It must tell us something that the ice found in arenas is always known as "artificial." Artificial ice, how curious. Why don't we also say the cubes that come from the Kelvinator are artificial? I'll have a Scotch on the artificial rocks. The frozen water that Bobby Orr and Richard Dwyer make their livings on is man-made, true, but artificial? One might as well say that Colonel Sanders' chicken is artificial, that direct dialing is artificial, that Orange County is. Why, then, do they always call it artificial ice? Perhaps because, of all our spectacles, those staged on ice appear the most unreal.
That frosty world presents two extremes, hockey and ice shows. Hockey is played by toothless, lumpy men with pumpkin faces, their lacerated bodies further deformed by the most hideous uniforms—swollen stockings, robot gloves, droopy, diaperlike pants. Their actions are macho and choppy, any stylishness swallowed up in a mean jumble of collision and casual pain.
But just as grotesque in a sugar-plum way are ice shows, which are even more make-believe than hockey. They are so lovely and neat that the heavy high boots soon look like Mercury's sandals, the skaters' sweat like champagne drops. The costumes celebrate the human form. To an obscene world the shows bring beauty; to a disorganized one, pattern; to a dowdy one, grace; to an artificial one, the grandest tinsel-plated artificiality.
The bastard child of sport and vaudeville, related by presumption to art, the ice show is an enduring form, but only momentarily gratifying. For one evening we escape and, by God, we follow our best instincts to dreamland. And that's not bad. But when it is over, when the last skater departs through the curtain, there is nothing left except the ice...and that is artificial. It is very much like Emmett Kelly sweeping a spotlight under the rug.
March 29, 1976
Nothing lasting is offered by an ice show, because only illusion is there to start with. An ice show is parasitic. Its performers are taken from athletics; its music from Broadway, Vienna, The Top 40; its comedy and costumes from burlesque and Ziegfeld; its movement from the dance; and its themes from the obvious. The most predictable criticism of ice shows is that they never change. In fact, ice show critics change less than the shows. The skating gets better, the productions more lavish, the staging sharper. But the ice revues never appear to change, because they carefully stay a step behind the real world. So no matter how much the shows advance, they always seem static.
Ice shows have come to ordain the popular nice things in our culture. Something has truly arrived and is certified when an ice show builds a number around it. This year there is the Bicentennial (of course), country music, Dyn-O-Mite, nostalgia, physical fitness, Busby Berkeley. Safe and sound. You want avant-garde. Buster, you go consort with the Maharishi, with Charles O. Finley, Woody Allen, Eric Sevareid and other far-out radical types. This is Family Entertainment. Ice Follies irritated some fans back in the '60s by updating a little too vigorously with some loud, hard rock. No ice show is going to make that mistake again.
Well, to be fair, there is one aspect of an ice show that has been raised to true art. The exit. Of all those who come and go for a living—actors, salesmen, politicians, thieves, the Gabors, clergy, athletes, children, dancers—none depart so well as ice show performers. Zip! zap! and they're gone at full speed. Nothing else really belongs to an ice show quite the way leaving does. Exit.
JOHN MARTIN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" DANCE CRITIC, 1939: The ubiquitous art of dance has poked its nose into the field of the sport on something more than a mere snooping expedition. There is definitely something of great interest to be developed in the realm of the ice ballet [but] at present its virtues are also its handicaps. The marvelous capacity for effortless speed, for smooth continuity of motion, leads ultimately to monotony.
KEN SHELLEY, ICE CAPADES, 1975: The problem we face is basically with the pieces of steel on our boots—we're limited by them.
In uncertain, hard times, America turns to the ice shows for spangles and solace. They were created in the Depression and they are still glamorous and live—independent of television. Little else surviving in sports or entertainment can make this boast. As many as 10 million paying customers will see ice shows in the U.S. and Canada this year, and largely because of their popularity here and abroad, ice dancing was included for the first time in the 1976 Olympics.
Six ice troupes traverse North America. Three are mounted by Ice Capades and so named. The other three are run by Ice Follies, although two play under the banner of Holiday On Ice. This is because, even though ice shows are essentially the same, in some parts of the country, notably the South, Holiday On Ice has chipped out a bigger name.
