Saturday, 10 October 2015

There's Always A Murder: The First Skating Mystery Written By A Skater


I'm definitely someone who has always been more comfortable on a stage than behind a computer. I've either skated, danced and performed as a drag queen in front of many thousands of people over the years but another of my great loves is the theatre. One of the best parts of growing up in Chester, Nova Scotia was having chance to act in several plays with the Chester Drama Society and KIDS Into Drama Society at the extremely popular Chester Playhouse. Much like skating, I'm a firm believer that community theatre is one of the most fulfilling pursuits you can get involved with so when I came across this particular story I knew it just had to take center stage on the blog right away and what better a time than during October, where I love to feature spooky skating stories!

First copyrighted in 1946 under the title "Four Flights Up" and later sold to Samuel French, Ken Parker's play "There's Always A Murder" was the very first traditional stage play to have an ice skating background in its plot. It was first presented on January 6, 1948 at The Provincetown Playhouse in New York and has been performed by professional and stock touring companies over the years throughout the U.S. The script explains that "the plot centers around Kim and Drucilla Taylor, a young married couple, who, by answering an ad in a Boston paper, move into an apartment four flights up. Almost as soon as they move in strange things begin the happen. They are plagued by mysterious phone calls, a statue is left at their door, and a girl climbs in their window. The haughty Katherine Horton, pianist and daughter of a judge, visits them and tells how her piano partner, Lawrence Sheppard, has suddenly disappeared. It seems Sheppard was also the step-brother of the former tenant, Steve Haywood, and slowly, piece by piece, Drucilla tries to solve the mystery. She tries, too, to convince Kim that not only has a murder been committed but the body chopped up in their bathtub! Kim just laughs at her foolish notions, but Drucilla, undaunted, continues to find more clues, which include a broken record, a newspaper clipping, and a bottle of formaldehyde. However, not until detectives arrive on the scene does Drucilla realize she is right and becomes panicky. To add to her fright, part of the body has been left in the apartment and the murderer is on his way back to destroy the last remaining bit of evidence... Kim, who has been rehearsing for an ice show, hurts his foot and returns home on crutches... Kay comes to take Drucilla off for a radio audition and Kim is left alone. The supposed murderer returns... there is a terrific battle... Kim has to protect himself with his crutches, and the detectives arrive in time to save his life. Kim, in turn, proves that Haywood isn't the real murderer... it seems he only cut up the body!"

This dark comedy's skating connections are more than meet the eye. The character Kim Taylor is described as "a professional ice skater of about 26. Well built and good-looking, he is one of those happy-go-lucky chaps who gets a great kick out of watching his pert little wife go through her antics." The skating references in the script are plentiful. Drucilla at one point says to her husband, "See, Kim, don't count your outer an inner edges before you skate them" and Haywood says to Kim "Oh, an ice skater, eh? Well, that's interesting. I once stepped out on a sheet of ice and did a spread eagle right away. Only trouble was, I spread a little too far." The most important skating connection to this play of all was indeed its author and how he came up the idea in the first place.

The play (and Kim's character) certainly had their roots in autobiography. The October 31, 1948 article "Skater Parker Yearns To Act And Playwright" from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle explained that it was Parker's own broken leg that allowed him the time to pursue his passion for writing: "Ken Parker skates in 'Howdy, Mr. Ice' at the Center Theater. He is almost 26, but doesn't look it. This is his third Center Theater ice show. The break came the first year, when he was rehearsing, so at first it looked pretty bad for him. But Mr. Parker is not the brooding type. He took an apartment four flights up and since he couldn't go out for meals with his leg in a cast, the landlady used to bring them up to him. He had considered himself lucky to find the apartment at all. Then one day the landlady said: 'It's nice you don't mind living here.' Ken asked why. 'Don't you know about the corpse that was cut up in the bathtub by the last tenant?' asked the landlady." I don't know about you, but I'd be packing up as fast as I could and getting out of that freaking lease however I could. Just sayin!

Parker was drafted for the Air Corps show "Winged Victory" during World War II and then returned to his passion for skating. He had played on his school's hockey team, took up speed skating at the Boston Arena and figure skated as well. In the 1948 article, Parker explained that "In 'Howdy, Mr. Ice' I'm one of the four turkeys. Of course, there's no future for most skaters. That's why I want to become a playwright." Between three Center Theater ice shows (Ice Time, Ice Time of '48 and Howdy, Mr. Ice), Parker performed over two thousand performances to sellout crowds. Here's where things got confusing for me. It turns out Ken Parker wasn't the only skater named Ken Parker out there at the same time. In May of 1949, Kenneth Parker, the son of Clarence Parker and brother of Nancy Lee Parker (both accomplished professional skaters) sadly drowned in Lake St. Clair, Michigan. It turned out that the professional skater/playwright Ken Parker didn't meet a premature and tragic end like the victim in the play or the other Ken Parker. He moved to Glen Rock, New Jersey and continued his work writing plays throughout his life, passing away in 1991.

I don't know about you, but considering the popularity of skating in films of the thirties and forties with stars like Sonja Henie, Belita and Vera Hrubá Ralston I wasn't at all surprised to learn of skating making its way into traditional stage theatre around the same time. The fact that the play's leading man was modelled after its skating author was just a fascinating plot twist that I never would have expected in a million years. I'll give this one a standing O.

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 http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard 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 http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

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