When Roller Derby Ruled

Once upon a time roller derby was the hottest game in the Inland Empire, and Swing Auditorium became the go-to spot to catch the action. Some of the biggest names in the sport — Bob Lewis, Honey Sanchez, Ralph Valladares — played fast and hard in the region. 

The Swing, where both The Rolling Stones and Elton John made their first U.S. appearances, was on the National Orange Show grounds on E Street in San Bernardino. The man in charge was Hall of Fame skater Bob Lewis, whose final game before retiring from the sport in 1960 had been at the Swing. While Lewis went on to become a successful music promoter, Roller Derby continued to be a hit at the Swing. 

“It had a regulation track, a good track. We enjoyed skating there,” says John Hall, who first skated there for the Texas Outlaws against the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, known as the T-Birds, in 1962.

“The average attendance was in the 4,000-plus range. That was not a full house, but there were enough people there that it looked full. Most of them were standing and yelling and screaming, and the skaters enjoyed that because the fans were pretty close to the track,” he says.

“The fans were close enough that if you got knocked over the rail they could touch you — or throw their soda at you,” says former skater Barbara Jacobs.

“I skated there [with the T-Birds in the late ’60s and early ’70s]. That’s how I met people and became familiar with San Bernardino [where she later moved]. I didn’t pay attention to the arenas. It was the [quality of] the track that mattered to me, not the size of the auditorium. We were always told it doesn’t matter if there’s one person or 10,000, just go out and skate your heart out,” she says. 

“I personally didn’t enjoy that venue. There was no air conditioning and ancient seating for the fans,” says Sally Ann Vega, who skated for the Thunderbirds, Hawaiian Warriors, Detroit Devils and Texas Outlaws during her career. But, she adds, “They were a wonderful audience always.”

San Bernardino is where Vega learned about fan loyalty. If a favorite skater was taking a night off, the fans turned their devotion to other skaters. 

“It was heartwarming to see how the newer ones and the not-so-popular were received. Fans want to cheer for the home team and hold their favorite skaters above the rest,” Vega says. But not all skaters hit the track for every game. “The reality is, skaters need a night off and cannot be at every game,” she adds. 

That was especially true for the T-Birds. 

“We were so busy,” says Sanchez. In Los Angeles, there would be four or five games a week and sometimes two on Sundays. “We were working eight days a week. We’d go to Bakersfield, Santa Barbara — all over.” 

But the skaters didn’t realize how popular they were, she adds. “We were just down-to-earth people doing what we loved to do, which was skating for the fans.”  

 Early Beginnings

  Roller Derby began as an endurance race in Chicago in 1935 and evolved into the first game in which men and women competed with the same rules. It was also called Roller Games, which began in Los Angeles in 1960 during a reorganization of the older league and brought an edgier style to the games.

What it was called didn’t much matter, though, because both groups were using variations on the same formula for controlled mayhem that captivated audiences. Some packed stadiums while others watched on TV and kept the games among the highest-rated programs on the air for almost 25 years. The sport had a wide and varied following.

Pin-up girl Betty Grable was the starter for one of the early games. Mickey Rooney starred in The Fireball, a 1950 movie about the games. Even Raquel Welch got in on the action in the 1972 film Kansas City Bomber. In 1973 singer-songwriter Jim Croce sang about falling in love with a “Roller Derby Queen.”

But at the start, when the fledgling networks were broadcasting the games with skaters like Billy Bogash, Buddy Atkinson, Gene Gammon and Mary Lou Palermo as drawing cards, there was added interest in Roller Derby’s six-team league (New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington, New Jersey and Chicago), at least for a few years.

In an interview in June 1950, Roller Derby founder Leo Seltzer told a reporter that he expected the various teams to “probably gross more than $7 million for the year, thanks in large part to the women who make up 70 percent of their fans.” Roller Derby was their outlet, he said. But televising the sport had consequences. 

  “Roller Derby was the first thing that was ever over-exposed on TV,” says Palm Springs resident Gary Powers, the curator of the Roller Derby Hall of Fame and a life-long fan.

