#Unearthed: An Ode To John Curry

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time.

This month's 'buried treasure' diverts a little from the usual format of #Unearthed in that it's actually a recent article. German skating historian Dr. Matthias Hampe's ode to John Curry appeared in the November 2019 issue of "Pirouette" magazine and it's my pleasure to share a translated version with you all today.


John Curry (UK) would have turned seventy this year. In addition, it is the twenty fifth anniversary of the death of this legendary figure skater. These events provide occasion to remember his life's work and to appreciate its innovations.

The beginning of his career

John Curry was born on September 9, 1949 in Acocks Green, a suburb of Birmingham, as the third son of engine factory owner Joseph Curry and his wife Rita. The family lived in a villa at 946 Warwick Road, now home to the Arden Lodge Residential Home.  Already at the age of five years the desire for dance lessons matured in him. Because his father felt this as inappropriate for a boy, Curry chose figure skating as a substitute. He received this inspiration after seeing a television broadcast of the ice show "Aladdin" with ex-World Champion Jacqueline du Bief. His father agreed and financed the training, because on the one hand skating at this time was extremely popular and secondly because skating, with its upright rigid upper body position without interpretive use of arms, was completely 'above suspicion' compared to ballet. His son would be socially recognized as an athlete and not a dancer.

Curry began skating in 1956, often with only one lesson per week. He first trained with Ken Vickers and subsequently with Peri Levitsky at the Summerhill Road Rink. Figure skating offered him a possibility to escape a difficult childhood. After his fathers suicide in 1965 a financial emergency broke out in the family. Curry left school and moved to London, where he worked as a salesman at NCR and trained with Armand Perren. After disagreements, he left to train with Arnold Gerschwiler at the famous Richmond Ice Rink. Gerschwiler taught Curry according to the old school traditions, emphasizing deep edges and a high standard in school figures. In 1967, Curry became British Junior Champion; in 1971 Senior Champion. In 1968, he began taken ballet lessons. In London he also experienced his coming out and met his first love, the Swiss coach Heinz Wirz.

Disappointing international entry

His first major international entry was in 1970 late at the age of 20. He placed twelfth at the European Championships in Leningrad. He had also a disappointing showing at the 1971 World Championships in Lyon, when he fell on his both triple jumps Salchow and Loop. In result he switched coaches to Alison Smith. She referred to him in a television interview as a talented but difficult student, who was hardly capable of criticism and was reluctant to be corrected. Slavka Kohout acted as his choreographer. Coaches were more akin to allies and advisors to Curry. His first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1972 was a tragedy. After 8th place in the compulsory figures competition, he dropped back to 11th place in the overall standings after another falls on his triple jumps in the free program. To end his jump weakness, Curry went new ways. After the World Championships in Bratislava in 1973, he signed a sponsorship deal with Edwin Mosler (USA) and then trained with the internationally successful champion coach Gustave Lussi in Lake Placid and from 1975 Carlo and Christa Fassi in Colorado Springs, where he triggered a debate about his amateurism. Curry's plan was that Lussi improve his jumping and pirouette techniques. The Fassi's should give the presentation the final touches and tie up the necessary overall sports policy package.

Finally , this change to a more professional training environment formed the basis of his positive performance development. From 1972 to 1976, he steadily increased his rank at the European Championships from 1972 to 1976. In 1974 he won with bronze medal at the European Championships, his first, major international medal.

Figure skating as an artistic form of expression

Men's skating was in crisis at the beginning of the 70's. There was an overemphasis on upright posture, long prepared jump entrances, lacking transitions, simple spins and flaws   in the triple jumps. As a result of the uniformity of the program design and the numerous technical errors, the number of spectators declined rapidly. Men's figure skating became the least attended discipline at ISU Championships. Into this vacuum came Toller Cranston (Canada) and John Curry. At that time they seemed like a revelation. While Cranston broke the doctrines of the traditionally masculine style with eccentric expressive dance, Curry sought a synthesis of figure skating and classical ballet. He began in 1973 with a short program to an interpretation of Ferdinand Hérold's "La Fille mal gardée" and in 1974 in the freestyle skated to parts of Petr Ilrich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 and No. 6. Characteristic was his classically trained posture, elegance, absolute body control, precise lines, musicality and cool restraint. Every movement and all transitions were controlled and classically styled. In 1975, Curry went one step further with his short program based on Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and his free program to Claude Debussy's "Daphnis et Chloe" and Maurice Ravel's "Bolero". Since "Le Sacre de Printemps" is structured in a polyrhythmic way, Curry tried to reproduce the mystical, the threatening, of the musically described ritual - a mood - through head circles and wing-flapping movements. He dived in the slow part into a picture-world of spreadeagles, spirals, Euler sequences, footwork and slowly twisting spins. This music selection, his means of expression and transitions were completely avant-garde for amateur figure skating during this period. He thus provided for an enormous compositional compaction in the men's free programs. Also new in men`s figure skating was the variety of spins, whereby his spin combination with three changes of positions and one cange of foot change is to be particularly emphasized. Due to technical shortcomings in the landings of his triple jumps, he finished in 3rd at the 1975 World Championships. Although not quite fair, this was his first medal at the World Championships.

The media's dirt campaign

On the one hand, this development was accompanied by an ovation from the audience. On the other hand, some officials and journalists expressed disapproving and derogatory opinions about the alleged feminization of men's skating, probably based on fears of image or business-damaging stigma of figure skating as a 'gay subculture', and concern for young men taking up the sport. Kurt Neufert, the editor of "Pirouette" magazine, quoted from German judge Eugen Romminger in his report on the 1974 European Championships: "I do not like the style of John Curry. In the men's competition, I do not want to see a woman skate." All over the world, tabloids started a real dirt campaign. The "Bild-Zeitung" outed the athlete shortly before the Olympic Winter Games in 1976 as a homosexual. Curry had to fight this barrier of prejudice but the attacks hardly harmed him with the public. At the opening of the 1976 Winter Olympics, he was given the honour of being the British flag bearer. He was also voted "BBC Sports Personality of the Year". Ultimately, even the greatest opponents recognized Curry's ice-skating and artistic abilities.

Carlo Fassi's genius

The experienced Word-Champion maker Carlo Fassi was aware of Curry's main problems: lack of technical perfection and lack of interaction with the audience. He believed that the lack of consistency in triple jumps was based of his nervousness and technical overload of choreography. Fassi proposed psychological training to increase self-confidence and the development of positive thinking, sending Curry to Erhard Seminars Training. Secondly, Fassi recommended a withdrawal of artistic innovation, an more outwardly look and gestures into the audience and a simplification of transitions.  Because Curry knew that only the win of an Olympic Gold MedaI could secure his future as a professional, he agreed with Fassi's concept. At the 1976 European Championships in Gothenburg, he laid the foundation for a successful Olympic season with a flawless free program. In his first European Championship victory, he profited from the fact that the Czechoslovak judge Jozef Lojkovič broke out of the classic bloc rating and completely unexpectedly tipped the 5-4 majority of the 'Eastern bloc'. His new short program to the music "Variations on a Theme of Paganini" but especially the freestyle to "Don Quixote" by Ludwig Minkus formed the implementation of Fassi's concept. Fassi focused on effects, precise musical pointing and popular choreographic solutions. With Toe-loop, Salchow and Loop, Curry offered for the first time three different, flawlessly executed triple jumps, which formed the basis of his success. Long holds of landing position gave a impression of security and confidence. His jumps were a compositional component of a rhythmically precise performance. Curry also had four different spins - including a change sit spin with an additional change of direction – and various step sequences in his programs. This free program was a milestone in the development of the unity of theme, music and presentation. Curry thus became an Olympic Champion, World and European champion, significantly increasing his international reputation and thus his market value.

