Thursday, 5 May 2016

A Long Overdue Reader Mail Edition

There's nothing I enjoy more than rolling up my sleeves, digging deep in the archives and piecing together the puzzle pieces to share stories from ice skating history from all around the world. Well, maybe there's one thing I love more... and that is hearing how these stories speak to the people who are reading them. Over the last year, I have received countless e-mails, messages on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and comments. I have heard from descendants of skaters whose stories were featured including Henry Eugene Vandervell and George Meagher and even skaters who are competing today who are starting to fall in love with the sport's history as much as I am. In today's blog - which is so overdue it is not even fit - I want to once again answer some of your questions and share with you a small sampling of reader mail, many connected to several of the blogs in the archives and some relating to topics that haven't even been covered:


Q: From Margo (via e-mail): "What is the most challenging part of writing about ice skating history?"

A: Without a doubt, my favourite part - and the most challenging part at the same time - is sifting through primary source material. Depending on the topic and the length of whatever I am working on, I can be sifting through books, magazine and newspaper archives, videos, genealogy records, interviews, videos, pictures, writing and calling people... you name it. A lot of people will turn to things like Wikipedia because they are quick and convenient when they are curious about anything historical and the fact of the matter is, Wikipedia is more often than not just plain wrong. There are is a ton of misinformation out there and if you want to do history justice, you have to put the time in to get the story as right as you can. At times it can be fun, but I've scrapped entire blogs halfway through a couple of times or put them on the back burner over one missing puzzle piece. Working with foreign language material is always tricky as well.

Q: From @Colinsfansdotcom (on Twitter): "The most interesting person you have interviewed is?"

A: I don't think anyone I have had the good fortune to interview HASN'T been interesting in some way and I'd hate to pick favourites. I will say that as a rule, skaters who are completely removed from the competitive scene are a lot more candid and really tend to open up a lot more. Two really fascinating interviews that I have done recently aren't even on the blog! Bob Turk and Bill Unwin, who I interviewed for the biography of Belita I will be releasing later this year, were just fabulous in every sense of the word and I can't wait to share some of their stories with you.

Q: From Linda (on Facebook): "What is your favourite era of history to write about?"

A: That's a toughie. I would have to say the thirties and forties. Professional skating just exploded during that period. Between the Sonja Henie stories and the rise of touring productions, the hotel shows and skating on the silver screen and the effect of World War II on skater's careers, it's such a fascinating era to research and write about. It's a period that I'll be exploring in great depth in blogs to come!


Debbie (on Facebook): "Mr. Dunfield used to say that figure skaters had lost the connection to their roots and didn't know their skating history. He would have loved your blog."


Trudi (via e-mail): "I published a monthly fan newsletter about Brian, The Lion Sleeps, between 1989 and 1996. Brian was great about keeping me updated with what was going on in his career, and also at giving me periodic interviews. He (and his family) were also greatly generous in allowing me, and everyone else who wrote for the newsletter, to be unstintingly honest in our writing and our reviews, something I really appreciated. I had a friend in the town I was living in at the time (Rochester, NY) who served as my circulation director and helped get every issue copied and in the mail. Also, a lot of great budding skating photographers (some of who ended up selling their photos to skating magazines) allowed me to use their photos for free. Brian's family subscribed and, for that matter, so did Kurt Browning's mom (what a sweetheart!). It was a great time in my skating-fan life!
I was only on the set of Blame It on the Blues for a day, but what a cool day! It was in the fall of 1994. Brian arranged for me to come into Varsity Arena on the University of Toronto campus and watch some of the shoot. The main thing I saw that afternoon was the shooting of action to part of the Murray McLauchlan song "Women Like That." Brian was shooting this sequence with the black ice synchro team. That shoot took the whole afternoon, and, in the end, it amounted to about 10 seconds' worth of video that made the show! It was a fascinating insight into the making of a TV skating special (which involved a LOT of ice maintenance because of all those takes!)."

Nigel Ogilvie (via e-mail): "My father was working to the end. His last article appeared in the PSA magazine 2 weeks before he died at 97 & 4 months. He always had a restless drive to create. Warm regards and keep up the good work."


Matthew (via e-mail): "When I was a child, one of my favorite fairytales was Sleeping Beauty and though Walt Disney’s animated classic stood as the best version, I was attracted to anything related to the story. Thus, in 1987, as PBS was gearing up for its annual holiday-season fundraising drive and they ran a commercial advertising the premiere of Sleeping Beauty on Ice, I grew very excited and yearned to see the show. I didn’t see the production’s initial airing because I was only six years old at the time and not allowed to stay up well into the evening. Fortunately, having witnessed my excitement, Mom and Dad promised to record the broadcast and let me watch it the next day. Up to this point, I had exhibited no interest in skating so they felt that I would enjoy the show for a while and then consent to taping over it. However, after viewing it once I was so taken by the actors’ performances, so impressed by the elaborate sets, so dazzled by the costumes and special effects and so moved by the recreation of the music, that it immediately became a defining feature of Christmas. From then on, December 1st always saw me retrieve the video from the back of my collection and watch the special continuously for the entire month. Of course, as a result of such faithful use, the tape slowly but surely began to deteriorate and for a time I was concerned that I would one day lose it completely. Happily though, a few years back I went on Amazon, purchased a brand new studio copy and transferred it directly to DVD along with some other memorable holiday programs. So, it is now preserved indefinitely and I can enjoy it without having to worry about quality loss. Through watching Sleeping Beauty on Ice, I grew to love Robin Cousins and Rosalynn Sumners in particular (that love culminated in me personally meeting both of them in 1999) but I nevertheless have an affection for everyone involved in the production and enjoy reading about selected members, especially when I find the information by accident. As a result, when I recently did an image search for Shaun McGill and the picture that fronts your post appeared, I clicked on it and was delighted to read such a long, detailed piece on him. I must tell you that his story brings me mixed feelings. In one sense I was warmed that, in spite of his “demonically intense” performances and rather fierce-looking appearance, Shaun seemed to be quite a caring person who handled difficult situations with aplomb. In another way, however, I was saddened to learn that he became a victim of AIDS so early in his life. Having a chronic, debilitating illness is bad enough but it’s even more painful when you think that, had Shaun remained healthy for just a little longer than he did—into the mid-1990’s—he would have benefitted from the medication that now keeps HIV dormant and thus still be here. My heart goes out to his friends and loved ones. Well, best wishes to you Ryan and thanks again for your hard work!"


