Jerry Seltzer, roller derby legend and founder of BASS Tickets, dies at 87
Sonoma lost a visionary and entrepreneur July 1 when Jerry Seltzer died after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 87.
“I won’t dwell on this and have no fear of death,” Seltzer posted on his personal blog after learning his disease was incurable. “I have had a great and interesting life, and love my family, children and grandchildren, and the others who have brought me to this point. Do not feel sorry. Please do not avoid me; that would be terrible. But don’t expect me to be anyone different.”
Seltzer lived a variety of lives, as owner of a roller derby league, co-founder of BASS Tickets, a prolific philanthropist and the co-founder of the Sonoma International Film Festival. Friends remember him as fearless in his pursuits, with a wicked sense of humor and a brilliance for big ideas.
“Jerry was one of kind. A man with a mission,” said longtime friend Michael Coats. “Whether roller derby, BASS Tickets or the Sonoma film festival, the man could put butts in the seats. Sonoma is a bit lighter today without him.”
He had a story for everything. Take the portrait of a young Janis Joplin that once hung in the office of his Springs home. As Seltzer told it, it was the early-‘60s and he was hanging out with Baron Wolman, the man who later became the chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. Wolman liked to shoot roller derby and rock stars, and became a personal friend of Seltzer, who sometimes tagged along on photo shoots. On this day, they were at Jimi Hendrix’s house so Wolman could photograph the rising star.
Seltzer waited for Wolman in Hendrix’s front room, where a then-unheard-of Joplin sat, strumming a guitar. The two talked, and on the way out, Seltzer urged Wolman to take Joplin’s photo. He told Wolman he was confident she was going to be something one day.
Seltzer wrote that he wanted to “live a life full of stories,” and he did it well.
Willie Nelson’s manager once gave him a platinum record for boosting the country star’s sagging career, a feat Seltzer accomplished with the help of the Hells Angels.
He produced the film “Derby” in 1970, and was featured in “Derby Baby,” a documentary he brought to the 2012 Sonoma International Film Festival, along with a dozen derby players. Nov. 18, 1985 was declared “Jerry Seltzer Day” in San Francisco due to his work with Thunder Road, a drug rehab for teenagers.
Professionally, he was a born promoter who knew how to build an audience. It began with roller derby. The sport was invented by his father, Leo, in 1935, as a cheap form of entertainment during the Depression. When Jerry took over the league in 1959, the sport was popular in the Bay Area but not especially well-known across the nation. Seltzer changed that.
He sent tapes of Bay Bomber games to Oakland’s KTVU station, which was happy for any extra content. Eventually, derby staffers drove game tapes from station to station, crisscrossing the country to hit every market.
“Jerry created syndicated television,” Coats said. “He was a man of many firsts.”
Within a matter of years, derby games were broadcast on more than 110 television networks and played 52 weeks a year, making it one of the most-watched sports of the era. Stadiums from the Oakland Coliseum to Madison Square Garden were sold out with derby fans.