Thursday, 23 November 2017

The 1997 Skate America International Competition


From October 22 to 26, 1997, fifty five skaters from twelve countries convened at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan for the first Champions Series event of the 1998 Olympic season. Long before the days of Twitter, YouTube and live internet streams, those not in attendance had to rely on television coverage, newspapers, internet newsgroups and mailing lists to learn how things played out. The event truly marked the start of the competitive figure skating season, for in the nineties few skaters had opportunities to test out their new programs at obscure test events with names like the Fourth Of July Cup or Summer Camp Invitational. It's hard to believe that it's been two decades and that the stories from this event now have earned a place in skating history, but they indeed have. See how good your memory is and join me on a look back at this exciting event from twenty years ago!

THE PAIRS COMPETITION



Eight teams vied for the pairs title in Detroit, two of them former World Champions from Russia. After the short program, Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov and Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov were 1-2, with all but the Canadian judge placing Eltsova and Bushkov ahead of their Russian teammates. In the free skate, America's top team, Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen, sandwiched themselves between Eltsova and Bushkov and Shishkova and Naumov and managed to claim the silver in their home country. Ina and Dungjen's medal win was remarkable in that Dungjen injured his right thumb prior to their free skate when he caught it in Ina's costume during a lift. He was injected with a painkiller just prior to the performance and stood on the podium with it all wrapped up. Canada's sole entry, Michelle Menzies of Cambridge, Ontario and Jean-Michel Bombardier of Laval, Quebec, placed an impressive fourth.



THE MEN'S COMPETITION

In his nine trips to Skate America, twenty six year old Todd Eldredge had won four, including the previous three. As the defending World Champion, Eldredge was the odds on favourite to repeat as Skate America champion in the very state where he trained. However, he faced some stiff competition. At the time, the gold standard for men was a free skate that included two triple Axels. In practice sessions, two Ukrainians were attempting to elevate that standard. Viacheslav Zagorodniuk was landing quad toe-loops and Evgeni Pliuta was brazenly attempting the quad Lutz. Neither jump manifested itself in either of the young men's competitive performances. Eldredge took an early lead in the short program over a young Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, who wowed the crowd with a triple Axel/triple toe-loop combination and Biellmann spin. Zagorodniuk and Alexander Abt finished third and fourth while Pliuta imploded, finishing eleventh out of the twelve men competing, effectively taking him completely out of the running. Unusually, almost half of the field received deductions for silly errors on the three required spin elements.


Early in the warm-up prior to the final group of the free skate, Eldredge had a freak fall while skating close to the boards, popping his right shoulder out of its socket and lying on the ice for four minutes in agony until he was helped by coach Richard Callaghan and medical staff. In a prepared statement, he explained, "'There was a chunk of ice frozen to the surface and I was just trying to steer away when I hit it. I felt my shoulder go out right away. And then I turned over and I felt it slip right back in.'' Grittily skating through the pain without the benefit of a warm-up, he managed to win first place marks from all nine judges and his fourth consecutive Skate America title with a technically demanding free skate that included two triple Axels. Russian coach Alexei Mishin called him "a hero" and Canadian judge Mary Claire Heintzman gave him his first perfect 6.0 for presentation. Plushenko finished an impressive second, ahead of Abt, Scott Davis and Zagorodniuk. Canada's sole entry, twenty year old Jayson Dénommée of Asbestos, Quebec, dropped from sixth to eighth overall. Canadian Olympic Association criteria required him to place at least sixth at the event to qualify for a spot on the Nagano Olympic team.

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION

Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio and Anna Semenovich and Vladimir Morozov in practice. Leigh Meydrech photos.

Dominating the ice dance competition from start to finish, Americans Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow reclaimed the Skate America title they'd first won in Pittsburgh in 1994. Their only major competition came from Italians Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, who won their second Champions Series event medal, a silver. Third after the Golden Waltz compulsory dance and Jive OSP, Kateřina Mrázová and Martin Šimeček dropped behind Russia's Anna Semenovich and Vladimir Fedorov, who claimed the bronze despite recycling the same costumes and free dance they'd used the year prior. Canada's sole entry, Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, finished seventh of the eight teams who competed but made a positive impression with their imaginative free dance to music from "The Last Emperor" soundtrack.


Reviewing the event on the Skatefans Usenet group, legendary nineties internet skating guru Sandra Loosemore remarked, "I can't say I was particularly impressed with Punsalan and Swallow's new programs. [Their free dance] is no different than any of the other Latin-style programs they've been doing for the last N years. Perhaps they were not as technically strong, but I felt that Fusar-Poli and Margaglio actually had better presentation in the jive and a much more entertaining free dance."

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski in practice. Leigh Meydrech photos.

The women's competition in Detroit was a sportswriter's dream. Tara Lipinski, the defending U.S. and World Champion, was competing head to head with 1996 U.S. and World Champion Michelle Kwan... in an Olympic season. Both women skated well in the short program, with Lipinski attempting a triple Lutz/double loop combination and Kwan a triple Lutz/double toe. The latter came out on top with a refined, mature and packaged performance, earning 5.9's for presentation from all nine judges. If the short program was close, the free skate wasn't.