“Not many people had TVs, but the people that did were thinking, ‘Why should I go out and spend $1 or $1.50 to see this game in person when I can just watch it on TV?’” Powers says. 

The decline in attendance prompted Seltzer to move his headquarters from New York to Los Angeles in 1953 and made California the hub of the sport until its demise. 

Seltzer formed a team called the Los Angeles Braves, which made its debut at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and became the dominant team of the 1950s in Southern California. The Braves began calling the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles home in 1955 but also skated in San Bernardino, Long Beach, San Diego and elsewhere with the Hollywood Ravens, Orange Empire Bombers and San Diego Clippers, who first played in November 1955. 

Television came back into play with Los Angeles station KTLA showing games live from the Olympic Auditorium every Monday night and veteran character actor Dick Lane announcing the action with an occasional “Whoa Nellie!” and frequent reminders to “call Richmond 9-5171” for tickets. 

Controlled Chaos

Ken Levine, an Emmy-winning writer and director, said in a blog titled “Memories of the Roller Derby” that he learned the game by listening to Lane as he “walked us through the finer points of the sport — which cheap shots were legal and which were not. I think setting an opponent on fire was the only infraction worthy of a penalty.”

Jim Drew of Riverside, a long-time employee of UC Riverside and the Redlands Unified School System, says when he was growing up in Sunnymead his family didn’t have television, “so I used to go and babysit with a neighbor lady. She’d watch it every Monday night. I was a pretty big fan then.”

Some of the women who watched roller derby on TV included Sally Ann Vega and Barbara Jacobs, Honey Sanchez and Patti Stamp. For them it led to a career in the sport, and more. 

Sanchez recently recalled the day she watched roller derby superstar Ralph Valladares and the Los Angeles Braves skate against some long-forgotten opponent.

“I fell in love with Ralphie the first time I saw him. I told my mother I was going to marry him and she said, ‘Sure you are.’ We got married in 1959. We were skating in Fort Worth, Texas, and we decided we might as well get married,” Sanchez says.

Changing Landscape

By the time Valladares and Sanchez said “I do,” the roller derby landscape had changed. Leo Seltzer had turned everything over to son Jerry, who moved the headquarters from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He created the National Roller Derby League with the San Francisco Bay Bombers as the cornerstone franchise.

Meanwhile, about 400 miles to the south, journeyman roller derby skater Herb Thomas was busy putting together the National Skating Derby Inc. and its flagship team, the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. 

In 1961 Thomas sold his creations to Canadian advertising executive Bill Griffiths who, his son Bill Jr. said, thought the original Roller Derby game was “slow and ponderous with a lot of intricate rules” and encouraged his own skaters “to use their showmanship.”

  “Roller Games was a lot wilder and wide-open, and it was a higher-scoring game too,” referee Tom Wersderfer says. 

“Roller Derby was a lot lower scoring. The rules were more strictly enforced. They told the skaters if you’re going to fight, make it look good, make it look real. Roller Games was wilder stuff. They’d throw people across the penalty box and throw chairs at each other. They had a lot more match races too, to help draw a crowd,” he says. 

Roller Derby’s axis continued to rotate around the Bay Bombers, who would skate at home during the spring and summer and tour the country the rest of the year. 

Roller Games hitched its wagon to the Thunderbirds and the diminutive Valladares and a schedule that was easy for everyone to remember: the Olympic Auditorium on Tuesday nights, the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino on Thursdays and so on.

Winding Down, But Not Forgotten 

In the late ’1960s and early ’70s, the games still were broadcast regularly on more than 100 stations around the country. On July 4, 1971, a Derby record crowd of 34,418 turned out to watch the Bay Bombers at the Oakland Coliseum Stadium, and on Sept. 15, 1972, a rare interleague contest between the Roller Games’ T-Birds and Roller Derby’s Chicago Pioneers set an all-time attendance record with a sellout crowd of 50,118 at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Then, citing the gas shortage and rising costs, Jerry Seltzer shut down the National Roller Derby League on Dec. 8, 1973. He sold everything to Bill Griffiths, the Canadian advertising executive who owned Roller Games. Griffiths created a new entity to ease the transition from two organizations to one. 

