Jerry Seltzer, roller derby legend and founder of BASS Tickets, dies at 87

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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.

“He basically brought roller derby to America,” said Jim Fitzpatrick, a former derby player and referee. “It was this huge thing.”

But by 1973, the gas crisis caused the league, which required extensive travel, to close, Seltzer wrote in his blog, rollerderbyjesus.com. Roller derby was all but over, at least for a while.

It was time to try something new.

Working with partner Harold Silen, they built Bay Area Seating Service, which became better known as BASS Tickets, a company that revolutionized how America bought tickets to concerts and sporting events. It all but ended the need to hunt down which retailers had the best seats. Under BASS, a computerized system allowed concert-goers to select seats over the phone. His son, Steven Seltzer, said a favorite memory was sitting in a Denver hotel room, watching his dad work with engineers on the proprietary ticketing software.

Seltzer later served as vice president of marketing and sales for Ticketmaster, helping it grow into the country’s largest ticketing agency.

His years in the ticketing business provided some of his best stories. He got the Highwaymen – the country-music supergroup comprised of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson – to perform at benefit concerts for the BASS Ticket Foundation, a charity he co-founded. He lead a partnership that attempted to buy the Oakland Seals hockey team. He briefly toured with Bob Dylan. The list goes on.

When he retired from Ticketmaster in 1993, he moved to Sonoma but never once slowed down. He and friend Carolyn Stolman launched what would become the Sonoma International Film Festival in 1997.

“Jerry brought his business sense from Ticketmaster. He brought his exuberance and his creativity, and he put it all into the festival,” said Kevin McNeely, executive director of the festival. “Jerry gave 110%. His spirit will be alive and well in our film festival, and felt for years to come.”

When an official, all-female roller derby league was reborn in 2003, Seltzer was invited back as the sport’s “commissioner for life.” He toured the country and even pretend-married a few “derby wives,” but he always came back to Sonoma, where he knew how to have a good time.

When the Steve Miller Band opened the Jazz Plus festival in 2006, at the age of 74, Seltzer offered up his Norrbom Road home for the after party. “He threw the greatest celebrity party I’ve ever been invited to,” Coats said. “It went on till four in the morning.”

In his 80s, he launched an ambitious social media presence, did stand-up comedy at HopMonk Tavern and became the marketing director for Brown Paper Tickets, an online ticketing system. He organized blood drives for which he was named a 2018 Red Cross Hero and assisted an online support group for derby players fleeing domestic violence.

Seltzer attended Stanford and Northwestern University. He served in the U.S. Army with the Counter Intelligence corps in Austria. He was the father of Steven, Richard and Ellen, and grandfather to Alexis, Stephanie, Sydney and Aaron.

When writing about his family’s legacy with roller derby in 2014, he ended his post with, “My god, this is a worldwide sensation just how would you feel?”

The family will host a private memorial, with a public celebration of life to be scheduled. Details will be posted when available.

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