Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a girl skated so beautifully that she was given a medal made of gold. Princes fell in love with her, and princesses wanted to look just like her. Then she joined the Ice Capades and moved to Hollywood, where she was expected to live happily ever after.
A lifetime later, in a land called Delmarva, Dorothy Hamill is crying. It is Jan. 6, 1994, and Dorothy is in pain from a broken rib suffered the night before, when the Prince gripped her the wrong way on a lift during their waltz number. But that's not why she is crying. Nor is she in tears at the prospect of spending a winter week in the town of Salisbury, Md., on the Delmarva Peninsula, skating at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center (BINGOMANIA FEB. 19, says the marquee). Dorothy likes the small cities she goes to nowadays because the audiences are so enthusiastic.
No, she is crying because she's happy. She has just seen the Ice Capades, Dorothy Ha-mill's Ice Capades, perform Cinderella...Frozen in Time to a standing ovation—without her. Her understudy in the title role, Delene MacKenzie, was so wonderful her first time out that Hamill has been moved to tears.
She says good night to various members of the company, who are hurrying back to the hotel to 1) deliver their "secret Santa" presents, 2) watch the men's finals of the U.S. figure skating championships and 3) catch more news about the assault on Nancy Kerrigan by an apparent wacko earlier that day. Asked if anything like that had ever happened to her, Dorothy says, "Well, once two men hiding in our garage in Connecticut surprised me, but they were just religious fanatics trying to save me from a life of Hollywood."
March 7, 1994
As the last skaters leave, five-year-old Alexandra Forsythe tugs on the hem of her mother's skirt. "Mommy," she pleads, "can I go skating now?"
"Not now, monkey," says Hamill. "Tomorrow. It's time for bed, don't you think?"
Alexandra, known as Packy, is the only child of Dorothy Hamill and Dr. Kenneth Forsythe. But then Dorothy is also the matriarch of 30 skaters, 15 crew members and several tractor-trailers' worth of ice-show business. And that's just the East Tour of the Ice Capades. There is a concurrent West Tour, which Hamill also runs and periodically skates with. So multiply the people and the costumes and the props and the ice-, fog- and snow-making machinery by two, and you have some idea of what Dot, as she is known to everyone in the show, is chaperoning.
In addition she is the guardian of the proud history and tenuous future of the Ice Capades, the granddaddy of all ice shows. "This is my second dream come true," says Hamill. "My first dream came true when I was 19, which is a little early to start asking, What next? So I had to find another dream, and this is it."
Partly because she has aged so gracefully, people have a hard time reconciling 37-year-old Dorothy Hamill, president of Dorothy Hamill International and executive producer of Cinderella...Frozen in Time, with 19-year-old Dorothy Hamill, frozen in time at the 12th Winter Games. In four nearly flawless minutes at the Olympic Ice Hall in Innsbruck, on Feb. 13, 1976, she walleyed, toe-looped, Salchowed, Axeled and Lutzed her way into our hearts, finishing her performance with her signature Hamill camel (a camel spin into a sit spin). The nearsighted girl in the pink dress further endeared herself to millions by squinting to see her scores (eight 5.8's and a 5.9 in technical merit, all 5.9's in artistic interpretation). The gold medal was hers, and as she stood shyly, demurely on the platform, she seemed to have stepped out of a storybook. And what a storybook name, Dorothy.
Women everywhere began to order up her short and sassy hairdo, the Hamill Wedge. Her hair, in fact, became as famous as she was. A few months after her gold medal, she was touring a museum in Delaware with her mother when a guide came up to her and said, "I like your Dorothy Hamill haircut." Thanks, she said, not telling the guide who she was.
The Ideal Toy Company began producing Barbie-like Dorothy Hamill dolls. She signed a three-year contract, for a reported $1 million a year, to skate with the Ice Capades: 13 shows a week, 18 to 23 weeks a year. She moved from Riverside, Conn., to Hollywood and dated Dean Paul Martin, the son of Dean Martin. She was in a whirlwind romance with the world.
