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Born in Helena, Montana in 1903, Leo Seltzer was the third son of David and Celia Seltzer who had emigrated from Romania. David Seltzer became a cattle rancher and operated a general store. Unfortunately, Celia Seltzer was in delicate health and could not handle the Montana winters, so the Seltzer family moved to Portland where the boys attended school.

Leo got his start in the show world as an usher in various theaters while he was attending Lincoln High School and playing basketball. Upon his graduation, he made a name as the leading West Coast salesman for Universal Film Exchange at the age of 17.


Leo A. Seltzer

Seltzer had been a star athlete in high school and he founded the Ramblers basketball team. After leaving Universal several years later, Leo and his brother Oscar built a chain of theaters, including: the Alameda, the Highway and the Oregon Theater. Their father built the first Columbia Theater in Portland.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, making ends meet was a very big challenge to nearly everyone at this time in history. It was about this time that twenty-six year old Leo Seltzer, began investigating his rapidly declining theater business. His theaters were empty. He soon learned that that his customers were being lured away by a little-known amusement park named Lotus Isle where couples dragged themselves endlessly around a dance floor. Some collapsed while others remained upright for 40 days or more to win a cash prize. Selzer determined that his loss of business was attributed to Walkathon Fever.

By 1931, the country had endured two years of the Great Depression and people lost interest in the movies. Leo Seltzer’s connection to Lotus Isle was his appointment to a citizen commission to investigate the practies of Al Painter’s Walkathon Organization. Their demands helped to keep Painter from prosecution for exploiting women.

Seeing and seizing an opportunity, Leo Seltzer set out to elevate the entertainment racket to a ‘legitimate’ business enterprise. With financial backing from Portland Mayor George Baker, Portland theater owner Walter Tebbetts and others, Seltzer started his first walkathon in Hoquiam, Washington. When he staged his first dance walkathon, hundreds of unemployed people showed up, hoping to win a $2,000 cash prize for the winning couple.

Building on the success of that first walkathon, Seltzer founded and became president of the American Walkathon Company. Seltzer created a road show unit, the only one of its kind in the United States. They scored in Denver and Kansas City, so Seltzer opened in Chicago. According to Billboard Magazine, “Mr. Seltzer’s Walkathon venture has proven one of the most profitable in the decade, attracting capacity crowds in every city.”


Leo A. Seltzer started the American Walkathon Company which was billed as the “Best Walkathon Organization” in the United States.

Building on the success of that first walkathon, Seltzer founded and became president of the American Walkathon Company. Seltzer created a road show unit, the only one of its kind in the United States. They scored in Denver and Kansas City, so Seltzer opened in Chicago. According to Billboard Magazine, “Mr. Seltzer’s Walkathon venture has proven one of the most profitable in the decade, attracting capacity crowds in every city.”

Seltzer hired some of his friends from high school as well as some of the entertainers at Lotus Isle and he attracted unknowns like Frankie Lane and Red Skelton who became emcees. The walkathon craze made Seltzer a millionaire several times over. Most of the money made by Seltzer was from concessions.


Leo Seltzer advertised his Walkathons in Billboard Magazine on December 29, 1934. His organization was headquartered at the Arcadia Gardens Ballroom in Chicago. He maintained additional staff at Walkathons in the Coliseum in Chicago and in Birmingham, Alabama.

In 1931, three walkathons were held in Portland. In 1932, Lotus Isle hosted a second walkathon with Ted Mullen as chief emcee. And in 1934, Al Painter brought his transcontinental Derby Show to the Vancouver Sport Palace in Vancouver, Washington.


The four remaining couples at Leo Seltzer’s Race of Nations at the Ice Coliseum in Portland in June 1934.

Leo Seltzer brought his Race of Nations to the Ice Coliseum rink at 21st and Marshall in Portland in April 1934 with much of the same successful casts from Chicago, Dallas and Birmingham. Eddie Snider was the chief emcee. The contest opened on April 4 with 50 teams, representing over 30 different nationalities.

This was Seltzer’s 18th show since he joined the walkathon circuit and he wanted to make it his most successful show since Portland was his home town. The Coliseum was one of the largest buildings ever used to house an endurance event, seating 10,000 people. There were special features such as bathing beauty contests and child dance presentations from the Moldovan School of Dance which were held to augment the entertainment provided by the emcees and contestants on the floor. By May 26, 1934, twelve couples were still in the Race.


