Bill Griffiths, impresario of LA's original homegrown roller derby, was 91

1969-Thunderbirds.jpgGriffiths with his 1969 Los Angeles Thunderbirds.

Before the Derby Dolls and their teasing double entendres, the legendary names of Los Angeles roller derby were Ralphie Valladares and Shirley Hardman, Red Smartt and Honey Sanchez, John Hall and Terri Lynch. If those ring any bells, you might appreciate this news item. They were all popular (or hated) skaters on the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, and the entrepreneur who filled the Olympic Auditorium and other local venues to see them perform in the 1960s and 70s died Sunday at a nursing home in Tarzana. When Roller Derby was big across postwar America, TV pitchman Bill Griffiths took possession of a Los Angeles spinoff, named his sport the Roller Games, and started staging matches at the Olympic. The Thunderbirds were the home team and the heroes in white, always set upon by "visiting" teams such as the Texas Outlaws and Detroit Devils, who would play the black hats in the night's dramatics, inciting fans with dirty play and outrageous antics. Announcer Dick Lane would call the action on Channel 5, and when the action would get especially wild and the crowd frenzied and stomping, he would fire off his catchphrase — whoa, Nellie! — and remind everyone watching to get their tickets for next week's even-bigger showdown by calling the Olympic Auditorium ticket office at RIchmond 9-5171.

That's RIchmond 9-5171, he would repeat. Operators were always standing by. Here's a clip from a game in 1967 or so in which the central plot is the hatred between T-Birds captain Terri Lynch and Shirley Hardman, then of the Outlaws, the opponent the LA fans feared most. The thing to know about Roller Games is that Hardman later became a beloved T-Bird.

Griffith's Roller Games were multi-ethnic and co-ed — the women and men would alternate period by period through the games. His teams included siblings, fathers and sons, and married couples: Ralphie Valladares and Honey Sanchez of the T-Birds were married to each other a couple of times. The Thunderbirds would play all over Southern California — at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the Sports Arena, the fairgrounds in San Bernardino and even at least once at the Forum. Here's some history from the T-Birds website — and I remind you, this is the freakin' roller derby, so I cannot vouch for the exact accuracy of anything they claim. Just the spirit.

The Thunderbirds quickly became one of the most popular and well known teams in the history of banked track skating. 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….

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.

The site says that "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 teams all-time scorer and holds many of T-Bird and Roller Games records." Compared to the rival Roller Derby, Griffith's games were wilder and more high-scoring, and with an appeal that was more (you might say) emotional.

Frank Deford, the sports columnist and author, wrote in his 1971 book, "Five Strides on the Banked Track," that Griffiths "provided his constituency with a product that is flashier and more theatrical than the Derby….There, a dwarf lugging a large megaphone and brandishing a Thunderbird banner, presides over, and encourages, chaos."

In 1973, the owner of Roller Derby sold to Griffiths and all of the nation's professional roller skaters came under his empire before it all faded away. From tonight's obituary in the LA Times:

Griffiths, a masterful promoter who was partial to diamond cuff links and a fedora, was no skater.

But his skating empire extended into Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan, and he was credited — or, by his critics, blamed — for bringing sex appeal and soap opera plots to the banked track.

"Griffiths' teams alienated fans by tipping the delicate balance between genuine sport and carnival sideshow," Newsweek wrote in 1983.

Griffiths was unapologetic.

"My Thunderbird girls aren't the old cement-mixer broads of the old days," he told the magazine. "They're pretty. Where is it chiseled on a granite wall: 'Thou shalt be a grim purist'?

By the way, roller derby style matches were so popular in the 1960s that yet another local team, the LA Braves, played their games in the Valley Garden Arena, a long-forgotten sports venue on Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood.

Previously on LA Observed:
RIchmond 9-5171

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