The other of the big three ice productions came about when Maurice Chaflen took his ten year old roller blade touring show, Skating Vanities and converted the idea to an ice show, Holiday On Ice. It differed from the other two in that it had several productions traveling all at the same time and it carried it’s own ice making equipment, which meant they didn’t have to confine the tours to cities with ice arenas in the US or around the globe.
Holiday began it’s US operation in 1945. The first international company was called Ice Vogues and started with a tour of Mexico in 1947 and toured Mexico and South America. In 1956, the name was changed and Holiday On Ice now toured all over the globe.
Except for a few years when Sonja Henie joined the company, the show did not use big name skaters. It featured the spinning wheel, skaters linked arms one by one, ending in the spokes of the wheel skating from a central hub. Each performance ended with a kick line and fireworks.
To attract a new audience the reviews introduced kiddie themes like Bugs Bunny, Peter Pan, Ali Baba, and the like, the first of the costumed ice show that led to today’s Disney On Ice.
In 1964, the North American show was sold to Madison Square Garden, leaving Chaflen as owner of Holiday International, which grew to have three companies traveling around different countries at the same time breaking new ground in Russia and China. The US version ended in 1985, but the International shows are still touring.
Tom Collins, a Canadian skating champion, joined Holiday, and when his skating days ended, he and Morrie Chaflen started Champions On Ice. No sets or chorus lines. Just figure skating champions performing the routines that brought them fame.
Morrie Chaflen sold out his share to Tom, but not until he married Tom’s sister, Martha, also a Canadian champion skater.
At first Tom could use only amateur champions but when the rules were changed to allow professionals he brought in names like Brian Boitano, Katrina Witt and Michelle Kwan, and every big name skater in the 40 years he had Champions. Sometimes he used skaters that hadn’t made their mark yet, just talent and promise. One such promising youngster was 12 year old Dorothy Hamil.
When he staged his final tour in 2007 and sold his company, shortly after his wife died, he was regarded as the most powerful person in figure skating.
Tom’s father had been a gold miner, but never found a mine as rich as his son found in figure skating. He was grossing over 50 million a year. But when he was sitting backstage talking to hands like myself you would think he just one of the guys.
But Tom Collins wasn’t one to sit back and enjoy retirement. He went on tour with Neil Diamond and revolutionized the selling of swag at concerts. No more just a CD was for sale. Tom had T shirts and caps, posters and autographed pictures. Swag was now big business. He went on tours with other performers and bands. His brother, Butch, had been working for me as a stagehand and Tom got him involved in selling Swag for Sesame Street Live whose headquarters are in Minneapolis, and I lost a good hand in Butch.
The big shows of Ice Follies and Ice Follies are now just show business memories like Ziegfeld Follies and Vaudeville. Their time maybe over but they broke ground in figure skating. They proved there was a market for skating shows, and a career for skaters even if they never became household names giving a reason for the hours needed in the grueling task of becoming a figure skater. And they introduced the art of figure skating to a new audience, an audience that continues to support the ice shows that followed.
The people behind ice shows, past and present, had for the most part, one thing in common, ice skating was a big part of their life since they were old enough to have skates laced on.
But one of the biggest mover and shaker in the business was a non- skater, Morris Chaflen, a true entrepreneur. Chaflen, ‘call me Morrie’, was a man who dove into things without worrying about the depth of the water. Once you met him, you never forgot him.
Morrie grew up in Minneapolis. He was still in knee pants when he started his first business, selling newspapers and candies on a street corner. His first big-boy enterprise was a combination pool hall and bowling alley.
‘I knew a lot about hawking newspapers and playing pool. That’s how I grew up, not shooting basketballs or ice skating.’
In 1947, he and his partner, Ben Berger, bought the Detroit Gems, a professional basketball team, to Minneapolis and renamed it the Minneapolis Lakers. Luck of the draft brought them George Mikan when the Chicago team he played for two years folded. Mikan helped establish the NBA into a major sports organization and was name the Greatest Basketball Player of the 1st half of the 20th Century.
In 1957, he and Berger sold the team to Bob Short, another Minneapolis entrepreneur and politician, who moved the team to Los Angeles, three years later’. It broke a lot of hearts including your truly.
‘Yeah, Short was always running in state or federal elections. Running but never winning. Maybe some voters figured he’d sell them out just like he did with the Lakers. You think?’
Morrie was active in politics also. A behind- the- scenes worker. Never a candidate. In 1944, he was in the liberal arm of the MN Democratic Party when, under the leadership of Hubert Humphrey, merged with the larger MN Farmer Labor Party. He became friends with Humphrey from the time Humphrey came to study at the University of Minnesota and he worked for Humphrey’s city, state, and federal campaigns, as Humphrey went from Mayor of Minneapolis, to MN’s Senator in DC, to Vice President under Johnson, and back to Senator. The two remained close throughout their lives.
