By Joe Darby
I thought that Wikipedia knew everything about everything. But when I checked it the other night for info about a certain memory from my childhood, it didn’t know a doggoned thing.
I did an online search for Speed Derby, but Wikipedia had nary a listing for such a thing. Neither did other online info centers. Most references that came up referred to old “minor league” car races, in which jalopies careened around small oval tracks.
But that’s not at all what the Speed Derby of my memory was. Even Mary, when I asked her just a few moments ago, thought it referred to some kind of car race.
The one reference I could find online that came anywhere close at all was a newspaper article from the Lafayette Advertiser from several years ago in which someone described it as a dance marathon.
Well, kind of, sort of. But no, not really. What the Speed Derby was (and don’t ask me why the memory suddenly popped into my head a few days ago), was a traveling, carnival-like show that had no rides or sideshows or games. It was outdoors and surrounded by a fence, so you had to pay to get in and they sold food and drink to make a little extra cash.
I would say it was a combination variety show, mild girly show and an athletic contest. As I recall, it visited Baton Rouge every summer for about three or so years in a row in the early 1950s, for a two or three week-stay. It was a traveling group, you see.
The whole show took place on a raised wooden platform, maybe 30 yards long or so, with protective railings on the edge. The troupe was made up of a couple of dozen men and women who entertained in a variety of ways.
They had live music, with singing and dancing. They also had a featured comedian. Would you believe I remember his name? I have trouble remembering what I had for supper last night but the SD’s top banana comedian was Jack Stanley, a funny, chubby middle aged fellow who told jokes that stopped just short of being risqué. It was family entertainment, after all.
I also recall a tiny, hyper redheaded woman named Helen who was a good comedienne in her own right. She was Mamma’s favorite.
There were some good looking young women n the troupe and every night one would strip down to a skimpy bathing suit and — believe this or not — get into a huge hollowed out block of ice, to see how long she could stand the misery. The longer she lasted the more money she would make for the stunt.
But the big event of the evening was the Speed Derby itself, which was the name for both the traveling show and its big attraction. For the Speed Derby event, they would set up two pylons about four feet high at opposite ends of the platform. The cast would pair off into couples facing each other and holding hands.
As music began, they would begin walking around the oval “track” defined by the pylons. On one side of the oval the man, for example, would be walking backwards and his partner would be moving forward. When they got to the end and made the turn around a pylon, the man would then be going forward while the girl was moving backwards. I hope you can picture this in your mind.
At first the music was slow and the pace was slow. Then it would pick up a bit and the couples would start trotting. Finally, it was time for what they called the “Bombshell,” and to the tune of the “Can Can” dance, they had to run as fast as they could, with one member of each couple going backwards at any given time.
The cast had to be in pretty good shape, but the Speed Derby rules kept them going until they were exhausted and sometimes they would take some pretty nasty falls. The last couple running would win. I believe that they passed a hat through the audience (with pleas to donate generously) and the winning pair would split up the money collected in that way.
The troupe members were cast, some as good guys and some as bad guys, so the bad guys were lmore ikely to play rough during the Bombshell. It was all part of the show, but sill lots of fun.
For some reason, my family loved the whole thing Daddy, Momma, my older sister Joan and me. We’d probably go two to four times a week. Looking back, it was no doubt rough on the cast and maybe even kind of cruel. Times were different back then, though, and folks weren’t as sensitive as they are now.
I don’t know why I couldn’t find a record of it on the Internet. Maybe I just didn’t search long enough. But the way I described it above was just the way it happened. And I know the cast members weren’t just from the South because many of them had what we called “Yankee accents” and one of the guys, Johnny Longo, who had a crush on my sister, was from New York.
But I tell you what. If I heard that a Speed Derby was coming to Natchitoches next week, I’d be there. Yeah. Rooting for a favorite couple in the Derby and laughing to the corny jokes of Jack Stanley’s great-grandson.