Successful performer and choreographer of ice ballets

After completing his amateur career, Curry didn't make the usual transition to an ice revue, instead establishing his own production company which made a significant contribution to the perfecting of ice ballet as an independent genre and the further development of artistic expression in figure skating. His venture began in 1976 with the television production "The John Curry Ice Spectacular". To further his knowledge and skill for implementing dance to skating movement, he sought collaboration with world-renowned ballet choreographers. He provided Norman Maen choreography to Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (with Peggy Fleming and Catherine Foulkes) and Alexandr Borodin's "Polovitsian Dances". Curry choreographed "I got it bad and that ain't good” and "Send in the Clowns".

Subsequently, Curry founded the ice-ballet ensemble "John Curry's Theater of Skating". The company included David Barker, Lorna Brown, Linda Davis, Catherine Foulkes, Jaquie Harbord, Paul McGrath, Robert Metcalf, Paul Toomey and Bill Woehrle. Kenneth MacMillian choreographed the "Feux Follets" (Franz Liszt); Norman Maen the "Jazz Suite"; Peter Darrell "Scenes of Childhood". From Twyla Tharp came "After All". Curry choreographed "Suite for a guitar". The performance venue was the Cambridge Theater in London. Curry was given ballet lessons by Joyce Graeme.

In 1977, the "Theater of Skating II" was performed in the London Palladium with five premieres - John Butler's "Icarus", Ronald Hynd's "La Valse Glacée" and "Winter 1895".  Curry supplied the choereographies of the dances "Folk Song Fayre" and "Petite Suite for Harpe". The company consisted of Ron Alexander, David Barker, Marc Battersby, Lorna Brown, Yvonne Cameron, Linda Davis, Catherine Foulkes, Angela Greenhow, Jaquie Harbord, Robert Metcalf and Paul Toomey. On March 12, 1977, Curry had to close his production company for financial reasons, which must have had a tremendous effect on his mental state. He then moved to New York and conquered in November 1978 with the production "Ice Dancing" in the Felt Forum on Broadway. Here he collaborated with choreographers Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux ("Icemoves"), Peter Martins ("Tango, Tango"), Donald Saddler ("Palais de Glace") and Robert Cohan ("Night and Day Pas de Deux from Myth"). From Curry came the choreographies of "Anything Goes" and "Moon Dances". The new company included Ron Alexander, Yvonne Brink, Lorna Brown, Jack Courtney, Deborah Page, Jojo Starbuck, Patricia Dodd, Catherine Foulkes, Muki Held and Brian Grant. After twenty three celebrated performances Curry had to stop the show due to massive weight loss.

After a break for medical treatment Curry appeared as Harry Beaton in the musical "Brigadoon" at the Majestic Theater on Broadway from October 9, 1980 to February 8, 1981. With the television company WGBH Boston in 1981, he realized the production: "John Curry Skates Peter and The Wolf and Other Dances" and in 1982 "Snow Queen". In 1981 he took also part in the World Professional Championships in Landover (USA). These World Championships were held in a new format starting in 1980 as a team competition. The participants showed a technical and an artistic program. Curry won with the team 'All Stars'. He impressed in the technical program with the dance "Sheherazade". The highlight of his artistic program "Nocturne No. 5" from the "Lyric Suite" by Edvard Grieg were two perfectly executed compulsory figures set to music.

In December 1982 he returned to the ice ballet scene under the name "Pro Skate". Performance venue was the Madison Square Garden in New York. He skated with Dorothy Hamill, Jim Bowser, Patricia Dodd and Mark Hominuke. The program included "La Valse", "Pennies from Heaven", "Trio", and "Blessed Spirit" all choreographed by Curry self. In 1983 followed the production "Symphony on Ice" in Vancouver with the dances "Burn" (by Laura Dean), "Nightmare" and "Vortex" (by Curry). The company included Lori Nichol, Jim Bowser, Nathan Birch, Keith Davis, Patricia Dodd, Jojo Starbuck, Editha Dotson, Valerie Levine, Timothy J. Murphy, Shelley Winters, Adam Leib and David Santee. In 1983, Curry realized "Wilhelm Tell” in the Dobson Arena of Vail. It was his first complete ice ballet piece.

In 1984, he created the "John Curry Skating Company" with appearances at the Metropolitan in New York. Among the company were Dorothy Hamill, Jim Bowser, Patricia Dodd, Bill Fauver, Mark Hominuke, Shaun McGill, Lea Ann Miller, Timothy J. Murphy, Jojo Starbuck, Nathan Birch, Editha Dotson, J. Scott Driscoll, Catherine Foulkes, Gabriella Galambos, Joan Vienneau, Adam Leib, Lori Nichol and David Santee. Of seven new choreographies, five came from Curry and one each from Lar Lubovitch ("Court of Ice") and Eliot Feld ("Moon Skate"). In a drive to implement better ideas, Curry increasingly choreographed pieces himself: "Butterfly", "Chopin’s Waltz No.7", "Presto Barbero", "Fireworks", "Winter Storms".

He was, despite setbacks and ongoing financial problems, in constant search for artistic perfection and public appreciation. For the twelve new dance creations of the subsequent tour "Symphony on Ice" Curry was responsible: "Sunset", "Gershwin-Pieces", "Lyric Suite", "Rodeo", Tarantella", "To the Stars", "Holberg Suite", "Blue Bird", "Chopin’s Waltz No. 7", "Glides", "Russian Sailor’s Dance", Sleeping Beauty", "Victory at Sea".  The show was performed in London, Bergen and Tokyo. New included in the company was Janet Lynn.

In 1985, came the last production "The John Curry Skaters" at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the dances "Remember Me" (by J. P. Bounefous), "Skating Class", "The Skaters" and "Six Debussy pieces" (by Curry). Members of "The John Curry Skaters" were Nathan Birch, Jim Bowser, Ingrid Blomström, Patricia Dodd, Editha Dotson, Catherine Foulkes, Gabriella Galambos, Mark Hominuke, Adam Leib, Valerie Levine, Shaun McGill and David Santee.

Retreat to private

Afterwards, Curry tried being a stage actor, with moderate success. He appeared, among other things, as Buttons in "Cinderella" at the "Liverpool Playhouse Theater", the role of Mr. Gradgrind in "Hard Times" in Belfast, the Duke Orsino in Shakespeare's drama "Twelfth Night" at the open-air theater in Worthing and Marlow in the comedy "She Stoops to Conquer" by Oliver Goldsmith at "Kings Head Theater" Islington. After becoming aware of his HIV infection at the end of 1986, public appearances became rare.

In 1988, he surprised many by appearing in Gudrun Zeller's New Year's Eve show in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with the numbers "Attila" and "Le Rosenkavalier". His last performance to "You'll Never Get To Heaven If You Break My Heart" took place in 1990 with Judy Blumberg (USA) for the Ice Theater Of New York. When his illness became worse in 1991, he moved in with his mother. In 1992, he gave "The London Mail" an exclusive interview in which he made his disease public. John Curry died on April 15, 1994 in Binton of a heart attack as a result of AIDS. The funeral took place in the Warwickshire Crematorium "Oakley Wood". But there is no tomb reminiscent of the figure skating genius, for his ashes were scattered, according to information from Curry's longtime colleague Lorna Brown. For anyone who wants to penetrate more deeply into the private and intimate life of the individualist Curry, I recommend the 2015 Bloomsbury Sport published the Bill Jones biography "Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry ", published by Bloomsbury Sport.