Sandra Bezic (via Facebook): "Romeo and Juliet On Ice was the first time I choreographed a full production for the camera. I'm forever grateful to Dorothy for the experience. I learned so much from Director/Choreographer Rob Iscove, who took me under his wing and was open to collaboration. Dorothy, Brian, Toller, - the entire cast - were fully committed to honouring Shakespeare, and Prokofiev’s score. Every step, every shot was rehearsed and blocked with nothing left to chance. On a shoot like this there’s always a sense that it is for ‘forever’. I have vivid memories of the long, intense days....and the laughter (we cast my brother, Val, as Paris -Juliet’s arranged husband-to-be - who kept Dorothy in stitches). Zandra Rhode's hand painted silk costumes were breathtakingly romantic, regal and inspiring. Dorothy and Brian worked their asses off without complaint. They were so very, very beautiful. Thanks, Ryan, for acknowledging this production, and for stirring treasured memories. Sandra xo"


Helen (via e-mail): "Dick Button called me this morning and I owe it all to you. On October 7, I sent you an e-mail asking why and when women's ice skates had gone from delicate to monstrous. You suggested that I consult Don Jackson's company. I looked at the website, but decided (perhaps mistakenly) that I would just get some boiler-plate response. Then I saw that Dick Button had come out with a book, so I thought I could reach him c/o his publisher. But "Push Dick's Button" is self-published, so that didn't help. However, I did learn that he is an avid gardener and frequent lecturer. Meanwhile, I have a gardener friend, who set out to find someone who had worked with Mr. Button. After making sure that I wasn't some nut case, that person gave me his address. So I sent Mr. Button a 3-page, handwritten letter on my best stationery. I also included two photos: one of Barbara Ann Scott looking ethereal and one of Carolina Kostner looking ethereal only from the ankles up - with the message "how did we get from these skates (Scott) to these (Kostner)?" (I also love the synchronicity of your February 21 piece on Barbara Ann Scott.) This morning my phone rang, and it was Dick Button himself !! He actually had no answer for me, either, and joined me in lamenting the ugliness of modern skating boots. He mentioned an early skater called Charlotte who skated in boots so delicate that they looked like silver ballet shoes, "but I've no idea how she skated in them." (I subsequently Googled "Charlotte ice skater"  and was directed to Wikipedia and to SkateGuard---big surprise!)  After we discussed how returning  to competition would work out for Virtue/Moir, the conversation wound down. So, although I still don't have an answer to my question, I found my experience tracking down and talking to Dick Button so much fun that I don't care. And the reason that I am grateful to you is that had you been able to solve the puzzle of the skates, I would never have embarked on this search. As I mentioned to Mr. Button in my thank-you note, I will be dining out on this for quite a while. With many thanks for your role in this delightful experience and for your excellent blog,"

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

From 1948 To 1995: The Skating Rink In The Sky

The skating world was in a collective state  of shock and despair on November 20, 1995. Skating in a rehearsal in Lake Placid for the upcoming season of Stars On Ice, two time Olympic Gold Medallist and four time World Champion Sergei Grinkov collapsed and died from a massive heart attack at the age of twenty eight. Though tragic and particularly shocking due to Sergei's age, it sadly wasn't the first time something like this happened.

Picture it... Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 24, 1948. The historic Duquesne Gardens skating rink built in 1895 was abuzz with activity. Members of the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club were honing their school figures for upcoming competitions and perfecting their steps in hopes of passing their next dance test. It was a Sunday morning at the club. Sessions started at nine AM and ran until one PM on Sunday's back in the late forties at the club. The talk of the rink was twenty four year old Ingeborg Nilsson of Norway. After finishing fifteenth at the first World Championships to be held since World War II in Stockholm the previous year, she had come to the club to train in hopes of following in the footsteps of Sonja Henie and taking the Norwegian ladies title. The future four time Norwegian Champion with Reidar Børjeson was also dabbling in pairs skating while she was in Pittsburgh. Her partner that Sunday morning was Dan V. Limborg, a club member thirty years her senior.

Figure skating was fifty two year old Limborg's life. He'd emigrated to America from Norway back in 1912, coming to Pittsburgh eleven years later to help plan and build the Fox Chapel Golf Course. Since 1925, he had acted as the superintendent of grounds at the Veterans' Hospital in Aspinwall. He and his seventeen year old daughter Barbara were both members of the club and skating was his only hobby, one he devoted much free time to. In addition to the Sunday session, he would skate for two and a half hours on the club's Thursday evening sessions and even take to the ice on public sessions for extra practice time. This given Sunday session would sadly be his last. While practicing with Nilsson, Limborg suffered a massive heart attack on the ice and was pronounced dead in the club's locker room by a fellow club member who was a physician. How heart wrenching that day must have been for Barbara and her mother Margaret, who could only look on in the days long before you picked up the phone and dialed '911'.

We all never know when our number is up but in this world of responsibilities and the drudgery of working five days a week to pay the bills, at least we can say in learning about Limborg's story in hindsight that he died doing what he loved. The rink where Nilsson and Limborg were skating that day was demolished eight years later. Nilsson passed away in 1995, the same year as Grinkov... and I'm sure we'll meet them all on a crowded rink session in the sky someday.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Beer, Bratwurst And Brackets: Grains Of German Skating History

Illustration from Zindel's 1825 book "Der Eislauf"

Almost every book you will find that discuss figure skating's history seems to follow a certain trajectory: bone skates, Jackson Haines, Sonja Henie, John Curry, the Battle Of The Carmen's and the Battle Of The Brian's, Nancy and Tonya and the rest. Much of the information you'll glean from many of the more periphery of these trips back in time focuses largely on skating's development of the sport in North America. As for European countries, the development of skating in Great Britain, France, Scandinavia, Austria and Holland are often touched on but the early history of skating in one country that has developed champion after champion throughout figure skating's history that's often neglected is Germany. That's where we'll focus our attention today. Grab yourself a beer and a bratwurst and get ready to head back in our time machine to Bavaria.

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is generally believed that the pastime of ice skating made its way to both France and Germany prior to the eighteenth century. However, it wasn't until late in the eighteenth century that the pastime became a passion. The historical ISU publication "Seventy-five years of European and world’s championships in figure skating" explains that in those early days "much credit is due to the gymnasts, who tried to do away with the prejudice against skating." But these elusive gymnasts weren't the only ones advocating for the growth of skating in Germany.

Two famed German writers by the names of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe met on the ice and developed a close bond and shared passion for skating as a result. Nigel Brown's authoritative 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History" explains that "Klopstock was one of the first who enjoyed it as a pastime. He became an expert skater and wrote an ode to skating. He encountered another poet on the ice, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who also became proficient in the art. When they met, they did not discourse on verse but on skating - 'the poetry of the motion'. Klopstock found cerility of action its greatest charm. He discussed its fascination with Goethe and spoke of the merits of a long Friesland skate as being the most suitable for speeding. Goethe on the other hand wore high grooved skates and enjoyed circling and turning. He was an artistic skater, a figure-skater of the eighteenth century. He grew passionately fond of skating, and found in this exercise such pleasure that he would forget his everyday worries. The hours he passed on the ice were never wasted, for he found in this exercise, this complete abandon, these 'aimless movements', as he put it, an awakening of noble thoughts. He owned that the hours passed in this way, seemingly lost and futile, aided the most rapid development of his poetic projects. This can be no exaggeration for his passion for skating was so great, that when dusk fell he could not always tear himself away from the ice, and under the moonlight he circled on, deep in thought, and morning often broke with the poet still tracing the many figures of his imagination. Goethe was also aware of the practical benefits that skating offered. In 'Aus Meinem Leben' he refers to skating as 'an exercise which brings us into contact with the freshest childhood, summoning the youth to the full enjoyment of his suppleness, and is fitting to keep off a stagnant old age.'" Klopstock's odes "Der Eislauf", "Braga" and "The Art Thialfs" and Goethe's poem "Winter" all serve as testaments to their passion for the ice.

