Friday, 29 September 2017

The Legacy Of Ludmila


Within forty eight hours, the figure skating world learned about the deaths of 1948 Olympic Silver Medallist Hans Gerschwiler and 1964 and 1968 Olympic Gold Medallist Ludmila Protopopov. Gerschwiler and Protopopov join a long list of skating luminaries who have passed away in 2017 - Bob Turk, Donald Gilchrist, Ricky Harris, Mary Parry and Roy Mason and Arthur Apfel among them.

If you're reading this blog, I don't need to tell you who Ludmila Protopopov was. A two time Olympic Gold Medallist, four time World and European Champion with her husband Oleg, she was perhaps one of the most exquisite pairs skaters of all time. A three time winner of Dick Button's World Professional Championships, her annual appearances in the Evening With Champions shows at Harvard University were an inspiration to so many. She was living proof that age is just a number. She was a figure skating legend from a time before skating put math over mindfulness... but that wasn't the half of it.


For starters, there's the story of Ludmila and Oleg's 1979 defection from the Soviet Union. Yuri Felshtinsky and Boris Gulko wrote of the events that fueled the Protopopov's decision to leave the Soviet Union in their book "The KGB Plays Chess": "For a number of years, the outstanding Soviet figure skaters Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov came under pressure from Soviet sports functionaries. The harassment campaign was initiated by the KGB, which did not like their independence, their extensive contacts with foreign athletes and representatives of foreign sports circles and media. 'Little Vermin' kept on writing reports about the skaters' negative attitudes toward Soviet reality, about their admiration for the Western way of life. On the basis of these reports, memos were prepared for the Central Committee, which then gave orders to the State Sports Committee would clamp down on the couple. The consequences were not slow in coming... When in 1988, at the Calgary Olympics, the famous duo with other former Olympic champions and prizewinners, the head of the State Sports Committee, Gramov, told the Canadian organizers of the event that if Belousova and Protopopov came out on the ice, the Soviet delegation would boycott the closing ceremony at the Olympics. (They) did not come out on the ice." According to a March 1988 article from the "Montreal Gazette", Soviet officials were apparently concerned that if the Protopopov's skated an exhibition, "the crowd would boo the Soviet athletes as they marched into McMahon Stadium."


Now let's back that truck up back to their actual defection. In my best Sophia Petrillo voice: "Picture it! Switzerland, Mid September, 1979!" The Protopopov's made it five defections in that month alone when they followed in the footsteps of three Bolshoi Ballet dancers who defected to the West. Then forty seven and forty four, Ludmila and Oleg were in West Germany and Switzerland on an eight city, four week skating tour when they vanished on the day they were have flown back to the USSR. To anyone with half a clue, the defection shouldn't have come as a shocker. When they arrived in
Zürich that August, the couple didn't pack light. They brought ten pieces of luggage, including a video camera and a sewing machine. They had approached the Swiss government asking for asylum in Switzerland while performing there, and in turn Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Ulrich Hubacher refused to disclose the skater's whereabouts or plans. Perhaps feeling the heat from the Protopopov's actions, their host and tour organizer Kurt Soenning was particularly critical of their decision to defect: "If I knew where they are I would tell them, 'Go home,' but I guess it is too late... I don't think they have much of a chance in the West, professionally. They are well past their peak. After all, they are in their mid-forties. Never did they drop the slightest hint that they were planning to stay in the West. If they had I would never have invited them. I am shocked. I think they abused my hospitality. I had planned to invite other Russian skaters to make tours. But those plans are now destroyed.'' Soviet officials were so alarmed by the string of defections that September that they cancelled a twenty eight concert tour of the Moscow State Symphony in the United States. Life ended up being grand for the veteran pair though. They enjoyed considerable success in professional competitions and shows for well over a decade and in 1995, the Protopopov's became Swiss citizens, making their home base the village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Alps. In his book "Ice Cream", Toller Cranston aptly noted, "The Protopopov's, had they not defected, would eventually have evaporated into obscurity. By rising again like two phoenixes from the ashes, they remained huge American box-office attractions."


In 2003 - less than a decade after their failed attempt to come back to the amateur ranks representing Switzerland - the Protopopov's returned to Russia for the first time since they defected at the invitation of then Minister Of Sport and former NHL hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov, receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of fifty thousand people in St. Petersburg. After so many years away with so many bittersweet memories, that moment would have been heartening for anyone. Yet, after reading a Gererd Zerensky interview with Ludmila and Oleg with the headline "Twenty-Two Pounds Of Grace" that appeared in a 1966 issue of "Soviet Life" magazine, it became clear that to me that their story was far more complicated that one could ever imagine...  

"TWENTY-TWO POUNDS OF GRACE" (GERERD ZELENSKY)



Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov need no introduction. Scores of articles about
the famous Olympic and 1965 and 1966 world figure skating champions have been written,
and their pictures have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world. But they
have never written any detailed stories about themselves, and their rise to the summit refutes
all the canons of this big-time sport. Recently Belousova and Protopopov visited the editorial offices of "Yunost" magazine. Part of the interview sports correspondent Gererd Zelensky had with them is reprinted.

Q: Most people think that figure skaters, to reach world class, should begin at the age of eight, or even as early as five. Do you agree?

A from Ludmila: Oleg and I often get letters from children 10 or older who complain that they
were turned down at skating classes because they were too old. I started figure skating at 16. I saw the movie "Sun Valley Serenade", and I was dazzled by Sonja Henie's skill. We lived near the Central Army Park, and I used to skate there on hockey skates. I had no idea, or hope, of learning figure skating. But I happened to see a poster at the gate of the Dzerzhinsky Children's Park announcing a figure skating class. I was lucky. It was taught by Samson Glyazer, a kind-hearted man and a great figure skating enthusiast. He accepted all comers. He heard me out and said, "This way, miss, to the
rink." I went out on the ice and flopped right down. But after a while I got used to it and even managed to skate a little on one foot. That was on November 22, 1951, and I had just turned 16. My first trainer was Larisa Novozhilova. I trained for all I was worth and in three years made the first sports class in both singles and pairs skating. That was when I met Oleg. Let him go on from there.

A from Oleg: I was also nearly 16 when I began figure skating. Early in 1948 I went to the Leningrad Young Pioneer Palace - I wanted to play the piano. They said no, that I couldn't make out differences in pitch and key. What did I do? I enrolled in a percussion class and began playing the xylophone. The pianists had turned me down because I had no ear, and I was playing Glinka's "Skylark" and Mozart's "Turkish March" by ear! There was a figure-skating class at the palace, too. Once I wandered into the garden where the Rossi Pavilion stood, and there in the middle of all the noise were figure skaters training on the ice-covered lanes. Up to then I had skated like all boys did, hitching on to passing vehicles with a hook. I used hockey skates that I tied to my felt boots with string. I came to the class with them on and asked to be let in. Nina Lepninskaya, my first and last trainer, thought that my toe spins were good and my centering also. In short, she accepted me, and I was faced with the choice of going on with the xylophone or taking up figure skating. The skating won out. I did have to skate in shoes two sizes too small -  there were no bigger ones at the Pioneer Palace, but my desire to skate was stronger than the pain. A year later I took second place in singles skating at the national youth championship. In the fall of 1951 I joined the navy. I was in the ninth grade at the time.

Q: The ninth grade?

A from Oleg: Yes, I was overage, because I hadn't gone to school during the war. First the blockade and then we were evacuated to Central Asia. When we came back to Leningrad in 1945, I was 13 and they put me in the third grade.

Q: It means that besides a late start, you had a five-year break in your training?

