Bill Griffiths poses in 1983 with star Thunderbirds Debbie Garvey (left) and Darlene Langlois de la Chappelle.
Born: March 31, 1924 (Edmonton, Alberta)
Died: April 5, 2015 (Los Angeles, California)
Bill Griffiths was a television pitchman who saw an undervalued entertainment in the razzle-dazzle world of roller derby. He became the owner of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, a team known for employing blonde beauties with sharp elbows.
Griffiths was an impresario whose traveling circuit of teams, including the Chicago Hawks, Texas Outlaws and Detroit Devils, sought to build a more-upscale following than its older rival, Roller Derby.
The Thunderbirds, also known as the T-Birds, became one of the most popular teams in America, riding a cultural wave that peaked with the release of a Hollywood movie starring Raquel Welch as a roller-skating dervish. Just as suddenly, the public’s fickle attention found other distractions and Griffiths empire collapsed.
Born in Edmonton, Griffiths was a child actor whose stage name as a vaudevillian tap dancer was Little Billy Sunshine. His mother took him to Hollywood, where he is reported to have had bit roles in films starring the likes of Shirley Temple.
The actor enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
In 1946, Griffiths got an announcer’s job at radio station CKMO in Vancouver, where he was appointed assistant news editor. He also handled hosting duties for broadcasts of minor-league professional hockey sponsored by Home Oil.
Soon after, he was hired by KOMO in Seattle, where he built a following. In 1951, he jumped to KYA in San Francisco.
After moving to Los Angeles, he appeared in television commercials for such products as vacuum cleaners. It was as a pitchman he saw roller derby’s unfulfilled potential. Originally started as a sport during the Depression by Leo Seltzer, a Montana-born film publicist, roller derby evolved into an entertainment. The sudden popularity of television — and the need for programming — created a renewed interest in the sport in the mid-1950s.
Griffiths did not care for Seltzer’s marketing and established a rival league of his own, known as Roller Games after Seltzer launched a law suit to protect his trademarked brand.
Later, the Canadian National Roller League was launched by Griffiths.
The Thunderbirds gained a large following in Los Angeles through broadcasts on KTLA, on which play-by-play announcer Dick Lane’s cry of “Whoa, Nellie!” became famous.
By the mid-1980s, the Thunderbirds’ most popular skater was Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle, a 5-foot-9 lead jammer from California. “She’s a high-energy, well-mannered young lady of the ’80s,” Griffiths said. “Men like her because she’s pretty and she flirts with them from the track. The women empathize with her the same way they do with the models in Vogue.”
The impresario contrasted Langlois’ look with the portly, gum-chewing, “cement-mixer broads” of the past. His motto: “You don’t have to look tough to be tough.”
In 1989, Griffiths helped bring the syndicated show “RollerGames” to television. Despite featuring a banked, figure-8 track and an alligator pit, the show lasted only 13 weeks.
Griffiths, who had Alzheimer’s, was a resident of a nursing home in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Tarzana at the time of his death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Bill Griffiths and the 1969 Los Angeles Thunderbirds.