Brown further tells us that by 1788, the popularity of skating in Germany "was expanding, though somewhat behind England. Long curves and spirals on the outside edge were the main features then practiced. Smaller figures and poses appear to have been treated contemptuously and termed 'artificialities'. However there must have been some inventive forces at work in search of new movements, for in that year the first important publication on skating was printed." The publication Brown refers to was called "Über das Schlittschuhfahren" and was written by a man named Gerhard Ulrich Anton Vieth. If you're wondering who Vieth was, he was actually a prominent German mathematics teacher who lobbied both for educational reforms and for the development of physical education. He learned to skate earlier in Liepzig earlier in the decade he wrote his book and actually delivered his book in the form of a lecture delivered to friends in Dessau. "Über das Schlittschuhfahren" offered the first mention of the forward outside loop three. A few years later, Vieth authored an essay that detailed the four edges, changing edges, the spread eagle, a few figures and detailed instructions on carving the alphabet on the ice.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, Vieth's infectious enthusiasm for the sport slowly had a ripple effect. A Salzburg author by the name of Herr Maier penned "Das Schlittschuhlaufen" in 1814, in 1824 and 1825 came two books by Christian Siegmund Zindel and in 1827 Vien author F.E. Fergar penned "Das Schlittschuhfahren, eine prakt. anleit. zum schnellen und richtigen selbsternen dieser kunst". These books slowly built upon the foundation of information that Vieth offered but did not have the Germans flocking to the ice. The Napoleonic Wars also slowed the sport's advancement.

Henriette Sontag

However, it was in the period that followed when German born opera soprano Henriette Sontag defied societal conventions about females taking to the ice when she skated publicly in Germany in the 1840's. Sontag was a singer of international renown and was actually the soprano soloist in the first public performances of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9" when she was only eighteen but at the time she was reportedly skating in Germany she would have been in her thirties. Bearing in mind society's staid views on women and sport back in those days, Sontag's social standing probably played a big role in hushing her critics. She was the wife of Count Carlo Rossi and as such, took on the noble title of Countess. You didn't mess with nobility; German nobility at that. Sadly, and of interest to all of you Michelle Kwan fans out there, Sontag's final musical performance was in the role of none other than Desdemona, fourteen days before her death in 1854 of cholera.

Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger

In 1861, an ice skating club - Germany's first - was formed in Frankfurt. Seven years later came the Troppau Eislaufverein in the Duchy of Troppau and in 1881, the Frankfurt Skating Club was officially borne. In 1888, the Frankfurt Club joined forces with the Vienna Skating Club in Austria and the skating club in Troppau to form a joint German and Austrian Skating Union called the Deutscher und Österrreichischer Eislaufverband. The new union was responsible for the organization of the very first German Championships in Munich in 1891 as well as the first European Figure Skating Championships in Hamburg that same year - prior to the formation of the International Skating Union! Perhaps predictably, every single one of the seven competitors were either from Germany or Austria. Germany would also host the European Championships in 1893, 1900 and 1907 and the World Championships in 1904. Prior to 1910, Gilbert Fuchs and Gustav Hügel claimed five World titles between them and Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger won the very first World pairs title in 1908.

The opening in November 1910 of one of the largest enclosed rinks in the world at the time, the Sportspalast, also played a major role in developing skating in Germany. Memim Encyclopedia tells us that "The large stone building stood at the Luther Street, the ice was sixty meters long and forty meters wide. Berlin was becoming a new sports center of the world and thanks to its convenient location between the cities of Vienna and Stockholm Figure skating also become a major intersection." That same year, Berlin played host to the both European Championships and the World women's and pairs competitions. Handily, Werner Rittberger - the inventor of the loop jump - won the silver medal behind the inventor of the salchow, Ulrich Salchow, that year at both Europeans and Worlds. Elsa Rendschmidt claimed the women's silver medal in 1910 at Worlds and Hübler and Burger won their second and final World pairs title. The following year, young Rittberger would win the men's silver medal at another World Championships in Berlin but by 1914, the Sportspalast would play host to more political congregations than skating ones with the advent of World War I.

Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier

We'll stop there in our little tour through early German skating history and wave farewell to Klopstock, Goethe, Vieth, Sontag, Rittberger and the rest for now. Although certainly lesser known than the skating histories of several other countries, the early back story of skating in a country that has produced so many greats like Katarina Witt, Gaby Seyfert, Jan Hoffmann, Anett Pötzsch, Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and Tanja Szewczenko is an important part of skating history that we should all be acquainted with.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Did You Know?: Ten Slick Skating Anecdotes For Your Next Dinner Party

You know how it goes. You have your Hors d'Oeuvres elegantly plated, supper is coming along nicely and the cocktails are flowing just as they should be. Everyone's having a great time and suddenly an awkward hush falls over the crowd... Yes, friends, the inevitable lull in conversation can always seem like the end of the world at the time, but every host with the most of a skating dinner party has a trick or two up their sleeves. One or two of these fascinating facts could save you faster than you could pronounce Elizaveta Tuktamysheva! In the infamous words of Mrs. Peacock, "someone's about to break the ice and it might as well be me":

- 1951 World Champions John and Jennifer Nicks weren't the only star athletes in their family. Their father Jack was a great-nephew of nineteenth century cricket pioneer John Wisden.

- Margaret Brown, the larger than life Chicago socialite perhaps best known as 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' for her courageous life saving efforts during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, loved ice skating. Her and husband J.J. would travel to outdoor skating parties by horse and sleigh. The Brown's loved skating so much that in October 1895, J.J. Brown even helped foot the huge bill to construct a giant Ice Palace complete with a skating rink in Leadville, Colorado. After a couple of months of lavish skating parties and contests, The Ice Palace melted. Speaking of the Titanic, Canadian first class passenger John Hugo Ross was described by the Winnipeg Free Press in his youth as "a rosy faced boy in knickerbockers, riding his dog sled or off skating." He was also described as "dapper and flamboyant." He lost everything in the Gold Rush but inherited a family fortune afterwards. Ross was extremely ill while travelling on the Titanic and accounts note that he didn't take the ship's collision with an iceberg seriously. He is believed to have drowned in his bed.

- Barbara Ann Scott was quite superstitious. She considered green her lucky color (her birthstone was emerald) and in her autobiography "Skate With Me", she wrote "I have, I think, some reason for being superstitious about the number five, because several times when I was growing up I came in fifth in a competition the first year I entered and then, the next time the competition was held, went back and came in first. And I like to draw the number thirteen, because I think that is lucky for me. My armband at the Olympic Games was Number 13 and I skated on Friday the thirteenth in the World Championships in '48."

- Royalty from around the world have long enjoyed ice skating. In addition to Queen Victoria and The Romanov Family, famous skating royals over the years include Queen Ena of Spain and her husband Alfonso XIII, Princess Viktoria Louise of Prussia and Crownprincess Margareth of Sweden. Howard Bass noted that "at the British Industries Fair of 1950 a skate manufacturer exhibited a famous pair of skates that were once worn by Queen Victoria, each blade being decoratively extended at the toe in the shape of a swan's head. When the present Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, passed the stand she remarked to the exhibitor that there is a photograph in the Royal Family Album of Queen Victoria skating on that self-same pair of skates."

- In 1971, Carol Burnett parodied three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie on season five of The Carol Burnett Show, performing her comic interpretation of skating moves as 'Sonja Honey'.

