Bill Griffiths dies at 91; promoter brought glitz to roller derby

Bill Griffiths, who promoted a more flamboyant version of roller derby, has died. He was 91

Bill Griffiths, a roller derby impresario who built the sport in Los Angeles and tried to glamorize the local Thunderbirds with sexy stars and over-the-top stunts, died Sunday at a nursing home in Tarzana. He was 91.

He had Alzheimer's disease, his wife, Doris, said.

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'? "

Griffiths owned the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, the Detroit Devils, the Chicago Hawks and other teams in the league known as the National Skating Derby.

Roller Derby, a more venerable organization, was founded by Leo Seltzer, a former film publicist who invented the game after staging a six-week, 4,000-mile skate-a-thon in the Chicago Coliseum in 1935.

Although the leagues were bitter rivals, they drew millions of fans to the emerging sport.

In the 1950s, TV viewers across the U.S. could see male and female skaters jamming and elbowing their way to fame three times a week. In 1972, about 18 million viewers tuned in, according to the Nielsen ratings.

Griffiths "provided his constituency with a product that is flashier and more theatrical than the Derby," sportswriter Frank Deford wrote in his 1971 book "Five Strides on the Banked Track," attributing the difference to "the gaudier neon tastes of Southern California."

Comparing the two leagues, he wrote that San Francisco-based Roller Derby "walks hand in hand with Caesar's wife in comparison to the spangled capers that are featured in the Other Outfit, the Roller Games in Los Angeles. There, a dwarf lugging a large megaphone and brandishing a Thunderbird banner, presides over, and encourages, chaos."

Griffiths' son, Bill Griffiths Jr., said in an interview that his father saw the original Roller Derby as "slow and ponderous, with a lot of intricate rules. He felt it was a weight on the back of the game."

Under Griffiths, teams could rack up more than 100 points a game. The action at the Olympic Auditorium was continuous and KTLA-TV announcer Dick Lane would frequently get excited, yelling "Whoa, Nellie!" Players found an outlet for dramatic urges.

"He encouraged them to use their showmanship," Griffiths' son said.

In 1989, Griffiths suggested running a track over a water hazard when the show "RollerGames" debuted on TV. To his chagrin, his son said, producers ran with the idea but turned it into an alligator pit, where the losers of particularly bitter rivalries could supposedly pay a terrible price for their sins.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on March 31, 1924, Griffiths took to the stage early as tap-dancing vaudevillian Little Billy Sunshine. When he was a teenager, his mother took him to Hollywood for a shot at the big time but it didn't work out.

Griffiths served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and later became a radio personality with a morning show in Seattle.

When he and his family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, he appeared in local TV commercials pitching vacuum cleaners and cars. Working in advertising, he saw roller derby as a great vehicle for sponsors, and, with partner Jerry Hill, started his league in the early 1960s.

"He tried to become a credible alternative to the original Roller Derby," said Gary Powers, curator and executive director of the Roller Derby Hall of Fame in New York City. "In the process, he created a lot more opportunities for skaters."

The business had plenty of action but was unpredictable.

"I've made some excellent money and I've lost excellent money," Griffiths once said.

But some things never change, he told the Pasadena Star-News in 2003.

"It's great entertainment. You have both men and women competing. They are highly skilled athletes. They keep things moving. And people still love the fact that good triumphs over evil."

In addition to his son Bill, and Doris, his wife of 68 years, Griffiths' survivors include another son, Jay; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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