This year about as many people will see ice shows as attend pro basketball, hockey or football games. But ice show roots reach much deeper. These are not the hard-core fans with season tickets. One comes as a child, as a parent of a child, as a grandparent of a child. The ice show often marks a person's first visit to an arena. For many it is the most athletic event they ever see. The audience crosses all generations and is 60% women. An argument could be made that Richard Dwyer is woven into the fabric of American life more than Johnny Bench or O. J. Simpson.
The modern extravaganzas sprang from amateur skating carnivals, held in partially covered rinks as early as 1867. The first took place in Montreal. With the advent of artificial ice, theaters began to offer ice acts—in 1915 New York's Hippodrome opened a show starring the world-renowned German skater Charlotte. Many came to see Charlotte's skating, others to inspect her calves, which she was brave and wily enough to reveal.
Moving right along. The one, the only, Sonja Henie. Ten years in a row world's champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist, a legend in her own time. She came to the U.S. in 1936, after her third Olympics triumph, with a $40,000 guarantee for eight performances. It was pretty much a one-woman show, or, as they say now, a one-person show. The idea for a traveling ice revue was already forming in the minds of the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson in St. Paul, but Miss Henie's stunning box-office success no doubt gave inspiration a boost.
Many think big-time women's athletics sprang just last week, like Athena full grown from the brow of Zeus. Miss Henie was, in fact, a greater presence in the '30s than the top sports women of recent years—Billie Jean, Chrissie, Peggy Fleming, the good-looking blonde on the golf tour—all of them put together. Hard-bitten sportswriters acclaimed Sonja Henie "the greatest box-office draw in the history of sport," taking care of Ruth and Dempsey and the other idols in one fell swoop. She was able to move back and forth from the top of sports to the top of show biz. In Miss Henie's best year in films, only Shirley Temple and Clark Gable were bigger draws. She made $210,729 from movies alone in 1937, more than half again what the president of General Motors found in his pay envelope. By 1940 she had cleared her first million; the Hollywood Ice Revue was her showcase, and it remained in business until 1952. Arthur Wirtz, the Chicago promoter, folded it soon after she quit.
Now Wirtz is chairman of the board of Follies and Janet Lynn is his star—or is supposed to be his star. Suffering from a respiratory disease, she has not performed since late last year. Lynn is touted as the alltime highest-paid woman athlete, having signed for a supposed $450,000 to appear at 16 of the Ice Follies' 28 stops.
While Miss Henie was in Norway winning world championships, the Shipstads and friend Johnson were busy in the Twin Cities at less spectacular endeavors. Eddie sold typewriters, Roy parked cars and Oscar was a chemist of sorts. On the side, Eddie and Oscar worked up a comedy skating routine and made appearances at carnivals and between periods of hockey games. Roy was more of a classic skater—The Human Top, he called himself—and he created his own uniform by sewing 15,000 spangles onto a pair of long Johns.
In May of 1935 Roy stopped parking cars and, along with the other two, went to Chicago to headline what is known in the trade as a "tank show" at the Hotel Sherman. It ran 16 boffo months on a 20' by 40' rink. There are few hotel tank shows left, but for a time after World War II there was hardly a city in the U.S. that didn't boast a stationary ice bill. The Center Theatre in New York, operated by Arthur Wirtz, ran an ice revue for a full decade, until 1950, and, with 3,500 seats, was often the largest-grossing theater in Manhattan. But Sonja is gone, dead of leukemia six years ago, the tanks have disappeared and hockey players make too much money for teams to afford between-period acts. So, all the business is Capades and Follies.
Their era officially began Nov. 3, 1936, when a chartered Greyhound full of 28 souls left the corner of University and Snelling in St. Paul, Tulsa-bound. Emboldened by their tank-show success, the Shipstads and Johnson were taking to the road. Regrettably, when the little troupe arrived in Oklahoma, it found a polio epidemic and an autumn cold snap so bitter that according to the local paper, "Dr. H. M. Hutchinson, Tulsa weather observer, gave out word that it was too cold for him to go outdoors and read the thermometer."