Kwan debuted her stunning free skate to William Alwyn's "Lyra Angelica" and Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie #3", choreographed by Lori Nichol and landed two triple Lutzes, a triple toe/double toe, triple flip, triple loop, triple Salchow, triple toe-loop and double Axel. Lipinski's free skate to "The Rainbow" by Carl Davis and "Scenes Of Summer" by Lee Holdridge featured some lovely choreography by Sandra Bezic, but fell short technically. Though she landed a triple Lutz and triple loop/triple loop combination, a fall on her opening triple Lutz handed the title to Kwan. After the event, Kwan told reporters, "Even in warmups, I thought, 'This is really going well'. When I got off the ice, Frank [Caroll] told me, `Don't be overconfident.' I knew I had been training really hard, so there is not much more I can do. I couldn't ask for more."

Moving up from sixth to claim the bronze was a young Elena Sokolova of Russia. Canada's sole entry after the withdrawal of Susan Humphreys, twenty three year old Angela Derochie of Ottawa, placed a disappointing ninth in her first international assignment in two years. In the short program, she skated to a piece called "Angela's Ashes", composed especially for her at Peter Dunfield's request by 1972 Olympian Mark Militano.

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, 21 November 2017

Kidnapping Barbara Ann And Other Tales From Truro's Skating History

When you drive along Canadian highways, you're greeted with signs at every exit enticing you to turn off and visit. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan bills itself as "The Friendly City"; Campbell River, British Columbia is the "Salmon Capital Of The World". If you're travelling from Halifax, Nova Scotia to New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island, you'll pass "The Hub", a town of just over twelve thousand called Truro. It's a charming little town best known for its Victoria Park and Stanfield's underwear, but it's not exactly a place you'd give much thought to when it came to figure skating. However, the skating history of "The Hub" is a storied and unique one, full of places and people certainly worth exploring.

Though skating on nearby marshes and Short's Lake would have been popular long before, the first known skating rink in Truro was an outdoor affair known as Spencer's in the 1870's. Though a curling club was established in the town in 1886, it wasn't until the autumn of 1899 that work commenced on the town's first indoor skating rink, the Metropolitan, which claimed to be the "biggest outside of Montreal". In reality, the Metropolitan was wider than the Empire Exhibition Rink in nearby Halifax but not as long, but with comfortable cloakrooms, acelytene gas lamps, a bandstand and a promenade for spectators it was certainly an expensive and lavish undertaking for a small town. Pleasure and 'fancy' skaters had the reign of the rink on Tuesday and Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, while the town's newly formed hockey club's senior and junior leagues occupied the rink on Wednesdays and Saturday evenings. 

J.H. Kent & Co. Limited, whose land stretched beyond the site of Truro's Metropolitan Rink. Photo courtesy Colchester Historeum.

In 1914, the Metropolitan Rink on Arthur and Pleasant Streets was eclipsed by the Tipperary Rink on King Street. In 1922, the Flemming Arena where the Cobequid Education Centre is located was constructed. The town's first figure skating club fell apart in February of 1963 when the Colchester Forum burned down and skaters were forced to skate outdoors on a rink on Walker Street... or not at all. Luckily, the Forum was rebuilt by the local legion less than two years later and Marie Cooper Matheson, a member of Truro's original skating club, helped establish the current Truro Figure Skating Club. With a huge thanks to Elinor Maher of the Colchester Historeum - without whom this short history wouldn't be possible - I was able to connect with Marie and learn first hand about the early days of figure skating in Truro. 

Marie explained, "I was the head amateur coach for forty four years, starting when I was fourteen in the old Forum. I had been out in Vancouver for three and a half, four years during the War with my father. That is where I learned. They had professionals out there and I could get lessons. When I came home, the only thing they were doing here was not really figure skating. Some of them were trying to do figures, and I remember old Dr. McCurdy - Dr. D.S. McCurdy - and Bertha Barnhill were elderly at the time. They were the two oldest ones and they used to do the Waltz. The only thing that anyone knew how to do was the Waltz. Of course, I had been doing spins and jumps and spirals and everything else. When I came home, everyone was wearing ski pants and things like that. I was in a little short skirt and a twin sweater set and I'd come out spinning and jumping and everyone was standing in awe. They hadn't seen anything like that before and they were all like 'show me how to do that'... so that's when I started helping everyone else. After I was married for ten years, I was head coach and I took some of the senior girls who showed promise up to Amherst one weekend. They had a coaching course up there. The girls took the course and they became my junior coaches because the club had grown from about fifteen members to about a hundred and some... and I couldn't handle them all. Then, of course, we started getting some of the Halifax people coming up. I remember Bruce Oland and two or three others and they would show us different things we didn't know and we would pass those down to the younger ones. We had a system whereby they had to progress and do so many things to advance to the next level [much like CanSkate]. We had different professional coaches over the years but I never turned professional. I never took any money... because I just enjoyed it."