But the Derby skaters reportedly balked at skating the Games’ way, and by the close of 1975, with interest continuing to decline, the Games were gone from the national spotlight. 

However, the sport rolls on with groups like the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) leading the way. An international organization, it had 463 member leagues worldwide as of 2019.

A Spy Story

Chris Boyce can’t remember exactly where in the Riverside area he was living in the winter of 1977. He said it was a tiny house on a turkey ranch, out in the country just off the east-west highway to Palm Springs, and he doubted it was still there. 

Boyce said he had learned about the house because a friend had rented it while attending UC Riverside, and Boyce knew it was close enough to be an easy commute to the school he had enrolled in for the start of the winter quarter in January 1977.

At the time he was 23 and had dropped out of his third college about 30 months earlier. In the interim he had worked for TRW, a CIA defense contractor, and he and childhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee had spent about 18 months copying classified U.S. spy satellite documents and selling them to the Russian KGB at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. Boyce said he constantly expected to be arrested by the FBI or CIA and finally decided it was time to stop.

“I really just wanted to get out of that job, out of that scene and go back to school,” he said, and he chose UCR for several reasons. It wasn’t all that far from his parents’ home in Rancho Palos Verdes where he grew up, and with his grade point average, he didn’t think many UC schools would take him. 

“Also, a number of falconers lived there and flew falcons with me, and I had spent a lot of time in Palm Springs,” Boyce said. 

His stay at UC Riverside lasted about two weeks. The FBI arrested him as he returned to his rented home on the evening of January 16, 1977. Lee had been arrested 10 days earlier in Mexico City and charged with murdering a police officer. That charge was dropped after a few days and Lee turned over to the FBI the morning of January 17 after agreeing to talk about what he and Boyce had been doing.

They were charged with espionage, which one of the prosecuting attorneys called “perhaps the most serious crime that a person could possibly commit.” The severity of their offenses was compared to those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiring to pass nuclear weapon secrets to the Soviet Union, and in the summer of 1977 Christopher John Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee were sentenced to 40 years and life in prison, respectively.

They became convicts and celebrities almost simultaneously, immortalized as The Falcon and the Snowman in a best-selling book by journalist Robert Lindsey that was published in 1979, and a movie of the same name starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn that was released in 1985.

The FBI had named Boyce The Falcon because of his passion for training and flying the huge birds of prey. Lee was The Snowman because he had a fondness for cocaine and had become a drug dealer on the Palos Verdes Peninsula where he and Boyce had grown up.

Boyce was the first of nine children of a former FBI agent and a novitiate who never took her final vows. Lee, a year older, was the adopted son of a prominent pathologist who had been a decorated World War II bomber pilot and a beauty queen who for a time thought of becoming a teacher.

The boys were children of the 1960s, though, when “never trust anyone over 30” was the generation’s anthem and attitudes and opinions were influenced by anti-war protests, the cold war, racial strife and political assassinations, and later by what Boyce saw and heard after going to work for TRW.

In American Sons: The Untold Story of The Falcon and The Snowman, the book he co-authored with wife Cait and friend Vince Font, Boyce confessed to being a disgusted Don Quixote who despised the government’s actions and chose as his windmill the U.S. intelligence complex.

“I wanted to do as much damage to them as I could, and I couldn’t think of anything that would piss them off more than to send their damn [security] codes to the Russians,” he said in explaining why he began what he later called “my self-destructive descent into hell.”

He used the lure of money to enlist Lee, who already was making frequent trips to Mexico to buy drugs, and later said, “If ever such a thing as longhair, amateur spies could exist, we were it.”

Amateur or not, they stayed in the spy business for almost two years, with Lee making at least six visits to the Soviet embassy and leaving with at least $77,000. Lee was arrested on what had been planned as the final exchange.

“The thing about espionage is, I don’t know how you can get away from it once you get hooked into it,” Boyce said. “You’ve always got that hanging over your head. You never know when someone’s going to knock on your door, whether it’s the U.S. government or some damn Russian.”

