ON ICE PART III

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.

TRUCKING – LOL

Tex was a Clark driver for the first several years of trucking the Met Opera Spring Tour. Large and loud. He always entered the stagehand’s room with ‘Relax yo’all, old Tex is in the theater!’ He dressed the part…Stetson, boots, giant belt buckle. Some of the hands bought his shtick.

I thought it overdone. His wardrobe was too much and his accent too thick. He reminded me of a owner/’actor’ on those TV ads for used car lots.

This particular time he got in the room before the opera started. We were going to throw out the scenery of the first act at first intermission and Tex would take it to storage in New York. He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down, carrying on with his usual palaver. But when one of the truck loaders came in and motioned to Steve, the Met’s Head Carpenter, to come outside, Tex stopped talking and started fidgeting.

Steve came back in the room and you could see he was mad. ‘What is that goddamn stink in your trailer?’ he asked, standing over Tex. ‘It smells like s**t!’

Tex made an effort to stand but Steve pushed him back. ‘You were sandbagging with the truck, weren’t you?’

‘Well, Steve.’I had three free days and an empty truck…’

‘So what did you do, rent it out for a Portable Potty?

‘Ah, Steve,’ Tex argued, ‘I’d never do such a thing. I just helped out an old boy who needed help getting a few pigs to the stockyards.’

‘Pigs! Pigs!,’ Steve screamed. They heard him backstage but the orchestra was playing the Overture and nobody on stage or in the house heard the yelling.

‘Come on, Steve, old son,’ Tex said in a low voice. ‘There wasn’t but a couple dozen or so and they weren’t no big old fat-backs. They were prime bacon. Hardly more than piglets.’

Steve slapped the Stetson off the head of Tex. ‘Just little piggies! You should have put diapers on them then. If I could I’d call for a different rig, but it’s too late now. When I get back to the Met Warehouse I’m going to smell that set and if it smells the least bit like pig s**t, Clark is going to get a bill for a new set.’

‘Ah, old son,’ Tex argued, ‘It’ll be aired out by the time the load is in. I pressured washed the inside of the trailer twice. What you smell…

‘What I smell, old son…of a,’ Steve stopped and told Tex to go in the truck.

We loaded it and only two of the loaders had to come out for air. The other two lived in So. St. Paul where most of the city carried the smell from the stockyards where Tex had delivered those little piggies.

The next spring tour nobody dared ask Steve if the set still stunk when he checked it out in the warehouse. And we never saw Tex driving for Clark again. Although some years later one of hands said he was positive that was Tex driving the roadie bus for ZZ Top.

*

Back in the day, before cell phones, truckers had to rely on land lines and CB radio within their range. We were at coffee in the stagehands’ room at the Orpheum when a trucker came in and asked to use the phone. ‘Long distance to my office. I’ll reverse the charges,’ he explained.

Got the call to go to Milwaukee and get this truck to Minneapolis Orpheum. The regular driver took sick and by the time I got there, the other trucks were loaded and long gone. Headed out on my own. Now I’m told by crew upstairs, this truck doesn’t belong here. Probably some other theater in town.’

I told him that I was the union BA and I knew this was the only show in town that day…but maybe in St. Paul.

We got his side of the conversation as he explained to the office…and then he shouted, ‘Indianapolis!!! I thought they said, Minneapolis!!!’

He slammed the phone down, drank the coffee we offered him, and stomped off to his truck.

*

Overheard two truckers talking while we were loading their trucks.

‘How long is it going to take to get to Winnipeg?’

“Well the book says 474 miles. Good highways… so depending on how long we get held up in customs, should be there in 7 or 8 hours. We’ll make the call on time and won’t even have to cheat with the second log book.”

‘There you go now; but you forget once you hit Canada, they don’t have miles anymore. They got kilometers. And kilometers are bigger than miles. So it’s going to take us longer.’ He gave the other driver a smug smile.

The second driver just shook his head….

*

Skippy was innocent in creating this fiasco but Skippy was the one who got the brunt of the hurt.

Skippy was Head Carpenter of one of three Sesame Street Live companies touring .He also drove one of the trucks. Earlier he had wrapped up the tour and had put the set to sleep in the warehouse. After several months without a day off, he had ten days of doing nothing before he would have to start working the production of his next tour.

Before going home, he detoured and picked up a couple movies at Block Busters. (Two of my favorite Judy Garland and Mickey Rooneys) He had one loaded to go and the popcorn was just starting to pop, when the phone rang. Rather than burn the popcorn, he gave a middle finger salute to the annoyance and let the message go to Voice Mail.

‘Skippy! Skippy!’ It was Vince Egan, the owner of Sesame Street Live shows. ‘

When Vince speaks, people listen. (I grabbed the phone and listened to Vince’s orders. Oh, I could smell the popcorn burning.)

‘The actor that plays Oscar the Grouch on the #3 show tour dislocated his shoulder. He also drives the second truck. It’s his left should so he could still sit in the trash can and work Oscar, (Darn! I always wanted to play Oscar. I know I would be a good one.); but you have to fly out and get the truck to the next stop, Atlanta. The office has your plane ticket waiting for you. Get to the airport fast .Hey keep a record of what you spend and remember, it’s my dime you’re riding. ’

Skippy called for a cab, threw the burnt popcorn out the windows for the birds, grabbed his to-go bag, and went outside to wait for the cab.

(I had no idea where I was flying to. I hoped it wasn’t too far from Atlanta. And when I looked at the ticket and saw I was on my way to Charleston, West Virginia, I hoped the town was still open when I got there.)

When the red eye landed at 2 A.M., there was one cab at the airport. Skippy woke up the cabbie and told him to go to the arena or theater where Sesame Street Live was playing.

(He argued, said there was no TV show in town. I tried to explain to him it was a live show and he said he knew all about it. His kids watched it when they were little; but there still ain’t no TV show in town.)

Skippy had the cabbie drive all around to where a show like Sesame Street could have played…if it had been in town.

(Nothing. I hated to admit it to cabbie, but he was right. I asked if there was a McDonalds open but he said they closed hours ago. I asked about a motel, but he said the only ones he knew would be open this time of night, rented by the hour. We settled on going back to the airport and hoped there was some vending machines still open. I gave the driver a big tip…after all it was Vince’s dime.)

Vince did not like to be woken that time of night. When he finished his tirade and calmed down enough to listen, he hit the roof again when Skippy told him he could not find the truck anyplace in Charleston, West Virginia.

‘West Virginia! West Virginia! What the hell are you doing there? You should be in Charleston, South Carolina.! And he continued to rant.

(Oh, I hated that. Like it was my fault. I finallty got a word in edgewise and reminded him I only flew to the wrong Charleston because that’s where the ticket was for. And he lowered his voice when I explained that I was watching the expenses on his dime by not going to a motel but sleeping at the airport instead. Didn’t bother to mention, I heard the motel didn’t change sheets very often.)

The cabbie in the next Charleston knew exactly where the truck would be. The head carpenter had made the merchandise peddler drive the second set truck to make sure the show got up in time, and the truck Skippy picked up was the merch truck which didn’t have to be in Atlanta until the next day.

(First thing before I got in the truck, I got the cabbie to take me to the best steakhouse in the city. After all I wqs riding on Vince’s dime.),