His effect on amateur figure skating

John Curry proved the fundamental importance of avant garde style, originality, individuality and body line in figure skating. His contact with the amateur skating world after turning professional was rare, but in 1979 he choreographed the free skating program of Susanna Driano (Italy) to Carl Czerny's ballet music "Etudes". As a choreographer, however, members of his company such as Lori Nichol, Lea Ann Miller and Bill Fauver continue to shape the artistic development of figure skating until today. So the vocabulary developed by John Curry lives on in skating.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Have Yourself A Merry Skate Guard Christmas

"When the winter days are come
And Christmas carols thrill the air
And snows besiege the farmer's home,
And pallid woods stretch bleak and bare,
Ice spreads a solid glassy floor
Across the lake from shore to shore,
Then joyous troops delight to wheel
And whirl upon the glancing steel."

- Isaac McLellan, "Poems Of The Rod And Gun Or Sports By Flood And Field", 1886

Christmas is upon us and it's almost time to wrap up another year of Skate Guard stories. Pour yourself a cup of holiday cheer and take a moment to yourself to enjoy this eclectic collection of holiday-themed stories from some of history's greatest skaters! 

A young girl longingly looking at a Sonja Henie doll in a shop window at Christmas. Photo courtesy USC Digital Library. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection.


Much has been written about Sonja Henie's omnipresent father Wilhelm. The World Champion track cyclist and fur magnate has been historically caricatured as the ultimate 'skating parent' who wheeled and dealed behind the scenes to ensure his daughter's success at any cost. Wilhelm was the basis for Jean Hersholt's role in Sonja's film "One In A Million", her chaperone and manager and even the person who signed at least half of the photographs brought to her dressing rooms by fans. Though loathed by many of Sonja's rivals - and perhaps with very good reason - his devotion to his daughter was unwavering. In the December 29, 1936 issue of "The New York Sun", Sonja said, "He was always so interested. He used to always come and watch at each competition. He was always there, always so enthusiastic. That made it all so easy."

When Wilhelm Henie died suddenly at the age of sixty five on May 10, 1937 in Hollywood as the result of a blood clot in his lung, at his bedside were Sonja, his wife Selma and actor Tyrone Power. His death was a huge blow to Sonja at the very height of her success. One story that illustrates he was by no means an ogre takes us back to Norway during the Great War.

One Christmas when Sonja was a little girl, all she wanted from Julenissen was a pair of single runner skates. When she woke up on Christmas morning, the candles on the tree had been lit and she and her brother Leif began opening presents. Her parents were shocked when she showed little interest in the dolls she had been given. Suddenly, Leif gave a cry of delight when he opened a box containing a brand new pair of speed skates. After every package was opened, there were still no skates for Sonja. She retreated to her bedroom to hide her tears.

The July, 2, 1938 issue of the "Long Island Daily Press" explained how her father saved the day: "Her parents felt her pain as much as she did. Her father made a sudden decision and called out to her: 'But there is still another present for you. I don't know what can have happened to it. I'll go down to my shop and see if I left it there.' Hurriedly putting on his hat and coat, Wilhelm Henie went in search of a sporting goods store. They were all closed on Christmas Day, but he found the address of one of the proprietors whom he had once met and went to his house. The proprietor was having a gay time in the midst of his family and was not anxious to leave for the sake of one possible customer. But, when Mr. Henie explained the circumstances, he was truly sympathetic. Together they opened the store and selected a beautiful pair of skates which they wrapped in a colourful package. Hurrying home, Mr. Henie found Sonja lying in her bed, trying to stifle her sobs. She reluctantly followed him downstairs and opened the package which he had left at the foot of the tree. Immediately her attitude changed. She yelled and danced with glee when the shiny skates emerged from the box. Rushing to her room, she changed into her winter play clothes and joined Leif who was just then leaving for the skating pond with his new speed skates."

The next day, a family friend happened to pass by the pond. There was Sonja, racing around the ice like she had been at it for years! He told her parents, who came down to see what all the fuss was about. It was then and there that Wilhelm Henie decided Sonja was "a born skater".


Toller Cranston (left) and Xaviera Hollander (right)

For several years in the seventies, famed former Dutch madam Xaviera (de Vries) Hollander lived in Toronto... and the author of the bestseller "The Happy Hooker: My Own Story" once ended up spending the holidays with Toller Cranston and Mrs. Ellen Burka. In his memoir "Zero Tollerance", Toller wrote, "Some of the wildest parties on earth, the kind you read about in the 'National Enquirer', were happening almost nightly. I attended a number of them. They were quite the most exciting events that I had ever witnessed. Curiously, they were non-sexual. The guests were interesting people who danced and smoked grass. In many ways, they were the groovy who's who of Toronto. Ellen, a former Dutch skating champion, felt sorry for the poor little Dutch girl in a foreign country. Well, the poor little Dutch girl was pushing fifty, I think, although she claimed to be thirty-seven. Ellen invited Xaviera and her brother to a Christmas turkey dinner. That was all rather titillating for me. I began to compile a list of sordid questions that I wanted to ask our guest, particularly about the German shepherd that she claimed, in 'The Happy Hooker', to have seduced in South Africa. It was not to be. Xaviera was more interested in Santa Claus and the candy at the bottom of her stocking that she was in furthering my sexual education. Sex never entered the dinner conversation. She left thrilled, and I went to bed bored and disappointed... Shortly before Worlds, Xaviera, like a kind of camp mother, threw me a party in Ellen's house. The most exotic specimens in the land attended - interesting people that I normally would not have had access to. Many of the neighbours must have been glued to the windows. I'm not sure whether Xaviera's species had ever before hit the North York suburbs. At exactly twelve midnight, when Ellen and I thought that maybe things were getting slightly out of hand, Xaviera sized up the situation and announced, 'The party's over. Toller has to get some sleep.' The party and the guests vanished within two seconds."


Philadelphia's Joseph Chapman made history in 1923 when he won the first U.S. junior pairs title in history with his wife Ruth. That wasn't his only thrilling moment on the ice. In his book "Fifty Years Of Skating", he recalled, "Somewhere within this initial period of ice skating, lasting from my first venture until the year 1900, I had my unforgettable experience of being the first to skate upon an absolutely unmarked and perfect surface of black ice on the Wissahickon Creek. The setting for this great thrill could not have been more ideal because it occurred upon a Christmas morning at a time when I had just received a brand new pair of the most approved type of club skates for a Christmas present. There had been two or three days of sharp weather - sharper and more sustained than usual - but it was with only a mere hope that I hurried down to the Wissahickon Creek that Christmas morning with my new skates dangling from a strap, hoping against hope that a certain stretch of the Creek which hardly ever became frozen, might, in fact, be possible that day. Sure enough, the park guard, whom I questioned, said that I could go on, and I made the first marks upon a stretch of ice without a mark on it, and so thin and dangerous looking that it seemed I was skating upon the very surface of the water itself. This was an experience I shall never forget and one which I have only been able to repeat once or twice since then."


