National Skating Derby, Inc. was founded in 1960 by former Roller Derby skater Herb Roberts along with its flagship team, the Los Angeles Thunderbirds (often referred to as The L.A. T-Birds). NSD was acquired by Bill Griffiths and Jerry Hill in late 1961. The first games being skated in 1961. The Thunderbirds quickly became one of the most popular and well-known teams in the history of banked track skating (Roller Derby).
Within just a few years, the T-Birds popularity rivaled that of the other major sports teams in Los Angeles; the Dodgers, Rams, and Lakers. The red, white and blue T-Bird uniform and the stars that wore it are etched in the mind of Los Angeles sports fans forever.
Television and Dick Lane
During much of the 1960’s and 70’s, T-Bird games were broadcast in prime time by KTLA in Los Angeles and also shown in many other markets in the United States as well as internationally. Sunday night T-Bird games were one of the highest rated TV programs in the Los Angeles market for many years.
The voice of the T-Birds was Dick Lane, who coined the phrase “whoa Nellie” which has been used since by others such as Keith Jackson. Lane started his Roller Derby broadcasting career in 1951 and then joined KTLA and the T-Birds in the 60’s. Lane was often assisted in the press box and the infield by Bill “Hoppy” Haupt. Many “Los Angelinos” place Lane alongside Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, and Dick Enberg as one of the greatest announcers in this early history of Los Angeles sports. Lane retired in 1972 and died in 1982 and will forever be missed.
Home of the Thunderbirds: The Olympic Auditorium
The home of the T-Birds was the 9000 seat Olympic Auditorium, which was routinely sold-out for T-Bird home games. The auditorium was built in 1924 for the 1932 Olympics. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s it was home to some of the biggest boxing, wrestling, and roller derby events and has become somewhat of a landmark for boxing (and Roller Derby) history. Witnessing an event at the Olympic in the 1960’s was unlike any other sports experience. Every seat was close to the action and because of the acoustics of the building, the crowd noise was quite possibly more intense than any auditorium in the country.
T-Bird games often created a unique fan frenzy and occasionally pandemonium. For playoff and championship games, the Olympic was often not large enough so the team would hold these games as such venues as the Fabulous Forum (home of the NBA Lakers) or the L.A. Sports Arena. Over the years the T-Birds have skated at many of the largest arenas in the United States, including the venerable Madison Square Gardens. In 1972 the T-Birds set the all-time single-game attendance record for Roller Derby as 51,000 fans jammed into White Sox Park in Chicago to see the T-Birds in action.
Two Giant Leagues, Two Legendary Teams
There have been numerous Roller derby leagues over the years but only two that gained national prominence; “Roller Derby” and “Roller Games“. The Los Angeles Thunderbirds were the dominant and most popular team in Roller Games and the Bay City Bombers were the flagship team in Roller Derby. Unfortunately, the two leagues did not get along well and never hosted a “grand championship” that pitted the champions from each league against each other. Occasionally, the T-Birds and Bay Bombers did skate head to head in exhibition games, and these rare events were highly anticipated by fans of both teams.
Sadly, in 1972, the league that was founded in 1935 and started it all (Roller Derby) closed its doors. Many of these Roller Derby skaters had skated full-time for years and had few options for livelihood. T-Bird owner Bill Griffiths accepted a large number of the Roller Derby skaters into Roller Games. Not surprisingly, the skaters from the two leagues did not get along well.
Both leagues had always had extremely talented, competitive skaters, but in the 1970’s Roller Games began to focus more and more on theatrics and entertainment. This was frustrating and unacceptable to many of Jerry Seltzer’s former Roller Derby skaters and many observers believe this may have been the cause of the demise of Roller Games in 1975.
Mr. T-Bird, Ralphie Valladares
During the heyday of the Thunderbirds, many of the teams biggest stars became household names in Southern California and known throughout the country. Undoubtedly the most popular T-Bird over the years was little Ralphie Valladares, who skated with the T-Birds for over 30 years. Ralphie was on the first squad in 1961 and skated in the final game of the Bill Griffiths era in 1993. He is the team’s all-time scorer and holds many other T-Bird and Roller Games records, including; most game skated and most years skated.