But whirlwinds make you dizzy, and Dorothy took some spills. Her coach, Carlo Fassi, sued her family for money that he thought he had coming to him. (The suit was settled out of court.) Because Hamill was more mercurial than Peggy Fleming, her predecessor as America's ice princess, she began getting some negative publicity. Her agents had her doing some pretty lowbrow TV specials with Bruce Jenner and Hal Linden, Sally Kellerman and Professor Irwin Corey. Life on the road with the Ice Capades gave her a bleeding ulcer and made it difficult for her to see Dean Paul, who was trying to juggle professional tennis, acting and flying in the Air National Guard. Besides that, she says, "I was tired, and I was skating rotten."
During an on-again phase in their five-year romance, Dorothy and Dean Paul were wed on Jan. 8, 1982, at a church in Beverly Hills. Among the 300 guests were Frank Sinatra, Ali MacGraw, Kenny Rogers and Milton Berle. After honeymooning in Arizona, Dorothy rejoined the Ice Capades on tour in New Jersey, while Dean Paul returned to pilot training in New Mexico. Two years later they again went their separate ways, this time for good. They remained friends, however, and Dorothy was devastated when Dean Paul was killed in a plane crash in 1987.
By then she had left the Ice Capades. In 1983 she performed in a well-received ice version of Romeo and Juliet for CBS, and in 1984 she skated with the John Curry Skating Company, the artistic troupe led by her '76 gold medal counterpart. Her skating revived, she won four straight World Professional Figure Skating championships (1984-87).
In 1986 Hamill met Ken Forsythe, a sports physician and a former member of the Canadian Olympic ski team. A year later they were married. Together, they produced both Alexandra and the highly acclaimed Nutcracker on Ice in '88.
The Ice Capades, in the meantime, was skating on thinner and thinner ice. This was an American institution that had started on Valentine's Day, 1940, when a group of arena owners got together in Hershey, Pa., for the purpose of forming an ice show to play their buildings. Rival shows like Shipstad and Johnson's Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice later sprang up, but over the years, the Ice Capades served as the standard of excellence, employing such greats as Dick Button, the Protopopovs, Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Torvill and Dean, and, of course, Hamill.
But by the late '80s, Walt Disney's World on Ice, which was an amalgam of the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice, had begun to lure away the children, and audiences were dwindling for the Ice Capades' mix of Vegas-style production numbers, dogs in tutus, and Barbie, the Simpsons and the California Raisins on skates. By 1991 the Ice Capades, then owned by the International Broadcasting Corp., was in Chapter 11 and near artistic bankruptcy.
Reenter Miss Hamill. "It was breaking my heart to think there would be no more Ice Capades," she says. "It wasn't just that I once skated for the company, it was also the thought of all those skaters out of work." So the Forsythes began to explore the possibility of acquiring the Ice Capades. The positive response to The Nutcracker on Ice convinced them that telling a single story was the way to go with the heretofore vaudevillian Ice Capades. The tale they chose was Cinderella, patterned more after the English pantomime version of the 19th century than the Walt Disney animated version. (Children attending Cinderella...Frozen in Time often ask, "Where are the mice?" As a trade-off, this Cinderella has a friend—the cellar boy Buttons—and a father.)
Hamill wanted to upgrade the caliber of skating in the Ice Capades, and she knew whom she wanted for the principal roles. Even though she hadn't yet bought the company, she began talking to skaters about a year ago. One call was to her old friend Catherine Foulkes, a real estate attorney with a prestigious Boston law firm. Foulkes had not only skated with Hamill in the John Curry Skating Company but had also been a dancer in the Boston Ballet before graduating summa cum laude from Boston College Law School. Hamill had an irresistible part for her. Says the 36-year-old Foulkes, "When I met with one of the senior partners to ask for a leave of absence, these words actually came out of my mouth: 'Dorothy Hamill wants me to play Cinderella's fairy godmother in the Ice Capades.' "
For choreography Hamill lined up Tim Murphy and Nathan Birch of The Next Ice Age, a cutting-edge skating company in Baltimore. For the costumes and set she prevailed upon the legendary Desmond Heeley, who dressed Richard Burton for Camelot. Canadian composer Michael Conway Baker was commissioned to write the original score, and the Sinfonia of London recorded it.