Barbara Ann Scott

Of her many skating stories - and there are some great ones - Marie's biggest claim to fame was 'kidnapping' an Olympic Gold Medallist. She explained, "When I was on my way home from British Columbia, I stopped in Toronto for a week because my uncle was there. His best friend was a member of the Toronto Skating Club and every day he took me down to rink. They would give me my little patch I could do figures on. I hated doing figures! I remember one time I was doing a rocker. I was doing something wrong and I didn't know what it was. This girl next to me said 'Can I help you?' and she showed me how to do it. Do you know who it was? Barbara Ann Scott. I struck up quite a friendship with her and when she came to Amherst I went up to see her. She was going to Halifax and she was going to stop in Truro for an hour to have her supper at the restaurant at the old Truro station and then the train was going on. I went up and it was skating night in Truro for us and said 'Would you come down to the rink and just talk to the girls for a few minutes? It would just be such a thrill for them'. She said sure, got in my car and we went down to the rink. She took her little poodle with her - under her arm - and the kids were just enthralled. They were so excited!" She had Barbara Ann back to the train station in time for her to catch her train.
  
In the years since Barbara Ann Scott's visit, Truro has welcomed visits from several other well-known Canadian skaters, including Liz Manley and Nam Nguyen. Nearly a dozen of the Truro Figure Skating Club's members have competed nationally in the last twenty years, and last winter, the town opened a winter ice skating oval outside of the local library. It may not be a bustling metropolis, but Truro is a town with a unique skating history.

 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.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Papa's Got A Brand New (Skate) Bag

If you were a high school student in the nineties like me, it 'wasn't enough' to have a Note Tote. The 'in thing' was the zippered Five Star binder. You also couldn't 'just' show up after school at the rink with your skates in any old bag. The skaters that waltzed in pulling their 'rolly bag' luggage were the skaters that you took seriously. Though it's not something we often think about, the way that a skater transports their skates, guards, costumes and music to a rink is a bit of a status symbol... and believe it or not, one with an interesting history.

Vintage carrying case for ice skates

Though the image of Victorian era working-class skaters slinging their skates over their shoulders and trudging through the snow to the ponds isn't far off, serious 'fancy' skaters - ie. those with money - would sometimes make a show of taking their skates out of a wooden carrying case or bag. The January 3, 1891 issue of "Evening World" noted, "Those who purchase the finest grade of skates ought to have a case or bag to keep them in to prevent them from tarnishing. A fancy lined Morocco case is to be had for $2 and a chamois bag with two pockets, one for each skate, costs 75 cents. The chamois bag is as good as serviceable as the case, and can be used to rub off and polish up the skates when they are taken off." By the 1910's, skate manufacturers A.G. Spalding & Bros. sold cloth and felt double-pocket bags with drawstrings that had a division so that their skates would not clank together.


As competitive figure skating evolved in the first half of the twentieth century, live orchestras became less frequent during the free skating events. In addition to bags or cases for their skates, it became the vogue for skaters to show up at competitions with separate carrying cases for their records. These record cases were often decorated with stamps and decals from the various cities that the skater visited. And so, the perception became that the more decorated the case, the more travelled (and intimidating) the skater.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Interestingly, the first North American patent for a skate bag wasn't issued until 1948. Barbara Chour of Milwaukee's Skate Carrying Bag didn't prove commercially popular. The following year, West-Over Service Company in Colorado Springs began marketing the first skating bag "designed by skaters for skaters use". Their Skate Bag - which retailed for five dollars and ninety five cents - resembled a normal suitcase, but was collapsible... and monogrammed. Their advertisement in "Skating" magazine boasted, "Every detail to aid in the skater's enjoyment of his hobby has been thoughtfully taken care of in this specially designed skating bag. Just the right size for skates and you can carry extra costumes or equipment. The separate water-proof inner pocket fastens inside the bag. Made in an attractive, rich maroon water-proof fabric, the skate bag will be the envy of your friends."

In 1954, Frieda Alber patented a U-shaped Skate And Shoe Bag with a shoulder strap. In her patent application, Alber noted, "The transportation of ice and roller skates to and from the rink causes considerable inconvenience to the skater because of the rather large size of the skates, especially when the shoes are permanently attached thereto, and also because of their weight and usually soiled condition, especially after use at the rink. When they are brought to the rink in the usual piece of hand luggage, the problem arises of checking the piece of luggage with an attendant at the rink and when no such attendant is available, it must be left exposed to pilfering and stealing while the wearer is skating." By the late fifties, waterproof Skate Carrying Cases with plastic handles and brass plated locks were being sold by mail order.

Ice Originals By Lizette Skate Bag, circa 1960's. Photo courtesy Vintage Purse Museum.

With my days of Axels and double Salchows long behind me, I'm quite content to carry my skates to Halifax's Emera Oval in a beautiful Shutterfly tote with one of Toller Cranston's paintings on the front, gifted to me by Jenny Hall Engelka. For those of us who don't 'need' Zuca, companies like Zazzle offer up plastic rolly bags decorated with beautiful historical skating scenes. Whether you choose to seek out a vintage skate carrying case in an antique store or are a slave to your 'rolly bag', rest assured that it's what's inside that really counts.

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, 16 November 2017

The Original B&B: The Barney & Berry Company


"For one fifth of a century these skates have been before the public. Their durability has been proven by many years of constant use while the various designs, both of form and ornamentation, are of the highest, artistic excellence." - Barney & Berry's Catalogue Of Ice Skates, 1889-1990

I get requests for blogs on the history of skate making quite often and it occurred to me that it's been quite a long time - in fact, going back to the 2015 blog on The Starr Manufacturing Company - since I've devoted a blog to the subject. Today we'll explore a major player in early American skate making history, the ever popular Barney & Berry company.