Dorothy Hamill (left) and a vintage Head ski jacket (right)

As we all know quite well, the costs of figure skating mean that people often have to make sacrifices... especially at Christmastime. Sometimes, however, Santa works a little magic. In her book "Dorothy Hamill: On And Off The Ice", America's sweetheart recalled, "One day I was shopping with my mom and I noticed a Head ski jacket in a store window. It was white with a beautiful fox fur collar. I showed it to my mom who assured me that she would love to buy it for me but couldn't afford it right now. I understood but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I stood and gazed longingly at it every time I passed the store. 'Could I have it for Christmas?' I asked one day. Mom shook her head. 'I wish I could say yes, Dorothy, but I can't. Not this year. It's ninety dollars.' I talked about the coat at the club and described what it looked like. My arch rival overhead the conversation and a week later she came in Skyrink wearing the coveted jacket. I was crushed. When I went home and told my mother, she was full of sympathy, knowing the kind of social pressures that existed in the club, but was unable to do anything to help... Nationals that year were held in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I was ready for them. I was third after school figures and Sonya [Dunfield] was ecstatic. I was, she felt, perfectly placed to move up. The free skating competition went smoothly. I skated as well as I knew how, and as I came off the ice Sonya gave me a hug. 'I think you did it!' she said. But it was not to be. I got my first taste of skating politics that day. In spite of a good performance I was awarded mediocre marks and finished second to Juli McKinstry... As I came out of the dressing room after the free skating, my mom came up with something draped over her arm. It was the Head ski jacket with the fox collar - the one I had coveted since the fall. She put it around my shoulders and gave me a hug. 'I didn't quite make it for Christmas,' she said, 'but I think it was worth waiting for.'"

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Under The Christmas Tree

Holiday gift-giving becomes a pricier spectacle with each passing year. Stockings are no longer stuffed with oranges and penny candy; they contain Amazon gift cards and NatureBox subscriptions. Barbara Ann Scott dolls have been replaced with iTunes cards. For many, less is not more.

In your last minute holiday shopping, you may be wondering what you get the skater that has everything? It's a question that people have been struggling with for decades. Today's blog is a little nostalgic collection of advertisements of the kinds of goodies skaters would hope to find under the Christmas tree in the fifties.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine 

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

What kinds of skating-themed gifts did find under the Christmas tree in your youth? Do any of these advertisements mean anything to you? If so, fire off an e-mail! I'd love to share some of your holiday skating stories in the next edition of Reader Mail.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

The 1935 Christmas Skating Tragedies

Rare painting by Jacob Gerritszoon Cuyp, circa 1630

Many of the nostalgic images we see on holiday cards today may seem like a quaint ode to the type of festive holiday that no longer exists. Popcorn garlands and wassailing have gone the way of the dodo instead of the turtle dove, much like the popular tradition of a Christmas morning skate on a glistening frozen pond.

In the days leading up to Christmas in 1935, the weather was unusually cold and foggy in Great Britain and ice formed on many ponds and streams, making outdoor skating possible. However, in just forty eight hours, tragedy struck four times on the ice... making for a grim Christmas for many.

In the town of Sunbury, sixteen year old Richard Basil Ross of Green Lanes was skating on the ice that covered an abandoned gravel pit near his home on December 23, 1935 when the ice broke and he was propelled into the water that filled the pit. Rescuers were hampered from coming to his assistance by thick fog and by the time they reached the young man he had drowned. That same day at Store Row, Seaton Burn in northeast England, eleven year old Robert Allen and his nine year old brother Joseph suffered a similar fate while skating on a pond near their village. While skating alone over a patch of thin ice, they fell through and drowned together in the pond's icy depths.

The third skating tragedy that occurred on December 23, 1935 happened during an ice carnival at Loch Leven, Kinross, Scotland. About fifty yards from the shore, on a patch of the ice that had been skated over hundreds of times that day by carnival goers, thirty five year old Daniel M'Pherson, an unemployed man from Kinross, and sixteen year old Alexander Fyfe, a Dollar schoolboy and M'Pherson's nephew, were plunged into the lake's chilly waters. The first to hear their cries was twenty one year old James Brady of Swansacre, Kinross. He dashed to the area of the ice where M'Pherson and Fyfe had fallen through to help when there was another ominous crack. He too was plunged into the water.

Rescuers formed a human chain to attempt to aid the three drowning men. As they warily crossed the ice, thirty seven year old George Harkness of High Street, Kinross, who was at the head of the chain, vanished into the water. The next skater in the chain, Alexander Marshall, grasped him but the ice broke again and he was also submerged. Marshall's life was saved by the third link in the chain, a seventeen year old Dollar woman the historical record only recalls as Miss Locke. She grasped his hand and along with the assistance of the fourth skater in the chain, William Tod, hauled him out of the water and on to safe ice. By this time, residents in nearby houses lined the banks of Loch Leven with lifebelts and ladders but it was apparent that M'Pherson, Fyfe, Brady and Harkness had all perished. Kinross residents arrived with motor car batteries and head lamps, flashlamps and storm lanterns to search for the men's bodies by boat. The bodies of Brady and Harkness were recovered just after eleven that night. M'Pherson and Fyfe's bodies were recovered early on Christmas Eve morning. The latter were identified by a police report made by their family, who had reported that they never returned from the skating carnival. In the December 24, 1935 issue of "The Glasgow Herald", an unnamed rescuer praised the heroic efforts of Miss Locke thusly: "She is an expert skater and took her place pluckily at the tail of the human chain, and digging the point of her racing skates into the ice she thus took most of the strain." The Scottish Skating Association met the following day and discussed cancelling the One-Mile Open Amateur Championship of Scotland, a speed skating race planned that day, in light of the tragedy. Ultimately, the decision was made to carry on with the event in light of the fact it was a national event. Donations were accepted for the families of the four men who lost their lives through the Loch Leven Ice Fatality Fund, organized by a local provost. Over two hundred and seventy five pounds were raised.

The fourth such tragedy - though not technically not a skating one - occurred on Christmas Eve on Rudyard Lake, a reservoir in Staffordshire. The victims were Douglas Rutter and Arthur Nirks, a pair of affable twenty somethings from the coal-mining town of Hanley. The Boxing Day issue of "The Scotsman" reported, "Nirks and Rutter, with two other men, had a small bungalow on the shore of the lake. They spent a lot of time in the locality, and the four of them made arrangements to stay there during Christmas week. It was intended to have a traditional Christmas dinner, and the bungalow had been decorated with seasonal bunting. Nirks and Rutter left the bungalow for a walk. Rudyard Lake was frozen but, though they had attempted earlier in the day to skate, they had discovered that the surface was not strong enough to bear them. When they did not return in time for supper, their two companions became alarmed. Though they made an intensive search, they could find no trace of either Nirks or Rutter. The police were informed, but in the darkness it was impossible to ascertain what had happened. In the morning the police made an examination of the ice-bound surface of the lake. On it they discovered two separate sets of footprints. These were followed for a considerable distance. Then, at an aperture in the ice, about eight feet in diameter, the footprints stopped. It is presumed that the two men had been sliding on the lake and had ventured a distance from shore to discover how far the ice would bear. The part on which they had been standing appears to have given way under their weight... The tragedy has marred the Christmas festivities here as the two men had been coming about the district for some time. They were very popular."