The conspirators were tried separately at the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse on eight counts of espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage. Boyce’s trial began on April 12, 1977, and on April 28 he was found guilty on all counts. On May 14, Lee was found guilty on all counts as well. Federal District Judge Robert Kelleher pronounced sentence on Boyce on June 20 and on Lee on July 18. Both were sent to the federal penitentiary at Lompoc, California.

Boyce left Lompoc the night of January 21, 1980, by hiding in a drainage hole until nightfall, then using a homemade ladder and tin snips to get over and through barbed wire perimeter fences and flee into the nearby woods.

He had tried to talk Lee into going with him, but Lee had refused. He told Boyce, “you’ll get yourself killed” and Boyce responded, “I’m already dead” as he walked away.

The dead man would stay a free man for 19 months, living primarily in Idaho and Washington and, among other things, robbing 17 banks while the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI chased tips that took them on an international manhunt that at times resembled a comedy of errors.

Lee, meanwhile, settled into prison life and began pursuing a parole with the help of Kathleen “Cait” Mills, a paralegal who was with a non-profit organization that worked with inmates being released from prison and was asked to be Lee’s advocate.

Lee and Mills had their first face-to-face meeting in July 1981, and at a hearing in October 1994, Lee finally was told he would be paroled on January 19, 1998. In the years they worked together and became friends, Mills had learned how deeply Lee resented Boyce, referring to him only as “my co-defendant” and insisting that Boyce not be contacted.

Mills did contact Boyce, however. He had been recaptured in Port Angeles, Washington on the night of August 21, 1981, with information provided by the brothers he had talked into robbing banks with him. The escape and robberies added 28 years to his sentence, and he had been sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. That’s where he was on June 17, 1982, when Mills wrote him a letter to see if he could provide any information that would help Lee’s parole bid.

When Boyce replied, he said he didn’t think anything he could say would help Lee and added, “I doubt that Daulton and I will ever be paroled.” He asked her to keep in touch, though, and signed the letter Chris Boyce, Political Prisoner, Ph.D.

They kept in touch for a while, but when Mills wrote to him in April of 1995, they hadn’t corresponded in almost seven years. In the interim Boyce had survived an attack by the Aryan Brotherhood; watched The Falcon and The Snowman movie while sitting with Timothy Hutton and numerous prison officials at Marion, Illinois; made a well-received appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations in Washington, D.C.; and spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. Mills told him Lee had been given a parole date and now it was his turn. She included her phone number and said, “Call me, there’s lots to talk about.”

Their conversations weren’t strictly about his parole, either. They talked about themselves and her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer and their growing feelings for each other. When they met in person for the first time in May of 1997, Boyce grabbed her and kissed her while the guard in the visiting room said “please don’t kiss your lawyer” in a deadpan voice.

In late September 1997 Boyce was given a parole date of March 15, 2003, which would be a month after his 50th birthday. He was released to a halfway house on September 16, 2002, and on the morning of October 12, 2002, Boyce and Mills were married in the living room of her home in San Francisco.

Lee did not attend. He worked as Sean Penn’s personal assistant for a while after his parole, but numerous searches failed to turn up any current information about him. He and Chris Boyce have not spoken since the night before Boyce’s escape in January 1980, and he and Cait Boyce have not spoken since 1999.

Boyce said when he first left prison “it was utter culture shock. I felt like Rip Van Winkle.” He and Cait lived in San Francisco while he made the transition to civilian life, and in 2005 moved to their current home in central Oregon. Cait continues to work as a paralegal and an advocate for various interests. Chris for a time worked at the Redmond, Oregon, airport and flipped houses, but Cait said now he “is happily retired from almost everything. He takes the dogs out, he goes and flies falcons, he hangs out with friends, he works in the garden and that’s about it these days.”

Boyce seldom agrees to interviews anymore, either. He said the interest in him fades a little more each year but doubts he’ll ever be completely forgotten because of the books and movie and internet search engines that get more active whenever the U.S. and Russia are linked in a political controversy. He just doesn’t see a reason to keep talking about everything.