The Barney & Berry company was founded at the old Warner's pistol plant near Springfield, Massachusetts. It was started by Everett Barney, a former supervisor of a small arms manufacturer during the Civil War who spent many a winter on the frozen ponds of nearby Framingham, and his old friend John Berry in 1865. Barney and Barney manufactured five hundred skates in their first year and later moved to Springfield, where they flourished in two locations for over fifty years.

The company was very much a skate making contemporary of the Starr Manufacturing Company and in terms of marketing skates for the masses, they were right up there. Arthur R. Goodfellow's wonderful 1972 book "Wonderful world of skates; seventeen centuries of skating" tells us that "The Barney & Berry company was in business until 1919 when the firm was purchased by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. of New Haven. At the height of its operation Barney & Berry were turning out 600,000 pairs of skates each year and employing 250 workers."


Hold up for a second. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company? You read that right. The same famed gun company started by Oliver Winchester and perhaps best remembered in modern day for the lore surrounding his son's widow Sarah Winchester and The Winchester Mystery House has a long lost skating connection.

The fate of Everett Barney and the reason the Winchester Repeating Arms Company bought out Barney & Berry was really quite depressing. In 1870, John Berry sold his entire interest in the company to Harvey and one of the Hervey Brothers, who coincidentally sold his shares to Barney as well only two years later. Barney was left to manage the company alone, a daunting task especially since he never recovered from the death of his only son, who perished of tuberculosis at the age of twenty six. Both of his marriages failed, and by the turn of the century he began to neglect the business. He was declared insane in 1913, and left his entire estate to the town of Springfield. At the time the Winchester Repeating Arms Company bought Barney and Berry, the firm was in receivership and the plant was in shambles.


To top it off, by the early twentieth century Barney & Berry's skates, though affordable, were facing stiff competition from other manufacturers, including Peck & Snyder, Sanford Skate Co., Kraft Co., Wirth & Bros, Stetson, Raymond, Behr & Mangels, Douglas Rogers, Gustave Stanzione, A.G. Spalding and J.I. Whelpley.


In the June 1968 issue of "Skating" magazine, Richard Stephenson wrote, "Despite its sad ending, the firm of Barney & Berry had a strong influence on the development of figure skating in the United States. It introduced skating to millions of people by providing quality skates at reasonable prices. Barney himself encouraged many of the leading figure skaters of the time, such as George H. Browne, an authority on the history of skating and founder of the 'international style' of skating in the United States. It is conceivable that, had it not been for the death of Barney's son, the firm of Barney & Berry would be producing quality skates today." One has to wonder if perhaps Everett Barney is one of the ghosts that now wanders the twists, turns and stairways that lead nowhere in the Winchester House, haunted by his own ghosts.

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, 14 November 2017

Loving Those Lancers


Ländler dance was a folk dance that combined the gliding principle of the waltz, the improvisational yodelling, clapping and stomping of the polka and the intricate pivots and steps of Styrian dance. It was performed by both couples and small groups in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia in the eighteenth century. It was believed to have been first translated onto the ice in the ice - anglicised as The Lancers - in Canada in the late 1860's.


In the early twentieth century, The Lancers reached their height of popularity in Halifax, Toronto and Ottawa following the publication "Dancing On Skates: How To Skate The Lancers" by Castle-Upon-Tyne English Style skater Colonel Herbert Vaughn Kent.

Skated in groups of eight to sixteen (four to eight couples), The Lancers were in essence a branch of combined skating that drew from elements of North American 'fancy' skating, the stiff English Style and early ice valse patterns from Austria and Germany. The figures had grandiose names like The Great Rose, The Grand Lily and The Grand Chain. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "A caller commanded the moves, and the couples executed 'Ransoms' ('Once-Backs' in England or 'Englanders' on The Continent) in opposite lines as if in a square dance. Lancer dancers thought in terms of north, south, east, west, and returning to home. The Lancers resembled a crude precision team trying to keep up rather than 'dance' in the sense Jackson Haines intended."


Reverend Francis Kilvert's diary offers several accounts of skating parties in Draycot Foliat over the Christmas holidays in 1870 where The Lancers were performed. He recalled how Lord Royston sulked after being corrected when he made an error calling the steps but that "The Lancers were beautifully skated. When it grew dark the ice was lighted with Chinese lanterns, and the intense glare of blue, green, and crimson lights and magnesium riband made the whole place as light as day. Then people skated with torches." Another man of social standing, Captain J.H. Thomson, praised the Lancers as a welcome alternative to being one of "those less enterprising persons who are content with merely travelling round and round the circumference."

In his popular book "The Art of Skating", Irving Brokaw remarked, "The chief points to remember in skating The Lancers are: First, to keep time; that is, for those who are skating to take their first strokes and make their turns exactly together; and second, to keep line; that is, when two or four skaters are skating side by side, they should keep their dressing. The appearance of a figure, where each skater may be skating perfectly himself, is quite spoiled if the skaters do not make their steps together, and if one gets ahead of another when they meant to keep in line."


As pairs and fours skating and ice dancing rose to prominence in the early twentieth century, The Lancers fell out of favour in North America. However, they remain a most fascinating footnote in figure skating's rich history... perhaps one of the earliest examples of just how complicated synchronized skating really is.

