Transcript for Monta Jean Payne and the "Roller Derby Mix up"
[Clip from archives] Greetings sports fans. All set for another Roller Derby game. Let’s watch the girls’ action now as we’re all set to go. Nice crown on hand, so get set for the action…
Clark from newspaper: “Off-hand, we wouldn’t know how many Smiths or Joneses there are in the country, but the impression exists that there are countless Kemps in the Roller Derby.”
[Clip from archive] Jams can start anytime both teams have an equal chance of breaking out. And there’s the first break from the Amazon in the…
Clark from newspaper: “The Kemps of Indianapolis, Indiana, are undeniably the Derby’s No. 1 family.”
[Clip from archives] : There’s a lot of hooping and hollerin’ out here by these fans tonight. Well, it’s that kind of a game. You got blockin’, body contact, speed, and a whole event played on a banked track on official Roller Derby Skates, hey, things are bound to happen.
Clark from newspaper: “It was beautiful, 25 year old Monta Jean, oldest of the Kemps, who started it all by joining up back in 1940.
Marino from newspaper: “I guess I carry the load for the entire family because I got them into this. But they love it, so while I’m gathering wrinkles, they’re gathering points.’”
Beckley: On this episode, we’re skating through the history of Roller Derby, and one Indianapolis woman’s stand out career as she and her family staged a strike at the height of her game.
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley. This is Talking Hoosier History.
Most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the modern, largely women’s flat-track roller derby that has been around since the early 2000s, but the sport of Roller Derby was actually born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies.
In the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these types attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.
Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. He drew inspiration from the various events he had hosted in the past to create something new, something (hopefully) more successful – the Transcontinental Roller Derby.
Beckley: Seltzer hosted the first such derby at the Chicago Coliseum on August 13, 1935. The version of the Derby that debuted that day, which only lasted a few years, was more of a marathon and less of the fast-paced, hard-hitting sport we know today. Here’s how it worked: Co-ed pairs of skaters took turns on the track to skate a distance roughly equivalent to a transcontinental trip across the United States, which would be around 3,000 miles. Men and women were on the same team, but typically men skated against men and women against women. The first pair to complete the journey were the winners.”
That first derby in August of 1935 was a success – as many as 20,000 people per day came to watch the skaters on their transcontinental journey, which lasted over a month. With that triumph under his belt, Seltzer took his show on the road, barnstorming across the nation, and in the Spring of 1937 Roller Derby made its first appearance in the Hoosier state.
Several Hoosier skaters joined the fray – Indianapolis resident Tom Whitney, Lafayette couple Jane and Jack Cummings, and East Gary Skater Gene Vizenah (Vy-znah) gathering in Indianapolis for the first competition in the state. It proved popular enough that the derby rolled back into town just a few months later in September of 1937.
Hoosiers loved the new sport – one Indianapolis newspaper noted that “fans discovered it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.” But some weren’t sure what to make of it. Was it a sport, a spectacle, or something in between? The fact that it was a co-ed activity added to their reticence – what did it mean for women to be on the same track as men? Could women compete on par with men? These questions intensified when, in late 1937, Seltzer changed the rules.
Until this point, the rules had prohibited any physical contact between skaters. However, at a race in Miami, Florida, skaters had flaunted the rules and
Clark from newspaper: “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”
Beckley: Seltzer, always tuned in to what the crowd wanted, ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue the contact. And the fans loved it.
Because this was his business, Seltzer had the power to alter the Roller Derby whenever he saw fit. According to historian and Deputy Director of the Indiana Historical Bureau Michella Marino, author of Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport,
Marino from Roller Derby: “from the beginning, Roller Derby was a flexible and evolving sport and business, pursuing what worked and what pleased the audience while discarding rules and regulations that hindered its popularity.”
As Seltzer himself explained,
Clark as Seltzer: “There was no AAU, no NCAA for me to worry about. If I saw something that looked good, or if someone said, ‘Seltzer, I like that,’ why, I would put it in for good the next night.”
Beckley: After that 1937 race in Miami, Seltzer exercised this power and went back to the drawing board and with his friend Damon Runyon came away with a new version of Roller Derby – now a full contact team sport.