The Forsythes and their principal investor, Alaskan businessman Ben Tisdale, signed on the dotted line last June 24. But buying the Ice Capades was only the beginning. "Straight off they spent about $6 million in new equipment," says Art Jones, who stayed on as manager of the East Tour. In August all the prospective skaters were assembled in Toronto for eight weeks of auditions and rehearsals.
"When I saw these 60 skaters out there trying to impress me, doing all these great jumps and triples," says Hamill, "I thought, Oh, my god, they actually showed up for work. What have I done? What am I going to do?"
It's a few hours before opening night at the Hartford Civic Center, and time for class. Before most performances, the skaters dress in black warmups and go through intricate series of moves and exercises, and Hamill is just one of 30, testing herself to see if she'll be able to perform with this, her first professional injury. Her heart says yes, but her ribs say no. Ribs win. When Hamill leaves the ice, she is accosted by TV reporters. There has been a break in the Nancy Kerrigan case, and they would like her comments. She doesn't quite know what to say.
It's now showtime, and there is an audible sigh of disappointment when Hamill walks to the microphone, along with her husband and daughter, to explain why she won't be able to perform in front of the home folks. But soon the mist is rising over the rink, and out come the heralds, then the Lord Chamberlain and the Prince, the exotic princesses, Cinderella and Buttons, the wicked stepsisters.... By the snowfall at the end of the first act, the audience is entranced. Hamill is no longer missed. The lights come on, and there's the murmuring that tells you a show is working.
To the untrained eye, the first act went just fine, but actually the skating was not to Hamill's or Murphy's liking—it seldom is the first night out on new ice—and one of the snow hoses didn't work. During intermission, a crewman on a cherry picker fixes the hose, and Murphy talks to the skaters. Their performance is much sharper in the second act, and at the end, half the Hartford crowd gives Cinderella a standing ovation. Minutes later, down in the office, Forsythe reports that the West Tour did even better, getting a full standing O in Fargo, where it's 32 below.
Forsythe, who handles much of the business of the Ice Capades, is an engaging, athletic, Renaissance kind of guy. He speaks several languages, including Spanish and Swedish, yet he's not above saying, "That Dorothy's something, isn't she?" to patrons as they leave the show.
The morning after opening night in Hartford, Ken and Dot and Packy are having breakfast in the hotel of the 19-year-old Civic Center, one of those once-popular urban biospheres. "I remember skating here when this place first opened," says Dorothy. "In fact, everywhere I go, I'm skating in arenas that seem old but were actually brand-new when I first skated in them. It makes me feel like an old lady."
Ken reassures her, "The mortality of mortar is nothing compared to the Hamill camel." Dorothy rolls her eyes and smiles. She is reading the review of the show in The Hartford Courant. The paper's dance critic has written, "This innovative version of the familiar Cinderella story must be counted among the finest stagings ever."
Dorothy finishes reading the review and says, "This is great for the kids."
"Mommy, I have a question," says Packy.
"Yes, monkey, what is it?"
"Why do you call them kids? I'm a kid. They're grown-ups."
"Good question. I guess because I think of them as part of the family."
If Hamill treats her skaters as family, it's only because that's the way she wanted to be treated when she was in the show. For one thing, the new Ice Capades pays for hotel bills, which sounds reasonable enough but is actually unprecedented in the ice-show business. For another, the number of shows has been cut back, from an average of 11 a week to an average of eight. And there are no more silly rules like curfews and weigh-ins. (In her early years with the Ice Capades, Dorothy constantly worried about her weight.) "I've been in a lot of shows," says stepsister No. 1, Jared Randolph, "but this is the first company run by skaters by skaters."
As impressive as any triple Axel is the way Hamill jumps from being the boss to being one of the skaters. They are as free to criticize her performance as she is to comment on theirs. One class in Hartford involved a lot of twisting and turning that hurt her ribs, but Hamill never raised a complaint to Birch, who ran the class. She has also been known to shoot pool with the crew (although, truth be told, she is no Tonya Harding).