The moral of all of these very, very sad stories? At Christmas or at any time of the year, if you're brave enough to go skate outdoors on a frozen lake or pond - safety first! Tell someone where you're going, be absolutely sure the ice is at least ten centimetres thick and if in doubt, sit that skate out.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

A Little Hawaiian Skating History

Before commercial flights changed the way people travelled, Hawaii was one of the most remote destinations on earth. It took over nine hours to reach by propeller airplane from the West Coast of the United States or over five days by ship. Cut off from the outside world to some degree, one would think that Hawaiians wouldn't have had much exposure to winter sports in the days before television. As we'll see in today's blog, the skating history of The Aloha State goes back further than one might think.

Lake Waiau, a ten foot deep lake of about an acre in size at thirteen thousand feet on Mauna Kea, was first discovered to have ice in 1906. The "Ka Nupepa Kuokoa" noted that when Eben Low of Waimea visited the lake, he said it was "perfect for having fun ice skating". By the thirties, locals who weren't scared of a little altitude made the trip to do just that. L.W. Bryan, Associate Forester with the Paradise of the Pacific, wrote in 1939, "During the winter months the lake is usually covered with ice and frequently with snow. Even during the summer months a thin film of ice usually forms during the night but disappears when the sun comes up. In the winter the ice is often thick enough to hold the weight of several people and it is possible to enjoy ice skating thereon." Bryan and his compatriots borrowed skates from the Humuula Sheep Station in nearby Kalaieha. Soon magazines began (often inaccurately) boasting of the "tropical ice skating rink" at Lake Waiau. According to legends, the Lake was a bottomless portal to the spirit world and its water was supposed to be healing, as it was associated with the Hawaiian god Kane.

Lake Waiau

In 1926, Alice Cooper Bailey, a California born writer who grew up in Hawaii and graduated from Oahu College in Honolulu penned "The Skating Gander", a children's book about a feathered friend's skating adventures.

In 1938, E.K. Fernandez - known as The Barnum Of The Pacific - featured the first travelling Hawaiian ice show in his carnival. The 'Ice Frolics' was performed on tank ice under a forty by sixty foot canvas tent at the Maui County Fair. British pairs skaters Rona and Cliff Thaell recalled skating in Honolulu "when the temperature was well over the 100 degree mark and regaled themselves by eating pineapple frozen into their portable artificial rink for decorative purposes."

The October 26, 1938 issue of "The Star Of Hawaii" reported, "E.K. Fernandez, Hawaii's popular showman, has brought the best show to Hilo this year that has ever been seen here and it is attracting big crowds to the Davies lot where the show is being held. It is being sponsored by the Elks lodge of Hilo. The Ice Frolics is the leading attraction and is a marvellous show, something the people of Hawaii have never seen before. Imagine skating on real ice in a tropical country like this. The ice is produced artificially by a unique system of freezing. The rink is large enough for the entire troupe to perform at one time. The ice ballet of pretty girls is well worth the price of admission alone. The troupe contains some of the best fancy skaters in the world, many of them internationally famous. Everybody should see this wonderful show while it is here as it will be a long time before such another treat will be offered the people of the Big Island."

E.K. Fernandez continued his shows until at least 1950, featuring skaters such as Dot McCusker and April and Roy Schramm. He faced competition when Mark Traversino brought a small ice unit to Honolulu in 1949. Traversino's production, "Ice Classics", later played in Guam and Manila but didn't draw huge crowds.

Sonja Henie

While vacationing at the Royal Hawaiian Tour hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1940, Sonja Henie went to go see Hilo Hattie - the woman who inspired Sonja's own world famous Hula dance. While Henie was Hula-ing it up in America later on during the War, her husband Dan Topping was stationed as a marine Captain in Honolulu.

Sonja Henie and Dan Topping weren't the only ones with Hawaiian connection during the second World War. Six time U.S. Champion (in singles and pairs) Joan Tozzer, whose mother lived in Hawaii, had moved there in 1939. During the War, she survived the Pearl Harbor attack and joined the Army's Woman's Air Raid Defense and the USO, aiding in the war effort by working in a top-secret, underground mapping program. Ramona Allen McIntyre, a long-time World judge and U.S. Junior Champion in 1940, also lived there for many years.

The novelty of having an ice rink in Hawaii wasn't lost on entrepreneurs. Hawaiian newspaper archives reveal that a foundation was laid for ice rink in Waihiawa in December of 1939. American tabloids claimed that the following year Hawaii had two rinks but Sonja Henie refused to skate on either one of them while vacationing there. In 1951, Patricia Piilani Ono Nakama recalled that when her father was twenty years old, he and her grandfather built a skating rink, investing in two hundred pairs of metal skates. Whether this was an ice rink or a roller rink is unknown. In 1955, a reader from Seattle wrote to "Skating" magazine to share, "Land on Kapiolani Boulevard next to a drive-in theater has been leased as the site of Honolulu's first ice skating rink, to be called John P. Betro's Glacerium. Plans for the rink were announced in February by John P. Betro, who for three years owned and operated Betro's Ice Palais in Sydney, Australia. His plans call for a 200 by 300 foot auditorium-style building with a skating rink 90 by 200 feet. There will be a seating capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 spectators." One of the innovations at Betro's Sydney rink was an on-site hairdresser where could walk right off the ice and have their hair cut and styled. Whether Betro was successful in getting his 'Glacerium' in Hawaii off the ground or not is unknown.

The Honolulu International Center

Both the Ice Capades and Ice Follies came to Honolulu in the sixties, performing shows at the newly constructed, saucer shaped Honolulu International Center. As the venue wasn't equipped with its own ice-making equipment, the revues had to bring their own. In 1977, the 'This is Hawaii' Ice Skating Show was performed on 'iceless ice' at the California Midwinter Fair and at the Americana Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Among the stars was a Hawaiian born skater named Pat Waanoi.

The Ice Palace opened in Honolulu on September 28, 1982. Two years later, the Hawaii Figure Skating Club was formed. Since the rink opened its doors, it has been Hawaii's only permanent ice rink. The Hawaii Figure Skating Club's annual Skate Aloha competition started in 1995 and ten years later in 2005, Honolulu played host to the U.S. Collegiate Figure Skating Championships. It was the first time a national level championship was held in Hawaii. Whether or not a future U.S. Champion come from The Aloha State remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though... Hawaii's skating history is quite unique.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Henie Does The Hula

"Hula is the language of the heart." - King David Kalākaua

After finishing a grueling tour with her Hollywood Ice Revue in 1940, Sonja Henie checked into the Royal Hawaiian Tour hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii for some much needed rest, relaxation and romance before beginning production on her next film, the smash hit "Sun Valley Serenade". While on the island, Sonja went to go see a performance of Hilo Hattie, a chanteuse and hula dancer who was known as 'the Polynesian Sophie Tucker'.

Hilo Hattie (left) and Aggie Auld (right)

After the show, an impressed Sonja convinced Hilo Hattie to fly out to Hollywood and teach her elements of her dances beside her swimming pool at her Delfern Drive mansion. It wasn't long before Sonja transformed the Hula to the ice. Because a second opinion is always a good thing, she enlisted further help from Aggie Leilehua Auld, a Hawaiian hula dancer who appeared in the 1938 film "Hawaii Calls".

The Hula soon became one of Sonja's signature acts in her Hollywood Ice Revue. In fact, she developed four different Hula production acts over the years. She weaved her through "Sweet Leilani" from Bing Crosby's film "Waikiki Wedding", the Ulili Hula Chant and Frances Langford's "Lovely Hula Hands"... and 'borrowed' Hilo Hattie's own signature "Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop" for good measure. As an encore, she often performed to the Hawaiian standard "Little Brown Gal".