The Roller Derby moved away from its marathon roots and shifted to a format much closer to the modern sport. The new format consisted of eight 15-minute periods. Five players of the same sex from each team started on the track together in what was dubbed a “jam.” Two players in the back were called “jammers,” and they scored the points, and the three in the front were called “blockers.” It was the blockers’ job to help their jammers score points and prevent the opposing jammers from doing so. Here’s what a jam looked like in action:
Clark: And they’re off around the track, moving in a counterclockwise direction. Now they’re getting closer and closer together, forming the pack. Now that the pack has formed, the jammers, who are stationed in the back, begin to maneuver their way towards the front. This is no simple task – blockers of both teams stand in their way. Blockers may offer a hand to their own jammer in what is called a “whip,” while simultaneously hip checking the opponents jammer. And the first jammer has broken through! Now starts the jam clock – jammers have two minutes to lap the pack as many times as possible, with each opponent they pass adding one point for their team.
Beckley: This new version of Roller Derby made the sport revolutionary for the time. Not only were men and women teammates, but they were now both playing a full contact sport, one in which the women were encouraged every bit as much as the men to be physical—to land the hard hits and block with abandon. While in general, the men and women were not skating on the track at the same time, the mere fact that women were competing on par with the men—in a totally unmodified version of the sport—made Roller Derby incredibly popular but also controversial.
Beckley: Regardless, this new, more physical iteration of the sport was an even bigger success than its earlier version, earning prime time TV slots on the East Coast and drawing large crowds whenever it went on the road, including when it came to the Hoosier state, which it did regularly. And Hoosiers weren’t only fans of the sport – many got in on the action as well. Among the most popular skaters from Indiana were the Kemps.
Indianapolis natives Monta Jean, Georgiana, and Buddy Kemp joined the Roller Derby circuit during the 1940s. Having multiple family members on the track wasn’t uncommon – Roller Derby was very much a “family affair.” This was the case from the onset of the sport and from the top down, in fact. Leo Seltzer was in business with his brother Oscar, who ran the Roller Derby Skate company. Leo’s own children—Gloria and Jerry—grew up around the sport, and as adults became active in management too. The Bogash family from Chicago became the first real main attraction of the Roller Derby: Ma Bogash and her teenaged son Billy joined in 1935. Many younger siblings followed their older siblings into the sport, such as the famed Atkinson brothers, the Jensen sisters, or the Gardner family who had four siblings among the skating ranks.
Even players who weren’t actually related formed family-like relationships after spending weeks on the road together. And the coed nature of the sport led to a different kind of bond – marital bonds.
In the early days of the Roller Derby, Seltzer discouraged romantic relationships between players, fearing that he would lose players to marriage or motherhood. However, the hectic lifestyle of the skaters made it difficult to seek so-called “civilian” romantic partners, or partners outside of the derby. Seltzer faced a dilemma – allow heterosexual relationships between skaters and the possibility of losing a female skater during her pregnancy or risk players settling down with a civilian, and leaving the circuit forever. In the end, the choice was clear and married couples on the track became commonplace. The two Kemp sisters both married within the skating community. Georgiana to skater Bob Lewis and Monta Jean to skater Carl “Moose” Payne.
Of the Kemp family, Monta Jean was the most well-known figure. After leaving Shortridge high school, she became the first Kemp to enter the Roller Derby in 1942. Soon after, she met and married her husband, Carl. She and Carl traveled from city to city – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to participate in the roller derby. Monta Jean’s early career was relatively modest – when she was mentioned in newspapers, it was in passing or to report that she would be out due to injuries. Then, the very thing that Seltzer feared happened – Monta Jean became pregnant in 1945. Historically, pregnancy disrupted women’s athletic careers in ways that it did not their male counterparts. And for many athletes, even today, this would have been a major hurdle, or even career-ending. But it wasn’t so in Monta Jean’s case. She took time off to be with her new son, but within 2 years she was back in a big way.
Clark from newspapers: “Monta Jean Kemp led Chattanooga to victory last night by scoring four points.”
“Monta Jean Kemp . . . hit her stride last night, picking up four points…”
“High scorer for the girls was Monta Jean Kemp of the home team.”
“Monta Jean Kemp is playing her first game with the All-Stars.”
“Monta Jean Kemp spilled one Chicago skater after another to bring her team-mates in for points.”
Beckley: By the early 1950s, Monta Jean and Carl were among the most popular skaters in the country.
Beckley: So popular, in fact, that when Seltzer signed a long-term TV contract with ABC and needed skaters who could keep fans coming back for more, the couple was put in charge of the Jersey Jolters, one of five new East Coast teams. These teams were different from those that came before – rather than travelling on a circuit, the Jersey Jolters and others would remain stationary, only traveling for their “away” matches. With Carl as the general manager and Monta Jean the captain of the women, the Jersey Jolters won the Roller Derby World Series in 1949 in front of thousands of spectators at Madison Square Garden.