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.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Double Salchows In The Dark: How Skating Coped With The Blackout


"The standard of dancing is very high indeed. There about about nine dances done as a matter of course in the public dance sessions... The only departure from normal is the blackout which is very complete." - Jack Irvine, "Skating" magazine, May 1942

During World War II, the Blackout practice was serious business. To throw off enemy bombers, citizens in many countries were required to shield windows and doors with curtains, cardboard, tar or paint to block light from escaping. Street lights were dimmed or turned off and it was a common occurrence for city residents to report neighbours who, by keeping lamps on or candles burning, failed to properly comply, putting entire streets or blocks at greater risk of attack. Public spaces were often obvious targets and thus, many skating rinks only managed to stay in operation under Blackout conditions. 

When we think of the Blackout, one of the first places we think of is England. Londoners were forced to barely subsist on meagre rations and contend with fuel oil shortages and gas rationing. They spent more of their time doing War work and running at the sound of sirens to their Anderson shelters than they did living. For some, figure skating was their sole escape from this dreary existence and the Richmond Ice Rink was their mecca. The late Richard Meacock recalled, "Nothing during the War could close the rink. Allied servicemen from all over the world insisted that it be kept open. Besides the kids of London couldn't do without it. So special was the rink considered - a meeting place of discipline, excellence and fun without alcohol - that the government made a special order to black out the five hundred foot long building to allow it to remain open... After all, the Richmond rink was an institution where more than 4 million people learned to skate." Despite the Blackout efforts, a bomb was dropped through the roof of the rink. Miraculously, it didn't explode.

In her book "Figure Skating: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted that in Great Britain, "Each rink had a shelter. Skaters did not have to take their skates off during an air raid, but they were asked not to leave their gas masks in the cloakrooms." Before it suspended publication, "The Skating Times" published an article on air raid procedures. At the Westminster Ice Rink, the glass roof was shattered during one such raid. Skaters in Aberdeen, Dundee and Kirkcaldy continued to practice in similarly perilous conditions.


While skaters in Europe were practicing loops in the dark, in Canada and the United States figure skating was flourishing more than ever before. However, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 forced North Americans to wake up to the possibility of an enemy attack on home soil. Blackout drills were advertised to U.S. citizens were in advance and in fact, Blackouts were actually quite common during skating sessions at clubs on the West Coast. In December of 1942, the Oakland Figure Skating Club even presented their carnival "Ice Vanities" behind a blackout curtain. The stars of the show included Maribel Vinson Owen and Guy Owen, Bobby Specht, Freddie Tomlins, Norah McCarthy and Irene Dare.

On the whole though, the most affected American skating clubs were (quite obviously if you think about it) the outdoor rinks.  In his 1948 history of the Cambridge Skating Club in Massachusetts, Arthur M. Goodridge recalled, "With the war came the 'blackout'. In October 1942 the Club asked the Air Raid Precaution Warden of the Committee of Public Safety for advice as to how much the rink lights should be dimmed. A polite letter was received in reply but it included the statement 'We are sorry to inform you that all illuminated outdoor activity has been prohibited for the duration.' Fortunately the War Department on November 20th issued new and quite definite regulations permitting lighting by 40 watt bulbs with 900 shades at least twenty feet apart. A plan of lighting was promptly submitted by Howard M. Turner, an Incorporator of the Club, and an engineer. The Blackout Committee, fearing reflection from the ice, allowed the club to install one-third (19) the 57‘ lights asked for and only on a trial basis. With the shortage of materials and workmen these were not in operation until January 2nd. Eventually the original lighting plan was approved and men working in the coldest weather completed the installation. It is worthy of note that although these 57 lights, hanging low over the rink, gave ample illumination, they were practically invisible to a passerby in the street! Perhaps it should also be noted that before any of these lights were put up evening skating went merrily on by the light of a very bright street lamp over the fence."

Police notice of a Blackout in East Suffolk. Photo courtesy Old Lowestott.

Some perhaps didn't take the Blackout as seriously as they ought to have. In November 1941, Tasmanian skating rink owner Thomas Alfred Humphries entered a guilty plea to a charge of permitting light to emit from his skating rink during a Blackout test. The November 15, 1941 issue of the "Advocate" noted that this was the very first case of a business owner in Tasmania defying the Civil Defence (Emergency Powers) Regulations and that during the test, "A messenger, a boy scout, was sent to the rink to inform the occupier that the lights were still showing. No alteration was made. Five minutes later, two more messengers were dispatched, but the lights continued to burn until the end of the blackout." Mr. Humphries claimed that when the sirens sounded, he had been trying to clear people from the rink and thirty had refused to leave. He also claimed that he "was afraid that there might be an accident, and that he would be held responsible." He was only fined five pounds - the maximum penalty was five hundred - and sent on his way with the warning that he could consider himself as "being treated with extreme leniency."

We have all heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Hell, many of us suffer from it to some degree I think. During World War II, many English doctors began diagnosing patients with 'blackout anaemia': depression as a direct result of depression from the Blackout and poor nutrition. For many, a couple of hours here or there figure skating would have provided such a wonderful relief from that darkness. Then as it does today, skating saves lives.

