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 Whitaker. 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.

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