ON ICE – I

Another Olympics. Another scandal. Some of the usual suspects…Russia/young figure skater.

This one had the best excuse I have heard in a long time, ‘I took my grandpa’s medicine by mistake’. But even with the tears and excuse, she finished fourth.

No skating scandal in the 1968 Winter Games though when Peggy Fleming won the only Gold Medal for the US, just gasps of awes. And those awes, some of them mine, were heard again every time she took to the ice in the Ice Follies.

Here is a reblog from the past.

Ice Follies 63This started out to be another KGB story; but then as I got writing I realized that large Ice Show revues are a thing of the past… just like vaudeville. So as I began to give a brief backstory to the intended story, KGB AND THE ZAMBONI, then I decided to delay it and write a longer version of ice shows as I remember them and as I worked them.

Back in the day when ice shows were full blown revues, ala Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, only on ice, and not today’s costumed skaters presenting a cut-down Disney movie, there were three major ice shows touring the country. Big shows. Big sets. Large casts that included solo stars, chorus lines, comedy sketches. And they used a large number of local stagehands. Spectaculars!

The original was Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies. It was launched by the two Shipstad brothers, Eddie and Roy, and Oscar Johnson. The three friends grew up in St. Paul, MN and were regular ‘Shop Pond ice rats’. The Shop Pond was behind the Great Northern railroad shop where the neighborhood kids had adopted as a rink for hockey and figure skating. It was on this pond that the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson worked out routines and entertained audiences who were standing in the cold at the edge of the pond, and it was here that a new kind of entertainment was created. The world of lavish ice skating productions.

The three friends started the company in 1936. They were featured in the Joan Crawford movies, THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939, starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Steward, hoping to compete with the Swedish ice skater Sonja Henie’s popular movies. It flopped and didn’t put a dent in Henie’s popularity, but it put Ice Follies on the map. Sonja Henie eventually worked with the two major ice shows that followed the Follies; but she never worked for Shipstads and Johnson, because they had their own stars.

Over the years they presented many stars of the ice, for instance the comedic skating duo from Switzerland, Frick and Frack. Prior to bring in this act, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson were the comic skaters, with their skid row routine. They were good but Frick and Frack were great.

Vastly popular, their stage names were adopted into the English language as a term for two closely identified people. Some of their routines are seldom performed because they are just too hard to do.

When Frack retired, Frick continued as a ‘solo’, using various young skaters as second bananas, who were never given a name as part of the act. One reason being the young skaters changed quite often. Some quit the act after just few performances. Frick was not an easy person to work with. He was very good but not as good as he thought he was. He was popular on the ice but not backstage. He was not friendly to his fellow skaters or the stagehands.

Roy Shipstad was a talented figure skater. He skated under the name Mr. Debonair. Recognizing that his age and front office work would force him to discontinue his Mr. Debonair routine, he scouted for someone to eventually take over the role. He found a youngster who was so good they didn’t wait for him to replace Roy Shipstad. They gave him a spot in the show under the name Young Mr. Debonair. He became a fan favorite from the start.

Young Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer, grew up in the show. Starting out as a preteen he continued skating well into adulthood. He went to high school in every city they stopped that had a Christian Brothers school. A few weeks here. A few weeks there. Had assignments to do from school to school. Got his high school degree working and touring.

Like Roy Shipstad, Richard was the epitome of a gentleman, before and after he dropped the ‘Young’ from his introduction, skating a classic form, dressed in a tux with a flower in his button hole. He always skated with six beautiful women in flowing gowns and gave out roses to women in the audience. And off the ice he was also a gentleman. A favorite of any one who worked with him, including the local stagehands like me.

Then there was a second generation Shipstad, Jill. Daughter of Roy, her routines were athletic and used some humor. Skating to music with a jazz beat, she seemed to be jitterbugging rather than the traditional graceful gliding.

One of Eddie’s son, Bob Shipstad worked in the front office and helped develop routines for the skaters. For one season the show presented Sesame Street costume skaters. When the Follies went full time Disney, Bob worked several years helping Vince Egan develop Sesame Street Live, (no ice skating), into the block-buster it is today.