A from Oleg: Just about. At first I was stationed in Severomorsk, and there was no place there
for figure skating. A year later, when I was transferred to Leningrad, I got into town from time to time, but not regularly. If I managed it twice a week, I was lucky! By today's standards this was not training, just skating for the fun of it. Now we train four hours a day - from eight in the evening
until midnight. But then I'd leave at seven, get to the stadium by eight, train for an hour or so, and then rush back to the ship. Four hours of training a week was just about the limit.

A from Ludmila: We met while he was serving in the navy.

A from Oleg: In 1953 only two pairs trained for the national championship. Leningrad figure skaters advised me to make up a pair with Margarita Bogoyavlenskaya. With only two other pairs competing, they said, the least you can get is the bronze medal. In a week's time we had some sort of a program ready. I talked my commanders into letting me go to Yaroslavl, and there we really did win a third place diploma at the USSR championship. The diploma made quite an impression on the unit, but actually it wasn't worth much, we lost each other several times during our performance. If there had been 15 pairs at the championship instead of three, we would probably have scored fifteenth. Just
goes to show you what an important role documents still play in this world. The diploma gave me a new "lease on life." There was a new attitude toward my training. In 1954 I was even allowed to go to Moscow for a month-long rally. That's where I met Ludmila. Here's how it happened. The rally was held in the same Dzerzhinsky Children's Park where Ludmila began skating. At one point in the rally there was a forced intermission - one of the groups had not arrived. I put on my skates and went
out on the ice for practice. Ludmila was already skating there. The rink was small, 30 by 30, hard not to bump into each other, so we held hands and began spinning around together just for the fun of it. This chance spinning was the beginning of our pairs skating. Somebody looking on asked, "Have you
been skating together long? About two years? You do it so naturally." Others said, "Keep it up, you're doing fine!" Yes, but I lived in Leningrad and she in Moscow! There was no way I could get transferred to Moscow. But here Ludmila had a lucky break. She finished school in 1953 and did not get into the Power Institute.

A from Ludmila: I took the entrance exams but only got a Fair in mathematics, so I was eligible only for the Railway Engineers Correspondence Institute. But I wanted to become a regular student, so I decided to try my luck in Leningrad. Who knows, there probably wouldn't be a Belousova-Protopopov skating pair if not for that Fair in mathematics.

Q: Let's get back to the question we started with: At what age do you think it is still not too late to begin figure skating?

A from Ludmila: Some of our trainers are too much inclined to follow foreign methods. They forget that we have different aims in sports! Many parents abroad, I think, try to get their children into a figure skating school as early as possible so they can win a title and get into a professional revue...

A from Oleg: ...To justify the money spent.

A from Ludmila: That's why there are so many who go professional at an early age, as soon as they win a title or get to be known.

A from Oleg: And then they skate in ice reviews for another 20 years! [Belgian] Fernand Leemans is past 40. And how old is American Dick Button? But he still skates and makes money. And the way he jumps. If all young skaters jumped like he does!

Q: So, even starting as late as 16, a skater can get to the top?

A from Oleg: If he has what it takes.

A from Ludmila: The older a person gets, the better he should be able to skate. I know that I'm skating better now than I ever did.

Q: Still, what is the age limit for beginning?

A from Oleg: I think it is a crime to tell any 10-to 15-year-old that he's too old for figure
skating.

A from Ludmila: It's very important for a beginning figure skater to train conscientiously.

A from Oleg: A person should first get used to skates by himself, and only when he feels
thoroughly at home on them should he be taught figure skating. Training a figure skater is a complex and primarily mental process. It requires the utmost concentration and attention. Figure skating today demands intelligence. Unfortunately our skating experts now stake everything on so-called prospects. And what does that mean? It means that they let you join a class at 6 and at 19 they write you off, the way they wrote off Tanya Likharyova, for instance. Who knows how many victims there are of that very questionable "prospects" theory?

Q: I believe there was a time when you too were considered a nonprospect?

A from Oleg: Even before last year's European championship in Moscow, Skating Federation
secretary Sergei Vasilyev said that if Belousova and Protopopov did not become Olympic champions, he'd raise the question of keeping them on the national team and of their prospects. But we won the European championship and then the world championship in America. At the 1964 European championship we took second place. Though we were in fighting form, the unexpected happened: Ludmila tripped on a hairpin the skater before her had dropped. And so before the Olympic team left
for Innsbruck, head trainer of the national team Georgi Felitsin was saying, "Well, in my opinion, Belousova and Protopopov won't do much better at the Olympic games than they did at the European championship." And even when we came back from Innsbruck with gold medals, he kept on saying that we had won by a fluke, that the chances were 98 per cent against our winning. Yakov Smushkin of the Central Physical Culture Research Institute also prophesied our defeat. He calculated on an electronic computer (using the "prospects" theory, of course) that the curve of match results of
our opponents was rising and that ours was heading downward. On the eve of our departure for Austria he said, "Too bad, kids, but the best you can hope for at the Olympics is third or fourth place." Whenever I meet Smushkin now, I ask him, "Well, how's your computer doing?"


Q: Who helps you prepare for competitions?

A from Oleg: Anybody and everybody. You can help too. We don't mind asking anybody for help, even people who have nothing to do with figure skating. In 1962, for example, we first took second place at the world and European championships. And who trained us? The fellow who drove the ice waterer at the Central Army Rink, Sasha Smirnov. He's a first category gymnast and plays a trumpet
in an amateur jazz band. We trained alone, and he saw that we were doing too much arguing, considering the contest was so close. Some of the things we were trying just didn't come off because we were nervous. This young fellow would come up to us and say: "Don't worry, you're doing all right, except there's a glissando here in the music, which calls for smoothness, and your movements are too abrupt." Or: "You, Oleg, spread your legs wide when you jump, and Ludmila's knees are close together, that's why your jump is too long and hers is too short." We got very used to him and he to us. He would work his shift till nightfall and at six in the morning show up at the rink again. Instead of resting, he'd train us. Sometimes it was hard to force ourselves to go over the whole composition just for him. But Sasha would say: "Come on, kids, let's see how it all looks." It was hard, but we repeated it for him. I later told that same Vasilyev, "And do you know who trained us? A chauffeur." And he said, "Well, just don't let anyone else know that."

Q: Why don't you have a permanent trainer?

A from Oleg: That's a long story. At the Dynamo Sports Club in Leningrad, Pyotr Orlov was considered our trainer. But he hardly ever worked with us - we were "nonprospects." Then we got transferred to the Locomotive Club, but there they had a pretty poor class and no trainer at all. Again we were on our own. In recent years we were helped a lot by former USSR champion Igor Moskvin. He helped us tremendously just before the Olym- pics, after we insisted that he be invited to the
rally. But Igor lives in Leningrad, and we're only nominally Leningraders. We do most of our training in Moscow. Our home is in Leningrad and we study there, but Leningrad still doesn't have an artificial rink fit for figure skating.

Q: How do you train? Let us in on your secrets.

A from Oleg: During training Ludmila puts on a 22-pound training belt. We call it "22 pounds of grace."

A from Ludmila: It's hard to skate with an extra 22 pounds on you, but when you take it off, you feel almost weightless! It's so easy to skate and jump.

Q: How do you get along when you train? One article I read said that Oleg was domineering.

A from Ludmila: I'm calmer, and he's more nervous.

A from Oleg: Sometimes I get the feeling that she isn't trying as hard as I am and that upsets me, so I yell, "Come on, get a move on!"... But that's the whole beauty of pairs skating: The manliness of the male should be blended with the grace of his partner. If we were both the same, like two grasshoppers, it would make dull viewing.

Q: How is it with you, Ludmila? Does Oleg hurt your feelings when you're training?

A from Ludmila: I hurt his feelings, too. But as soon as we leave the rink, it's all forgiven and
forgotten, of course.