- Figure skating was the inspiration behind the theme and choreography of Kenneth Mansfield's 1961 ballet "Once Upon A Pond". Mansfield was a professional skater before turning to dance and came up with the concept after noticing how the castanets in Massenet's "Le Cid" sounded like skates moving on the ice.

- In 2016, the sporting world has been abuzz with chatter about athletes testing positive for meldonium. Back in December 1982, the International Skating Union had to deal with its very first case of a positive doping result in international competition. At the World Junior Championships, French ice dancers Christina Chiniard and Martial Mette claimed the bronze medal but were later stripped of their honour. The drug of choice? Diet pills. Americans Christina and Keith Yatsuhashi, who placed fourth, were never even told they got bumped up a spot after the disqualification. They found out from a member of their club who happened to read the ISU bulletin. 

- In the 1996 movie "The Preacher's Wife", Whitney Houston did her own skating in the scene where her and Denzel Washington skated on Portland's Deering Oaks Park. And I... will always love her!

- West German ice dancer Ferdinand Becherer skated with a glass eye for the latter half of his competitive career after being seriously injured in a car accident. With his twin sister Antonia, he went on to win three National titles in his country and finish in the top ten in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

- Back in the eighties, the Canadian Figure Skating Association had a really bizarre loophole in its rulebook seemingly designed to punish (winning) skaters receiving low scores in senior events at the Canadian Championships. Rule #5716(e) of the 1984 Rulebook stated that "to win a Senior Championship of Canada a competitor shall have obtained a mark of at least 4.0 from a majority of the judges for two-thirds or more of the compulsory figures of dances, and for both technical merit and artistic impression in free skating or free dancing. If the competitor placing first in an event has failed to meet these standard the most recently declared Champion, unless he was competing in the event, shall retain the title."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice

When you think of a Russian ballet, perhaps you conjure in your mind these stunning images of the Moriinsky or Bolshoi Ballets or dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov or Anna Pavlova. The rich tradition of the Russian ballet directly influenced the classic Russian style of skating we now know today... and much of that is thanks to what was first known as The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice.

Founded in 1967 by choreographer Konstantin Boyarsky, The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice (which is now known as the St. Petersburg State Ballet On Ice) was an important effort to translate classical ballet to the ice, certainly a concept that was most famously later revived in the important work of John Curry. Boyarsky provided a vehicle for some of the most famous Soviet skaters to hone their art in the early history of the Ballet. Ludmilla and Oleg Protopopov were among the Ballet's greatest stars, as later were Olympic Gold Medallists Alexei Ulanov and Lyudmila Smirnova, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin and Elena and Vladimir Bogoliubov.

Beginning in 1995, the Ballet began performing on the stages of opera theatres and has taken its show on the road everywhere from Portugal and Ireland to Colombia and Taiwan. It has adapted and staged some of the world's best known and most loved ballets including "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker", with lavish costumes and the high level of skating to back it all up.

Interestingly, the Leningrad State Ballet On Ice was not the very first of its kind in Russia. Ten years prior to the Leningrad Ballet's formation, The Moscow State Ballet On Ice was responsible for the first professional ice show ever presented in the former Soviet Union. Today both ice ballets are owned by Hutchison Entertainment Group, the same company that represents stars like Sir Elton John, Dame Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow.

To me, there's just something so classically beautiful about the fact this tradition is being carried on in present day. If you think about all of the wonderful skating shows that have been presented on theatre stages over the years and one by one fallen by the wayside, it is heartening that these efforts have endured. When Boyarsky and The Moscow State Ballet On Ice's founding choreographer Leonid Lavrovski first took on the daunting tasks of translating classical dance to the ice they were forging into new territory blindly and the tradition of this beautifully classical style so obviously influenced the coaches and choreographers of the years to come in realizing the aesthetic beauty of the marriage between dance and skating. To Boyarsky and Lavrovski, we can only say 'spaseeba'.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Persistence And Passion: The Vivi-Anne Hultén Story

"Vivi-Anne Hultén, a skater who, in my opinion, has never been given her full dues, is the supreme example of art in free skating. Hers is skating unadulterated; she owes nothing to ballet or to anything but skating. She is the true exponent of the art of skating in its purest form." - Captain T.D. Richardson

Vivi-Anne Hultén was born August 25, 1911 in Antwerp, Belgium. She returned with her parents to their native Sweden where she started skating at the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb at a young age after showing promise in skiing as well. She was coached by Lars Grafström, the brother of none other than three time Olympic Gold Medallist Gillis Grafström. After winning her first in a long slate of Swedish national titles in 1927, Hultén entered the very first European Championships for women
held in Vienna in 1930. She won the bronze medal behind Austrians Fritzi Burger and Ilse Hornung and was hailed by Swedish newspapers as "The Flame Of Sweden". 

An obituary written in 2003 by skating historian Dennis Bird gives some insight into a romance the young Swedish skater had around that time of her life: "She attracted the attention of a young Englishman who was himself no mean skater. He later became famous as Sir Peter Scott, artist, ornithologist and yachtsman. In his 1961 book 'The Eye of the Wind', he wrote of a new princess working quietly at Rockers in mid ice-rink: 'It did not take me long to discover that she was the champion skater of her own Scandinavian country. My little champion knew how to move, how to dance, she also knew how to draw. And she was delightfully pretty. So long afterwards, I find it difficult to assess this romance of 30 years ago, but it was something gentle and tender and altogether happy. I discovered real humility for perhaps the first time. I simply was not good enough for her.' Scott did not name her in his autobiography, and in the 1990's another skater was suggested as a claimant. But Hultén telephoned me from her home in America and confirmed that it was indeed she who cherished similar fond memories of that relationship. Scott was sufficiently impressed to follow her to Berlin in 1931, when she was placed fifth in her first world championship. [Sonja] Henie, in her memoirs, "Wings On My Feet" (1941), wrote of Hultén as 'Sweden's rising national champion who by 1931 was already crowding the line'. 1932 was an Olympic year and in the Winter Games at Lake Placid, the Swede came fifth. Her best year was 1933, when she beat every other skater except Henie, to take the silver medal in the world championship on home ice in Stockholm."

The fact of the matter is that although Hultén's career was full of impressive achievements including two European medals, four World medals and that Olympic bronze medal in 1936, she was yet another in a long line of casualties unable to beat Sonja Henie during her controversial ten year reign at the top of the skating world... and there was certainly NO love lost between the two Scandinavian ice queens.

In the nineties she told Sports Illustrated magazine, "Look, I have a great admiration for what Henie did... On the ice she was terrific, a wonderful acrobat, just like a circus princess, a big smile, dressed perfectly. But she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a very nasty person off the ice... I'm just telling it like it is." A 2003 article from The Los Angeles Times relayed several tales of the rivalry between the two famous thirties skaters with the last name H: "The rift began at the 1933 world championships, when Hultén finished only two-tenths of a point behind Henie. 'You are not nearly good enough to get second next to me,' Henie screamed afterward, pointing a finger at Hultén's nose. 'I'm so much better than you are. You deserved to be fourth.' At the 1934 world championship, Hultén came in fourth. 'Her father arranged it,' Hultén told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 'She was afraid of me.' Hultén asserted that Henie's father made deals with judges at world championships to ensure his daughter's victories and to thwart Hulten. 'Papa Henie would go to these places and tell the organizers, 'You can have my daughter (for an exhibition); come up to my hotel room and I'll tell you how we can arrange it,' she told the Sporting News in 1994. 'He played poker with them. If he won, he got an appearance fee for Sonja to skate and he got an agreement that the judges would place me no higher than third. I didn't have a chance. I know this is true because one of my best friends was the president of our club in Stockholm, and he told me about it. Back then the judges were always with the clubs.'" 