US Senator at that time, Hubert Humphrey met with Morrie Chaflen at the 1958 Brussels’s World Fair and the meeting resulted in a warm up of the Cold War and the beginning of the Cultural Trade Treaty between the USA and Russia as it was originally intended to be.
‘When Hubert worked out that exchange of the Moscow Circus and Holiday On Ice, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work, but we showed ‘em. Up til’ then it was just we’ll send you a piano player and you send us a cello player. After we went to Russia, the exchange went big time with theater groups, museum things, opera, and ballet. Just think, without ballet companies coming over, all those dancers never would have defected.’
Humphrey had purposed that the US would send over the Ringling Brother’s Circus with America’s famous clown Emmett Kelly, even though Kelly was no longer with Ringling. In return, Russia would send the Moscow Circus with it’s great clown, Popov. The USSR said da and nyet. They would send Popov and the circus to the US, but they wanted Holiday On Ice, instead of a circus…and it had to bring everything including the ice making equipment and the machine that shaves the ice.
Without asking Chaflen, he quickly signed the agreement, He knew Morrie would be more than happy to take the show to Russia. Humphrey had a caveat though. The first stop on the tour would be a week’s engagement in Minneapolis, MN where he started his political career.
Soon after the Russian adventure, Holiday broke the barrier of another closed nation, China.
Chaflen traveled around the world with his Holiday On Ice shows playing before European Royalty and World leaders like Nikita Khrushchev, and a Who’s Who of celebrities at the time like Princess Diana and Elvis Presley.
Morrie lived a life he never could have imagined as that ten year old kid standing on that corner in Minneapolis back in the day.
But it also had two tragedies that could have had driven him into a life changing depression, if he had been a weaker man.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1960, his wife, Martha Collins Chaflen and their three children, ages 2, 6, 7, were flying to Miami when the plane broke into pieces in the air and crashed. Morris Chaflen’s beloved wife and children were among the 63 people who lost their lives in that still unexplained horror.
On Oct 31st, 1963, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Arena, just as the opening night performance of Holiday was into the finale, a leak from a LP tank, stored under the bleachers, was ignited by an electrical short and blew up, killing 81 and injuring some 400 more. Morrie was not there and none of the cast or crew were hurt; but the fact that there was 81 deaths and so many of the over 4,000 in the audience, and a statement from the sheriff stating that if the show had not started 15 minute late, the deaths and injuries would not have been as great, hit Morrie hard.
Criminal charges against six of the arena’s staff were dropped after more investigation. The arena reopened and hosted a cattle show six weeks later, and The Beatles a year later, followed a month later by a return of Holiday On Ice, which broke the arena’s attendance records.
It took Morrie quite awhile to get back to being the easy going person he was before, but slowly he reverted to the man who was so much fun to be around. He remarried and had two sons with his second wife. He lost his ownership in Holiday International by a court ruling over a stock issue. He started Chaflen International and dabbled in various businesses. He died in 1949 at the age of 72, a year after the death of his good friend, Hubert Humphrey.
Morrie was a natural story teller, and you never forgot him or his stories. He loved to sit backstage and regale young stagehands like your truly.
‘Now did I ever tell you about…’
You probably heard the story before but any story Morrie told was worth hearing again. He had a twinkle in his eye and just a slight accent. He used his hands in telling a story. He could have had a career as a story telling comedian.
He had that gift of entertaining through the art of telling stories that seems to be second nature to those who lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Like the Boston barber, Max Nimoy, father of Leonard Nimoy, who told stories of living in and escaping from a shtetl in Ukraine.
And like Myron Cohen who came to the US from Russia at the age of two. Cohen was a traveling salesman who endeared himself to his customers by telling them funny stories. He was talked into performing at comedy clubs and soon became a household name because of his appearances on the TV variety shows of the 50’s.
And like Zero Mostel,’If I were a rich man’, who, when cast as the original Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof’, balked at the concept that the original stories by Sholem Aleichem, who lived in a shtetl in the Ukraine before coming to the US, being ‘too Jewish’ to succeed. Using stories he heard from his father of life and dreams of the inhabitants of an East European shtetl, he crafted the Fiddler we know today. And over the years his Tevye was adhered to by actors like Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy among others.
Morrie’s favorite story was what happened on that first Russian tour. It also is my favorite Morrie story.
‘I took off running. They weren’t going to pull something like that on me. No way! But I pulled up in a hurry when the KGB’s answer to the Three Stooges came from behind the Zamboni.
Moe, with his hands in the pocket of his black leather ankle length coat, stood in the center of his two stooges. He had that come-on-I-dare-you look on his face.
Larry and Curly were wearing their black leather knee length leather coats. And each had a BIG pistol pointed at me.
Thinking back I should have been praying but at the time all I could think of was, “What in the name of Hubert Horatio Humphrey did I get into???”
Whoa! Whoa! Morrie’s story needs a post of it’s own.
Stay tuned for KGB AND THE ZAMBONI.