This 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 schoo. 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.
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 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 an 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.