During the heyday of Ice Follies another big ice show, Ice Capades, toured the country. It’s birth was as unpredictable as was it entire life. Capades grew out of an idea of John Harris, manager of the Pittsburgh ice arena, who hired the Swedish ice skater and movie star, Sonja Henie, in 1936, to skate between periods of the hockey games, hoping to build ticket sales for the team. It worked and soon other team owners followed suit with other figure skaters.

Four years later he and other arena managers around the Eastern states joined together and started Ice Capades.

Although it never attracted many big name stars like the Follies did, it was very popular for several decades. It made no pretext to be a serious art form and relied on corny, crowd pleasing acts for the most part. And it did not bother to develop stars. It relied on getting established stars from other shows and ice skating medal winners.

In the late 80’s, when all the ice shows began to decline, it managed to get Scott Hamilton under contract for a short time before he started his Stars on Ice, a show that stuck to the routines of the skaters without any extra things like sets or chorus lines. In 1991 it went bankrupt.

Then Capades was purchased by Dorothy Hamill, America’s new skating darling, an Olympic Gold Medalist and several times World Champion. And whose hairdo, ‘the short and sassy look’ became a fad.

She tried presenting a version of Cinderella on ice. It lasted only two years, just long enough to borrow a great deal of money to keep it afloat. Hamill sold the company to the Televangelist Pat Robinson. An investment only. I don’t think he used it to convert more potential donors.

Capades bounced around for several more years in some form or the other, but finally gave up the ghost in 2009, stranding skaters and crew without pay and running out of it’s suppliers.

(One of my favorite Woody Allen lines comes from HANNA AND HER SISTERS. Woody is discussing the afterlife and someone reminds him that there is a belief that when you die you just relive your life all over again. ‘Oh, great,’ Woody whines,’That means I have to watch Ice Capades over again.’)

We had the pleasure of working with Dorothy Hamill for two Decembers when she did her Nutcracker On Ice at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. It was a ‘cute’ show but it could not really compete with the many Nutcrackers that are danced every year in the Twin Cities.

Dorothy was a real pro, treated her audience and her crew with respect, in spite of the fact she was very unhappy at the time. She suffered from depression all her life. Twice married and twice divorced to Dean Martin Jr., she was devastated by his death when his National Guard jet plane hit a mountain.

She was married to her second husband during her two seasons of Nutcracker on Ice. He was the complete opposite of his wife. He was abrasive, rude, and treated the time-honored traditions of show business with all the slickness of a used car salesman. He regarded her as his property instead of his wife.

One of his publicity stunts was to buy matching fur coats for himself and Dorothy. The coats were humongous and hideous to boot. Dorthy hated them but he insisted that the coats would be worn to and from the theater. Somehow on the very first day of them wearing them, protesters from PETA and like fur coat haters, were there in full force and each day the crowd grew bigger. Dorothy would run into the theater in tears while he stayed back and made fun of the protest. He loved it. He was also accused of leaking the wearing of the fur coats to PETA from the start.

She has another husband now. I hope her marital disasters with her first two husbands has taught her something and she found one who will be a good partner and appreciates her for herself and not just celebrity arm candy.

The third major ice show was Holiday On Ice. This show came about in 1942 when Emery Gilbert developed a portable method to make an ice rink anyplace. He brought the concept to a Morris, Morrie, Chalfen, a Minneapolis entrepreneur, who saw a way to compete with the two major ice shows, put traveling shows with smaller casts, 20 girls, 10 boys, where the major shows could not visit because there were no ice arenas. As Morrie loved to say, ‘Have rink. Will travel’.

At it’s peak, Holiday had companies in the U.S., Europe, Central and South America. It’s first tour out of the country was to Mexico in1947. For a few years, Sonja Henie headlined a company, first in Paris, finished off in South America.

More about Holiday On Ice and Morrie in the next On Ice Post.