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, 9 November 2017

The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Commemorative badge and pin from The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario was a competition of many firsts. Advances in technology meant that for the first time, a central music system was used to play music via a telephone system from a sound room at the main venue, the four thousand, six hundred seat Fort William Gardens to both practice venues, the Port Arthur and Current River arenas. It was also the first time senior winners were given an engraved lapel-sized pin in addition to their gold medal, the first time a skater landed a triple Axel at the Canadian Championships and the first time in almost ten years - since the great Carbonetto/Magnussen upset of 1969 - that a defending senior champion would be dethroned at the Canadian Championships.

A trifecta of Canadian coaching greats... Louis Stong, Kerry Leitch and Doug Leigh. Photos courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

History aside, the "Canadian Skater" magazine noted that the competition wasn't all roses in a review of the event in their Spring/Summer 1979 issue: "The major complaint was not the facilities or the well-below zero Thunder Bay weather, but the judging of participants. Judges were openly booed for some of their marks and at times the corridors vibrated with angry comments about the judging. But still the crowds came and the stands were packed." In today's blog, let's take a look back and see what all the excitement was about!

THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS

As was the fashion at the time, the top three in the novice ice dance competition remained the same from the compulsories through the free dance. Karen Taylor of Sarnia and Bob Burk of Ridgetown were the victors, followed by Wendy Birch and Danny Sorley and Carla Holdsworth and Herb Deary. Taylor and Burk's victory was remarkable in that the year before they hadn't even qualified for Nationals. A move to Toronto was apparently just what the young team needed. In the month's leading up to the 1979 Canadian Championships, they decisively snatched the Western Ontario Sectional and Central Canada Divisional titles.

Brad McLean

The leader after the novice men's school figures was Vegreville, Alberta's Troy Ruptash, with Port Moody, British Columbia's Brad McLean second and Edmonton's Ian Edwards third. With a fine free skate, McLean ultimately took the gold, followed by Windsor's Darin Matthewson and Ruptash. Further down the standings were some notable names you just might recognize! In fifth and ninth were 1988 Olympians Neil Paterson and Lyndon Johnston and in seventh was future World Champion and two time Olympic Medallist Lloyd Eisler.

Rosemary Barth and Keith Davis

Kerry Leitch students took the top two spots in the novice pairs event, which consisted solely of a free skate. Rosemary Barth of Kitchener and Keith Davis of St. Catharines claimed the gold; Penny Wilson of Ingersoll and William Thompson of Waterloo the silver. Representing the North Shore Winter Club, Bonnie Epp and David Howe were third. Leitch remarked, "I didn't expect the novice level to be as high as it was and I'd say it's one of the highest in the last five years. It's surprising. The standards are improving so fast." If anyone would have known, it would have been Leitch. His teams had won the novice pairs titles at the Canadian Championships for five straight years.

Pint sized Torontonian Tracey Wainman led the pack of skaters from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the novice women's school figures. An impressive free skater, the eleven year old coasted to victory with a program that included a full slate of double jumps, including double Axels. Bolstered by a second place finish in the figures, Ann Parfitt-Lewis of the Inlet Skating Club took the silver despite being fourth in free skating. Montreal's Nathalie Barrette was third and Katherina Matousek, second in the free skate, just missed the podium. People were already started to go 'Tracey Wainman crazy' in Thunder Bay, but the CFSA opted to keep her off that particular year's Junior World team, stating that they felt it was best that she prepare for the move up to the junior ranks first. Mrs. Ellen Burka concurred with their decision and praised her young pupil thusly: "I would say she has a computer mind. The way she skates figures, the way she thinks things out. She never asks, 'why do I do this wrong?' She knows almost immediately and says, 'I will correct it.' She doesn't even have to talk about it."

Despite stiff competition from Becky Gough and Mark Rowsom, Lorri Baier and Lloyd Eisler won both the short program and free skate in the junior pairs event and glided to gold. In third place were Bill O'Neil and Eisler's future partner Katherina Matousek.

Kelly Johnson and Kris Barber

In an impressive field of fifteen junior ice dance teams, Kelly Johnson and Kris Barber of Toronto led the way from start to finish. With no skaters from the area competing in the event, Johnson (a former Thunder Bay resident) was very popular with the local crowd. Nova Scotians Gina Aucoin and Hans-Peter Ponikau claimed the silver, followed by Ontarians Darlene Wendt and Wayne Hussey, Terri-Lynn Black and David Dunstan, Quebec's Sylvie Ethier and Jean Bernier and Vancouver's Tracy Wilson and Mark Skokes.

Kay Thomson

Twelve year old Charlene Wong, who was only ninth in figures earlier that month at the Eastern Divisional Championships, took a surprise lead early in the junior women's event ahead of Toronto's Kay Thomson and Vancouver's Yvonne Anderson. Thomson rallied back in the free skate to take the gold in her first appearance at the Canadian Championships. Anderson and Calgary's Kathryn Osterberg knocked Wong right off the podium. In fact, she ended up down in ninth. One of the biggest surprises in the event was Montreal's Jamie Lynn Kitching, who moved all the way up to fourth overall... from unlucky thirteenth.