Another star developed by the Follies was Karen Kresge. That gal was quite an athletic skater. And her routine was sexy with a capital S. Every male in the audience, that might have been nodding off, woke up when she was burning up the ice. In later years she, like many of the ice skating stars, worked for Holiday On Ice and also did choreography for both skaters and dancers. She worked with Woodstock Productions, a Charles Schultz company, for over 30 years. She was a great favorite of Snoopy, Schultz’s famous creation.

Charles Schultz grew up only a few miles from the Shop Pond albeit several years after the Shipstads and Johnson were on the Pond ice. Like many kids in that neighborhood Schultz loved ice skating all his life. In his later years he owned an ice rink in California and has an ice rink named for him in St. Paul.

(A little aside. Although Shipstads, Johnson, and Schultz grew up in St. Paul they had problems with their hometown. Feeling they were slighted at their start, the Ice Follies refused to perform in St. Paul. All their Twin City performances were in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Schultz had his first strip ‘Lil’ Folks run the St. Paul Dispatch and then in 1950 the paper dropped him. A few years later they begged to have him back, but he vowed never to allow his strip, now re-titled as Peanuts, run in the St. Paul paper and it never has.)

And my all time favorite figure skater is Peggy Fleming, Gold Medal winner in the Olympics. Three times World Champion. Went on to be one of the biggest stars of Ice Follies. And like Richard Dwyer, one of the nicest people to work with.Peggy Fleming

Such a sweetheart! I made certain I had the same task each time the show was in town. After she finished her routine I would hold a flashlight so she could ‘walk’ up the rubber mats on the ramp to her dressing room. She asked me my name the first time I helped her, and she always remembered it over the years, and thanked me by name each time up the ramp. And always with her warm smile.

She changed her act each season but the one I remember the most her all blue routine. The ice bathed in blue light. Peggy wearing a blue gown. The eight follow- spots spread around the arena capturing her every movement, every facial expression, in their soft pale blue lights.

And, even though the show trouped an orchestra, she skated this routine to a specially made tape of Frank Sinatra singing, IF YOU GO AWAY. Slow, sad, graceful skating as the lyrics lamented the thought of ‘you’ going away. Fast, gleeful skating as the lyrics changed to ‘but if you stay’. Back to the sadness of ‘if you go away, as you know you must.’ And ending in a slow face to black with the words, ’please don’t go away.’ Frank Sinatra singing a great song and Peggy Fleming skating in a blue world! The poetry of a real ice show.

Peggy married her high school sweetheart and they have two sons, and three grandchildren. She overcame breast cancer and is a spokesperson for early detection of the disease.

She keeps her hand in ice skating as a TV commentator.

Beloved by millions, her biggest outspoken fan was Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog. Charles Schultz devoted many a panel on Snoopy’s love for Peggy.

The Follies went downhill in a hurry as a lavish ice revue when the Felds, father and son, bought it. The father, Irving, was a show business promoter specializing in rock concerts . He brought his son Kenneth into the business and the two became big time promoters, with their flagship show, Ringling Brother Circus. In 1979 they bought Ice Follies and in 1981 they worked out a deal with Disney and Ice Follies was no more. The only big ice show now is the Disney costumed show centering around a Disney movie.

The Felds were not innovators but grew rich from the hard work and genius of others. The name Feld is not popular the show business community. The skaters of the Follies complained that the Felds were trying to make their show a circus on ice. They took acts like trained dogs and traditional clowns from the circus and introduced them into the ice show as additional acts that worked on rubber mats. They also introduced common circus practices such as low pay and disregard for their workers and performers. They helped grease the skids toward the extinction of the big ice reviews.

(In 1984 the Follies were doing their yearly stint in the Twin Cities. We had just finished up the between-acts preset and as we walked up the ramp we heard a lot of clapping and gleeful shouting in the dressing rooms hall. I asked a skater if what the clapping was about. ‘Somebody win the lottery?’ He said that the stage manager had just announced over the horn that Irving Feld, (the father), had just died. Ooh, applauding this. Cold, cold!)