According to Follies folklore, 14 persons were in attendance for the Nov. 7 opening, and Oscar Johnson peeked out and said, "Don't worry, kids, we've got 'em outnumbered." In fact, the Sunday paper reported that "nearly 2,500 spectators sat about the arena," but even excusing the hyperbole, it was a great line and a rotten start. Follies didn't catch on until several weeks later, when the tour hit Philadelphia, the boo-centennial city. To obtain "heavy mitting," as Variety calls it, in Philly was true success. Madison Square Garden rushed to book the revue, and soon Hollywood brought out a Follies movie starring (are you ready for this?) Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart.
By 1939 arena owners were begging Follies to start up a second show. When the group couldn't be bothered, some arena owners met in Hershey, Pa. on Valentine's Day 1940 and formed their own troupe. John Harris, who owned the Pittsburgh pro hockey team, was chosen to head the new enterprise, and Walter Brown, later the Boston Celtics' owner, came up with the name of Ice Capades (from escapades, if you're scoring at home). The group hustled up $44,000 and reckoned the new fad would last maybe five more years.
Today it costs $1 million or more to mount a new show, so great an investment that each production must be kept going for three years to turn a profit. This year's Ice Follies will be next year's edition of Holiday On Ice National, and the '77-'78 production for the small-town Holiday tour, which is called Holiday On Ice International (sic), presumably because it plays such world metropolises as Rock Island, Kalamazoo and Abilene.
Holiday has always scored well overseas. With Dick Button in his swan song, it dented the Iron Curtain in 1959, when that was still a big deal (Khrushchev was nuts about the show), and its jazzy American style has so appealed to Europeans that a number of their own revues have folded. Overall, the three Capades shows outdraw Follies and Capades is considered a more solid property.
Both shows have a well-earned reputation among employees for parsimony. Capades is a subsidiary of Metromedia, while Follies is a major property of a small Minneapolis outfit known as Medicor and is widely known to have suffered "a cash-flow problem." But Follies is proceeding resolutely under a new president, Lyman D. Walters, and is talking of launching new tours to Europe and Central America.
Though the shows are friendly rivals and duplicate products, skaters almost never jump from one show to the other. There has never been an ice show trade, and even in an Olympic year there are no draft picks. Both revues are bidding for Dorothy Hamill.
WALTER KERR, "NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE," 1956: I kept thinking of the scale and the sweep that had been added to the human body by the simple expedient of strapping a couple of blades to the actor's ankles. And I also kept thinking how much less interesting and how much less satisfying all this was than watching the human body do the same thing, or half the same thing, unaided.
PAUL GUZMAN, ICE CAPADES, 1975: There's always the mixture of art and athletics. Skating is like flying. It's that airy feeling of flying. You get into a spin. You can feel your arms fighting the centrifugal force, and you bring them in, and you know you'll go faster, faster. Skating is a great thing. I've always wanted to make love on the ice.
An ice show on the move is a collage of people and property frozen in transit. Capades still uses trains to carry its equipment. Most arenas have their own ice-making apparatus, but with its sophisticated equipment Capades can lay down a rink in 12 to 14 hours. Usually a layer is spray-painted to give the ice a soft creamy-white effect. It was said that Sonja Henie sometimes skated on frozen milk. The average rink is an inch and a half deep, 160' by 65'. It would make 1.5 million ice cubes. Eighty or more people—skaters, stagehands and musicians—travel with a show. There are hundreds of costumes, weighing up to 30 pounds each, and the costumes are, in many respects, more important to an ice show than who is inside them. Fines are levied on Capades skaters for not wearing proper underwear or for trying to put on costume pants standing up. "The rich, gorgeous costumes are absolutely critical," says Bob Turk, director and choreographer of Capades. "You need an illusion, and people especially seem to want glamour. Cher stumbled on that. People tune in to see what she has on, not what she'll sing."
The ice show is a curious subculture. There is a preponderance of women, but they are, for the most part, schoolgirls on a lark. They set the tone for the troupe, not the pace. At the other extreme, there are the backstage crewmen and skating old-timers, notably the comedians; and in the middle, so to speak, are the younger male skaters, In Capades, many of them are homosexual. "Management likes them," says one skater. "They don't make waves and they take great care of their costumes."