Besides Ralphie, the T-Birds have been the home of a long list of legendary, Hall of Fame skaters. Some of the notable skaters that spent the majority of their Roller Derby career in Los Angeles include: Danny Reilly, George Copeland, John Hall, Shirley Hardman, Gwen Miller, Honey Sanchez, Terri Lynch, Roberta Mitchell, Sally Vega, Richard Brown, Larry Lewis, Greg Robertson, Judy Sowinski, Julie Patrick, Liz Hernandez, Roger Schroeder, (former Olympian) Earlean Brown, Sam Washington, Billy Marshall, Carmen Thompson, Jim Terrigno, Ronnie Rains, Harold Jackson, Frankie Macedo, Patsy Delgato, Colleen Murrell, Debbie Heldon, John Johnson, Mike Flaningam, Darrell Davis and many more.
Other Roller Derby stars that did short stints in a T-Bird uniform include Charlie O’Connell (the Bay Bombers all-time men’s skater), Joanie Weston (the Bay Bombers all-time female skater), Ann Calvelo (legend), Ronnie Robinson (son of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), among others.
Marion “Red” Smartt was the first coach of the team and guided them through much of the 1960’s. Other notable coaches and captains included John Hall, Ralphie Valladares, and Terri Lynch.
View pictorial tributes to skaters in the official National Roller Derby Hall of Fame here.
Brothers and Sisters
Along the way, the T-Birds have had several siblings duos and one trio. In the 1960’s, Danny & Jerry Reilly skated on strong T-Bird teams. The Kruse twins, Carolyn & Carol, spend time with the team in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In the late 1980’s sisters, Jennifer & Kristine Van Galder teamed up for a RollerGames revival.
Leon, Bernie & Harold Jackson each skated as a T-Bird. Leon skated in the 60’s and early 70’s, Bernie for one season in 1974 while Harold did brief stints with the T-Birds in the 70’s and 80’s. Harold eventually became one of the sports biggest stars, spending many years with the Chicago Hawks. Bernie was an active skater as late as 2007! All of the Jackson brothers were Roller Games All-Stars at one time or another during their careers.
The 1960’s – Glory Days
LA’s new team rapidly gained a large, loyal following which became larger every year. Coach Marion “Red” Smartt lead the team to several championships as the T-Birds dominated. The skating on both men’s and women’s teams was fierce and fans were treated to Roller Games at it’s best. Almost all the games were carried on television.
During the 1960’s Roller Games experienced rapid growth and established teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Florida, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Japan.
National Skating Derby (NSD) changed its name to National Roller League (NRL) and eventually encompassed four separate leagues in four countries: NRL was the parent company for Roller Games in the United States; Canadian Roller Games (in partnership with Norman Olson) in Canada Japanese Roller Games in Japan and Australian Roller Games in Australia. In addition to the Thunderbirds, NRL teams in the USA included The New York Bombers, Philadelphia Warriors, Detroit Devils, Northern Hawks, Texas Outlaws and Brooklyn Red Devils.
This was by far the most successful decade for Roller Games although its popularity peaked in 1972.
The Early 1970’s – Massive Popularity!
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.
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.
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.
The Early 1980’s – The Comeback Validated
The momentum that was building in the late 70’s continued into the early 80’s. The T-Birds went “down under” to Australia for the first time in many years to the delight of Aussie fans. In 1980 the team packed arenas throughout Mexico on a tour that included several sell-outs at the 30,000 seat “Copper Dome” in Mexico City.
The closing of the T-Bird training facility in 1985 may have been the single biggest blow to the organization in its history. After that year skaters did not have a regular facility to train at. Talent slowly began to diminish and by the mid 80’s many veteran stars retired and there were few talented newcomers to replace them. Many former reserve or “pack” skaters became featured performers but just did not have the skills to attract fans. Mr. T-Bird, Ralphie Valladares, was forced to continue skating as he turned 50 in 1986.
The Mid 1980’s – ESPN
Even so, the T-Birds and Roller Games were still the only recognizable league in the country and as such was picked up by ESPN for the 1986 season. Games were televised nationally by the sports giant network and packed arena tours followed. The ESPN games were held in Las Vegas at the Showboat Casino. It seemed the T-Birds were back! Unfortunately, there were financial disagreements with ESPN and the two sides parted. Not long afterward, Bill Griffiths shut down operations again. He retained rights to the names and held occasional matches in 1987 and 1988.