I don’t know about the popularity of the Ice Follies around the country prior to the plug being pulled, but I do know they were selling out in the Twin Cities. I often thought that the show changed to Disney On Ice was because the big-name skaters did not want to work for the Feld Organization. It was much easier to control youngsters wearing Disney costumes, who are thrilled just to be in show business, then skaters who upheld the tradition started by the Shipstads and Johnson way back on a little ice pond behind the railroad garage in St. Paul.

After the Ice Follies began, two other organizations put large scale ice shows on the road. Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice. In On Ice Part 2, I will write about them.

Ice Follies

35 thoughts on “ON ICE – I

  1. Wonderful backstory, Don. Didn’t know ice skating was so cut-throat, never mind Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding. I saw several Stars on Ice and the other show, whose name now escapes me. Seems like each year they perform in fewer cities.

  2. Ah, Don, those were the days! Peggy Fleming was our favorite, too. It was beautiful to watch her skate. And look at those beautiful ice dancers in the dance line. You can’t get this anymore. Thanks for the memories….Tom

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  3. I love your back story. Things the average Joe would never know. Peggy Fleming always seemed to be a class act. I’m glad to know she was. I went to Holiday on Ice years ago. It was wonderful.

  4. I remember many of the names you mention, including Shipstad and Johnson. Sonja Henie starred in probably half a dozen ice skating/musical movies in the late 1930s/early 40s, several of which were quite good. Thanks for this very interesting post.

    • She did make some entertaining movies. I worked with an old-timer that did all the ce work for her movies. He made no bones about the crush he still had on Miss Henie. Glad you enjoyed the post, Mr. Muse.

  5. What a wonderful read, Don. I was always a big ice skating fan. I watched some of the skaters this year for the first time in years. I remember well the commentaries by Duck Buttons. Peggy was certainly one of a kind. What grace! I was watching when Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to withdraw in 1980. I saw Scott Hamilton live – I think it was Ice Capades. He was an amazing technical skater Especially given the challenges he faced. I look forward to your next posts.

  6. I’ve never seen live shows except for one of those Disney on Ice things years ago. But your post has provided such wonderful inside information I’m inspired to look for old clips on youtube.
    I saw a little of the winter olympics on television. Every time I tuned in it was the commentators, commenting, blah blah blah, and not much of the actual events. But I did manage to catch a few of the skaters. Always so uplifting!

    • Thanks Gwen. If you watched a little of the Olympics this year, it was more than I did. If I had watched any, it would have bee with the sound muted Good idea to go to UTube and see the good skating. Don’t miss Peggy’s routines. Stay Safe.

  7. I did love watching Peggy Fleming on television. When I was young there was no ice to perform on in town, so I only saw those performances on television. I loved watching any group of women skate or dance or synchronize swim. Great fun. Oh and the water skiing groups of women! Thanks for bringing all that back to me just now.

  8. What a fascinating story! Who knew the brothers and friend who skated in the pond would start something so wonderful. The beauty of skating was a feast for the eyes back in the Ice Follies days. Peggy Fleming is a perfect example. She was a champion skater (I was glued to the TV watching her win the gold at the Olympics) and a kind person. Fellow blogger Darlene tells the story of Peggy stopping to help a little girl who took a bad fall on the ice, and staying with her until help arrived. Yup, she’s the real deal. I look forward to Part 2, and I also look forward to KGB and the Zamboni.
    Don, you are a master storyteller. Thank you!

    • It was indeed a wonderful time, Jeanie. I never got to know any of the three men but I became good friends with second-generation Bob Shipstad. First when he was in charge of the Follies and later working with him on Sesame Street Live. A warm and friendly man. And then when I was BA of the stagehands, I gave Bob’s son a lot of work.
      The story of Peggy helping the injured girl is just like the Peggy I knew.

      • The fact that you became good friends with Bob #2 is really wonderful. Tell me more about Sesame Street Live. Actually, I think that should be a stand-alone post. Really! What is a BA? And yes, I’m glad that story of Peggy matches with the Peggy you knew. No surprise there. Thank you, Don!