The Hula made an appearance in Sonja's 1942 film "Iceland"... and in a Quonset hut in New Brunswick. In the latter show, it was so cold she had to perform it wearing a giant Norwegian sweater. Audiences and critics alike raved about Sonja's Hula. In the December 17, 1941 issue of the "Buffalo Courier Express", Anne M. McIlhenney remarked, "The hula number is something to rouse a beauty-lover with delight. In it, Sonja dances with her hands. Yes. dances. She waves those beautiful doll-like hands like a hula dancer does hen hips, creating an illusion of swaying dancers of the tropics that is paralyzing in its sheer beauty. You could have heard a feather drop last night when the star finished this dance. The silence, thrilling in its impressive tribute, was broken by waves of applause - insistent in demanding an encore. Sonja obliged and those who were able to tear their fascinated eyes from her hands became aware of the perfect timing of her skating and of the difficult pattern she wove with her flashing blades."

Hawaiian musicians Andy Iona, Al McIntire, Danny Kuaana, Mel Peterson and George Ku performing with Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue in 1949. Photo courtesy Hawaii State Archives.

When Sonja performed her Hula numbers, she often had Hawaiian singers and orchestras accompany her... and was carried in on a giant canoe or float covered in flowers. Sonja was so 'Hula crazy' that when she and husband Winthrop Gardiner threw a summer kick-off dinner-dance for Hollywood's elite in 1951, she entertained guests with her 'very own' Hawaiian orchestra and a troupe of Hula dancers she imported from Hawaii. Among her guests at this black-tie soiree were Mrs. Louis B. Mayer, Marion Davies, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Nancy Sinatra, Ann Sheridan and her old beau Tyrone Power.

While Henie's Hula might seem hokey to some in hindsight, you have to remember that Tiki culture was becoming hugely popular during her era. Don the Beachcomer's restaurant in Hollywood introduced Californians to Americanized inventions of 'authentic Hawaiian food and drink' like the pu-pu platter, Mai Tai, mahi mahi and Kalanianoli - a rum and fruit juice cocktail served in a pineapple - and Eleanor Powell performed the Hula in the 1939 MGM film "Honolulu". In the forties, a franchise chain of Polynesian style restaurants called Trader Vic's was born.

Though some have argued that Sonja's Hula dance was an act of cultural appropriation, in her time it was simply the 'in thing' to do... and like everything, she gave it one hundred percent.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Remembering Benjamin T. Wright

Fours skating in Boston during World War II. The right two skaters are Gretchen Van Zandt Merrill and Benjamin T. Wright. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The skating world lost a true gem when Benjamin T. Wright passed away on November 30, 2019. He was not only an ISU Referee and Judge, USFSA President and chairman of the ISU Technical Committee, but one of the sport's most passionate historians. Without his kind and patient support behind the scenes, Skate Guard wouldn't exist... and that's no overstatement. Until just a few months ago, we had long conversations on the phone regularly and he'd often go digging to find just the information I needed. Many of the stories he helped me with with haven't even been published yet.

Benjamin was a fountain of knowledge. His two thorough and fascinating books on skating history are must haves. He was a man of strong opinions who told it like it was - championing the efforts of skaters and officials who left the sport better than they found it and frankly discussing the ones he felt hadn't. He was there when Dick Button performed the first triple loop and fondly recalled his good friend Cecilia Colledge, who coached in Boston for many years and once lived in the same retirement community he did.

Dennis Bird, Arnold Gerschwiler, Cecilia Colledge, Benjamin T. Wright and Courtney Jones at Richmond Ice Rink in 1985. Photo courtesy "Skate" magazine.

The very first test Benjamin ever judged was a 5th Figure Test, when he was barely twenty. The other two judges, James Tower and Thomas Vinson (Maribel Vinson Owen's father) were in their eighties. He continued to judge dance tests well into his nineties. He felt that the retirement age for ISU officials was too young. If someone still wanted to contribute to the sport, they shouldn't be forced out the door.

Though Benjamin often said he suffered from 'Rodney Dangerfield syndrome' - he didn't "get no respect" - he cared much more about his late wife Mary Louise receiving the credit he never felt she was given than getting a pat on the back himself. Mary Louise was a U.S. Champion in fours skating and judged dance at the World Championships twelve times. He remembered, "I had great respect for her. She made me a better judge and referee... She could take a novice class with twenty five in it, under the old judging system and she'd get it one through twenty five. People would say to her, 'Well, how did you do that?' and she'd say, 'I didn't do anything. I was just one of five judges!'"

Mary Louise and Benjamin were one of only two married couples to serve as skating officials at the same Olympics. He was a referee in Albertville in 1992; she judged dance. The other couple to do so was the Jakobsson's, way back in 1928. They never brought what happened at the rink home with them. "We never discussed her placings," he said. "I respected them. I thought they were right!"

Benjamin had a great respect for the The Skating Club Of Boston's rich skating tradition and had many wonderful stories about Maribel Vinson Owen, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Tenley Albright, Suzanne Davis, Joan Tozzer and skaters from Canada and all over the world who performed in carnivals there. He had grimmer stories too, like having replica trophies made for Gertrude Vinson in the aftermath of the Sabena Crash in 1961.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Two of my favourite stories Benjamin told were about John Curry and the early days of "Skating" magazine. He recalled, "When John Curry won [gold at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck], I said to him... 'John, you gotta go and defend the title that you just won at Worlds.' I said that to Dorothy as well. I said, 'If you don't do that, you're going to regret it for the rest of your life.' We had to go find him, he was on vacation someplace, and we got him to the Worlds and he won, and so did she... and I take full credit for that." In "Skating" magazine's early days, all of the photos and paperwork were kept in a bathtub and Theresa Weld Blanchard tasked him with going through it all and deciding what to keep and what to Marie Kondo. "Whatever I did, I had to make sure no one turned on the water," he laughed.

We can never 'turn the water on' skating's history. Skating's current incarnation is just a blip on a long and storied highway and unless we peer into the pavement cracks and challenge what we think we know, we'll never quite get a handle on the sport's complex evolution. It's now up to all of us to carry on Benjamin T. Wright's important work and trust me, he'd want it done right.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

The 1911 World Figure Skating Championships

Hungarian newsprint promoting the 1911 World Championships, depicting previous World Champions Gilbert Fuchs and Ulrich Salchow

In early 1911, Richard Strauss' opera " Der Rosenkavalier" opened in Dresden, Eugene Burton Ely became the first person to land an aircraft on a ship and the world's best figure skaters gathered in Vienna and Berlin to compete at the 1911 World Figure Skating Championships.

The women's and pairs competitions, judged by a panel composed solely of officials from Austria-Hungary and Germany, were held at the Engelmann rink on January 22, 1911. The men's competition was held from February 2 to 3 at the Berlin Eispalast. Let's take a look back at how these historic events in two cities played out!


