Saturday, December 26, 2015

Lena Cohen Rose - Early Motorcycle Thrill Show Rider - Episode #38

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: December 28, 2015

Birmingham, AL. News - October 13, 1913

Over a year ago, I was doing research at the Birmingham Public Library Archive. As I scrolled through the microfilm of the October 1913 editions of the Birmingham News, I suddenly came across a grainy newspaper photograph of a women wearing an early leather motorcycle helmet. Because I was pressed for time, I printed out the article, without reading it.  Sadly, that article sat in a stack of some 20 pages printed out that day for over a year.

One day, I shuffled through that stack looking for another article. When I came across her photo, I finally took time to read the article. It was then that I realized it documented one of the earliest known women to perform in a motorcycle thrill show.

In 1911, the first Motordrome Thrill Show was built in Luna Park on Coney Island New York. These early Motordrome shows where the precursor of the motor cycle Wall of Death Shows that still travel the country today.

New York Times - July 3, 1911

This steeply banked circular wooden track was sunk in to a hole in the ground. Descriptions in the press vary slightly, listing the track's diameter at either 65, or 80 feet. The wooden planks making up the track were laid vertically at either a 65,  or 72 degree angle. This formed a track that looked like a large saucer, hence the name "Saucer Tracks.". The riding surface of the track was only two feet wide, but the small racing cars, which first used the track could hit 50 miles an hour, ripping round the tiny Motordrome.

New York Times - April 30, 1911
The New York Daily World - August 10, 1912

Motorcycle Illustrated - August 22, 1912
Motorcycles soon took to the track as well, and large crowds of enthusiastic spectators watched the riders zip around at break neck speed, standing on a wooden platform around the top of the Motordrome. On May 18, 1912, the danger of the thrill show, struck home. Rider "Daredevil Dick" was lapping the track on his motorcycle up close to the top of the wall. Suddenly he got too high on the wall, and he and his motorcycle were propelled out of the attraction. His motorcycle struck several spectators on the way out injuring them, and "Daredevil Dick", whose real name was William Mullen, was killed.

Washington Post - May 19, 1912

About this same time, Lena Cohen, of Savannah, Georgia, was working as a stenographer and bookkeeper for a Wall Street Firm was drawn into this dangerous profession. After meeting her future husband, "Wild Billy" Rose, one of the motor dome thrill show riders in 1912, the adventuresome girl convinced Rose to teach her to ride the Motordrome.  Lena was an accomplished bicycle rider, and took to the risky sport quite easily.  Soon she quit her Wall Street job to ride in the Motordrome show. She is said to have performed at the Coney Island attraction during the summers of 1912, and 1913.

By 1913, Lena had married Billy Rose, and they were traveling with a new "portable" circular wooden motordrome that appeared in Fairground Midways across the South.

Motorcycle Illustrated - May 15 1913
The new portable motordrome is described in a September 13, 1913 Nashville Tennessean article:

Nashville, TN. Tennessean - September 13, 1913
It was similar in design to today's Wall of Death Shows, except the track was only 60 feet across, and was banked an angle of about 65 degrees. These early traveling Motordromes came to be known ad Whirl of Death attractions.

In May 1913, the American Motordrome Company's portable Whirl of Death Motordrome attraction made it's first visit to Durham North Carolina for a Carnival Fund Raiser. Durham motorcycle dealer S. E. Rochelle (far left) was photographed, along with the attraction performers, if front of the attraction.  This is one of the few known photographs of an early traveling Motordrome attraction.

American Motordrome Company Portable Whirl of Death Motordrome
Durham, NC. May 1913
S. E. Rochelle Collection - Durham County Library
Durham, NC. Daily Herald Ad - May 4, 1913
In October 1913, Lena Rose, and her husband, brought their Motordrome Thrill Show to the Midway at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Alabama State Fairgrounds Midway
O.V. Hunt Collection ca. 1914

A lengthy article detailing Mrs Rose's career appeared in the Birmingham News on October 3, 1913. 

Birmingham, AL. News - October 13, 1913

The Birmingham article mentions that Lena Rose tried to get the Fair Management to let do some laps on her motorcycle around the Fairgrounds Raceway's 1 mile dirt oval. The Fairgrounds Raceway was hosting National Championship motorcycle races, with some top professionals in the country, competing during the fair. Fair Management, and Race Officials, would not allow her on the track, which really disappointed Lena, as she had ridden on several dirt track, along with the Vanderbilt Cup Auto Race Course in her hometown of Savannah.

After Birmingham, there is no further mention of Lena as "Mrs. Billy Rose."  Perhaps her husband finally convinced her to give up the dangerous pursuit. Interestingly, a female Motordrome rider named Rose Moore and billed as the "Champion Motorcycle Rider of America",  begins appearing with the Allman Brothers Big Shows Motordrome in 1914. 

Lead, SD. Daily Call - June 26, 1914

It's possible, Lena and Billy split up. She may have gone on the road with another show, along with a new stage name, or it may be a totally different performer.  It is interesting there are no ads for  Rose Moore before 1914. After the 1914 season there are a couple mentions in Fair-Carnival ads for "Motordrome - Dare Devil Rose" in 1917.

What happened to spunky lady rider from Savannah, Georgia has been lost to time.  Billy Rose continued to travel with his "Wild Billy"s Motordrome, for years to come. Two 1920 ads indicate that Wild Billy Rose was still using female motordrome riders, so it's possible Lena was still performing in Billy's Show.

Billboard Magazine - January 31, 1920
Logan-Pharos, IA. - May 24, 1920
Regardless of what happened to Lena Rose, she was a veteran performer of the earliest Motordrome Thrill Show in the country, and helped start the tradition of women Wall of Death performers that continues to this day.


Billboard Magazine

Birmingham Public Library Archives

Birmingham News

Lead, SD. Daily Call

Motorcycle Illustrated

Nashville Tennessean

New York Times

O. V. Hunt Collection

Washington Post

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