Q: Oleg, where did you get your music background?

A from Oleg: My mother was a ballerina, and I grew up in that kind of world. I heard many
famous singers and saw the great ballerinas. I've been interested in music since childhood.
After the blockade, Mother worked on the variety stage, and I often waited for her at rehearsals. The musicians didn't get insulted when I'd tell them they were off key. On the contrary, they all told Mother it was a crime not to make a musician of me. My mother would answer, "I don't want my son to play in an orchestra." And so I never did! But I did try, as you know. And I still love music as much as ever. When Ludmila and I skate to a melody we are especially fond of, we forget that people are watching. There's only us and the music. We mostly choose classical music. My favorite composers are Liszt and Rachmaninoff. When we do Trdumerei, the audience is interested because we try to make them see the music in movement. We never try to play up to the audience or put on a showy display that says: Look how pretty we are! This is not true figure skating. It's cheap,
ostentatious.

Q: How do you combine the music and the purely athletic elements of the program?

A from Oleg: Sometimes we have to combine things that just don't go together. Have you seen our demonstration dance to Massenet's "Meditation"? It lasts 4 minutes and 27 seconds and has only one lift, but it makes a bigger impression than a purely athletic program with nine lifts. So that you ask yourself: Which is more important - the athletic elements or something else? Say we're preparing a new program, and we see that artistically it is complete and expresses the music, but we're faced with a dilemma: Somewhere we have to make a double jump or else we'll be told that it is not complicated enough.


Q: How do you think figure skating might resolve this contradiction?

A from Oleg: The German term 'Eiskunstlauf' is a fine definition of figure skating. When West German sports writers were trying to figure out why Kilius and Bäumler lost out at the Olympic Games, one well-known commentator got up a press conference with these skaters. The statement they made there was that they skated better than we did. The commentator analyzed the telerecordings of their performance and ours. First minute. "Yes, that was good," agreed our opponents. "And here is your first minute." "Yes, we were a bit off." Second minute. Third minute,
and so on to the fifth, until our opponents admitted that we did skate a bit better. Then Bäumler suddenly spoke up, "But still we were better, because we had more athletic elements and they had more ballet." Then the commentator remarked that 'Eiskunstlauf' (ice art skating) was not 'Eissportlauf' (ice sport skating) and should not include just anything. This is just what we're getting at. The complexity of the program must be justified by its content. But the way it is, you can do anything you like as long as you put in enough jumps and lifts! This is the salvation of skaters who
cannot interpret the music with their movements. They use jumps to patch up the holes. According to the judges, our demonstration programs "Traumerei" and "Meditation" are not complicated enough for competitions. But from an artistic point of view they're head and shoulders above our sports program.

Q: Why is it that Soviet figure skaters do so well in world pairs skating contests and are behind in singles and dance skating?


A from Oleg: The answer is ice.

A from Ludmila: Single skaters and dancers can't practice compulsory figures on a wooden floor.

A from Oleg: That's right. With the competition what it is today, for us to train without ice is the same as for a swimmer to train in a bathtub.

Q: By ice, do you mean artificial rinks?

A from Oleg: That's exactly what we do mean. There's a lot of talk in our country about mass sports. This is the reason given for our victories in international matches. But believe me, the success of Belousova and Protopopov does not reflect the level of development of figure skating in our country. What mass figure skating can there be when a city like Leningrad, where Russian figure skating was
born, where our first Olympic champion Nikolai Panin lived (and where even now our best figure skaters are turned out), has no large artificial rink!

A from Ludmila: Every children's sports school should have its own artificial rink. And we only have one such school - at the Young Pioneers Stadium in Moscow. We've won world recognition with our pairs skating, but we won't hold on to it long if there is no one to take our place.

A from Oleg: Tons of rocks have to be shifted to obtain one gram of uranium ore. The same holds for sport. To produce gifted figure skaters, first of all you need ice, and second long years of hard work on it.

Q: What kind of skates do you use?

A from Oleg: We use British-made skates, ours are not good enough for figure skating. The workers at the Leningrad skate factory have a good answer to our complaints: "We can make better skates than the British. We have the necessary steel and the skilled workmen. But an extra-class pair takes much more time and labour than skates intended for mass consumption. The factory does not as yet have special wage rates for such work." So they stamp out mass-produced skates that you can't hope
to win international competitions with.

Q: What do you do besides sports?

A from Ludmila: I'm in my fifth year at the Railway Engineers Institute.

A from Oleg: And I'm in the Hertzen Teachers Institute, the physical training department.

A from Ludmila: The trouble is we spend only a month or two a year in Leningrad.

A from Oleg: We're excused from class attendance, but the last time we came to Leningrad I took two exams and ten tests. We don't have any special privileges, and we don't get good marks for nothing. Without bragging, to get where we did in sports (though we still have a long way to go) took a lot of work and knowledge. We had to study a lot of biology, physiology, psychology, mechanics, physics,
art...

Q: Who are your favourite figure skaters?

A from Oleg: The Americans Dick Button and David Jenkins, the German Ina Bauer, the Canadians Donald JacksonBarbara Wagner, Robert Paul. All of them are very musical. It touches your heartstrings to watch them. Heart - that's what is missing most often. You see a figure skater going all out to do a complex turn. He does it gracefully and cleanly. It would seem that there is nothing more you could expect. But it lacks the principal ingredient.

A from Ludmila: His heart isn't in it.

A from Oleg: Yes, it's skillful and correct, but it's not artistic. Very often the mastery of a figure skater boils down to artistic processing of spiritual vacuity. It always comes out in the movements. There are thousands of high-class athletes but someone must be first, and the first is the one who can reach your heart. That's the way it is.

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Thursday, 28 September 2017

Skating On The Wrong Side Of The Law: True Crimes From Skating History


From merry murderess and two time Olympian Yvonne de Ligne to deposed 1968 Olympic Gold Medallist Wolfgang Schwarz who was convicted on charges of human trafficking to the whole Tonya Harding affair, history has been peppered with tales of figure skaters who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Keep an eye on your skate guards - today we'll be sifting through the sands of time and exploring five true crime tales with skating connections!

THE DEATH OF MARILYN SMITH

For over five decades until her death in 2003, Marguerite Hodnik of Montana carried around a tremendous burden. In 1948, her daughter Marilyn Smith had made the trip from the quiet Powell County community of Deer Lodge to Pasadena, California to lead the Butte, Montana band in The Rose Parade as a majorette. While in the Golden State, Marilyn met a man named John Schwartz. At the age of sixteen, the couple decided to tie the knot, much to her mother's chagrin. Their relationship fizzled in less than a year when the teenager from Deer Lodge began performing in - you guessed it - professional ice shows.

Before Marilyn's divorce to Schwartz was even finalized, she was already engaged to another man named Howard Finkle who had come to San Diego to see her skate. To complicate matters even further, there was a third man in the picture. Charles Leonard Schneeloch was a thirty five year old miner who had come from Atlantic City to California to take a job at the Owens Gorge hydro-electric project.

With her husband John out of the picture and her fiancé Howard living in a different city, Marilyn moved into an apartment with Charles. To add even more to the tangled web, Charles Schneeloch had an alias - Charles Snow - and a wife named Pauline and three children waiting for him back in New Jersey.

For just over a year, both Marilyn and Charles managed to keep their stories straight. She balanced dates with skates. He toiled at Owens Gorge and presumably wrote letters home to his wife and kids, telling them how lonely he was working the days away in a strange state. Their bizarre affair ended on January 30, 1950, when she disappeared from the apartment they shared in the dead of night.