The rivalry didn't stop there. The aforementioned piece goes on to claim that "on a 1935 Olympic training trip to St. Moritz, Hultén told the Sporting News, she was detained at the German border for seven hours and searched 'from head to toe,' with no explanation from the guard, whose name was Ulrich Schmidt. Hultén said she later sought out Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to complain. Goebbels, a skating fan, had Schmidt brought to him. 'Goebbels made him get down on a knee and apologize to me,' Hultén recalled. " (Schmidt) said, 'Well, a young lady came through before her whose name was Sonja Henie. She told me this girl here would be smuggling jewelry, so we stopped her.' At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, medal winners were told to give the Nazi salute to Hitler. Gold medal winner Henie saluted, but bronze winner Hultén refused. 'I told them, 'I'm Swedish; I don't do that,' " she said. "I just stared at him. He was a scary person. He looked at you with kind of a burning look in his eyes.'" 

Sticking around to win a final medal at the World Championships in 1937 after Henie's retirement, Hultén had understandably had enough. She married a Swedish engineer thirteen years her senior named Nils Kristian Tholand and turned professional. She appeared in advertisements for the Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company and found success touring with Ice Capades and Ice Follies, performing in Raymonde du Bief's show "Paris Sur Glace" and skating adagio pairs with two of Henie's former partners, Harrison Thomson and Gene Theslof... who unlike another of Henie's former partners, Jack Dunn, managed to make it out alive. Hulten almost didn't herself, suffering serious injuries in a 1940 automobile accident in Seattle, Washington.

While in recovery, the on-ice pair of Theslof and Hultén became an off-ice pair. The Swedish ice queen divorced Tholand and married Theslof in 1942. An attempt at sweet, sweet revenge - in the form of moving in and actually stealing Sonja Henie's show from right under her while she was in Norway - failed miserably (as recalled by Harrison Thomson in the recent Skate Guard feature on him) and any hopes of a comeback were dashed entirely. 

Serving a stint as the Ice Capades' tour director in the fifties, the Swedish sensation and her husband settled in America and had a son, also named Gene. The husband and wife pair became a husband and wife coaching team, teaching in North and South Carolina and Tennessee before opening Vivi-Anne Hultén's Fun and Pleasure Skating School at the Aldrich Arena in Minnesota. She even taught skating skills to a hockey team. Barbara Underhill, anyone?
Hultén's 'golden years' were every bit as remarkable as her 'glory days'. Widowed in 1983, she soldiered on in life without missing a beat. In 1993 - in her early eighties - she even rejoined the cast of Ice Capades for special appearances in several cities. The next year, she was slated to commentate skating for Norwegian television during the Lillehammer Olympics. However, her intent to spill the beans on her experiences with Henie - a cultural icon in Norway - led the network to rescind their invitation. She did speak her piece on Henie in numerous newspaper and magazine articles and on that wonderful skating documentary called "Reflections On Ice: A Diary Of Ladies Skating" they put together down in the States in the nineties. After suffering a stroke in 1999, she moved to an assisted living facility in Corona del Mar, California to be closer to her son. She passed away on January 15, 2003 at age ninety one. 
I think the lesson in Hultén's story is of persistence. Even though she believed that her chances were slim to nil because 'the fix was in', she didn't stop competing. It reminds me a bit of when I performed as a drag queen. For the first five or so years, I competed in a long slew of drag pageants. I finished second - not first, not third, not fifth - in thirteen of them before I finally won my first one. When I skated, I won or medalled in all but one of the competitions I entered so not winning was something new for me. Though definitely frivolous, there was a great life lesson in that whole experience. There were always rumblings about these pageants being fixed and maybe some of them were. I definitely could care less at this point. I do know this though... When I was in those uncomfortable shoes, I was certainly conscious of - or of the belief that - even doing fifteen cartwheels, a backflip and shooting fireworks out of my fake boobs wasn't going to win me those contests. I did it anyway and tried my damndest. Stupid? Hardly. If you are a competitive person and love what you're doing, you do it... and then you do it again. You may in fact never win, but better things will eventually come if you push yourself. They have for me much like they did for Hultén. After all, I'm writing about this marvellously persistent person who dealt with some less than delightful people, tried their hardest to achieve their goals, didn't, moved on and found far more fabulous adventures around the next corner. It would seem Vivi-Anne Hultén and I may have a great deal in common. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Setting The Starlight Waltz Straight: Ice Dancing's Untold International History

"Those few who have voiced the opinion that ice dancing has become stereotyped have perhaps not realized the interpretive possibilities of expression." - Katherine Sackett, Skating magazine, December 1944

If you believed everything you read, you would think that ice dancing's first appearance at the World Championships was in 1952 and its first Olympic appearance in 1976. In reality, 'the historical record' has edited out a fair bit, neglecting to mention countless achievements by pioneering skaters who chassé and choctawed the way for ice dancing's ultimate recognition as a discipline in international competition.

After World War II, ice dancing got its foot in the door at the 1947 North American Championships at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa. Although well attended, the event really wasn't much of an international one. Four of the five couples competing were from the United States and with Canadian Champions Marjorie Wilson Roberts and Bruce Hyland out due to illness, the top three spots all went to American couples. The winners were American Gold Dance Champions Lois Waring and Walter Bainbridge of the Baltimore and Washington Skating Clubs.

Three years later in 1950, an international ice dancing competition was held at Wembley Pool in London, England in conjunction with that year's World Figure Skating Championships. Again, American Lois Waring was victorious, but this time with partner Michael McGean. There were six teams in this event - three from the U.S. and three from Great Britain - and all performed four compulsory dances and a three minute free dance. By accounts, ice dancing was lucky it wasn't tossed aside altogether as a result of the less than stellar performances in this particular event. In the May 1950 issue of the USFSA's Skating Magazine, Kenneth D. McRae noted that "the English couples were obviously not too familiar with the American Waltz, and the same criticism applied to the American competitors on the Paso Doble. No couple succeeded in bringing out any effective rhythm in the new Tango. But probably the Waltz was the worst skated of the four. Still, it was on the Waltz, particularly, that the winners, Lois Waring and Michael McGean showed their supremacy over the others."

In 1951, the North American title went to Americans Carmel and Edward Bodel, but the duo didn't ultimately appear at the second of the two 'unofficial' World competitions in ice dancing held at the 1951 World Championships in Milan, Italy. This time, Britain made up for the embarrassment of a loss at home the previous year by taking home both first and second places ahead of American teams in third through fifth places.