Hamill can be very tough, though, when it comes to important details, such as the condition of the ice. Perhaps you've seen that Campbell's Soup commercial—who hasn't by now?—with Nancy Kerrigan checking the hockey players. That, in effect, is what Dorothy has to do every week that the Ice Capades goes into an arena that is home to a hockey team.
"Hockey players like the temperature of the ice very cold, around 12 degrees, so that the puck goes faster," Hamill explains. "We need it to be about 25 degrees, so we can dig in our blades. Some engineers understand that, but others give us a rough time." That's when Hamill and company play hardball to get soft ice. Jones has been known to tell an arena that Miss Hamill will refuse to skate if the temperature isn't raised.
The Ice Capades took a hit recently when TV's American Journal ran a piece accusing Hamill of antiunion practices after she hired some nonunion skaters. "Our goal was simply to assemble the best skaters we could," she says. "And then to make them even better. That's what outclass is for. The class is something I borrowed from my friend John Curry."
Curry, who suffers from AIDS, is being treated in his native England, but his presence is very much felt at the Ice Capades. Hamill and several other members of the company once skated with Curry—who, in fact, couldn't stand ice shows. He once said he did not spend "12 years training to go dress up in a Bugs Bunny suit." But over Christmas, Foulkes got a card from Curry. "I wasn't sure how John would feel about me skating in such a commercial show," she says, "but I took his card to be sort of a blessing."
It would be hard for Curry not to like this Cinderella. As good as the individual performances are, the show really comes alive in the ensemble numbers, when all 30 skaters are out on the ice. The eye can't possibly keep up with all the acrobatics and pageantry and comedy and precision. "We have too many great skaters and not enough parts," laments Dorothy. "Brian Boitano, when he saw the show in Oakland, kept asking during the ensemble numbers, "Which guy did that triple?"
One of them was Mark Cockerell, who represented the U.S. in singles at the Sarajevo Olympics in '84. "I'm having the time of my life," Cockerell says. "I've never skated better. And I met Elena."
What we have here is a fairy tale within the fairy tale. Hamill alternates as Cinderella, East and West, with the Russian skater Elena Kvitchenko. Well, when Mark and Elena met earlier this year, they fell in love, and they are now engaged to be married. If Elena is not skating with the East Tour, Mark will sometimes drive hundreds of miles on off days just to be with her. Otherwise he speaks to her by phone twice a day. "Her English is much better than my Russian," he says, "but every day I'm learning a new Russian word."
There might actually be an ice show in their story.
Tacked to the East Tour's bulletin board at the War Memorial in Syracuse is this fax from the West Tour: Then she dumped the Prince, took all his money and moved to another village to set up the old "peasant girl" scam again.
The company needs a good laugh in Syracuse. The trip from Hartford in a blizzard took two hours longer than expected. A concessions vendor had to be fired after he broke a window in the lobby of the Hotel Syracuse, perhaps because he didn't have enough hot water—nobody did. Two skaters have come up with injuries, necessitating an SOS to the West Tour. One of the tour's truckers was hit in the face with a beer bottle while defending the honor of the skaters in the hotel bar and was rushed to a hospital for stitches. And during the entire run in Syracuse, it has snowed: 36 inches in six days. "It must be a big thrill for the audience to see it snowing indoors," says Murphy.
The good news is that Hamill has been skating again. As beautifully as Delene MacKenzie performed, there is undeniable candlepower to Hamill, even before she launches into her famous Hamill camel in the second act. When she is on the ice, she is the dominant figure (and while she skated maybe eight minutes a show in the old Ice Capades, Cinderella requires her to be out there for 75 minutes). She and Andrew Naylor, who plays the Prince, have to make a few allowances for her tender ribs, but the show hardly suffers. On this Sunday afternoon, the show's last day in Syracuse, men who literally had to be dragged to the Ice Capades by their wives and kids—while the Buffalo Bills played the Kansas City Chiefs on TV—are applauding and wiping little football-shaped tears from their eyes. "I think the show's wonderful, and I've seen it six times," says Phil Galuppi, a 60-year-old usher at the War Memorial. "I remember Dorothy from the Olympics. She can still skate, huh?"