Brian Orser in Thunder Bay in 1979

Sixteen year old Mark McVean of Ottawa lead the way after the junior men's school figures, followed by Campbell Sinclair of Ottawa and Mitch Giffin of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Interestingly, none of those three talented young men ended up translating their early leads to a medal in Thunder Bay in 1979. After the short program another young man, Kevin Parker of Campbellville, appeared to be the skater to beat. Instead, rebounding from a ninth place finish in the figures, Penetanguishene's Brian Orser made history as the first man in history to land a triple Axel at the Canadian Championships. In fact, he did two of the latter in his free skate. Parker dropped to second and Shaun McGill of Mississauga, sixth after figures, claimed the bronze ahead of Vancouver's Bruno Delmaestro. In his book "Orser: A Skater's Life", Brian recalled the excitement in Thunder Bay thusly: "It was my first competitive triple Axel, the first ever done at Canadians... The Axel was the talk of the town. It was the novelty of the skating world. There were huge headlines. People would flock to the practice sessions after I won, just to see me land a triple Axel, and I would oblige. I have to admit that I loved it all, but it was also during this period of euphoria that I realized the people would expect the triple Axel now, and I was bound to it."

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


Joanne French and John Thomas. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Patricia Fletcher
and Michael de la Penotiere
In contrast to the whopping field of fifteen in the junior ice dance event, only seven senior couples competed in Thunder Bay in 1979. As expected, Toronto's Lorna Wighton and Oakville's John Dowding defended their title with aplomb after spending the previous year training in Hungary. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "The top three placements from 1978 never wavered... Betty Callaway had improved Wighton/Dowding's compulsories. Lorna had very deep knees in the Viennese Waltz... Lorna and John's charming waltz OSP, coupled with exquisite choreography in their free dance to excerpts from 'Swan Lake', could not be surpassed. Their use of a central theme had such an impact compared to the multicut bits and pieces thrown together that talk of their dance spread worldwide." Patricia Fletcher and Michael de la Penotiere claimed the silver, followed by Nova Scotians Marie McNeil and Rob McCall, Joanne French and John Thomas and Lillian Heming and Murray Carey.

THE PAIRS COMPETITION

A young Barbie and Paul

In the absence of the previous year's champions Sherri Baier and Robin Cowan, it was fifteen year old Barbara Underhill of Oshawa and eighteen year old Paul Martini of Woodbridge's year to make a move. The unique team with two different coaches (Barbara worked with Anna Forder-McLaughlin; Paul with Judy Henderson) took a massive lead over Susan Gowan and Eric Thomsen of Vancouver and Lee-Ann Jackson and Bernard Souche of Cambridge in the short program, earning first place marks from all seven judges. With a thrilling free skate, Underhill and Martini won their first Canadian senior title. Jackson and Souche placed second in the free skate but had to settle for the bronze overall behind Gowan and Thomsen. Bowmanville and Oshawa natives Andrea Derby and Jim Sorochan finished fourth. Underhill and Martini's victory in 1979 marked only the third time in the history of the Canadian Championships that a pairs team had won the junior and senior titles in successive years.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

Vern Taylor and Brian Pockar. Photos courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In the senior men's field of eight, nineteen year old Brian Pockar of Calgary defeated twenty year old Vern Taylor of Toronto by a hair. How close was it? Pockar had ten ordinals and 80.40 points; Taylor eleven and 79.90. Both men skated extremely well in the free skate, but the judges ultimately opted to reward Pockar's more well-rounded performance over Taylor's eight triple free skate. Taylor's athletic effort earned a standing ovation from the appreciative Thunder Bay crowd and top marks for technical merit in the free skate. Taylor's loss was dictated by the fact that he had been sixth after the figures and short program. Pockar's performance was nothing to sneeze at in itself. He fought hard, saying he felt like he'd "run a five minute mile." Brockville's Gordon Forbes took the bronze, followed by Don Mills' Gary Beacom, Montreal's Daniel Beland, Coquitlam's Jimmy Szabo, Vancouver's Dennis Coi and Windsor's Kevin Hicks.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION

Janet Morrissey

In the senior women's school figures, twenty year old Deborah Albright of Toronto and nineteen year old Carleton University student Janet Morrissey led the pack, with twenty year old defending champion Heather Kemkaran of Toronto trailing in third. A clean as a whistle short program gave Kemkaran a three ordinal and 0.64 lead on Morrissey heading into the final phase of the competition. Morrissey rebounded in the free skate, earning first place ordinals from eight of the nine judges, the gold medal and a trip to the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria. Kemkaran was second; Albright third. In an interview in the February 5, 1979 edition of "The Globe And Mail", Morrissey exclaimed, "I just can't wait... 'I've never been to Vienna or anything. I'm just so hyped up... I put in one of my triples, one of my best efforts at it. And I had two double Axels, one in a combination... I did kind of a fluke thing at the end where I tripped on one of my jumps but, aside from that, I was really happy with the way I skated.''