Marilyn was found frozen in Inyo County's Bishop Creek on February 10, 1950. She was clad only in a pyjama top. Within days of the discovery of her body, Charles was detained by Sheriff Charles P. Cline for questioning after, according to the February 13, 1950 edition of the "Bulletin", neighbours noted that she "quarrelled violently with her common-law husband the night she disappeared."

As soon as the news broke in California, a distraught Pauline - back in Atlantic City - filed for divorce. An autopsy revealed that Marilyn was pregnant at the time of her death and according to the February 14, 1950 issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle "disclosed a bruise on the side of her head." However, it was determined that the actual cause of her death was drowning. Schneeloch told Sheriff Cline: "We had a quarrel that night (January 30). I went to bed. The alarm woke me at 11:30. She must have set it. She was gone. I found an empty bottle that held sleeping pills, and under it a note in her handwriting." He conveniently destroyed the note.

Charles was ultimately cleared by California police and released on February 17, 1950. The February 18, 1950 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that "he had been under questioning... and was released yesterday when he satisfied police as to his innocence. He will return to his job this morning, his parents learned, at the Owens Gorge hydro-electric project near Bishop." No one was ever charged in conjunction with her death.

The sad tale of this figure skater from Montana's tragic death almost reads like something out of a film noir or an urban legend of the era cautioning teenagers of the dangers of living life in the fast lane in California. The reality is that not every skater's story has a happy ending. We can only hope that Marilyn Smith has found solace somewhere other than the icy mountains of California.

THE HEIST OF RUE SAINT DIDIER

Just months before the beginning of World War I, a case that seemed almost tailor made for Inspector Jacques Clouseau himself to solve rocked the skating community in Paris, France: The Heist Of Rue Saint Didier.

The American Skating Rink on Rue Saint Didier was a popular destination for Parisian skating enthusiasts looking for a less crowded alternative to the Palais de Glace. Expert instruction was available for both recreational and more advanced skaters alike and the rink opened its doors to people of all classes perhaps moreso than the posher Palais.  Unfortunately, in late March 1914, an uproar ensued when several pieces of jewelry, including two priceless wedding bands, were stolen from the rink's dressing room during one skating such session. Monsieur Wanttam, a skating professor at the American Skating Rink, responded to the hullabaloo by filing a complaint with Monsieur Mulnier, Paris' police commissioner. An investigation ensued and in a couple of short days, a thirty year old skater who had taken up residence at a hotel on the Rue de Valois was arrested and charged with theft.

At first the culprit, Emile Viot, denied stealing the jewels but after what we can assume was some pretty intense questioning, he finally confessed and provided an explanation for why he committed the crime. In March 20 issue of the "Le Gaulois literary and political", A. Magne recorded Viot's confession: "I was engaged to a girl that I love very much and she was my wife for two days. I wanted, as is the custom, to offer her the best engagement ring and I do not have the means to buy [one]. That's why I committed the dishonest act alleged against me today. It is the love of my fiancée that [made me a] thief." Viot didn't get the guillotine, but he didn't get the rings or much sympathy from Monsieurs Mulnier or Wanttam either.

THE MELBOURNE SKATE THIEF

Stealing jewelry might be one thing but if you make off with a skater's skates, look out! In the winter of 1913, skates started going missing from the lockers at Wirth's Skating Rink on St. Kilda Rink in Melbourne, Australia. At first, only a couple of pairs went missing and patrons thought the missing skates might have just been a frustrating mix-up, but when ten pairs went AWOL on January 29 of that year it was painfully clear that there was a thief amongst the skaters' midst. The case was reported to Melbourne police and on February 28, 1913 a young man named William Kennedy was arrested. The "Mount Alexander Mail" reported that Kennedy "admitted having broken into the rink at different times and taken skates. He stated that whenever he and a mate of his got out of work they would steal a couple of pairs to pay for their room and beds. From the information given them by Kennedy, the detectives recovered eight pairs of skates at various secondhand shops in King Street." No word on his accomplice, but Kennedy was hauled into South Melbourne Court, plead guilty and was fined five pounds or in default, one month's imprisonment.

THE DEATH OF FREDERICK DODGE


He said, she said... Figure skating has long had a reputation for being a rather gossipy sport. Rumours often swirl faster than a scratch spin. More often than not, many are true and most are not. In the small village of Skaneatles, New York in September of 1886, an accomplished figure skater found himself at the epicenter of the gossip factory. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to defend himself. For you see, he was dead.

Frederick A. Dodge was the son of H.B. Dodge, owner and editor of "The Skaneatles Democrat". An athletic man who had been a pitcher for the Central City nine, Frederick Dodge was a widower with three children and a complete teetotaller. He was also quite a talented 'fancy' figure skater. The September 7, 1886 issue of "The Syracuse Daily Standard" affirmed, "He was known as the most graceful and accomplished ice skater in this part of the state before that exhilarating sport fell into unpopularity." 

Frederick was found dead on the floor of "The Skaneatles Democrat" editorial room on Sunday, September 5, 1886 at five in the evening. He had gone there that morning to have a sponge bath and shave before setting to work on the following day's paper. A few hours later, friends had gone to see him at the office but receiving no response when they knocked at the door, they left. When he didn't arrive home for dinner, two apprentices at the office, Albert T. Curtis and Charles E. Kochenburg, were sent to check on him and found the door locked. Worrying something was wrong, they broke down and the door and found him lying on the floor on his side. 

Frederick was clad only in his undergarments, his face half shaven, still covered in dry soap foam. A chair had been pulled up to the editorial table and on the table there was some of this foam. Investigators believed he'd rested or hit his head on the table, died and fell out of the chair onto the floor. The razor he had used was found at the back of the office. Many villagers immediately jumped to the conclusion that he'd met with foul play because his razor wasn't found near his body, but authorities believed the reason that the razor wasn't found next to him was that he'd fallen ill while shaving, got up from his chair and walked around, sat back down again and then keeled over.

Further investigation revealed that the week prior to Frederick's death, he had complained of feeling faint, then swooned and fell into unconsciousness. A Dr. H.B. Wright was summoned and when he arrived, he worked on him for half an hour and managed to revive him. Throughout the week, Dr. Wright made house calls and it was determined he was well enough to go back to work. Before the doctor had arrived the day Dodge fainted, two of his newspaper men had rubbed his body with arnica cream in an attempt to revive him. They observed a large bruise on his right side and a circular blackened spot near his heart. When Dodge was revived, they asked him about his injuries and he was reportedly evasive.

Rumours in the small village persisted that two days prior to the first episode and eight days before his death, Frederick, Dr. Wright and a Mr. Horton hired a horse and cart at the village livery. The three men travelled to Jordan together, where it was believed that Frederick was brutally attacked. The September 7, 1886 issue of "The Syracuse Daily Standard" reported, "Mr. Horton said last night that... while in his company one week ago Saturday Mr. Dodge received no injury to his knowledge and he could not account for the bruises found on his body. Dr. H.B. Wright said he had noticed the bruises but as he had diagnosed the case of one of organic heart trouble, he attributed no great importance to the bruises in the region of the heart. From what he had recently heard, however, he thought the case ought to be investigated further. If death resulted from a violent injury of the heart he would scarcely expect to find the result what it was in this case. Instead of an attack, a speedy recovery, and one week afterward a shock which produced death he should expect to see the patient die at once or sink gradually down to death. There would be no such improved condition as was found in this case from Monday to Sunday. If death resulted from other than organic heart trouble, then the most vital importance might be attached to the bruised condition of the body. The doctor said he had inquired whether Mr. Dodge was subject to disease of the heart, but was told that he had never had any trouble from that source."