The Late 1980’s – Rock n’ RollerGames
It appeared to be the end of an amazing era. But, not surprisingly, Mr. Griffiths had one more trick up his sleeve. In 1989, two television producers David Sams and Mike Miller, worked with Griffiths to produce RollerGames, a U.S. television show that presented an even more theatrical variant of the sport for a national audience. It featured a steeply banked figure-eight track, an alligator pit and a number of skaters who had been in the Roller Games league, as well as younger participants. It was broadcast for one season (1989–1990) before its distributor, Quintex Media, went bankrupt. The show actually had relatively good ratings and might well have continued if not for the fall of Quintex. The demise of this show put the nail in the T-Birds coffin. Or did it?
The 1990’s – The End?
In the 1990’s ESPN broadcast classic Roller Games matches, mostly as filler for their 24-hour network. Must of the material aired was from the seasons of 1979 to 1980.
The league was revived as Roller Games International from 1990 to 1993. In 1990 the T-Birds skated two games in Alberta, Canada (Edmonton and Calgary). In 1991 & 1992 the team was idle for the first time in its existence. On February 6th, 1993, Griffiths and the T-Birds took one last gasp of air, hosting the teams final game of the 1990’s (and Griffith’s era) in Auburn Hills, Michigan (Detroit). With over 10,000 fans looking on, the T-Birds skated against the RGI All-Stars at Pontiac Arena.
The crowd went wild, the T-Birds were victorious and it was a grand exit for Ralphie and the team. But was it really the end? T-Birds fans were left with only hopes and prayers. The team and the league were silent for the remainder of the 1990’s and despite another attempt with a new owner in the next decade, this game was the end of an era. And sadly, on November 13th, 1998, at the age of 62, the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds died. May Ralphie Valladares rest in peace.
The organization remained dormant for the rest of the 1990s, although the six teams from RollerGames still performed for the public in the Super Roller Dome.
The 2000’s – Failed Comebacks
In the year 2000, Bill Griffiths Jr revived the T-Birds and Roller Games International, with little success. Former skater Lou Sanchez used the T-Bird name to host games in 2003. In 2005, Robert Sedillo leased the rights to use the T-Bird name. One game was skated in 1985 with the T-Bird girls team skating against an up & coming new all-girls Roller Derby team loaded with young, well-trained skaters. The T-Bird girls team had not skated (or trained) for years and was pieced together with older, out of shape veterans far removed from their prime. The result was a lopsided victory for the opponent and an embarrassing wake up call for the once glorious T-Birds.
The following year, the full team (men and women) skated on July 26th, 2006 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco against the revamped Bay Bombers. The two teams were made up of mostly very old skaters and a few rookies. Like many of the games of the past 20 years, it would have been better billed as an “old-timers” game. The Bombers defeated the T-Birds 81-79.
In 2007, the T-Bird skaters were trained under the guidance of Harold and Bernie Jackson and held a few games at the Pomona Fairgrounds.
Robert Sedillo died suddenly and unexpectedly in late 2009 and non-payment of his name rights fees resulted in the name being returned to Bill Griffiths who subsequently sold those rights to former Roller Games star Stephanie Garcia. Currently, another comeback attempt is underway, headed by Garcia.
Today’s Roller Derby Revival
The past few years have seen a grassroots revival of the sport, especially among women. There are over 100 all-female leagues operating in the United States and the number is growing. The sudden growth in 2006 is attributed to the exposure the sport achieved from the Rollergirls reality television show, depicting portions of the lives of real skaters from the Austin-based banked-track league TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. The show began broadcasting in January 2006 but was not picked up for a second season due to unsatisfactory ratings.
The renowned T-Birds are the team that kept the sport of Roller Derby alive from the 1970’s through the 90’s. Many of today’s young participants only exposure to Roller Derby was T-Birds action from the 1980’s on the ESPN run in 86′ or the TNT figure eight spectacle of 1989 and 1990. While this may not have been the “glory years” of the T-Birds, it was enough to inspire legions of new fans who are now turning into new skaters.
Former T-Bird skaters have become trainers for many of the new leagues and there just aren’t enough of them to go around. Does this celebrated RollerGames team have another comeback in store? Stay tuned!