could share like, your favorite, like moment from roller derby history that you came across in your research if you have like, a tidbit or a story that you’d like to share?
Marino: Oh, there’s so many. I don’t even know how to limit it. One a couple urban legends. Oh, share that I just think are interesting. There’s a story that goes way back about Ma Bogash, who was one of sort of the first gate attraction of the roller derby, because she was a 40 year old mother, who only joined if her son if they would take her 18 year old son with her as well. She was 40 something at the time. And she was like, not this like beautiful movie star sort of glamorous image that they would sometimes promote. She was like working class mom, like she had diabetes. And she’s like, I need to do this for my health. And then just became a star, probably because people could relate to her. But there’s a great sort of urban legend about this was like the, you know, late 30s, early 40s, when the skaters would come together and form a pack, she would take like a hairpin, like out of her hair and like poke people with it to get them out of her way. Then she could break through the pack and circle back and score points or whatever. And so I always thought that was whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. It’s just a great sort of story.
Beckley: And it kind of harkens back to I don’t know if you’ve seen the kind of political cartoons about women taking their hat pins, like on public transport to like, ward off any potential violence.
Marino: Exactly. So she’s using it to her advantage on the track. And another urban legend, one that just also sort of fits in with this conversation about female fans is, this is really interesting, because it comes up in a whole bunch of different sources, in roller derby, in newspapers, in roller derby publications, and then in a variety of different interviews. And it’s always slightly different in terms of who is involved in it. But the the basic story is the same, where essentially, there’s a roller derby match going on somewhere. And it’s usually either in New York or the Midwest, but sometimes California too, where a female fan gets so riled up about what’s happening on the track that she just loses her mind and throws her baby throws an infant child onto the track. And then some skater is always surprised, but catches it, and is okay. And sometimes it’s a female skier that catches the baby. Sometimes it’s a male skater. But this story has been told like 100 different times with different people at different moments. But I think, like the point of that story, is that roller derby excites women in ways that like makes them lose their mind, because they’re so in tune to what’s happening on the track. So I think that’s an interesting one. But then, just quickly from some of my oral history interviews, and I interviewed a lot of former skaters who, you know, took their kids with them on road trips, and there was one that I always liked with her name is Mary Lou Palermo. And she skated for a while they did a brief stint in, I think this one was in Hawaii. I could be wrong on that. But she had hired a babysitter to stay at the apartment where her children were. And her kids fired the babysitter, they decided they didn’t like her, and they fired her. And then they just showed up at the arena when she was getting ready to skate. And she was like, what are you doing, like what has happened and saying these kids and it was her kids, too, that she would travel with, have them travel with her. And they had traveled a lot one winter for roller derby. And she had asked the kids if she wanted to if they wanted to see, like Santa Claus when they went into the next town like Macy’s or whatever. And they’re like, why we saw them in Chicago. We don’t need to now see him here. So you just get a sense of these women like trying to give their kids like normal lives and stable environments. But they’re also like around the roller derby and traveling across the United States and just making it work however they could. So those are just a couple that stand out, I guess.
Beckley: Well, yeah, that’s super interesting. Just trying to raise a family. I can’t imagine like it’s hard enough living in one place, let alone traveling everywhere.
Marino: Yeah, for sure.
Beckley: Well, Michella, and thank you so much for making the time to talk with me today.
Marino: You’re welcome, I really enjoyed it. I always love talking about roller derby.
Beckley: Alright, thank you so much. Thank you.
Beckley: You can see a transcript of this interview on our website podcast.history.in.gov And remember to rate review and subscribe to talking Hoosier history wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening
Show notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Michella Marino
Learn more about roller derby in Indiana with the Indiana History Blog.