World Champion Jean Westwood

In my February 2015 interview with Jean Westwood, she explained that "in 1950, most nations at this time held their Nationals AFTER Worlds and selected their next year's World Team. In England, all their dance couples had retired, split up or turned professional. It was decided to hold a trial and select a team to enter the International Dance Competition, the forerunner of the World Dance Championship, in Milan during the World Figure Skating Championships. In October, I was involved in a serious car accident while attending Liverpool University and was hospitalized for a month then had to undergo physiotherapy. The new partnership of Lawrence Demmy and myself was formed and we decided to enter the trials. It was not judged but two couples were selected - ourselves and John Slater (my previous partner!) and Joan Dewhirst. So off we went to Milan where Lawrence and I won the first competition we entered - which just happened to be the equivalent of a World Championship. It was some way to start a career! Returning to England we did not win the National title, nor for the next two years even as reigning World Champions." Then nineteen year old Westwood's 1951 win with Demmy was truly incredible in light of her recovery from that car accident. Her injuries had been quite severe - in fact, a gash on her throat missed her windpipe by half an inch. The couple's inexperience internationally made their win even more incredible. Of most important note when talking about the 1951 event was the fact that the number of entries doubled and included teams from Austria, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. 

The following year, Westwood and Demmy won the first of their four consecutive 'official' World Championships to make a total of five altogether and the rest, as they say, is history for another day. While I am on the topic of unofficially recognized international ice dance competitions, I do want to talk a bit more about the Olympics, because 1976 in Innsbruck wasn't the beginning either.  

At the 1948 Winter Olympics in Germany, the North American Champions Lois Waring and Walter Bainbridge, two British couples and a Belgian couple exposed ice dancing to Olympic audiences for the first time with a special demonstration. Lynn Copley-Graves' ever reliable encyclopedia "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" (which I consulted for much of the research for this particular blog) noted that at the 1952 Games in Oslo, "Carol Adams and Danny Ryan gave an exhibition of dances along with Frannie Dafoe and Norrie Bowden, who competed in Pairs. The two couples ended the exhibition with a risky change of partners on the Fourteenstep corners." Sadly, Ryan (heading to Prague as a judge) would be among those who perished on the 1961 Sabena Crash.

World Champions Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford

Snubbed by the IOC during the next three Games, ice dancing would make another 'unofficial' appearance at the 1968 Grenoble Games. A demonstration competition of "rhythmic skating in pairs" featured compulsory, original set pattern and free dances by the top three British couples, the top two Soviet couples, Americans Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky, Canadians Joni Graham and Don Phillips and Hungarians Edith Mató and Karl Csanadi. The competition wasn't overly well attended but was decisively won by Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford of Britain. In my November 2014 interview with Ford, he said "I never know how to talk about the Olympics. It wasn't an Olympic event but we did have the top ten teams in the world so I guess it's 'unofficial'." Official or not, the IOC certainly seemed to love what they saw. Avery Brundage, the IOC President, said that "rhythmic skating in pairs" was "sport, culture, art and beauty."

Brundage's praise wasn't enough to speed along the tortoise paced way of progress; ice dancing was
again excluded from the Olympic roster at 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo. It finally made its triumphant Olympic debut as a discipline at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. In my December 2014 interview with U.S. Champion Kent Weigle, he recalled, "it was the first time that ice dancing was officially included in the Olympics and it was quite an honour, but because of the timing at the event, they put the initial round of ice dance immediately following the Opening Ceremonies. Our team leader suggested we didn't participate in the Opening Ceremonies so we weren't out in the freezing cold before we had to skate. I regret that I didn't participate because we were in no way medal contenders and it wouldn't have made the least bit of difference. It's kind of what it's all about! That was a little bit of a downer but I remember one of practice rinks was outdoors so that was kind of fun. Getting to watch Dorothy, Pakhomova and Gorshkov, Rodnina and Zaitsev and John Curry win... that was so much fun to be a part of history and get to watch that." Canadian Champion Barbara Berezowski, who also participated in the 1976 Games, recalled in our March 2013 interview, "David (my skating partner) and I drew the dreaded number one in skating order at the Innsbruck Olympics. Dreaded because you never want to be the first competitor: it almost guarantees low marks, no matter what you do, because the judges have to leave room for the other twenty five skating teams to come. Looking back on that now though, there was a silver lining to that: that action made David and I the first ice dancers in the world to EVER compete in the Olympics! The entire experience of being at the Olympics changed my outlook on how important achievement is and how it can inspire others."

In the end, the victors were (then) five time World Champions Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov of the Soviet Union, with teammates Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov claiming silver and Americans Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns settling for the bronze despite being crowd favourites. Berezowski and Porter were tenth; Weigle and partner Judi Genovesi fifteenth. The assistant referee of that first "official" Olympic ice dance competition? One half of the first 'official' World Champions in the sport... Lawrence Demmy. Just like the Viennese Waltz, the pattern of history repeating came full circle. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Of Birds And Blades: Audobon's Skating Adventures

"Sometimes a slight motion in the air revived our hopes... carried us through the smooth waters like a skater gliding on ice." - John James Audubon, 1826

Born on a sugar plantation in what is now Haiti on April 26, 1785 and raised in France, John James Audubon later became a pioneer in American ornithology. His studies and paintings of birds remain world famous to this day but what few know is that Audubon was, by all accounts, a first rate skater. He emigrated to America in 1803 on a false passport to avoid transcription in the Napoleonic Wars and primary sources simply abound with stories of his escapades on the ice while living near Valley Forge.

In an autobiography that was penned to his children and found in a barn on their estate long after his death, he wrote: "Not a ball, a skating-match, a house or riding party took place without me." Newspaper accounts from the early twentieth century recalled him as a "most graceful skater". A wonderful account of his skating prowess came from his neighbour David Pawling, who diarized, "Today I saw the swiftest skater I ever beheld; backwards and forwards he went like the wind, even leaping over large air-holes fifteen or more feet across, and continuing to skate without an instant's delay. I was told he was a young Frenchman, and this evening I met him at a ball, where I found his dancing exceeded his skating; all the ladies wished him as a partner; moreover, a handsomer man I never saw, his eyes alone command attention; his name, Audubon, is strange to me."

What few know is that skating almost took his life. While returning home, flintocks in hand, from a day of duck hunting on the frozen Perkiomen River in December 1804, he actually fell through the ice. He wrote in his journal of the incident: "We were skating swiftly along when darkness came on, and now our speed was increased. Unconsciously I happened to draw so very near a large airhole that to check my headway became quite impossible, and down it I went, and soon felt the power of a most chilling bath. My senses must, for aught I know, have left me for awhile; be this as it may, I must have glided with the stream some thirty or forty yards, when, as God would have it, up I popped at another air-hole, and here I did, in some way or other, manage to crawl out. My companions, who in the gloom had seen my form so suddenly disappear, escaped the danger, and were around me when I emerged from the greatest peril I ever encountered... I was helped to a short from one, a pair of dry breeches from another, and completely dressed anew in a few minutes... our line of march was continued, with, however, much more circumspection." Falling ill after his accident, complications from an abscess left Audobon with a high fever. Delirious, his wife Lucy nursed him for ten days at Fatland Ford. Undaunted by his near death experience, he returned to the ice and attempted an incredibly dangerous stunt.