The February 5, 1979 issue of "The Ottawa Journal" noted, "It has not been an easy road to the top for Morrissey. She was never one of those young 'phenoms' who burst on the skating scene with a big buildup and ride up the ladder in the early stages in a wave of publicity. It was easy to stay relatively unnoticed skating out of Nepean when the focus was on the Minto stars of the past few years. Lynn Nightingale was Ottawa's and Canada's queen of the ice, with a gracious manner, a great talent and a show-stopping personality on the ice... As Morrissey worked her way into the limelight there was never a suggestion from her that her talents were being overlooked by media, fans and particularly judges who aren't supposed to be influenced by reputation, but frequently are. She just kept working, smiling, skating and improving, believing that if there was any justice in the world at all that her day would come." It did in Thunder Bay.

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, 7 November 2017

From Black And White To Technicolor: A Bobby Specht-acular


The son of Oscar and Agnes Mae Specht, Robert 'Bobby' Specht was born October 22, 1921 in Superior, Wisconsin. His grandparents immigrated to America from four different countries and his father was a successful dentist with his own private practice. Bobby and his two brothers had a comfortable childhood, enjoying meals prepared by a live-in maid when he wasn't attending classes at McCaskill Junior High School.

Though he often whirled around the old Curling Club rink at Belknap and Oakes, Bobby didn't start skating seriously until he was thirteen years old, when he caught the attention of coach Frank Sullivan. Under Sullivan's tutelage, young Bobby became the sixteenth person to pass the U.S. eighth figure test. In 1938, he won the bronze medal in the novice men's event at the U.S. Championships in Philadelphia. The following year he captured the novice title. In 1940, Specht took on double duty, winning the U.S. junior title and teaming up with Chicago skater Joan Mitchell in pairs. 

Joan Mitchell and Bobby Specht. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Despite a rocky first year of competition as a pair, by 1941 it seemed the duo were hitting their stride as a team. Specht and Mitchell won the 1941 Midwestern Championships but an infected ankle kept Specht off the podium in his senior debut at the 1941 U.S. Championships in Boston. He did, however, claim the bronze in the pairs event. Patricia Alber's book "Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter" recalled Specht and Mitchell's free skate at that event thusly: "The Chicagoans hit the ice like a wildfire and, with Bobby skating through the pain and the crowd roaring, put in a performance blazing with daring and fight - yet slightly off. They left town bearing third-place trophies." The winners that year were Eugene Turner and Donna Atwood. Remember the name Donna Atwood... we'll be hearing more about her later.

Donna Atwood and Bobby Specht. Photos courtesy the 1953 Ice Capades program.

In 1942, a knee injury ended Joan Mitchell's career and Bobby turned his attention back to singles skating. He won the Midwestern senior men's title ahead of Minnesotans Arthur F. Preusch II and Robert Premer. At the 1942 U.S. Championships in Chicago, he completed his triple crown to win a senior title to go along with his novice and junior ones. Even more impressive is that through all of this, he was at university studying architecture.


With the World Championships put on hold by the ISU in the height of World War II, Specht opted to turn professional, tour with the Ice Capades and enlist in the military. The November 2, 1942 edition of "The Pittsburgh Press" talked of Specht's enlistment in the U.S. military: "While appearing here with 'Ice Capades of 1943', Bobby enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was sworn in. He was told that he wouldn't be called to report for duty for four or five months, so in the interim he will continue to appear with Ice Capades in its cross-country tour." During this period, he and his mother moved in with professional skating star Belita Jepson-Turner, whom the newspapers reported he was dating... although that wasn't exactly the case. In a March 2016 interview, Bob Turk recalled, "Bobby was very, very gay and never tried to hide it. He and Alan Konrad were sort of lovers for a time, but he never really had a lover until the end of his life."


After being discharged in the army in November of 1943 due to rheumatic fever, Bobby returned to the Ice Capades and again did double duty, headlining both by himself and with a new pairs partner... his former competitor Donna Atwood, who turned professional at the ripe old age of sixteen at the onset of the war. The two were paired by tour owner John H. Harris and starred together in ice ballets adapted from "The Sleeping Beauty" and Sigmund Romberg's "The Student Prince". They made the cover of "Life" Magazine and appeared on "The Colgate Comedy Hour", "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Steve Allen Show". Bobby even lended his visage to a newspaper advertisement by The Thomas Scalp Specialists on men's hair loss. During this period, Bobby was known as the host with the most. Whenever Ice Capades would come to Beverly Hills, he'd rent a house and throw lavish parties, attended by a who's who of the figure skating world. They'd often last until three or four in the morning.

Bobby Specht and Sandy Culbertson in John H. Harris' production of "Snow White"

In short, Bobby was kind of a big deal in skating in the fifties. When Donna Atwood retired from professional skating to raise her children in 1956, Bobby soldiered on and continued to skate with Ice Capades and club carnivals until 1964, when he broke his foot. He remained with the tour for a time, taking on the roles of the producer and publicity director. In these capacities, he worked with Bob Turk, who was once his understudy. Turk recalled, "Bobby didn't have any delusions of grandeur... nothing. He was the sweetest guy. When we were younger, he and I used to act like crazy fools. He called me Turkey."

Bobby Specht and Donna Atwood

Bobby also coached skating for a time but later turned to the bottle heavily and lost his vision. Bob Turk recalled, "He could have had eye surgery and he didn't and they just found him down on the floor." Bobby's death at the age of seventy seven on January 11, 1999 in Palm Springs, California devastated many in the skating community. His legacy lives on through the work he did in giving back to professional skating, which had given him so much during his career as an Ice Capades star.

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