Thursday, 10 November 2016

Dot McCusker, Queen Of The Ice Comics


A family that skates together stays together. At least that was the case with the McCusker family of Hollywood, California. Mother Gladys (Daniels) and father Charlie McCusker - a Canadian hockey star in his heyday - had three children and all three ended up enjoying success as professional figure skaters!

Before we get to the 'star' of today's blog, ice comic Dot McCusker, I want to briefly talk about the rest of the family's skating accomplishments. Jimmy, the youngest, appeared in both hotel shows and the Icelandia shows (which we'll get to later) but it was Buff (Buford), the oldest of the three McCusker siblings who achieved fame as three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie's partner in the 1943 film "Wintertime". Buff recalled that Henie had seen him "perform in the Ice Follies and asked if I'd like to be her partner in the movie 'Wintertime'. I was in the Army Air Corps at the time but was given leave to do the picture. Some of you may recall the scene from the movie where we skated together on a rink of black ice. The ice was actually coated with a thin layer of black ink that made a stunning reflection as we glided around the rink. Working with Sonja was wonderful. I had to watch her closely because our movements needed to match perfectly. I had a tendency to lift my legs higher than hers, so I had to watch that. And when we did the jumps called Axels, I had a tendency to spin a little more, so I had to tone that down a bit, too. Still, it was a great experience." He and wife Joanne (Ruppe) - also a professional skater - later appeared in Sonja's film "It's A Pleasure" after World War II. Not to be outdone, father Charlie and uncle Mac at one time owned the Polar Palace ice rink and operated affiliated skate shops. Despite Buff's success as a pairs skater and impressive career as a touring professional, it was the middle child Dot (Dorothy) who made perhaps the biggest impression on American audiences.

Born in Nebraska in the early twenties, Dot McCusker was a tall brunette whose shtick was (according to the April 10, 1948 edition of The Billboard) "a novice comedy bit" that she "weak-ankled her way" through. Descriptions of her performances allude to Dot's act being eerily similar to the "Wanda Beazel" program that Debi Thomas popularized in the eighties, where she parodied a young skater performing her first solo.

Graduating from Bel-Mar High School, Dot joined the ensemble cast in a hotel skating show at the Book-Cadillac in Detroit, Michigan, skating to the music of Manny Prager's orchestra. After getting both skates in the door, she joined the Ice Capades cast in 1944 as an Ice-Ca'pet' and later, the cast of Holiday On Ice. It was on the latter tour that she was given an opportunity to move up from the chorus to the spotlight and audiences loved what they saw from the comedic skater. An article from the San Jose Evening News on January 21, 1944 notes that "he most outstanding act as judged by applause last night was a comedy skit by Dorothy McCusker. She stopped the show."

Dot balanced touring with Holiday On Ice for three years with appearances in club carnivals. In 1945, she performed a duet comedy act with Marie Purviance at the 15th Annual Shrine Ice Carnival at the Civic Ice Arena in Seattle alongside Barbara Ann Scott King, Dorothy and Hazel Caley and Skippy Baxter. In September of 1947, she skated for two weeks at a circus in Honolulu, Hawaii. An article from "The Spokesman-Review" on September 19, 1947 mused, "the trail from a model student and teacher's pet to queen of the ice comics is a rough one full of bumps and bruises - just ask Dot McCusker. A member of the 'skating McCusker family' and little sister of Buff the strong man... Dot makes her comic antics a studied, artistic performance. She takes her bumps like a man and never lets her audience rest. When she takes her last bow she's 'well done in'. To give her audience, the gal hands herself a rugged time."

By the next April, Dot was performing in the hotel show held in the Boulevard Room at the Hotel Stevens in Chicago to rave reviews alongside Rudy Richards, Manuel del Torro, Jerry Rehfield and Paul and Mickee Preston. She remained at the Hotel Stevens as an audience favourite with her 'novice skater' act for two years before teaming up with her brother Buff and Samuel H. Scripps to produce a short-lived touring stage show called Icelandia. The March 13, 1951 "Rome News-Tribune" described Dot's performance in the Icelandia shows at the City Auditorium in Rome thusly: "The big scene-stealer is Dot McCusker, who combines superb skating skill with a talent for comedy that brought down the opening night and drew her three curtain calls." They went on to say that she provided "laughs galore as she attempts to follow in the steps of lovely Mae Edwards."

My favourite quote from this long forgotten scene stealer has got to be "doing shows is fun, but I could find it just as easy playing quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams". Many of the comedic roles in ice shows and tours in those days may have gone to men, but Dot McCusker deserves a great deal of credit for helping to slowly break down gender barriers for females, proving to tour promoters that women could easily be every bit as comedic on the ice as their male counterparts.

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