Dorothy, still shy, still demure, doesn't much like to be reminded of little Dorothy. "I cringe whenever I see tapes of myself back then," she says. "I wasn't very good, not compared to what they can do today, to what I can do today.
"I don't think enough people realize that skaters get better as they get older. Olympic skating is all about jumping, how many triples you hit cleanly. Watch professional skaters, and you'll see a more fluid, more disciplined style. Some of it comes with practice, some of it comes with maturity. I look at my friend Barbara Underhill, who's been through some pain [one of her twin daughters drowned at eight months], and I see more expression, more feeling than when she competed."
Hamill, of course, could have been talking about herself. She too has been through a lot: an adolescence lost to Olympic training, years and years lived out of suitcases, bad pub, the ulcer, a failed marriage, the death of her former husband, a long struggle for independence. She has emerged from all this stronger, wiser, happier. For once, and at last, she is in control. No one is uprooting her from her home to train in Denver or Lake Placid; no one is telling her she has to appear on a TV show with Professor Irwin Corey. Ted Koppel calls to ask her to come on Nightline to talk about Nancy and Tonya, and she can say thanks but no thanks.
There are still the weeks on the road, but there is always Indian Wells, Calif., where the Forsythes have their home. This year, the Ice Capades will be seen by three million people, twice as many as last year. It may not turn a profit for a while, but Hamill says she's in this for the long haul.
Her two biggest enemies are public perception (both Roseanne and Coach used Ice Capades jokes in the same hour one Tuesday night on TV last fall) and Walt Disney's World on Ice.
"I try not to think of the Disney shows as competition," says Hamill. "They're different from us. We don't have skaters in big suits. Besides, the Walt Disney people have been very nice to us. When we were out in Anaheim to perform at The Pond, they gave me the keys to Toontown."
The Forsythes are already deep into plans for next year's production of Hansel and Gretel. (Which, if you think about it, even has a part for Tonya Harding.) It's possible, however, that Hamill won't be lacing 'em up with the Ice Capades next year. Packy starts kindergarten, and Mom doesn't want to be away from her. Hamill can still skate, but as she has found out, the show can go on without her.
It might be said that she has already left the Ice Capades a legacy. In a way Hamill and her company are turning the individual sport of figure skating into a team sport. Over the last few weeks, the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan news has followed the Ice Capades around like the bad weather in the Northeast, and Hamill has had to spend an inordinate amount of time talking to the media about Tonya and Nancy. (She recalled her own fright, at the Olympic Village in Innsbruck, when a rival's coach nearly ran her over with his car. Although she believes the incident was intentional, she has refrained from naming names.)
But all Hamill really had to do in response to recent events was point to her troupe, in their black class togs, and say, This is the antidote to the image of the cutthroat world of figure skating. This isn't every skater looking out for No. 1. This is 30 people skating as one.
Between shows on the last evening in Syracuse, a courtly man comes up to Dorothy and embraces her. "This is Gary Jones," she explains to a visitor. "He was my first partner in the Ice Capades, 18 years ago."
Jones, who is now a skating coach in Syracuse, later says, "Dorothy was always very nice to me. She was in a number with me and three other guys—I was the one who lifted her up with one hand—and she always made sure to introduce us to the audience.
"I was with the Capades from '70 to '80, and until Dorothy's show, I would have said, 'If you've seen one, you've seen them all.' But not this one. The story is marvelous, the choreography is brilliant, and I've never seen better skating in a show. I can't tell you how proud I am of the girl I used to hold up with one hand."
The last show in Syracuse has already started. On the backstage ice behind the curtain, in a space no larger than the area behind a hockey goal net, skaters are warming up. Packy is also skating, oblivious to the grown-ups doing double Axels around her. The whole tableau, bathed in the blue light coming through the curtain, makes you feel as if you're inside a snow globe. Then Cinderella appears, and they're all skating, Dorothy and her daughter and her fairy godchildren.
May they live happily ever after.