The Early 1970’s – Massive Popularity!
Sold out Comiskey Park, 1972
In the early 70’s, the T-Birds soared to new heights as fans packed arenas in Los Angeles and across the country. The movie Kansas City Bomber, starring Rachel Welch increased the popularity of the sport greatly. Many T-Birds were hired to skate in the movie. In 1972 a rare inner league game between the T-Birds and Midwest Pioneers drew a record crowd of 52,000 to Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
In 1973 Jerry Seltzer shut down Roller Derby and sold the promotional rights to Bill Griffiths. Roller Games absorbed many Roller Derby skaters when that original league folded. Griffiths disbanded Roller Derby’s IRDL and his own NRL and formed the International Skating Conference (ISC). Teams in the ISC included the L.A. T-Birds, the Eastern Warriors, and several international teams: Team Canada, the Tokyo Bombers, and the Latin Libertadores. Within two years, Roller Games also shut down operations (for a short time) due to financial difficulties and other problems.
The Mid 1970’s – Comeback Years
With the determined hard work of many skaters, especially John Hall and Ralph Valladares, the T-Birds fielded a team in 1975 and began rebuilding. John and Ralphie opened a T-Bird training facility in Pico Rivera (the T-Bird Rollerdrome) and thus began a new era for the T-Birds, Roller Games and the sport of Roller Derby.
1972 Hit Movie, Kansas City Bomber
Gone were the lucrative TV contracts and prime-time broadcasts, and player salaries were cut drastically. Some skaters bowed out and into retirement, while others pushed on. Many had to take second jobs to make ends meet. Games were broadcast on Channel 52, a small UHF station based in Corona, California and not always in prime time. Instead of skating several times per week, the T-Birds now usually only skated once a week and did much less travel. Despite the challenges, training was intense and the quality of skating was still quite high.
Jerry Hill headed up the Philadelphia-based team, the Warriors, whose games were broadcast on WKBS Channel 48 with announcer Elmer Anderson, a Roller Derby hall of fame member. While
the T-Birds remained popular in Southern California, the Warriors captured the hearts of fans in Philly and became the powerhouse of the East.
New T-Bird stars emerged from the wreckage such as Harold Jackson, Donna Young, Debbie Heldon while some younger veterans took their skating to new levels, most notably “Skinny Minnie” Gwen Miller & Sam Washington. Superstars Danny Reilly, Ralphie Valladares, and Ronnie Rains stayed in the mix and provided the team with marquee star power carried over from the 60’s.
The Late 1970’s – Green & Gold
This new era for the T-Birds brought new uniforms and a drastic change of team colors. In 1978 the team dropped the traditional red, white and blue for brand new green and gold uniforms.
Fan favorite “Skinny Minnie” Gwen Miller
By the late 1970’s, the T-Birds were featured on television in the name of Roller Superstars. Although the team was no longer selling out the newly named Grand Olympic, crowds were building steadily. In 1978, the Chicago Hawks, lead by former T-Bird Harold Jackson and his brother Bernie, went undefeated during the regular season, crushing the T-Birds in most of these games. The Hawks faced the T-Birds in a highly anticipated championship series which drew the largest crowds in several years to the Olympic as the T-Bird faithful witnessed their heroes defeat the Hawks in a series that went the full seven games. The re-built T-Birds carried this success into the 1979 season as they now routinely packed the lower section of the Olympic Auditorium and skated to sold-out crowds at venues such as the San Diego Sports Arena.
During the late 1970’s, the faithful fans at the Grand Olympic gravitated to a new hero, “Skinny Minnie” Gwen Miller. Gwen’s skating talent and agility along with her longtime loyalty to the T-Birds endeared her to the fans. She was the unofficial Queen of RollerGames during this period. The very special connection that Skinny Minnie had with the fans was often overlooked and underplayed by management as the team began to focus attention on “model type” women skaters whose ability was often in question. Throughout the 1970’s, Roller Games was the only league operating and kept banked track skating alive.