The coroner ultimately supported the doctor's belief that Frederick passed away of a heart attack, but rumours persisted in the small town that Dr. Wright had "something to do with Mr. Dodge's death" as he'd been in Jordan with him the day he received this beating that no one else seemed to see. In reading newspaper accounts of Dodge's death, I don't really see any smoking gun or any reason not to believe he died of natural causes, but at the time, the good people of Skaneatles thought otherwise. I guess the moral in this story is that whether it be a coaching change, a partnership breaking up or even in this case a death, it's always a wise idea to check your facts before you speak.

THE SKATING COUNTERFEITER



In 1928, a thirty five year old Estonian immigrant who went by the name Edward John Wellman was arrested for burglary and sentenced to a six year term at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. After his release, he travelled around the Eastern seaboard using a variety of aliases - Matti Salo, Alexander Kerr, Alexander Kent among them. An expert counterfeiter, this man used pewter, silver chloride, sodium cyanide of potassium and silver to manufacture phony fifty cent pieces in his car, which he used to fund his gambling at the race tracks.

Arrested a second time on April 30, 1941 for passing his counterfeit coins off to a merchant in New Rochelle, Edward jumped a bail of twenty five hundred dollars (no paltry sum during the second World War) and was apprehended a second time on December 30, 1941 at the Tropical Park race track in Miami for doing the same thing. This time held at a seventy five hundred dollar bail, he was sent to Coral Gables prison, where he used the main-spring of an alarm clock to open his cell door and escape with another prisoner.

By this time under investigation by the Secret Service and the Treasury Department, Edward returned to New York City... and began making money by teaching figure skating! The October 28, 1942 issue of the "New York Sun" recalled, "Had Wellman been less of a master of the fancy figure, he might never have been caught, at least, on the ice. But people stopped to watch him and less perfect skaters were envious and soon Wellman was the sensation of the rink. And he boasted. He said - and it was probably true - that he had instructed many prominent people in the art of figure skating. And he told a young fellow last night that he paid from $57 to $67 a pair for his skates. The young fellow, it turned out later, was Detective Larry Mullins of the Flushing police precinct, who is a good country skater but nothing fancy when it comes to the figures. There seems to be some doubt, even now, as to just who skated out and apprehended Edward Wellman, who is also known as Alex. Kent and Alex. Kerr. But Police Headquarters insists it was Larry Mullins, its star skater. The Treasury Department, which is interested in any attempts to imitate its silver pieces, says that Wellman was taken at the rink by 'both police and secret service men'." Contemporary articles also note that a woman went to the Secret Service to inform them she recognized his picture on a "wanted" card as the same man she'd met at the Flushing Meadows ice skating rink on the site of the 1939 World's Fair.

Skaters at the Flushing Meadows Ice Rink in 1941

After Edward's arrest, the Secret Service searched his rooms at 1179 2nd Avenue and found over fifteen hundred dollars in fifty cent counterfeits. Three other men, Emil Greenwald, Walter Koslov, Elmar Rasmat and Edgar Palm, were arrested in conjunction with the counterfeit scheme. A fourth, Edgar Palm, committed suicide. Edward was sentenced on Nov 13, 1942 to serve eight years in prison for each of the six counts against him.

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.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The 1947 World Figure Skating Championships

Barbara Ann Scott and Dick Button. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In late October of 1946, just over a year after World War II ended, the International Skating Union formally announced plans for the resurrection of the World Figure Skating Championships. The 1947 competition was held at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden and was initially slated to be held from February 14 to 16, 1947 but due to weather and ice conditions was actually extended over a five day span from February 13 to 17. The event's revival was certainly plagued from some residual after effects of the war. Skaters from Germany, Austria and Japan were not permitted to compete nor were officials from those countries permitted to come judge. This ban notably affected the participation of Austrians Eva Pawlik and Edi Rada, who may well have been medal contenders. There was also a marked drop in numbers in the men's event as compared to the World Championships that immediately preceded the War. From 1936 to 1939, there were at least ten men's singles entries at Worlds; in 1947 there were but five. It was a unique event. Temperatures for the outdoor competition dipped to minus twenty Fahrenheit. The local media were at odds with Sweden's figure skating association, who required them to pay for their own seats. As a result, they were critical of nearly everything, from the skating to the judging to the organization of the event itself. Let's take a look back at the stories and skaters from this memorable event!

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

Of the women's competition, Olympic Gold Medallist, ten time World Champion and ISU President Ulrich Salchow wrote, "My impression was that, as a class, the Ladies' standard was higher than the men's. Of course men cannot sacrifice the time which will be necessary to bring them to championship class. The effect of training of artificial rinks where there is no wind and the ice is very fast, making it easy to glide through figures, influenced many of the performances. Instead of skating through and showing a practical knowledge of skating, the fast ice scared several of the young ladies who performed correctly but in a lifeless manner. From the beginning and all through the figures, Barbara Ann Scott had the lead and not far behind followed Daphne Walker of England. Barbara's shoulder work made her glide on sharp edges and good pace through all the figures. She had good luck all the time and she certainly deserved it. Gretchen Merrill, from the United States, skated in good style; more bending of the knee would have given her better pace but her gracefulness and clean edges were well observed. Janette Ahrens of the United States was in the same class and little Eileen Seigh of Philadelphia, also appeared at her best with the exception of her foot changes and her search for tracings. Great Britain had sent a real troupe, and Daphne Walker was very soon in the group of competitors when the fight for victory took place. Her edges were deeply sharp, she understood how, by rhythmic use of her shoulders and free leg, to keep up a good speed all through her figures. Her steadiness was not noticeable. Her compatriots were of the same style. Gun Ericson and Britta Rahlen of Sweden were not up to expectations. Gun had had flu ever since Davos and Britta seemed rather out of form. Both, however, skated good loops. Czechoslovakia sent two young girls, Alena Vrzáňová and Jiřina Nekolová, from whom we shall certainly hear in future. They skated well, but lacked routine. Norway and Finland showed up with skaters who were good but not good enough for the World competition. The evening show of free skating on Sunday, February 16th, 1947 was brilliant! What the ladies gave was a demonstration of the highest class of skating, gracefulness, courage and good taste. Barbara Ann Scott was the girl of the lucky strike. She combined her difficult program in an artistic way where her stunts were mixed up in an astonishing surprises, all executed in an easy style as if she skated only to have a good time for herself! Gretchen Merrill made a deep impression, her figure combinations were so well placed and run out that not only was her talent clear but, it was evident that she was an artist. She had the misfortune to fall but this did not seem to go to her nerves."

Barbara Ann Scott

The women's free skating events in Stockholm in 1947 were actually held at night with quite poor ice conditions but the attendance was excellent. Barbara Ann Scott had a seventy eight point lead after the school figures but was still considered the underdog by many in the media who felt that Gretchen Merrill was a better free skater. However, Scott won her title decisively with first place marks from eight of the nine judges. Great Britain's Daphne Walker held on to finish second overall ahead of Merrill. Future Olympic Gold Medallist Jeannette Altwegg, also of Britain, would finish fifth of the nineteen ladies competing in Stockholm that year.

Interestingly, in the Canadian Figure Skating Association's first year as an ISU member, Barbara Ann Scott was Canada's sole entry in all three disciplines of the event. She was also so popular with the Swedish audience after her win that she got swarmed. In her 1950 biography "Skate With Me", she described how the medal ceremony thusly: "The spectators came out on the ice and Sheldon [Galbraith], who was holding my coat, grabbed me by one arm, and Hans Gerschwiler, who had won the men’s singles, took my other arm. No one said anything; they merely wanted a close-up view to see what we looked like. I saw what they looked like too. They looked very tall. This continued for half an hour. It was so cold that Sheldon tried to protect me by putting me into a little box in which the scorekeeper had sat. But some of the men picked up the box, which had wires attached to it. They were about to break the wires, so I got out and stood again on the ice. Then we started to push with our toe picks on the ice right through the crowd. The throng was most dense in the direction of the dressing room, so we walked in the opposite direction, toward a door we saw. The door was opened for us, I put on my skate guards, and, still on skates, walked through a long, narrow tunnel and entered a home - I think it was the caretaker's home. Anyway, there were people sitting around a table having a meal. We walked through more tunnels around the end of the rink, which looked, against the night sky, something like a castle with odd little buildings attached to it. We made our way along a street, Hans and I clumping along on our skates, and finally reached the dressing room by a back way. Mother was terrified. She thought I’d been eaten up by that crowd."