He does admit, in retrospect, that much of what happened probably can be blamed on his above-average intelligence and the false confidence that gave him.

“When I had my head wrapped around that most,” he said, “was [when] I was a young fellow barely out of high school and I set out to outsmart the intelligence community. I did the worst thing I think I could do to them, I took their codes and sent them to the Russians, and thought I was really something. Boy, I was outsmarting all of them.

“Then they put me in prison and I said, ‘to hell with this, I’m leaving,’ so once again in my mind I outsmarted them. I was so full of myself. I’m way smarter than these people. I’m number one on the top 10 most wanted list and kicking around the country.

“Then when they get you back and they throw you down into solitary confinement for 10 years, they know how to grind you down and that’s what they did. That’s the whole point of putting a person like me in prison, if you don’t execute him, is to hold onto him until he gets old and tired and all that vim and vigor is gone. That’s what they did to me, they ground me down.

“Do I wish I had those 23 years back? Maybe if I wasn’t so full of myself to begin with, if I hadn’t broken out of prison and really pissed them off, the federal government probably would have let me out in less than 10 years.” 

The Preacher and The Icon

 Steve McQueen, the so-called “King of Cool,” was one of America’s most famous movie stars of his day. The wild actor who enjoyed women, fast machines and calling the shots was known for his complex and contradictory nature. After his death from cancer in 1980, a story began to circle about McQueen making a decision to become a follower of Jesus—an out of the ordinary decision for the wild icon. More than 25 years later, Pastor Greg Laurie of Riverside’s Harvest Christian Fellowship set out on an investigative journey to find the true story of where McQueen’s heart was at when he died.

How did you come across Steve McQueen’s story? I was watching a documentary film about Steve McQueen’s life. It followed him from his extremely troubled childhood to becoming the number one movie star in the world. Steve McQueen then did the unexpected: he walked away from Hollywood. He wanted to live a quieter life, so he moved to Santa Paula, California, and bought a massive hangar to store his extensive collection of motorcycles and cars. 

What was Steve McQueen like to those who knew him best? McQueen was far more comfortable around regular folks than the Hollywood elite. He loved to work on his bikes and cars and enjoy them. It was there that he met Barbara Minty, who would become his [third] wife. It was also there that Steve McQueen, the “man’s man” and undisputed “King of Cool,” came to put his faith in Jesus Christ and became a regular Bible-reading church-going man.

When did you decide to pursue the story? I had heard that story in parts over the years but I had no firsthand knowledge of what actually happened and how and why he would do something so unexpected. But when you look at the trajectory of his life, and how he was really on a search for a father from his earliest days as a boy, it makes complete sense.

I decided I would chase this story down, not unlike a reporter, and find out the facts for myself with first-person interviews and other research. I began by typing the words, “Steve McQueen, conversion to Christianity” into Google. Soon names started popping up, like Leonard DeWitt, who was Steve’s pastor. I tracked Leonard down, and the adventure began!

How long did it take you to finish the story? Between interviews and research and manuscripts, we worked on this project for a good year or more. 

Who was one of the most influential people you met along your journey? There are so many great people I met along the way. Really the key to the story is Barbara Minty, Steve McQueen’s widow. This story would not have happened without her help and participation. Barbara provided so much interesting insight into Steve’s character and personality off-set. 

Making contact with Marshall Terrill made all the difference. Marshall is an accomplished writer who has written five books on McQueen as well as other personalities. Marshall became our “tour guide” of all McQueen.

It was a great pleasure to talk with actor and director Mel Gibson, who is also a big McQueen fan and can relate to the struggles that come with stardom. Mel provided insights into  McQueen as an actor, as well as insights into why a man in Steve’s position would walk away from Hollywood. I suppose it takes a successful actor to understand another. Mel’s insights about McQueen were invaluable.