Tryouts are held in every city on the tours, and male skaters, especially tall ones, are always at a premium. In contrast, suburban high school girls come out in groups, dozens of them assembling for auditions. If they make the line, as Capets or Ice Folliettes, they skate a couple of years, see franchise America—learning how to distinguish with authority between Holiday Inns and Best Westerns, Big Macs and Whoppers—and then, knowledgeable and mature beyond their years, return to school or get married. It is an interlude, not a job, and many of them get extra money from Dad back home. The starting line salary is around $200 a week, but out of that the skaters must spring for room and board, and most end up doubling, tripling, even "quadding" to save cash. Everybody calls them "the kids." "In the line, it used to be all old gypsies shooting 10-year pins," says Dick Troxler, the Capades' set-construction boss. The kids are a relatively new development.
Few of the youngsters have illusions about their ability. The healthy intramural competition of a sports team is missing; nobody is pushing anybody, so that performances tend to peak early in a tour. Most of the kids are content to be costume fillers. Few have serious ambitions to become even secondary stars. "I've never felt any jealousy," says Jo Jo Starbuck, the female star of Capades. "You see, it's not like acting, where, say, a girl in the chorus line is thinking, if I had the chance I could do just as well. The kids here know they can't."
Life with an ice show is bland, like being at an extended sorority party. There are initiations: sending newcomers after "the curtain key," telling them, straight-faced, about "ice worms" and "speed grease" for skates. And there are the equivalents of panty raids: the girls have been known to come into the boys' dressing room and tie their robes in knots. The boys retaliate by putting resin on the girls' toilet seats. Har de har har.
Skaters are expected to behave like paragons of Middle America. One fiat on the Capades' backstage bulletin board, addressed to "John Skate and Ellen Blade," is a prohibition of marijuana: "I think you all know what publicity like this could do to America's No. 1 Family Show." The boys' hair must be cropped fairly short; no mustaches or beards are permitted. Until quite recently, Capets could not wear slacks in public. The costumes are skimpier than ever, but not nearly so revealing as in comparable entertainments ("dry acts," in the ice vernacular) where pretty girls are also an attraction. Capades has stricter rules than many colleges; John Skate and Ellen Blade cannot register together. Because John Harris, the martinet who ran Capades for 25 years, frowned on his skaters' drinking, they began to refer to their favorite bar in each city as "the church," and, cutesy-poo, many still do.
Thus, although the ice tours play almost year-round, life for the skaters is restricted, even sheltered. The kids' only responsibility is to make the bus and keep their weight within three pounds of an assigned figure.
Billy Chapel, a world-class amateur who has been a Capades star for 10 years, says, "When I was competing, everybody took care of me, of us. Figure skating is an individual sport, but you are never treated as an individual. When I joined the show at 19, I was taken care of here, too. I keep telling myself, don't fall into this trap. I have to get out of here. This is not life, this is not real. I'm 29 years old and it's time I went out and took care of myself."
Chapel is old for the business, really; almost none of the skaters last to 30. To become proficient in such a precise exercise as skating, they had to trade in their childhoods, to awake before dawn, to skate alone on a rented rink before school, to drive their parents to the edge of bankruptcy. They admit to a certain guilt for what they did to themselves and to their families. At times they despised what they had gotten into, but they had to keep on in order to get some return on the investment, endlessly rehearsing the tedious school figures, suffering the decrees and caprices of the petty tyrants who control the sport.
"Skating is none of the things you think it is," Chapel says. "Out there you don't feel the flow that the audience sees. You're always thinking, I must keep this shoulder up, that hip down. The feeling isn't there of gliding."
Curiously, many skaters talk sourly of what should have been their greatest moments—Olympic and world championships. There was no satisfaction from them, just relief that they were over. The payoff was the show, Capades or Follies. "All our lives we couldn't wait for this," says Jo Jo Starbuck. She has skated with Ken Shelley since both were eight, but while it is only their fourth year on tour, living their dream, they are both looking anxiously to get out, to move at last into a real world.
Jo Jo is a deeply religious person, peaches and cream, always effervescent—one thinks of a word long gone for Jo Jo: dandy. But then, like many other skaters, the instant she puts on bladed boots real beauty is added. Now she is engaged to Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shelley, an intense young man, has already proved that he is quite capable of being a star without Jo Jo. But at 24 he seems bored and burned out. "Looking back," he says, "all I ever wanted was to get the competitions over with. But here it's the other way, there's not enough pressure. I wish the show was more challenging athletically."