Whether in 1911 or 2011, it's pretty rare for an entire judging panel to agree on the placements of skaters from the start to finish of a competition. However, that's precisely what happened in Vienna in 1911. Lili Kronberger, Zsófia Méray-Horváth and Ludovika (Eilers) Jakobsson all received unanimous first, second and third place ordinals in school figures, free skating and overall. Kronberger won with two hundred and eighty six points and seven ordinal placings, Méray-Horváth had two hundred and sixty points and fourteen ordinal placings and Jakobsson had two hundred and thirty four points and twenty one ordinal placings. Far from controversial, but that's not to say interesting history wasn't made. The aristocratic Kronberger brought with her from Budapest a military band to accompany her free skating program... an unheard of 'attention to detail' in those days. In a gesture of sportsmanship, Kronberger reportedly allowed her competitor Zsófia Méray-Horváth use of her band as well.

The January 23, 1911 issue of the "Neues Wiener Tagblatt" recalled the event thusly: "At 8 o'clock in the morning they began. At noon they came off again, and work was done [on the ice]. The judges still reigned with frozen feet and growling stomachs in their troublesome office. In the short break, the space filled with a distinguished audience. One noticed Wappen der Grafen Kálnoky von Koröspatak, in a box with the sport-friendly mayor, Mr. Heinrich, here with the wife and his two daughters. Ministerial Councillor [Oskar] Schindler and Baron Wetschl from the Ministry of Labor, Mars of the National Association and Eduard Ritter v. Lohr, the President of the Viennese Ice Skating Association taking their places... Fraulein Kronberger, the defender of the championship title [had previously earned] the epithet 'the little Lily' in 1907. How she has changed since then, physically and in her art! She is a lady and a finished skater... Her stiffness has disappeared and also some of her earlier principled mistakes... Only the expert discovers a few small deficiencies, such as the wrong physical attitude with the opposite three-thirds of her figure, which she has not yet fully mastered or the snapping of her large-scale 'male' paragraph. Fraulein Meray v. Horvath and Fraulein Eilers did not reach the champion in the compulsory exercises but both performances were far better than the Sunday before. Fraulein v. Horvath is close to the first class of women. She has her stereotypical style, which has a monotonous effect and seems false. Fraulein Eiler's skating makes you feel natural and unconstrained. It is not forced casual. She gives a very sympathetic impression and attitude. The three graceful ladies were applauded. The music started for the six o'clock [free skating] competition.  Miss Kronberger introduced her performance on the ice with elegiac translators. Then Waldteufel's "Les Patineurs" stated and the Budapest woman's dancing spirits seemed to be released... Without ever changing the territory of the ice skating, a formal ballet on the ice was transplanted by her movements.... We do not offer any exaggeration when we say that this was the most beautiful and richest production skated by Miss Kronberger, who seems to have artistic nature. In addition to this masterpiece, the demonstrations of Miss v. Horvath and Miss Eilers took place. There is so much charm in the tasteful style of the two ladies that the spectator does not become tired. The judges really had no easy work."

Though they won the World pairs title in 1911 by acclaim as the only contestants, Ludovika and Walter Jakobsson were still required to meet the ISU's standard of a majority of marks of 4.0 or better from the majority of the judging panel. They accomplished their task with ease, delighting the Viennese crowd in the process. The January 23, 1911 issue of the "Neues Wiener Tagblatt" reported:  "The pairs were one highlight of an interesting day. The two have already skated in Vienna in the previous year. They found applause and fascinated with their rhythmic, musical style and wonderful interplay. Their new program is of exquisite taste, the performance error free. You can hardly imagine the level of pairs skating could become even higher."

In conjunction with the women's and pairs competitions, international junior and senior men's competition were held for 'the honorary award of the City of Vienna'. In the senior competition, twenty year old Harald Rooth of Stockholm narrowly lost to Fritz Kachler of the Cottage Eislaufverein. Walter Jakobsson finished third, ahead of Karl Mejstrik and three others. The junior men's event was won by Berlin's Artur Vieregg.


Martin Stixrud, Dunbar Poole, Ulrich Salchow, Werner Rittberger, Richard Johansson, Andor Szende and Fritz Kachler at the 1911 World Championships in Berlin. 

Hard rain in Stockholm in December of 1910 forced Ulrich Salchow to head to Switzerland to train to win his tenth World title. Though he was happy to avoid "the punch and the smorgasbord" of a Swedish Christmas celebration, he lamented that the climate in St. Moritz "did not really agreed with me." Training conditions improved when he "went down to Mürren in the Bernese Oberland. The location is not quite as high, and my night's sleep, which in St. Moritz left much to be desired, came back and gave me new forces."

When Salchow arrived in Berlin, he found many of his competitors were "criticizing [and] gossiping about each other's faults and virtues." The only three of the men's competitors he claimed weren't talking smack about him were Richard Johansson, Martin Stixrud and Dunbar Poole. Poole was born in Northern Ireland and emigrated to Melbourne in his early twenties. He represented the Stockholms Allmanna Skridskoklubb in Sweden in 1911 but made history as the first Australian skater to compete at the World Championships.

The Scandinavian skaters were all at an extreme disadvantage in Berlin. There was only one Swedish judge, the rest hailing from Austria-Hungary and Germany. Norway's Martin Stixrud didn't have a judge on the panel at all. In the school figures, three judges had Salchow first, three had Fritz Kachler first and one voted for Werner Rittberger. Salchow recalled, "Each time I did a figure, it was a rush to see how to went." Rittberger received loud applause after every figure he performed, much to the irritation of Salchow and some other competitors.

Left: Fritz Kachler. Right: Richard Johansson.

The free skate in Berlin was even closer. A correspondent covering the event for the French magazine "Les Sports d'Hiver" claimed that Sweden's Richard Johansson had the skate of the day "surprising everyone, judges and audience both, with his free skating, rich of before unseen figures, which were often extremely difficult." Salchow, Rittberger, Kachler, Andor Szende and Johansson all received first place ordinals... but most of them were ties. Only one judge, Herr Panek of Austria, failed to tie two or more skaters for first place. When the school figure and free skating scores were tallied, Salchow, Rittberger and Kachler each had two first place ordinals and Johansson had one. By three ordinal placings, Salchow narrowly defended the World title he'd claimed the year prior in Davos... making it a record ten, a feat no other man has managed to duplicate at the Worlds since.

Ulrich Salchow performing school figures

A report appeared in the February 8, 1911 issue of the "Neues Wiener Tagblatt" describing the men's event thusly: "alleging the "In the compulsory exercises Salchow... skated cautiously but had extremely clean execution of the figures. His triple paragraph was the first, also the paragraph loop was very good... His performance was influenced by a bad attitude. He holds his head lowered, the free foot pointed upwards... Dunbar Poole had the most beautiful artistic composition [in the free skate] and succeeded in doing everything he could... Johansson stunned as ever with his brilliant and original program... Salchow had to follow Rittberger, who skated an extraordinary program with his jump. It was the most difficult and most important of all. Salchow overpowered the Berliner
still in difficult figures, but skated more uncertainly than usual. Stixrud revealed the true northern country style, and jumps with great certainty. He has learned a lot and is very much in his own right talented. Kachler disappointed. His program is difficult, but he does not understand all the effects. He pulls in, pulls out and also disrupts his attitude. The evaluation by the judges was quite uneven this time. It had only one common character: the judge's connections with the clubs. We take this occasion... to draw attention to the system that has broken down. Every artist 'brings his judge'. The Troppauer Eislaufverein has for three years, at the World Championship, set a shining example. Its judges have evaluated exclusively for the candidates who are club members." In 1945, Dunbar Poole recalled, "I believe Salchow himself would have been the first to congratulate Rittberger had he beaten him as the rest of the competitors, including myself, considered [it] quite likely to happen. I personally had nothing to complain of as far as the judging was concerned but was genuinely befuddled over some of the judges' placings of Salchow and Rittberger."