In "The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volumes 132-133" later in the nineteenth century, Sydney Smith recalled that "Audubon was a capital marksman. On one occasion, while skating down the Perkiominy Creek, he laid a wager with Miss Blakewell's brother that he would put a shot through his cap." In a personal letter, Audobon explained his Russian Roulette like caper: "During the winter connected with this event... Thomas Bakewell, now residing in Cincinnati, was one morning skating with me on the Perkiomen, when he challenged me to shoot at his hat as he tossed it in the air, which challenge I accepted with great pleasure. I was to pass by at full speed, within about twenty-five feet of where he stood, and to shoot only when he gave the word. Off I went like lightning, up and down, as if anxious to boast of my own prowess while on the glittering surface beneath my feet; coming, however, within the agreed distance the signal was given, the trigger pulled, off went the load, and down on the ice came the hat of my future brother-in-law, as completely perforated as if a sieve. He repented, alas! too late, and was afterward severely reprimanded by Mr. Bakewell." Rightly so, if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned, this skating ornithologist had a death wish.

In his colour-plate book "The Birds Of America", Audubon identified twenty five new species of birds. He passed away in 1851, suffering from dementia later in life. Although he never achieved fame as a skater, these early nineteenth century tales only go to show you that skating finds itself in the life stories of historical figures you might never suspect.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Skating's Best Supporting Character: The Harrison Thomson Story

Carl Van Vechten photograph. Used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

Back in those glory days when figure skating was glamourized on the silver screen by Sonja Henie and Belita Jepson-Turner, the men that paraded around skating's leading ladies more often than not played second fiddle. Today we'll delve into the fascinating story of one man who stumbled upon a professional skating career out of sheer necessity and went on to become one of the busiest yet most historically overlooked pairs skaters of his era.

Harrison Thomson was born in Chicago, Illinois and lived there until he was three. Moving with his family to Montreal, he took up skating at the age of seven and trained at the Montreal Winter Club. Although he spent much of his youth toiling away on patch sessions in a chilly Quebec rink, his amateur career wasn't particularly memorable. He finished second to a young girl named Patsy Hale at the Winter Club's competition in 1931, lost out on medals in the junior ranks to Wingate Snaith and Ralph McCreath and more often than not found himself performing exhibitions prior to NHL hockey games than winning competitions. That changed in 1936, when he took up pairs skating and won the Canadian junior pairs title on his first try with partner Audrey Joyce, defeating Betty Riley and Jack Wilgour of the Winnipeg Winter Club and training mates Margaret Symington and Charles Askwith of Montreal. A couple of months later, he finished second in the senior men's club championship at the Montreal Winter Club behind Askwith and handily won the senior pairs club championship with Joyce, earning the Hugh Paton Cup.

Thomson's real dream was to become a dramatic actor. He travelled by steamship from Canada to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. With only a few pounds in his pocket, he was dismayed to learn that he'd arrived two days late for the school's term. Returning to his hotel room and counting his chump change, it was evident he needed to find some way of making money... and quick. A friend told him they needed skaters for Claude Langdon's ice ballets "Enchanted Night" and "The Brahmin's Daughter" at the Covent Garden. Ten thousand pounds alone was spent on installing ice on the Garden's fifty five by seventy foot stage, a fifty member symphony orchestra was hired and a skating cast of one hundred and twenty professional skaters were employed, including two time Olympic Gold Medallists Andrée and Pierre Brunet, barrel jumper Phil Taylor and popular British show skaters Belita Jepson-Turner and Freda Whittaker. Thomson's roles in these two lavish ice ballets were decidedly minimal - he played a British officer in one and a grasshopper in another - but they earned him some money, got his foot in the show biz door and introduced him to Olympic Bronze Medallist Vivi-Anne Hultén.

Stanley Judson and Alicia Markova

After his engagement in Langdon's ice pantomimes ended, Thomson appeared in other British ice shows as Hultén's partner before coming to America. He appeared in various club carnivals in the Eastern states then decided to try his luck at California dreaming. He shacked up in Los Angeles with another single man four years his senior, a British dancer and director named Stanley Judson. Judson was a ballet partner of Alicia Markova, who started the Dolin-Markova Ballet with Anton Dolin, the man largely responsible for Belita Jepson-Turner's dance training.

Thomson joined the cast of Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue and prior to World War II, became Henie's pairs partner. He was featured prominently in her shows and even her film "Sun Valley Serenade". An account of Henie and Thomson filming skating scenes for the film at the 20th Century Fox Studio appeared in the May 22, 1941 issue of the Buffalo Courier-Express: "Miss Henie and Harrison Thomson, her long-time ice partner, circle the rink in a waltz step and at every right beat Sonja floats through the air with the greatest of ease. It is lovely and slow and measured, and you'd never think that Mr. Thomson is hurrying a bit because he is slated to join the Army in a week or two. They waltz around the big floor with complete grace and you think this is pretty wonderful. But before Miss Henie and Mr. Thomson have finished the loudspeaker says 'uhuh' or 'whooap' so they have to do it all ever again. They work all day on something that will pass before your eyes in 60 seconds at your favourite theater. I said that the skating pair did their work at every right beat. Beyond the rink in a dark corner are a pianist and a drummer. Their music is terrible - just thumps and rattles and tinny chords. The pianist is wearing earphones. When somebody says 'speed' it means that the camera is rolling, and the pianist with the earphones begins hammering the keys. Miss Henie and Mr. Thomson begin their gyrations on the black ice. They are to circle the rink twice, with Sonja being lifted into graceful leaps every so often. The pianist knows what's going on. He is listening through the earphones to the playback of the orchestra which has already done the music for Sun Valley Serenade. The sound film he is hearing is being run off in another building a quarter of a mile away, and he is just trying to indicate the beat with tinny chords. The drummer, who has no earphones, is taking his cue from the pianist and whacking out thumps and rattles. Many times the little scene is shot, and many times it is wrong. Henie and Thomson are off beat; Sonja does six leaps instead of five; at the very end of one take, when everything looks perfect, Sonja subconsciously reaches down and gives the skirt of her skating costume a hitch, like a woman easing the strain on her garters. Many times some little thing goes wrong, but finally everything is pronounced all right. The skating kept time to the sound track; the camera kept up with the skaters, and Sonja looked her loveliest. The director says, 'I'll buy this.'"

After filming "Sun Valley Serenade", Thomson enlisted to serve in World War II. He was discharged as Top Sargeant from the U.S. Army after five years in Alaska and returned to the world of professional skating to find the whole scene was changing drastically. In an interview with the Sausalito News on April 2, 1953, he recalled a row between his two former partners that had a major impact on Henie's shows and Hultén's career: "Sonja was in Norway at this time and the show which she had built up was 'resting' until she returned. This was a perfect opportunity for Vivi-Anne. She just came along and took over the whole [troupe]: manager, east and all and put them all to work for her on a new show which she planned for the Hollywood Bowl. I was to be her partner. When Sonja heard about it, she was like a raging tiger and chartered a special plane to bring her back to Hollywood. But there was nothing she could do about it; there had been no contract. It put her in quite a spot because at this time Hollywood had practically no ice skaters at all... Then came the anti-climax and a triumph for Sonja. We had been in rehearsal for some time and the evening of the dress rehearsal the panic let loose. Everyone's pay check bounced - the show had run out of money. But that wasn't all. The show was scheduled to open on the following Friday, and the manager had forgotten to have the ice put in the Hollywood Bowl. What a mess it turned out to be... Sonja bought the show and was to take her rival's part, costume and all. What a triumph it was for her. There she was with a ready made show, which she'd bought for a song. Everything was already arranged - except the ice of course and that was soon straightened out - Yes - everything was ready, including a new partner - me. It ruined Vivi-Anne and she never skated professionally again."