Ironically, Shelley is a better entertainer than ever. This is typical. As the skater's athletic curve declines, his performing one ascends. "And there's one other thing never to forget," says Phil Romayne, the great adagio dancer, now a Capades coach. "Fear. Skaters lose their nerve after a while. That's not a solid floor you're jumping on out there. It's ice and it's frosty, and with those blades it's like you're on racehorse legs. You're not embarrassed to fall. You're scared. The shame is that the good skaters often end up leaving just when they're beginning to understand what they are doing as performers."
The survivors, the statesmen of the business, are the funny men. Is that true of any other society? Mr. Frick, now 60, has skated with Follies since 1939, only three years after it came into being. The Capades' Freddie Trenkler has been skating nearly as long and has hardly missed a curtain in 20 years, appearing in more than 7,500 performances. The comics, tough, indestructible men, provide the continuity: Hans Leiter, Terry Head, Johnny LaBrecque, Paul Andre. "If Broadway had such good knockabout comedians," Brooks Atkinson once wrote, "it could consider itself lucky."
"To be an ice show comedian," LaBrecque says, "you have to be a creator, choreographer, musical director, costumer and, probably more than anything else, gutsy. We skate hurt. Comedians are the toughest." LaBrecque, from Montreal, was a boxer and first-rate amateur hockey player. Now he captains the Capades' broomball team.
Head, who grew up in England, also was a hockey player. "Hockey is a great training ground for comedy," he says, a statement calculated to be ratified by Washington Capital fans, "because you can't think about your feet. It is not a question of funny skating, you know. It is a question of being funny on the ice, of being a comic personality. The feet must take care of themselves."
The routines rarely change and have the quality of a religious litany. With the passing of the small touring shows and the tank shows, there is no place for an aspirant to ice comedy to learn the craft, and few line skaters in the big shows have a taste for the rough-and-tumble. So the same laughs go on and on. "All the major comics are of an age," Head says. And how old are you? "Well, I'm 43, if you want to know, but Freddie Trenkler told me that an ice show comedian should never reveal his age. We should be ageless."
Apart from the comedians, there is only one Peter Pan in the business. He is Richard Dwyer, the Follies' perennial matinee idol. At 5'9", 160, with mountain-lake-blue eyes, Dwyer is somewhat taller than a twinkle and almost as heavy as a large gee whiz; on and off the ice he lets a smile be his umbrella. Just turned 40, he has skated the same act since he was 14, when he was selected to fulfill a role for life.
Dwyer was discovered in 1947. Roy Shipstad, The Human Top, had advanced to become Mr. Debonnaire, making an institution of the swing waltz in white tie, top hat and tails. Follies decided that no mere mortal could replace him when he retired. At that time young Dwyer was the third-ranked U.S. skater. Ahead of him were Dick Button and Hayes Alan Jenkins, and amateur skating being the set piece that it is, Dwyer figured that it would probably be 10 years, even 12, before he could reasonably hope to win an Olympic gold medal. So when Follies suggested he succeed Shipstad and grow (up) into the Mr. Debonnaire role, he turned professional and made his adolescence into a takeout order.
Through the years, Dwyer has skated with five regular partners. The incumbent, Susan Berens, is retiring after next year's tour. The search for Richard Dwyer's next partner is about to begin! The daughter of his first partner, an older woman of 17 when he skated with her, is an Ice Folliette now. During each show he presents a bouquet to an old lady in the crowd, and thousands of them are graveyard dead by now. The partners grow old, have children, the old ladies die and Richard Dwyer skates on. He has long since eclipsed Button and Jenkins. They have their gold medals, Dwyer his tails. With the exception of Fred Astaire, he is the last man in the land capable of wearing tails with élan.
But Dwyer is not just some front man, some Wayne Newton playing a jock. "I still have a unique style," he says, "one that represents the '50s—more fluid, more glides, a lot more edges. But I challenge myself. I still do a lot of jumps. Maybe I'm getting more cautious every year, but I'm not scared. You have to be the athlete out there first."
Without a Garden date in New York last year, Follies stitched together a tank show at Radio City Music Hall. They hired Peggy Fleming, a free lance, as the big name, and then cannibalized their own show by bringing Dwyer in as leading man. Clive Barnes, the Times dance critic, reviewed the show, awarding it a split decision. The celebrated Miss Fleming left him cold (noting her "lack of physical harmony," he said, "As a ballet dancer, she wouldn't, in her present state, be even a starter"), but Barnes was enthralled with Dwyer, "a very considerable artist—a veritable Fred Astaire of the ice."