The Swedish newspaper "Dagens Nyheter" also criticized the event from start to finish, alleging that the organizers had stacked the panel against Salchow and that two judges had "an exchange about Rittberger... which is strictly prohibited." The circumstances surrounding Salchow's win in Berlin motivated him to reform the judging of figure skating in the decades that followed when he served as ISU President.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Axels And Applause-O-Meters: The History Of Audience-Judged Figure Skating Competitions

A woman celebrating a victory for the suffragettes - casting her vote in the first election where women could vote in New York City, 1918. Photo courtesy Library Of Congress.

Immersed in an age of figure skating competitions streamed live on the internet, YouTube videos, text messages, Twitter feeds and Facebook Live sessions, it is sometimes hard to imagine a time when audience members didn't have opportunities to instantly communicate their thoughts about a figure skating performance digitally. Sure, 'back in the day' you could boo the judges or even resort to pelting them with fruit - it's happened - but as a spectator prior to the age of social your voice as a spectator was in many ways more limited than it is today.

The first figure skating competition to allow audience members to cast votes took place at The Hippodrome in New York City after a matinee ice show on February 17, 1916. With more than two hundred and thirty votes more than the second place finisher Gerald Bowden, the winner was Arthur Held. New Haven's Walter W. Brewer finished third, followed by C.H.L. Veins and Adolf Windsperger. Votes were cast by ballot and the skaters were all professionals.

The idea of audience-judged skating competitions wouldn't be revived for over half a century. In the eighties, professional figure skating competitions like the World Professional Championships in Jaca, U.S. Open and the Pro-Skate tour of competitions began experimenting with including a 'public opinion' or 'audience' judge on their panels... either a local celebrity with no skating background offering a 'layman's' response to the performance they'd seen or a judge assigned to gauge the audience applause a skater received and mark accordingly. Like Krusty The Clown's Applause-O-Meter, these judging systems didn't always work out so well even though the concept was well-intentioned.

In the nineties following 'The Whack Heard Around The World', you sometimes couldn't turn on the television without having to decide which of two or three figure skating events broadcast simultaenously to watch and which to record for later. During this great boom of professional figure competitions, the producers of two events considered how directly involving audience members in the competitions they were watching would make them more invested.

The first televised figure skating competition to be judged solely by an in-house audience was the Trophée Lalique d'Or held in November of 1994 and 1995 at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy Stadium in Paris, France. Sandra Garde and Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding - skaters who'd never won medals at the World Championships or Winter Olympics - took home some serious prize money as winners. However, the concept of an audience-judged competition would take another year and a half to reach North American audiences.

Cord and Kirk Pereira of Diamond Sports & Entertainment, based in Boise, Idaho, pitched the idea of an entirely audience-judged figure skating competition to the good folks at CBS. The network executives ate it right up and on May 7, 1996, The Great Skate Debate was held at the Brown County Veteran's Arena in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Four thousand, two hundred and fifty three spectators attended the competition, where seven men and seven women performed one competitive program. Using computerized devices, the audience in Green Bay had forty five seconds after each performance to input scores from 9.0 to 10.0 for each skater.

Yuka Sato, Denise Biellmann and Katarina Witt claimed the top three spots in the women's event and Scott Hamilton, Kurt Browning and Paul Wylie were the top three in the men's. Kirk Pereira told "Amusement Business" magazine, "The idea is that all the skaters are world class and none of them are deserving of anything below a 9. The beauty of the concept is it becomes a personal decision. The true skating fan understands from a technical standpoint and sends a message of appreciation. But it also has a certain popularity component to it. That is the whole idea. Subjectivity has its place and application in any sport. This focuses on the audience and how they feel. That and the interactivity are the critical factors - bringing that subjectivity into the editorial content of the program itself."  In the May 9, 1996 issue of the "Times Colonist", Bill Leighton remarked, "Katarina Witt, [Nancy] Kerrigan and [Yuka] Sato were among many of the skaters who signed autographs for fans on their way off the ice. Hamilton hammed it up during a showy Vegas number that included back flips, costume changes and a pair of pants that lit up. People waved signs proclaiming: 'We're Hot For Scott'. Young girls yelled out, 'We love you Joe' to the long-haired Jozef Sabovčík. But like any good debate, there was a difference of opinions. Occasionally, the crowd even booed its own judging."

Broadcast live on ZDF in December of 1996, Rowenta Masters auf dem Eis in Frankfurt, Germany utilized a judging system similar to The Great Skate Debate. Three men, women, pairs and dance teams performed one competitive program and received scores out of 10.0 from a panel of three judges, headed by European Champion Norbert Schramm. Following the judging panel's marks, voting was opened to the in-house audience.... a concept was familiar to viewers of ZDF's popular game show "Wetten, dass..?", where audience voting had been used since 1987.  The audience marks were converted from percentages to points. If a skater received forty five percent of the audience vote, an additional 4.5 points was added to their score from the judging panel. As winners, Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko, Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, Denise Biellmann and Jozef Sabovčík split the lion's share of the eight hundred thousand mark prize money. In case you're wondering, that's over six hundred and thirteen thousand dollars in Canadian currency today... hardly chump change!

The Great Skate Debate returned as The Great Skate Debate II on March 27, 1998 on University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion after partnering with TWI, the television 'arm' of IMG. This time, eight women and six men participated and the innovation of online voting was introduced for the first time in history. Five thousand in-house seats were still wired with handheld computers for voting on a scale of 8.0 to 10,0, but viewers at home could input scores in real time via an Excite search engine server.

Prior to the competition, in-house spectators were quizzed on their skating knowledge so that the commentators could break down the scoring of "novices, fans and die-hards". Kristi Yamaguchi, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Rory Flack Burghart claimed the top three spots in the women's event. Scott Hamilton repeated as the men's champion, again besting Paul Wylie and Kurt Browning. Sadly, by this point in history the popularity of professional figure skating competitions was already starting to wane. Despite receiving favourable reviews and boasting some great skating, The Great Skate Debate II earned lower Nielsen ratings than the same evening's broadcasts of "Kids Say The Darndest Things" and "Candid Camera".

In the years that have followed, USFSA pro-am competitions, the Improv Ice Show/Championships presented by Disson Skating, CBC's Battle Of The Blades, ITV's Dancing On Ice, NBC's Skating With Celebrities, ABC's Skating With The Stars, PSA's Virtual Skate Off and the Young Artists Showcase have all allowed audiences the chance to participate in the process of judging figure skating.

Most recently, the ISU Skating Awards were launched and a Russian skater named Anton Shulepov wearing a tacky and offensive Holocaust-themed outfit was nominated for Best Costume. When the ISU got called out for the nomination on social media, they responded with a tweet stating, "The ISU regrets that by error the wrong costume (Free Skating instead of Short Program costume) of Mr. Shulepov has been presented for voting. This error has been corrected and the ISU sincerely apologizes for this mistake and the bad sentiments it has caused." The tone-deaf PR fail made headlines in "Time" and "People" magazine and led many to question the nomination process. After all, Shulepov's short program costume at the NHK Trophy was a rather forgettable turtleneck and pants. Of the thousands of skating costumes worn so far this season, we were to believe the turtleneck was apparently haute couture.

What role audience judging will have in the figure skating's future remains to be seen... but I think we can all agree its history is certainly interesting.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.