Harrison Thomson and Jinx Clark

From 1948 to 1950, Thomson skated at the Centre Theatre in New York, performing the role of Prince Desire in "Howdy Mr. Ice" and "Howdy Mr. Ice of 1950" alongside Jinx Clark. Between the two shows, he recalled, "we gave 947 performances. I danced the Prince in Sleeping Beauty until it came out of my ears." In those shows, he also appeared as the ringmaster in a circus inspired number called "The World's Greatest Show" and a duet called "Precision Plus" with Rudy Richards.

Harrison Thomson and Rudy Richards. Carl Van Vechten photograph. Used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust. 

He made a conscious decision to retire from professional skating at age thirty five, stating "I specialized in ballet skating and I'd seen too many stars behind the foot lights who should have retired years before. There is nothing more tragic - or more ridiculous - than watching dancers who have once been world famous, living in the past and imagining they are the same at age 40 as they were at 20." Moving to Montreal, he remained active in the theatre world, acting, doing choreography and set painting for his sister's stock company of actors.

He later returned to Hollywood. Again, instead of acting, fate had other plans. He helped build DC6's at the Douglas Aircraft Plant instead. Thomson bought The Tin Angel on Bridgeway in Sausalito, California and renamed it The Glad Hand, sold his house and ranch in Hollywood and moved permanently to Sausalito. He then bought land in Guerneville, opened a vineyard and made wine for his restaurant... proving that in the end, when life gives you grapes, you better make wine honey.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Neva Skating Association: Special Figures And Finer Fashion

In terms of the founding of skating clubs, 1863 was quite the year. In the city now known as Oslo, Norway, the Christiana Skating Club was formed and of course, in America the coming together of skaters from the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers with New York City skaters resulted in the formation of the New York Skating Club, the second in the country. A world away in nineteenth century Russia, a third skating club was formed that year - the Neva Skating Association - and its contributions to the development of skating were as important as any.

The Association was actually founded by a small group of English skaters living in St. Petersburg at the time and named the Neva Skating Association after the Neva River that flows through much of the city. It was the earliest known predecessor to the St. Petersburg Skating Club. Members skated both upon the Neva River itself and at a public rink that opened on Yusupov Gardens shortly after the Association was founded. There was apparently another rink known as the 'Prudki' which was on the garden at Grechesky Prospect, but the Yusupov Gardens were reserved for members of the Neva Association.

Without question, the most important contribution of the Neva Skating Association to skating history was the development of 'special figures'. Building upon the stiff English style of skating and attention to symmetry in carving out figures on the ice, the club's Russian members got quite inventive and really focused their attention on crafting beautifully elaborate designs on the ice. The imagination required to create and execute special figures was viewed as an artistic endeavour by these early Russian skaters and they placed more esteem on this lost art than free skating and traditional school figures, in that order. Competitions of the era placed the utmost importance on encouraging skaters to create new designs. In early competitions in Russia, traditional school figures were at times excluded from the bill entirely. 

The Association also played an important role in dictating the skating fashion of the era. Female members - who absolutely existed - were known for wearing tunics that had the collars and borders embroidered with fur with a matching fur cap and high boots. The men of St. Petersburg also sported fur caps and this trend spread to Scandinavia by way of the many Russian Finn's who lived in the country and caught on in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark as well as in Continental Europe. 

Nigel Brown's authoritative 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History" tells us that "every year the Neva was the scene of a dazzling carnival organized by the club. The Czar and members of the Imperial Family came to see it and skated. The ice-field was bordered by coloured lights and in the centre was an enormous snow figure from which shone a brilliant illumination like a lighthouse. Many of the skaters carried little coloured lights on their caps and in their belts and as they skated round in the dark, they looked like giant glow-worms. Cannons fired large snowballs that burst above the rink and sprayed skaters like confetti. These fêtes upon the Neva were the most extravagant and luxurious carnivals of the time. The Russian skating scene during this interesting period... was generally characterized by extravagance. If at times the ideas appeared somewhat fanciful, they were always visionary, and contributed a great deal to skating in this developmental age."

The Neva Association morphed into the St. Petersburg Society Of Ice Skating Amateurs in 1877, which was founded by a Neva member and docent at the city's university named Vyacheslav Sreznevsky - the son of Izmail Ivanovich Sreznevsky, a prominent figure in nineteenth century Slavic studies - along with prominent Russian skater and lawyer Alexei P. Lebedeff, architecture academian A.K. Bruni, a painter named Buchter, a general and two industrialists. In March of the next year, Sreznevsky won the first documented competition in Russia which was held at the Yusupov Gardens rink. By the late 1880's, a young Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin was among the Society of St. Petersburg skating elite.

Skating in St. Petersburg continued to grow and develop with special figures always remaining in the forefront in terms of a skater's education. Russian Studies lecturer James Riordan explained in his 1977 book "Sport In Soviet Society: Development Of Sport And Physical Education In Russia And The USSR" that "the Society of Amateur Skaters sent its members abroad to take part in competitions and, in 1883, Alexei P. [Lebedeff] won the unofficial world figure skating title in Helsinki - the first Russian success in international competition."

Less than a decade later in 1890, another of the earliest international competitions was held at Yusupov Gardens. Louis Rubenstein of Canada won the gold medal but it was Lebedeff who dominated the special figures. An American correspondent covering the event in the New York Clipper wrote of that the Russians "were the most awkward I have ever seen; even the simplest movements were only performed by a great deal of force, their hands and legs flying ln all directions. In regard to acrobatic skating they certainly shine, but in America or Canada such skating would not be tolerated by the judges. One of the best skaters here is Lebedeff, who closely observes the Canadian style and with more practice he will make a formidable opponent to even such finished skaters as Rubenstein. The ladies here, I must say, are very nice skaters, and some are very graceful in their movements; but I have seen none equal to some of our American lady skaters."

On February 9, 1896 the first World Championships recognized by the International Skating Union were held in St. Petersburg. Georg Sanders, an American living in St. Petersburg, claimed the bronze medal in the 'regular' competition that consisted of school figures and free skating but, drawing on his schooling, the gold in the special figures competition. Fittingly, in 1908, Panin-Kolomenkin became the only Olympic champion in the lost art of special figures. In Irving Brokaw's 1913 book "The Art Of Skating", Georg Sanders guest-authored a chapter on special figures where he noted how the art remained hugely popular in the earlier twentieth century. He stated that "in order further to encourage the invention and execution of new figures, a silver challenge shield was presented by N.D. Bojarinoff, in 1909, at Wiborg, for competitions from which compulsory skating of school figures was entirely absent; the competition consisting of two parts, viz., Figure Combinations (figure designs) and Free Skating. This was won in 1909, at Wiborg, by K. (Ollo) of St. Petersburg."

Many factors contributed to special figures falling out of favour but interestingly, the art remained popular in Russia for decades after these intricate designs were excluded from major international events. Although there was certainly a long period where skaters from North American and Continental Europe dominated international competitions, Russian skaters have consistently been considered among the most esteemed in the world. I must say that their early skating roots - the fur costumes, special figures and colourful spectacles on the Neva River - are certainly fascinating.

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