Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"
There were really three categories of ice shows in North America in the fifties and sixties - big tours (like the Ice Follies, Ice Capades and Holiday On Ice), long-running hotel shows and small-scale 'for hire' outfits that staged ice shows here, there and everywhere. These smaller companies usually consisted of anywhere between four to twenty skaters and a small portable 'tank' ice rink. They'd set up shop in some of the most unlikely places - nightclubs and taverns, fairs, auto and industrial trade shows, sporting events and shopping centers - sometimes for one night only; sometimes for months at a time. The pay usually wasn't great, the work wasn't always consistent and often the skaters had to help with set-up and tear-down, postering and ticket-taking. If life in 'the big shows' was indeed glamorous, touring with a smaller outfit was often anything but.
There were over a dozen of these smaller-scale shows operating in North America in the fifties and sixties. Pioneers in this field like Ruth McGowan and Everett Mack faced stiff competition from California's George Arnold Productions, Georg von Birgelen's "Symphony On Ice", Wilma and Ed Leary's Leary Ice Productions, Blonda and Paul LeDuc's "Frosty Follies", Jo Barnum and Jane Broadhurst's "Almanac On Ice", Jack Kelly's "Ice Frolics", the "John Flanagan Ice Show", Earl Dunn's "Ice Royals", John Melendez' "Ice-A-Rama", Harry Hirsch's "Icetime" and Chicago and New York based units "Ice Varieties" and "International Ice Capers", which specialized in fairs and amusement parks.
Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"
One of the most successful and longest running smaller-scale ice shows of this period was "Jamboree On Ice". The show was the brainchild of Robin Nelson, a former Holiday On Ice skater from Chicago. Robin's first engagement was a production at a private Gaslite key club in Chicago run by Burton Browne. The show opened on April Fool's Day in 1955 and a two-week engagement turned into a year long run. The key club seated only eighty five people but its members loved the novelty of watching skating while drinking scotch and smoking cigars.
In the years that followed, "Jamboree On Ice" went on the road, appearing everywhere from the
Gregg Exposition and Livestock Show in Longview, Texas to Harrah's Lake Tahoe in Nevada to the Cocoa Beach in Cape Canaveral and Florida's first motel, the one-hundred room Starlite. The show only had four to six skaters, including Robin - who doubled as producer and star.
In 1957, Robin brought the show north to Canada for an engagement at the Rancho Don Carlos Cabaret-Restaurant in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In what would have been rare for the period, 'unaccompanied ladies' were permitted to attend the production. In 1961, the "World Ice Skating Guide" recalled one of the show's most unique gigs: "One of the most unusual experiences was an engagement at Chicago's 'Brass Rail'. You've heard of piano bars? Well, Robin at the Brass Rail placed his rink right on top of the bar! Using a tiny 7 1/2 ft. by 10 ft. rink the 'Jamboree' ice show was a success and became one of the most popular night spot shows. A Chicago reporter described it as 'ice skating in a phone booth'."
In addition to solo, comedy and adagio acts brought to life with flashy costumes and lighting effects, "Jamboree On Ice" set itself apart by including magic acts. In his book "The Magical Life of Marshall Brodien: Creator of TV Magic Cards and Wizzo the Wizard", John Moehring recalled, "When Robin had a ten-month run at the Gaslight Club on Rush Street [in Chicago], he had choreographed a sequence that centered on a classic illusion, the Temple of Benares. A tiny model of an East Indian temple glided onstage, and a skater crawled inside. A dozen sharp swords were thrust into all four sides and through the roof of the temple. Then, the front doors were opened, showing the girl had disappeared. The doors were closed and, as the tempo of 'Song of India' accelerated, the ice-chorines skated around the temple while Robin quickly removed the swords. A crescendo from the band, and the girl majestically popped through the roof doors of the temple." Robin had bought 'the temple' from a retired illusionist named Jack Gwynne.
"Jamboree On Ice" continued to operate what he billed as "The Largest Ice Cube In The World" until the late sixties, when the success of other productions began affecting Robin's bottom line. Though 'the big shows' are more historically remembered, shows like "Jamboree On Ice" have an important place in skating history.
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