      • To become friends with Bob Shipstad was very easy, Jennie, because he loved people and was so warm to them be they honchos or workers.
        BA is short for Business Agent of a local union.
        My local was involved from Day 1 with Sesame Street Live, also the brief lived Muppets Live. We built the sets, worked rehearsals and shows in the Twin Cities, even sent out several hands with the touring company. I loved working. The thrill of watching the tots in the audience dancing and singing along with the performers.
        I promise I will get out a blog on the company.

      • That’s really nice! Thanks for filling me in on Sesame Street Live. That must have made going to work a pleasure. And now I know what a BA is. Best to you, Don.

      • To hear the excitement of the children in shows like Sesame St, Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, and touring shows like the Wiggles, Dora, etc. made all the hard work worthwhile.
        Also I was working BA. The job barely covered my gas so I had to take calls to earn a living.

      • See, most people miss the boat on happiness. It isn’t money at all. It’s what you did, Don. The list of your shows is impressive and exciting. Boy, do you have good memories! It is children who bring on the joy. I go to work poor and happy every day. We ‘get it’, yet many people do not. Thank you, Don.

  9. A facinating hstory of the ice shows, Don. They were not such a big deal in England, though there was always a ‘Disney On Ice’ show at Wembley around Christmas when I was young. I went once, in a big group of kids.
    Torvill and Dean made Ice Skating popular again here, when they won the gold medal for their dance in Sarajevo in 1984. We now have the celebrity talent show ‘Dancing On Ice’ on TV, and they are judges.
    I last watched any Olympics in 1964, when it was in Tokyo. After that, it seemed to me like drugs and politics ruined it all.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks for your comments, Pete.
      One of the greatest shows I ever worked was the great Torville and Dean touring show. It was also the first time I ever witnessed the computerized moving lights. We were worried they would cost stagehands work. Boy were we wrong.
      We share our thoughts on the Olympics. Too bad a good idea was ruined, almost from the start.

  10. What a fun capsule of pop culture hardly mentioned. I remember watching the ice capades in Chicago. A different memory: I was staying at a motel and the Ice Capades were staying there, too. We gathered at the ice machine and they were barefoot. What gnarly, bruised, deformed set a feet I have ever seen. Such pretty faces and toned bodies with nasty feet. T h at was the price of being a star on ice, one told me, catching me staring.
    Dorothy Hamill was my fav in Jr. high. 1976. I think she and Peggy skated together…

    • Dorothy Hamill coming up, Cindy. The worse set of feet I ever saw was those of Merce Cunningham, the father of modern dance. Have no idea how he could walk on them let alone dance barefooted.

  11. Thank you for sharing. I went to look at Peggy Fleming on youtube and there is precision, control, and beauty — she’s dancing on ice – i’ve never seen anyone switch feet in the air on ice like that – like a bird flying. So glad to hear she’s a lovely person.

    For myself, I love watching Yuzuru Hanyu – it feels like he’s one with the ice and he’s flying; and it seems he’s a true gentleman off the ice too. He suffered a stumble at the Winter Olympics this round due to a hole in the ice, but he apparently said the ice was one of the best he had skated on and perhaps it just didn’t like him; didn’t blame the organisers or anyone.

    I saw your comment above – goodness, Merce Cunningham! Wow…he is a legend. I had no idea about his feet 😮

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Lady. And you looked up Peggy Fleming. With her grace and athleticism she might have had a future in ballet.
      I am unfamiliar with Hanju. I will have to look him up.
      I had the fortune of working Merce several times. He was a very shy man. Sat alone upstage when the rest of the company worked out.

  12. I never ‘got’ these Ice Shows. Seemed sorta like those Esther Williams movies – on ice. Heck I was playing Hockey anyway. Later however, a new era of Ice Shows emerged starring Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko – both 4 time World Champions. (both from Alberta) And some of our famous Ice Dancers like Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Some of these folks were pretty incredible athletes – like Karen Magnussen who was diagnosed with stress fractures in both legs in February 1969. She still went onto win the Canadian Championships four more times, from 1970 to 1973. At the World Championships, she won a bronze medal in 1971 and then silver in 1972. Yeah … you gotta admire some of these people for sure.
    Nice write up Don.

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