Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Ice Gayety: The Skating Tour That Never Was


When we think about figure skating shows and tours during the sport/art's first 'golden era', the names that come to mind instantly are probably Ice Follies, Ice Capades, Sonja Henie's tours and of course Holiday On Ice. But were those the only gigs in town, as it were? Hardly. Would-be competitors were cropping up around the world and in 1946, some serious money was invested into a skating tour originating in Florida called Ice Gayety.

The producer of the tour was named James Edgar and Ice Gayety wasn't his first venture into the professional skating business. In 1940, Edgar produced the Royal Ice Palace Revue which toured the U.S. and Canada with the circus company Beckmann and Gerety Carnival. It was a short lived affair though, as Edgar enlisted in the army in January of the following year, serving in Europe for eighteen months before being medically discharged with the rank of major in November of 1944. In no time, Edgar was back to the drawing board with his mind set on his piece of the skating entertainment pie.

Under the umbrella of his company Ice Skating Enterprises, Inc. Edgar chose the warm weather locale of Sarasota as the starting point for his skating spectacular. He commissioned a one hundred and ten foot flame-proof round top tent from the U.S. Tent and Awning Company that would seat three thousand, a mobile refrigeration plant from the Chicago Buildice Company to make the ice and hired the New York agent Harry Hirsch to book skaters and supervise the production of the show. Edgar hired people to do lighting, wardrobe and sell tickets. All he really needed was a choreographer and he found one in a Chicago skating coach and Ice Capades and Ice Follies skater named Anne Haroldson (Leitch), who was convinced to take time away from coaching in the windy city to come down south to put together this big show. Chorus skaters were hired (mainly from New York) and rehearsals were initially scheduled to start on February 8, 1946 in anticipation of a March 1 opening date. An early February article in Billboard magazine stated Edgar even "rented a house to accommodate the line girls." In total, an estimated one hundred thousand dollars (no paltry sum nowadays let alone then!) was poured into Ice Gayety.

It all went down the drain in TWENTY FOUR HOURS! On February 9, 1946, Edgar announced plans to abandon the effort. In a Billboard magazine article, Edgar said "the show had been postponed indefinitely because the skating rink, comprised of 20 plates, weighing 1750 pounds apiece, was found to be too heavy for easy movement on the schedule contemplated. Ice Gayety was scheduled to open here March 1-2 and then go on tour under canvas. Vaughn Richardson, general agent, had booked the show thru April 14 in Florida spots, with many choice downtown locations listed. Edgar's decision was reached in time to stop most of the skating performers before they left New York City for rehearsals in Sarasota. Two girls arrived from Chicago and another was halted en route at Denver. Edgar said other plans were being studied for use of the portable equipment. All preparations for the show were well advanced. The big top had been flame-proofed and erected for rehearsals. Cookhouse for workingmen was in operation and work was started on the seats. Costumes were completed. Billing had been printed and the billing crew was ready to begin."

Can you even imagine? Short of a bank heist, even the most enthusiastic of high stakes gamblers in Vegas would have a hard time throwing away that much money in such a short span. Rather than sit utterly defeated by the failure of Ice Gayety, Edgar ultimately soldiered on and turned his attention away from skating. He for a time owned the Sparks Circus, which began as a wagon show in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and took the show on tour in 1946 and 1947 by railroad. Financial concerns, no doubt as a result of the Ice Gayety flop, apparently continued to haunt him though as an August 23, 1947 article in Billboard stated that "Edgar owed James A. Haley a sum of money, but this he is reliably reported to have laid on the barrel head when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was playing Detroit three weeks ago."  

In the winter of 1947, Edgar terminated his relationship with the Sparks Circus and although Ice Gayety never made it off the ground, he DID make two very important contributions to circus history: establishing the final circus to be an under-canvas railroad show and placing Venice, Florida on the map as a popular circus venue. He passed away on June 7, 1957 at age forty seven in South Vend, Indiana while traveling with his wife Anne to visit his son William at Culver Military Academy. Looking back, we can only wonder what Ice Gayety could have been if only things had gone a little differently. 

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