The next year, something happened that often happens in families – a squabble. And this was no “don’t go to bed angry” squabble, but more of a “pack your stuff and hit the road” kind of squabble.
According to newspaper reports, the trouble started when Carl asked that officials at a Newark match put powder on the track, which had gotten damp from humidity, in hopes that the powder would give it more grip. When the officials refused his request, Carl refused to let his players skate on the potentially dangerous surface. For this so-called “insubordination,” Payne was suspended by the leader of Roller Derby’s players association, Bill Bogash. Monta Jean, along with the majority of the Jolters, walked off the track in support of their leader, starting a wildcat strike on July 25, 1950.
The strikers included in their grievances the low wages paid to skaters and the constant trades mandated by Seltzer. Carl, Monta Jean, and all of the other striking skaters, which by early August included Georgiana and Buddy Kemp, were officially suspended and fined by the Roller Derby. The Paynes announced that they would never skate in the league again. What’s more, Carl announced in an interview,
Clark as Payne: “My wife, Monta Jean, and I, plan to…organize a new team and league to rival the old conference.”
Judging by the reaction to the Roller Derby power-couple’s departure from the Jolters, it seemed that drawing a crowd to their new league wouldn’t be a problem. New Jersey papers were flooded with letters from fans, irate that their favorite skaters were absent from the track.
Clark from newspapers: “Monta Jean Payne has always been my favorite. I’ve even started a Monta Jean Fan Club and then Bogash decides to suspend them?!”
“As fans of Moose and Monta Jean and their tribe of skaters we would like to express our opinion on the Roller Derby mix-up. As far as this guy Jack Burnett is concerned, we think he’s nuts.”
“As you said in your paper, the Roller Derby would not be the same without Monta Jean Payne.”
Beckley: Advertisements for the Payne’s “Roller Skating Derby” began appearing in papers on August 21, with Monta Jean receiving top billing.
Clark from newspaper: “Roller Skating Derby! Monta Jean & Carl “Moose” Payne and their Jersey Americans vs. New York Americans. August 24-September 2. Baybrook Stadium, Port Richmond, Staten Island!”
Beckley: But before they were able to put rubber wheels to wooden track, Leo Seltzer and the Roller Derby Association threw a hip check. Seltzer and his associates filed two separate lawsuits – one to keep them from using the trade-marked name “Roller Derby,” and another that would keep the Paynes from skating at all. That second suit was based on the claim that the Paynes had signed an exclusive contract with the Roller Derby’s players association.
As those suits made their way through the courts, the power couple of Roller Derby returned to the track, debuting their new league in front of a crowd of 4,500 spectators in Staten Island. The new group proved so popular that when they appeared in the local sporting goods shop to sign autographs, the newspapers described a
Clark from newspaper: “mob scene…as roller fans flocked to greet their heroes in person and to get their autographs.”
Beckley: Days after that mob scene, the Paynes’ league received bad news – the New York Supreme Court had ruled against them in both cases. They would no longer be able to use the name “Roller Skating Derby” and, more worryingly, the Paynes would no longer be able to skate. Luckily, this second ruling was quickly overturned and the Paynes once again returned to the track, this time with a new name.
Clark from newspapers: “The Paynes are back and the American League of Roller Skating’s got ‘em. Devotees of the art of bedlam and mayhem will once again have the opportunity of seeing their favorite roller skaters in action when the American League of Roller Skating opens a fifteen day stand at Lodi Stadium.”
Beckley: From September through early November, Monta Jean and Carl continued to do what they did best – skate. The duo traveled from stadium to stadium along the East Coast – New Jersey, New York, Baltimore. Their matches regularly drew thousands of fans. Their newly named American League of Roller Skating was even expanding. They announced that they were constructing a second track and were in the process of recruiting new skaters to form two additional teams.
But then, just as it seemed that they might actually do what no other so-called “outlaw” derby had done before – successfully compete with Seltzer’s Roller Derby – it all came crashing down.
The specifics of the fall aren’t clear. In late October, advertisements for the American League of Roller Skating littered the pages of various East Coast papers. Two weeks later, on November 6, this:
Clark from newspaper: “Moose Payne’s Skating Rebels Ask for Re-Instatement Today: Rival Roller Derby Group Folds and Players Ask to Rejoin Old Teams; Paynes Expected to Play for Jersey Jolters Again.”