So Richard Dwyer has moved into the realm of the venerable, the only male ice show principal to even remotely approach the exalted stature of Sonja Henie. He has become a vice-president of Follies and manages the show he stars in. He is what most differentiates Follies from Capades. This year, for the first time, Dwyer introduces the show, his initial appearance on skates follows quickly thereafter, and his style and presence are felt even when he isn't on the ice.
In the trade, the conventional wisdom is that Capades is more like Vegas and Follies more like Disney, which is an apt appraisal. Another way to describe the difference is to say that Follies is more ice, Capades more show. Follies always falls back on the skating. Even in the kiddie number, it stuffs more of its top stars into the sweaty Sesame Street costumes—the Cookie Monster does axels and sit spins—while Capades merely assigns line skaters to play Yogi Bear and his pals. Capades offers a clever teen-age juggler on skates, Albert Lucas, but Follies never uses a specialty act—too impure. Capades has a clear edge in production numbers and, in a game where books are judged by their covers, the Capades costumes are richer and more original. But then, Follies has the better exits.
RICHARD L. COE, "THE WASHINGTON POST," 1975: Scorned by the intelligentsia as absurd hybrids, the ice revues are never seriously regarded by the killjoys of culture. Eyebrows are raised and noses go up as soon as interest is evinced in the cheerfully gaudy displays of this union of athletics and show biz. Sure, the concepts are not subtle, they're audacious. Yes, the humor is knockabout, but it's funny, basic, not sniveling nor self-pitying.... Where has all the glitter gone? Into the ice shows, that's where.
BOB TURK, CHOREOGRAPHER OF ICE CAPADES AND THE PARIS LIDO, 1975: Skating really hasn't gotten very far yet. It's still extremely shallow. The skaters don't form any character in their parts. Instead, a star skater comes to an ice show. At last he has gotten to be champion oj the world, and all he's asked to do is to please the audience by doing a few double turns in the air.
The embracing of ice dancing by the Olympics was a rare endorsement for ice shows from the more legitimate precincts. Generally, ice revues are considered déclassé—animated greeting cards—by show people, and sissy by sports people. But as a guileless orphan of culture that grosses more than $40 million a year at the gate (almost as much as all of Broadway), ice shows do not agonize about not being taken seriously. As they say at the box office, you can call me anything but late for dinner.
Only a bizarre half-breed could survive as an arena attraction. The arena was never meant to serve as a stage. The only other quasitheatrical endeavor that works in the arena is the three-ring circus, which is, in effect, three little theaters of more traditional, manageable size. Even a basketball court often gets telescoped in the cavernous new buildings, the intimacy of the action maintained only by the warm caress of a point spread. Disney On Parade, marked as a can't-miss, suffered a lingering arena death; Peter Pan, with Cathy Rigby, succumbed quickly (some would say mercifully). Rock shows get by in arenas largely because of the well-known illusory powers of marijuana rather than the acoustics and sight lines.
The ice show succeeds where so much else fails because with those blades the characters can negotiate the vast expanses quickly. It works because it is a freak; the skaters are neither artists nor athletes, they are merely expeditious.
"You have nothing completely," says Bob Turk. "You lose the intensity of the stage because you're open on three sides." His right arm sweeps about a huge building. "Who are you doing it for? For the people down there who can be intimate with the show, up close, or for the ones way up there? You must always be thinking of those far away. And you can see the patterns when you get far enough up—wonderful patterns that you don't realize exist when you're down close—but even then the spectacle lacks symmetry because 160 by 65 is too long and thin. You would never select those dimensions to work with. And the performers, they must be elegant and natural, an unlikely blend to start with, and they must be athletic as well. There's such a strangeness to skating." He shrugs.
So after 40 years it is altogether naive to expect innovations in the ice show. Basically, it will continue to use unschooled performers, trained as athletes, cast as costume fillers, who are applauded by unsophisticated audiences for all the wrong things. But everyone always leaves the show agreeably, the audience happy, the performers in a blaze. Exit.