THE MEN'S COMPETITION

In the men's event, North American Champion Dick Button squared off against European Champion Hans Gerschwiler. The face-off almost didn't happen, because on the way to the event, the train Button and his coach Gustave Lussi were travelling on broke down. They jumped out into the snowbanks and hitchhiked their way to the arena. They arrived late and were initially told that Button was disqualified, but the mess was cleared up and he was allowed to compete. Gerschwiler took a decisive thirty five point lead in the school figures but Button rebounded with a thrilling free skate performance that was extremely well received by the Stockholm audience. He actually won the free skate and earned more points than Gerschwiler, but a three-two split in judges placements assured Gerschwiler the overall win. 


In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick wrote, "The fateful bell sounded again and it was announced that Hans had won. I was second. He had scored seven and I had eight in this placings. But there was more to it. The score was even closer. I had made up the deficit in points! I went beyond the Swiss by 352.86 to 350. But that didn't matter; it meant an E for effort, but Hans still won. He had a majority of first places in the votes of the judges - three to two - and that's what counted. Gerschwiler was ranked first by the Swiss, Czech and English judges, with me second. I won the Danish and United States votes, with Hans second on those cards... I congratulated Hans and assured him that the best man had won." South African born British Champion Arthur Apfel captured the bronze medal. In fourth place was European Silver Medallist Vladislav Cáp of Czechoslovakia and in fifth was the only men's competitor to have competed at a World Championships prior to the war, Denmark's Per Cock-Clausen.

THE PAIRS COMPETITION

Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet

The pairs event consisted of a free skating competition only and was won by European Champions Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet of Belgium. In second were fourteen year old Karol Kennedy and her nineteen year old brother Peter, siblings hailing from Seattle, Washington. A second Belgian team, Suzanne Diskeuve and Edmond Verbustel, claimed the bronze medal ahead of eight other teams from Great Britain, Sweden, the U.S., France, Czechoslovakia and Norway. It was a close contest between the Belgians and the Americans, and American judge Lyman Wakefield Jr. raised more than a few eyebrows when he placed Lannoy and Baugniet in a tie for eighth.

Clipping from "The Evening Citizen"

In an article republished in the May 4, 1948 edition of the "Ottawa Citizen", Ulrich Salchow made some further apt observations not only about the 1947 competition but about the trends in figure skating at the time: "The Swedish people are very interested and appreciative spectators. Barbara Ann soon learned, however, that they prefer the fast-moving, colourful type of skating to the more conventional and perhaps more subtle standards required by the judging committees. The official decisions were frequently greeted with loud disapproval. During the exhibitions spectators would beat out the tempo of the music with their feet in order to keep warm. The air of informality was intensified by the announcer who added original comments to the standard form of pronouncements in order to keep the crowd in good humour. The showmanship of the American competitors took the European crowds by storm. Judges of the old school maintain that the trick of racing the full length of the ice in order to attain a high jump is not in the best tradition of figure skating. Although a jump is allowed during a free-skating program, form and approximation to rigid standards are the essentials. Spectators are seldom aware of the technical points involved and usually prefer the more sensational type of skating. In the school figures, however, the American competitors all tended to skate slowly while the English and Continental skaters circled rapidly around a figure and described a somewhat smaller circle. In general, the 1947 championship events were conspicuous for the natural and sympathetic way in which skaters, parents, judges and sponsors from every country mingled and became acquainted."

Amazingly, it was at this very competition in Stockholm that Ulrich Salchow befriended Dick Button and gave him the trophy that has been symbolically passed down through generations to John 'Misha' Petkevich and Paul Wylie. In my 2014 interview with Dick, he explained, "I went to his house in Stockholm in 1947. He invited a whole group of skaters and all of his trophies were in a good sized room. He said, 'I don't want you to leave this competition without having a trophy. I want you to pick any one you want out of this room.' They ranged in size from one to two inches high to a big silver statue of Peter The Great on a rock. Of course, that's what I really wanted but I thought no and I didn't want to pick one of the smaller ones and insult him either. I picked the trophy you see in 'Push Dick's Button'. He won in that [at the World Championships in] London in 1902. Since it was given to me, I gave it to Misha Petkevich on the condition he give it someday to someone else when he felt that there was someone he admired. I admired Petkevich's skating very much so I gave it to him but I also had a copy made for myself. He gave to Paul Wylie and he did the same thing. When Paul gives it to someone else, each person will still keep their own copy." And so, at the 1947 World Championships in Stockholm, that trophy won back at the turn of the century bridged the gap of two World Wars and carried the torch of figure skating onwards for generations to come.

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 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.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Figure Skating Hodge Podge, Volume 5

As autumn creeped in the last four years, I introduced you to a Maritime classic: hodge podge.  If you've never had a proper bowl of hodge podge, you don't know what you're missing. It's a traditional Nova Scotian fall dish that uses nothing but the freshest harvest vegetables. It just warms your soul and I'm craving it already by just mentioning it.

Here in Atlantic Canada, we use the expression "hodge podge" to describe anything that's got a little bit of everything. Figure skating constantly evolves and changes that much that it's not always easy to keep track of all of the developments, stories and (sometimes) dramas that develop along the way. I've had several topics that I'd been wanting to write about for quite a while that all seemed to have two common denominators. For one, they are all tales that many people may not know or if they did, might not remember. Secondly, they don't all really have enough material to constitute a full blog of their own. Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a tour of compelling stories with a skating connection... an a delicious 6.0 finish!

THRICE AS NICE


With the rise of touring ice shows in North America in the forties and fifties, producers were always looking for the next gimmick. Stilt skaters, ice clowns, jugglers and acrobats all received high billing in tours like Ice Capades, Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice. Another popular trend was hiring skating twins and triplets. One such act which is largely forgotten by many today but was immensely popular at the time were The Burling Triplets.



James Henry Burling was an immigrant from Malta; his wife Alice Louise Gardner from England. They settled in Toronto, Ontario to raise a family. Sadly, their first daughter, Zena Barbara Burling, passed away in scarlet fever in 1922. Their dream of raising a daughter paid off threefold on March 13, 1929 when Alice gave birth to not one, not two, but three daughters: Gloria, Glena and Gladys. They learned to skate outdoors as children by playing hockey with their brothers and in 1945, they were scouted by ice show producers and joined the ensemble cast of the Ice Capades. Residing together in San Rafael, California, the Canadian born triplets became a popular element of every show. For well over a decade, they alternately toured with the Ice Capades and Ice Cycles, performed before the King and Queen of England and skated at Empress Hall.


By the late fifties, the sisters (now married) arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada and performed separately in skating shows at the El Cortez, The Thunderbird and The New Frontier. They even appeared with the George Arnold Ice Revue on The Milton Berle Show on December 24, 1958. By the late nineties, the widowed sisters became modern day Golden Girls, moving back in together in a Las Vegas trailer home. Gloria worked in a beauty supply shop, Gladys as a clerk in a department store and Glena at a gift shop in a hospital. They even continued to skate together for recreation. Sadly, Gladys passed away at age seventy five on December 22, 2004. As of 2015, Glena was still alive and well, attending an Ice Capades reunion. I was not able to discern much about the fate of Gloria. At any rate, we do not see many skating triplets these days. The story of these three young women from Ontario making a career for themselves in skating is a heartwarming one that could only come from a different time.