Beckley: Perhaps the pressure of business became too much for the Paynes. Perhaps they simply wanted to rejoin the team that had become like a second family to them. Whatever the reason, they wanted back in, and the Roller Derby players association was happy to welcome them – Monta Jean and Carl were, after all, two of their most popular skaters. Rather, I should say that the Roller Derby players association was happy to welcome them as soon as they paid the fines they had gotten for the initial walk-out. As unsatisfactory as it is, the players returned to the track with none of their demands met.
After they paid their fines, Monta Jean and Carl were immediately re-instated to the Jersey Jolters, but some of the other striking skaters were left without a team to return to. Their spots had been filled in their absence and the players association felt they could not fire the new players to make way for the old players’ return. Monta Jean and Carl, no doubt feeling some responsibility for these team-mates who they had led in a strike, refused to return until all skaters had positions.
After much back-and-forth and “will they, won’t they,” the Paynes finally returned to the Roller Derby in February 1951 – six months after the strike started.
Clark from newspaper: “Chicagoans Fear Paynes from Jolters: Carl and Monta Jean Payne, husband and wife who paced the Jersey Jolters to the Roller Derby Title last season, will be in the lineup Tuesday night when the Jolters open their series with the Chicago Westerners in the Coliseum.”
Beckley: Finally, the Roller Derby family was back together again. But this wasn’t the first strike against Roller Derby, and it wouldn’t be the last. Indeed, in the late 1950s, another outlaw unit, “Roller Games,” was formed out of a similar strike and became one of the only long-term competitors to Seltzer’s Roller Derby. The Seltzer family continued running the derby in different forms until the mid-1970s, when the sport fell out of fashion.
As for Monta Jean, she skated on and off for the Jolters, taking time off now and then to raise her and Carl’s children, until the duo retired for good in 1953. After an exciting decade of being world-class athletes, the couple moved back to Monta Jean’s hometown – Indianapolis.
Monta Jean lived to see the modern revival of Roller Derby, which emerged out of Austin, Texas in 2001. This new women-led version quickly evolved to a skater-owned-and-operated amateur league model that promoted the sport while also revolutionizing women’s roles within the sports world. While we don’t know Monta Jean’s thoughts on this radically feminist version of the sport, one that embodied female empowerment and was led by the female skaters themselves, she almost certainly would have appreciated its democratic ethos.
No longer under the control of one man, hundreds of amateur leagues have emerged across the United States and even the globe. Most operate under a grassroots,“for the skater, by the skater” ideology – something all of the striking skaters probably would have appreciated.
Unlike during Monta Jean’s time, the sport itself is no longer at the whim of one family. Most modern leagues belong to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, (WFTDA), a non-profit organization serving as roller derby’s governing body, meaning they establish the rules and rankings for their member leagues and provide guidance and resources for the sport in general. The WFTDA Board of Directors consists of democratically elected volunteers from their member leagues. While there no Seltzer-type figure at the helm of the sport, WFTDA and its skaters are not immune to governance issues. They have been fighting off increasingly aggressive international sporting organizations that would like to control roller derby and eradicate WFTDA’s independent, female-directed democracy. This attempted power-grab is one that has played out time and again with women’s sports. Women achieve sporting success and quickly find themselves pushed out of their own organizations.
We don’t yet know, if the modern roller derby democracy will hold – especially since the sport is ever-evolving, but what remains the same is our continual fascination with women in a full contact sport–the hard hits, quick whips, and intense skating that comprise this challenging American pastime.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you want to learn more about the history of Roller Derby in Indiana, check out the Indiana History Blog post, “’Coed Mayhem’: Roller Derby in Indiana” by IHB Deputy Director Dr. Michella Marino. Thank you to Dr. Marino for helping me navigate the world of Roller Derby in the making of this episode. This episode featured the song “Roller Derby Saved my Soul” by New York band Uncle Leon and the Alibis. You can find the song on their band camp page at UncleLeonandtheAlibis.bandcamp.com. Talking Hoosier History is produced and engineered by Jill Weiss Simins. You heard the voice talents of Justin Clark and Dr. Michella Marino in this episode. Find a transcript and show notes for this and all of our episodes at podcast.history.in.gov. And remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
Show notes for Monta Jean payne and the “Roller Derby Mix up”
Michella Marino, “‘Coed Mayhem’: Roller Derby in Indiana,” Indiana History Blog.
Michella Marino, Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, Austin: 2021.