Couple #35 Marion & Bill


Couple #26 Helen & George

On June 15, 1934, it was announced that there were only two weary couples left, and the Race of Nations last broadcast on KWJJ took place on Sunday, June 24, 1934, marking the last known walkathon in Portland.

Seltzer was always concerned for his “walkers,” making sure they had proper meals and rest periods. He took care of any of their medical needs as well. Seltzer would eventually hold 22 walkathons. By the late 1930s, other events would overtake walkathons in popularity and with another world war on the horizon, industry had been revived and people were going back to work. No one had time to watch people move in a circle on a dance floor.

By the mid-1930s, the walkathon’s popularity began to wane, and Seltzer began to look for more opportunities. A national roller-skating craze began to take hold and Seltzer seized a chance to exploit this new frenzy. In the summer of 1935, Seltzer became manager of the Chicago Coliseum, an historic arena where William Jennings Bryan had been nominated for the presidency. Seltzer had read in the Literary Digest that 93% of Americans had roller skated at some point in their lives. He advertised for skaters to join his first “Roller Derby” on August 13, 1935. Twenty thousand spectators filled the Coliseum to see the Transcontinental Roller Derby.


Teams consisted of a male skater and a female skater and they would alternate at times, so that one of them was always skating. The teams would skate 64,000 laps or about 4,000 miles, covering about 100 miles a day over a period of six weeks. During breaks, skaters would perform skits or acts and the audience would show its appreciation by throwing coins at them. Skaters could gain an advantage by breaking out of a group and trying to pick up a lap on other skaters (a “jam”). Before long, skaters were banding together to try and block back skaters who were leaving the pack. At first, this was not allowed, but the audience liked that aspect so much that Seltzer incorporated it into the rules.

Teaming up with sportswriter Damon Runyon, who helped Leo rewrite the rules, they added some violence; skaters would elbow each other and whip each other around like slingshots, slamming opponents into an unforgiving rail. Seltzer hated it, but the fans went wild. Violence pleased the fans; they loved this often dirty, cheap-shot action. The more the skaters pummeled each other, the more the audience cheered.

“In 1928 it was tree-sitting. In 1930 it was dance marathons. In 1932 it was Walkathons. Last week it appeared possible that in 1936 the U. S. appetite for preposterous endurance might take an even more eccentric form: the Roller Derby. In Chicago 25 young men and women were roller-skating in circles around the Coliseum. They had been doing so since Christmas Day. It was the fourth Roller Derby held in the U. S. since last August. Crowds averaged 10,000 a day.” (Time Magazine Monday, Feb. 03, 1936)

When Roller Derby appeared in Los Angeles at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in 1937, Hollywood celebrities such as W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Cary Grant and Eleanor Powell flocked to seats in the reserved boxes. The stars of both screen and track continued to appear at the Pan Pacific through the early 1950s.

Roller Derby made its national TV debut in 1947, becoming one of the first television hits for ABC. Seltzer despised what the game had become and called it quits in 1958 when his son Jerry moved the team to the San Francisco Bay area. Jerry would eventually syndicate Roller Derby to 120 TV stations. The original Roller Derby was popular for nearly four decades. Jerry closed the family business on Dec. 8, 1973. In 1971, Leo Seltzer, the “father of Roller Derby,” was interviewed for an article in the Oregon Journal and he shared his memories of selling newspapers for the Oregon Journal and the Telegram from his “choice spot” at the Portland Hotel steam bath entrance on 6th and Yamhill streets during his youth.

He considered Oregon his home base all of his life and he maintained a summer home at Gearhart where he was often mistaken for a professional clam digger. Leo passed away on January 30, 1978. In the 1980s, Roller Derby became “Roller Games” for a while. As of November 2013, there were 1,513 Roller Derby amateur leagues in 41 countries.


Leo Seltzer brought his Transcontinental Roller Derby to the Ice Coliseum in Portland on Sunday, October 9, 1938.


Dedicated to the memory of Portland native and historian Frank Schlick for his many hours of research on walkathons.


Last updated 10-22-17


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