35 thoughts on “ON ICE – II

  1. Such interesting stories you share. I never knew the sad backstory of Dorothy Hamill. Just curious, did ice skaters look to the Ice Shows as a way to reach stardom, or more for a way to do what they loved to do?

    • Glad you found it interesting, Lauren. Dorothy suffered serious depression which she treats with meds. She also had breast cancer.
      She started figure skating at the age of 8, driven by her father. So young to devote your life to achieving a Goal.
      I think skaters join ice shows as a means of continuing the profession they worked so hard to master. I also think they love skating. Most realize that they won’t become rich or famous and continue even if it is just chorus work or wearing a Disney costume.

  2. Dorothy was the golden girl in the Olympics after Peggy Fleming. I still remember when she skated off the ice in tears in the Olympics because she thought the audience didn’t like her. She was a great skater, but not a Peggy Fleming. I’m sad that her first husband died, and even sadder how her second husband treated her. I hope she is happy with her current husband. Holiday On Ice with a portable ice rink? Brilliant!

    • Nice memories, Jennie. I did not know about her feeling the audience did not like her. Her depression again.
      Holiday on Ice making it’s own ice brought the show to places other shows couldn’t reach. Morrie, it’s founder, was a genius and a great to have as a friend.

      • Yes, that must have been her depression. I watched it live as it happened during the Olympics. She skated off the ice in tears and had to be coaxed back on. So sad. It is really innovative to make the ice. Wonderful that Morrie is a friend.

    • I feel honored, Gwen, that my stories compelled you to look up Henie and Hamil to learn more about them. Dorothy was so sweet to work with She loved having children come backstage after. Of course the jerk she married didn’t share her enthusiasm. And yet he was the father of her only child.

      • Yeah, well, some of us gals get confused at times. We tend to love anyone who says they’ll love us. One of the reasons I am hot on the important role of functioning fathers in bringing up their daughters.

  3. Good one, Don….the story and soon comes the rest of the story. Amazing what ice can do when beautiful woman whisks by with her skates flashing….the next best thing to flying is skating….Tom


  4. These are all new to me, Don. We never had those ‘Icecapades’, in England, at least not as I recall. So much ice action, and so involved too! Great memories for you, my friend.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • I suppose if an ice show did come to England, it would have had to make it’s own ice. Not like here in Minnesota where ice skating venues both indoors and outdoors are s plentiful as our 10,000 lakes.
      Thank you, Pete, for reading and commenting on the post.
      A belated happy birthday.

  5. It always breaks my heart to hear of beautiful, talented, nice people going through life depressed. I loved Dorothy and was one of those who adopted her short and sassy haircuts. I’m enjoying this series, Don. I feel like they were in the back periphery of my life like the Barnum and Bailey Circus. A ghost, as you say, of American pop culture.

      • Darn. At least you got over the flu. Fingers crossed on your shoulder!!!
        I have been confined to the upstairs bedroom and bath for 5 weeks now because I fell and twisted both knees and can’t walk up and down stairs. Thanks goodness my wife is a good nurse. Now I wish she wasn’t such great cook. I am not losing any weight.

  6. She’s a saint or as the song says ‘she’s a good hearted woman in love with a good timing man’.
    If I move to the 1st floor I won’t have a bed or a bath. Right now some of the boys and grandkids are working out plans to me a ground floor annex with a bed and ½ bath. What a family!
    Best of luck on the shoulder procedure, Cindy.

  7. Sorry to hear you’ve been poorly after a fall, how frustrating for you. Great that your kids are so handy and making plans to at least get you downstairs. We have Dancing on Ice now where celebrity none skaters are paired with professionals, it goes well but they don’t half do some daring and risky headbangers and things to keep the audience interested. Very enjoyable to see where it all started, I watched Beatrix Potter on Ice once at a Theme Park called Alton Towers, it was great but I preferred the big Disney on Ice show in Manchester and I dressed up as Snow White

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