OF SOAP AND SKATES

Bishop and scholar Charles Wordsworth, in his 1891 memoir "Annals Of My Early Life", claimed to be "the first man in Oxford to introduce skates with the blades rounded off behind, in order to facilitate the cutting of figures backwards, and especially the outside edge." He also shared a very unusual encounter with a group of skaters who were members of the Johnian Society at St. John's College: "There was a small Society of Johnians at Cambridge, who called themselves Psychrolytes, because they rejoiced in bathing all the year round, in any weather, and in any water, however cold. I remember one day, when I went out to skate, falling in with two of them, G.A. Selwyn (afterwards Bishop) and Shadwell, who were equipped with skates in one hand, and a towel in the other, as they intended to bathe first, and to skate afterwards!" Wordsworth went on to explain that this chilly combination was made possible due to springs and currents which caused the ice to freeze unequally, allowing safe skating in some areas and swimming in others. I appreciate a skate and a bath as much as anyone, but I'd much prefer them in the reverse order...  and in much warmer temperatures!

REMEMBERING THE BÉCHU'S


She hailed from the Alsatian region in northern France; he from the south the Rhône valley in the south and together they were magnifique! Nathalie Hervé and Pierre Béchu reigned as France's ice dance champions five years in a row in the early eighties. They appeared at five European Championships and three World Championships, their best finish being fifth at the 1983 European Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. They retired after finishing a disappointing fourteenth at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, got married and took up jobs as coaches at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy and the Viry-Châtillon arena. On August 24, 1988, the couple and their daughter Johanna were returning to Paris after a judging seminar when they were involved in a head-on collision. Twenty nine year old Pierre and eighteen month old Johanna perished in the tragic crash and twenty four year old Nathalie survived, suffering several fractures. Though largely forgotten today, this talented couple helped grow interest in ice dance tremendously during their reign as champions and helped pave the way for the Duchesnay's to make their mark on the international stage.

ARSENIC, OFFENSIVE SPINS AND THE 1871 CARNIVAL FANTASTIQUE


There's nothing longer than an East Coast winter. Trust, me I know... sometimes they seem to go on forever. While the sun is shining outside, why not cool off with a look back (way back) at a skating show that captivated Brooklyn, New York in the nineteenth century - the Carnival Fantastique.

Held at the Brooklyn Rink on Wednesday, February 15, 1871, the Carnival Fantastique was at the time the largest skating show ever held at the venue. By eight in the evening, every seat at the rink was occupied and those wishing to stand paid at a premium, with over three thousand tickets sold. The February 24, 1871 issue of  the "New York Clipper" explained, "After the procession had marched round the rink the Car Of State stopped in front of the abode of the Queen Of The Rink, and at a signal from the gong the door of the Queen's palace flew open, displaying her little majesty, elegantly attired, standing amidst a blaze of coloured fires. Presently she stepped forth upon the car and taking her seat upon the throne the procession again made the circuit of the rink amidst loud applause. At last it took up a position in the centre and the grand coronation followed."

The show's star, John Engler, was known in skating circles as 'Jersey John' and was a tinsmith by trade. His performance was described as "the most skilful and attractive display given since the Meagher brothers appeared on Capitoline Pond." The two man act of Brady and Dollard didn't fare so well with critics. They were credited with being "noteworthy for grace of movement" but criticized for performing spins, which were considered to be athletic and in bad taste. Interestingly, performing the next month in the Empire City Skating Club's Carnival, Brady and Dollard were again criticized for their inclusion of spins: "Messrs. Brady and Dollard did some combination movements neatly, but they did not excel in other respects... The fact is, our experts confine themselves to the quiet style of skating, and in one respect turn themselves into spinning tops. Spectators prefer to see the dash of our field movements, as in the flying threes, and such displays as Engler and the Meagher brothers excel in." Imagine... a spin! How uncivilized! If they were outraged by what was likely a two feet or corkscrew spin, imagine what they would have thought about the haircutter, right? What never ceases to capture my attention as I delve into skating history is how attitudes and viewpoints towards what is and isn't pleasing to watch change over time. Even now, well over a century later, there are those who prefer athleticism and those who prefer interpretation... and just as the reviewer of Brady and Dollard's spins was entitled to their opinion as to what they did and didn't prefer, we all are entitled to our own.

FACT OR FICTION IN FRANCE?


The historical record of skating is full of fanciful tales, many of which can be well substantiated and others, well.. making for great stories. First appearing in the 1871 essay "Skates, Skating, And Skaters" published in "Good Health: A Popular Journal Of Physical On The Laws Of Correct Living" published by Alexander Moore in Boston and then later recounted in Robert MacGregor's British essay "Skating And Skaters", published in "Belgravia, a London Magazine", this tale of a French soldier on skates is a fantastic one: "During the winter of 1806, Napoleon, after the battle of Jena, wished to send an order with the utmost despatch to Marshal Mortier, directing him to make himself master, without of Hanseatic towns. The officer charged with this order found himself at the mouth of the Elbe at a point where it is seven and a half miles to the bank. To cross is a boat was impossible, as the river was coated with a surface of newly-frozen ice; to get over by a bridge would necessitate a detour of more than twenty miles. The officer, knowing how precious time was, determined to skate over the thin ice; and though it was too weak to bear a man walking, he skimmed along so rapidly that he got across in safety; gaining great honour for the ingenuity and boldness that enabled him to deliver his despatch six hours sooner than he possibly could have done by the ordinary route." Unfortunately, I was not able to find a single primary source to support the truth of this story but even if it is fiction, it's a great read!

NOVA SCOTIAN HODGE PODGE RECIPE


Sop up what's left with some nice hearty bread and be sure to double or triple up so that you have leftovers... this is always better the second day! This recipe is for four to six people:

Ingredients (fresh from a farmer's market or garden):

10-12 new potatoes – scrubbed/not peeled, and halved – quarter any large potatoes, and don't cut the small ones – you want the potato pieces to be about the same size
2-3 cups chopped new carrots – scrubbed/not peeled, cut into bite sized pieces (you can peel them if you like)
1 cup chopped yellow beans – 1 inch long pieces
1 cup chopped green beans – 1 inch long pieces
1 cup shelled pod peas – you want just the peas, not the pods
1.5 cups cream
1/4 – 1/2 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

1. Fill a large, heavy pot about halfway with water, and salt lightly (about 1/2 teaspoon of salt). Bring to a boil.
2. Add the potatoes to the boiling water. Cook for about seven minutes.
3. Add the carrots to the pot, and continue cooking for about seven minutes.
4. Next add the yellow and green beans to the pot, and continue cooking for about five minutes.
5. Finally, add the peas, and continue cooking for about three minutes.
6. Drain off most of the water – leave about an inch of water (no more) in the bottom of the pot with the vegetables. Return the pot to the stove, and reduce burner heat to low. Add the cream and butter, and some salt and pepper (I start with a 1/4 teaspoon of each).
7. Gently stir to combine, allowing the the blend and butter to heat through. As you’re stirring, the potatoes might break up a bit. As the the blend and butter heat through, the broth may begin to thicken. This is normal. Don’t allow the mixture to boil.
8. Once the mixture has heated through, it is ready to serve. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste. Serve with bread.