Who introduced Steve McQueen to Christianity?Steve was taking flying lessons in Santa Paula from former stunt pilot and flight instructor Sammy Mason. Sammy was very strong in his faith, but he did not push it on Steve. Sammy was like Steve—a “man’s man”—and you could not have chosen a better person to connect to the movie star. McQueen saw something in Sammy Mason that intrigued him, and one day Steve asked him about the sense of inner peace that Steve, a keen observer of people, had seen. Sammy told Steve it was a result of his relationship with Christ.

Steve actually asked Sammy if he could accompany him to church! Sammy agreed, and soon the famed actor was taking his family and friends to church every Sunday, sitting in the balcony so as not to be noticed and be a distraction to the other congregants.

What did the pastor do when he learned the ex-movie star was attending his church? Pastor Leonard Dewitt heard McQueen was attending but didn’t bother him. He figured Steve would approach him when he was ready. And one day Steve asked Leonard if they could go out to lunch together and talk. It was there that Steve revealed to the pastor that he had prayed in one of the services and asked Jesus Christ to be his Savior and Lord. Leonard and Steve became fast friends and the pastor helped Steve to learn the Bible.

What was it like learning about the life of Steve and talking to the people who knew him best? In researching Steve McQueen’s life, I was really surprised to see the similarities of our childhoods. Both of us had alcoholic mothers who married and divorced several times. Both of us had fathers who abandoned us in our childhoods. Both of us were sent to live with our grandparents for a time. Finally, both of us were also sent to reform-type schools. Steve was sent to the Boys Republic in Chino and I to the Southern California Military Academy in Long Beach. We both had to grow up fast and be self-dependent in a lot of ways. And more importantly, both of us were searching for meaning and purpose in life from an early age. So I felt I could relate to Steve, and that made me all the more eager to tell his story and convey the account of how he did eventually find that meaning and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Tell me more about Steve McQueen’s time in the Inland Empire. At what point was his life connected to the IE? Steve spent time at the Boys Republic reform school in Chino in the 1940s. It provided for Steve something he was lacking in life up to that point: structure. Steve would go back and visit the boys over the years and supported the institution financially as well. Steve was also close friends with the Inland Empire’s own Malcolm Smith. They appeared in the film On Any Sunday together. Steve also raced dirt bikes in the Elsinore Grand Prix.

What do you hope people remember the most from Steve’s life?I want people to realize that everyone deep down inside is searching. Steve literally had it all—global fame, huge amounts of money, an incredible car collection, and every other pleasure this culture can offer. Steve also drank heavily and used drugs, which only added fuel to the fire of his downward spiral. But notwithstanding all his fame and wealth, a colossal vacuum lived rent-free in Steve McQueen’s heart, a yawning chasm, a lack of purpose rooted in the absence of functional, involved parents. He spent his whole life avoiding his mother and searching for his father—searching for someone or something to stand in for him.

Steve did not find the answers he was looking for on a Hollywood stage. He found it in the balcony of the Ventura Missionary Church in Santa Paula, California. McQueen’s life shows that no one is beyond the reach of God. The Lord says, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me” (Jeremiah 29:13 NLT). 

Do you have any plans for other stories like this one? Yes, I am considering talking about the faith journey of some other well-known people. I did not start out to do a series of books or films, but just to tell the amazing story of Steve McQueen. But there may be others to follow. We’ve kicked around the idea of exploring Johnny Cash’s spiritual life, but nothing is set in stone at this point.

When it was all over, do you think the story had been told the way you had hoped it would be?I was not sure what the response to this book and accompanying movie, Steve McQueen: American Icon, would be. I was of course hoping it would resonate. But this story connected far more powerfully than I envisioned. The book did really well, and in many ways more with a secular audience than even a Christian one, which is fine by me. We showed the film in theaters as a Fathom Event, which is a special one-night showing. Steve McQueen: American Icon was a huge hit, being the number-three movie in America the night it was shown. I was told that if we had secured more theaters, it would have been number one. The movie will see its greatest audiences in the days ahead on DVD, streaming, and finally on Netflix.

One of McQueen’s greatest regrets in the final days of his life was that he couldn’t tell the world all that Christ had done for him, and I’m pleased that I was able to help right that wrong after so many years.

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