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.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Min And Mo: The Much Maligned Muscovites


"They were tall, balletic, as remote and glorious as creatures from another planet... Here were two people who were obviously man and woman in a relationship, with a story to tell." - Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, "Facing The Music"

Muscovites Andrei Olegovich Minenkov and Irina Valentinovna Moiseeva - or Min and Mo, as affectionately monikered by North American audiences - were a dominant force on the international ice dancing scene for a decade. They were twice Olympic medallists, twice World Champions and twice European Champions... and like all figure skaters to this day, they faced criticism. However, the sheer variety of critiques that they faced as a team verged on ridiculous.


Andrei, the son of two engineers, was born on December 6, 1954 and Irina on July 3, 1955. They both started skating in 1961 at the Young Pioneers Stadium in Moscow and were paired at twelve and thirteen by their first coach Igor Kabanov.

When Kabanov was offered a job with the Soviet Sports Committee, he handed his team over to the then inexperienced Tatiana Tarasova. Under Tarasova's watchful eye, Min and Mo's skating was characterized very early on by their flair for the dramatic. Stanislav Torakev, writing in the "Sovietsky Sport" noted that "Tarasova's style of mounting a number is theatrical - undisguised, open, rich. She thinks in images. Each of her dance compositions is a bit of a fairy tale - for adults." This was very much the case in Tarasova's choreography for Min and Mo. Many liked it; some didn't. She called these works "her experiments".

Irina Moiseeva. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Frank Loeser, perennial critic for "Skating" Magazine first took notice of the couple at the 1973 World Championships in Bratislava. He noted, "There was a dance couple who should have been observed by all of the free skating pairs... Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov, who displayed a classic concept of pair skating... Neither the man nor the woman shone above the other. There was a constant interplay between the two individuals. Irina appeared delicate, vulnerable and, at times, evasive. Andrei played to these desirable qualities with almost yearning tenderness. The message was inherent to their movement and it is such a quality that will make any pair shine." Yet, as the years passed, Loeser's critiques of the couple were all over the place. By that autumn at Skate Canada, he felt Irina "perhaps carries her arms too high, too long and is a bit 'Pakhomova' in the quality of movement." Irina's tendency to emote with her face much like Lyudmila Pakhomova led others to make the same conclusion that she was copying her more decorated rival in the team's career.


Suggestions that the team was bending - or even breaking - the strict rules of ice dancing at the time were constant. At the 1974 World Championships, there were allegations that some of the judges 'overlooked' an illegal lift. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted that at a year later at Worlds, "Moiseeva/Minenkov scrapped the OSP that had won over the crowds at Skate Canada for a new pattern and new music because a judge questioned if the Skate Canada version fit the blues category. The revised pattern was in fact not new. It had many of the steps of their 1974 tango OSP and imitated Pakhomova. Their beautiful, impassioned free program received very high marks for too much 'sob stuff' and 'two-footed work'... Courtney Jones (GRB) and Mabel Jones (USA) marked down Moiseeva/Minenkov in third place for illegal moves or overactive arms, but all the other judges gave them first... The legend of Mo and Min, the 'cursed', had begun, paving the way for the Duchesnay's in the 1980's. Irina and Andrei from then on would be asked why they persisted in presenting programs the authorities neither accepted or understood."


The "programs the authorities neither accepted or understood" included their one-themed "West Side Story" free dance, which flew in the face of the seventies ice dance convention of skating to a mishmash of rhythms, often badly edited. "West Side Story" won Min and Mo their second World title... but also split the judging panel at the 1977 European Championships. When they opted to skate a more traditional waltz two years later, people thought they were too conservative - which ironically was exactly the same criticism the Duchesnay's faced when they followed up "Missing" with "West Side Story". At times, it seemed as if Min and Mo were damned if they did and damned if they didn't.


Some felt they - or more accurately, Irina - skated in an over the top fashion. Copley-Graves noted that at the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, "Irina ignored the plot and died on Andrei's knee at the end as he moved dramatically around the rink, starting the fad for deaths on ice. She held the pose too long and they collapsed, turning the drama to comedy and losing, forever, the title." That same year, "The Globe And Mail" slammed the Soviets for their costumes. Nora MacCabe, in an impassioned plea for decency, replete with hand wringing, wrote: "The Russians, who dominate the ice dancing competition, were the worst offenders... In the opening dance, defending world champion Irina Moiseeva wore what appeared to be the sexiest dress, a black number with only a Band-Aid sized strip of material to keep the neckline from plunging as low as the briefest bikini. In the second dance, she bared her back almost to the waistline." In a letter to the editor, Sudbury's Virgina Parraga defended the couple: "I for one enjoyed looking at the beautiful twosome of Moiseeva and Minenkov in "The Globe and Mail", much more than the continuous deluge of the Emanuel Jaques case. Why attempt to change an art form such as skating into something ugly or lascivious? The next step will be the size and style of a ballerina's tutu; and Romeo and Juliet will be termed X-rated. Who are these self-appointed guardians of public taste, anyway?"

Photo courtesy Dutch National Archives

In 1979, Min and Mo left Tarasova and worked first with former rival Lyudmila Pakhomova and then with Natalia Dubova. Nearing the end of their competitive career, the criticisms were quite frankly all over the place. In "Ice And Roller Skate", Alexandra Stevenson wrote that Min and Mo skated the Yankee Polka with "his chin out and her doe-eyed, beseeching look - which was totally at odds with the spontaneous peasant gaiety called for in this dance." Wendy Sessions wrote that at the 1981 European Championships, she "couldn't believe the Russians' compulsories. They were all out of step and out of time. I couldn't see how they could get high marks." By the 1982 World Championships, Lawrence Demmy was of the belief that Andrei had the same technical ability of Christopher Dean, but he "was underrated in the shadow of his beautiful and creative wife." Interestingly, that year Min and Mo chose to skate to Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" in one section of their free dance, which Torvill and Dean would of course make their signature program two years later.


Despite being accused of everything from copying to illegal moves to inappropriate costumes to over the top choreography, Min and Mo soldiered on during an intensely political era in ice dance. They held their own with Pakhomova and Gorshkov, Linichuk and Karponosov, Regőczy and Sallay, Torvill and Dean and Bestemianova and Bukin. They also earned the admiration of many of their competitors. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were awestruck by their skating, recalling, "we just watched them open-mouthed... They came from a tradition totally different from the false, staid, uptight background that was familiar to us, the postures and steps that had dominated ice-dancing for a decade, since before we started." Toller Cranston described the essence of their dancing as an "flamboyant, melodramatic, over-the-top, overly choreographed style that the Soviets did well and nobody else could manage." Tracy Wilson raved, "They had grace, elegance and a sense of theatre... I wanted to skate just like them."


Min and Mo officially retired from competitive skating in November 1983 in a ceremony at the Prize Of Moscow News at the Palace of Sport in Luzhniki. Irina was pregnant with the couple's daughter Elena at the time. She graduated from the State Central Order of Lenin Institute of Physical Education, he from the Moscow State Institute of Radio Engineering, Electronics and Automation. Both coached in America for a time before returning to Moscow, where after a failed attempt at running a travel agency, Andrei went into business importing and distributing everything from chocolate bars to frozen shrimp and pizza. In 2001, he moved into producing dairy products - cheese, butter, sour cream... and of course, ice cream.


Reflecting on their competitive careers in a 1990 interview in "Patinage" magazine, Andrei said,
"Rules are not clear. One can interpret them as they wish. There should be more freedom. What is important is that the dances be interesting." Irina added, "There has to be a federation and some officials, but they do not have to interfere in sports programs. It was not our style to go from offices to offices to plead our cause. We preferred to answer on the ice. In spite of all the difficulties in our career, we have tried to apply our conceptions and in that sense, we have succeeded. But each innovation is painful." The wonderful moral to their story is that in the face of critics ripping them apart for a million different reasons, they stuck it out for the long haul and walked away with not only medals... but perspective.

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