At last count, there were no less than six Disney on Ice shows touring the United States. In “Worlds of Fantasy,” costumed cartoon characters from “Toy Story,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Cars” glide across the ice via skates strapped to their feet, fins, and tires. “Passport to Adventure” promises an icy escapade starring Pumbaa and Timon from “The Lion King” and Lilo and Stitch from their eponymous animated feature. As for the main draws in “Frozen,” you get one guess.
“Morris Chalfen was a genius. He realized ice shows needed no translation; that they would appeal to people all over the world.”
Ice shows were not always targeted so slavishly to the kiddie market. In fact, as ice-show memorabilia collector and former ice-show skater Roy Blakey told us recently, ice shows in the mid-20th century were more like variety shows, in the tradition of “The Ed Sullivan Show” on television and the Ziegfeld Follies on stage before that. Unlike the aggressively branded Disney fare that has supplanted them, ice shows were organized around broad themes (the Caribbean, Gypsies, Dreams), which guided a show’s costume design, music, comedic interludes, and choreography. Thanks to the development of portable rinks called “tanks” that could be set up just about anywhere, ice shows were routinely performed on the stages of the nation’s grandest movie palaces to entertain moviegoers between double features, as well as in swanky nightclubs, whose clientele had definitely left the kids at home.
During his 15 years as an ice entertainer, from 1954 to 1969, Roy Blakey saw it all, performing around the world in hockey stadiums, bullrings, Roman ruins, and Rockefeller Center. But even before he laced up his first pair of skates, Blakey was collecting everything he could that was associated with ice shows. The programs mailed to him by producers of these icy spectacles in far-off places like New York City must have seemed like a lifeline of glamour for the small boy growing up in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, which is where Blakey’s story begins.
Collectors Weekly: How did you first get interested in ice skating?
Blakey: When I was growing up in the early 1940s in Enid, Oklahoma, I loved roller-skating in the streets. I also loved all the movie musicals that were coming out at the time. One of them, “Sun Valley Serenade,” from 1941, starred skater Sonja Henie—that was the very first time I saw anyone ice skate. In one scene, they had painted the ice black, with all the skaters costumed in white, mirrored in the ice. It was the most magical thing I had ever seen in my life. And it was in that movie theater that I said to myself, “I have to do that,” meaning, I had to learn how to ice skate and get in an ice-skating show. At age 10, that was already my life goal.
Collectors Weekly: Did you immediately go out and get yourself a pair of ice skates?
Blakey: No, we had no ice skating facility in Enid, and that was a problem for me after having made this vow. So I concentrated on roller-skating. I got a good pair of roller skates and took a bus every Saturday to Wichita, Kansas, for roller-skating lessons. I didn’t ice skate until I got to the University of Tulsa, which had an ice rink. It’s really the same technique, except you don’t have eight pounds of clunky roller skates on your feet.
After about two and a half years, in 1952, I left the university, which wasn’t right for me. I notified the draft board of my availability, and about 15 seconds later I was drafted into the Army. Fortunately, I was sent off to Europe instead of Korea, where the war was on and people were actually shooting at each other. While in the military in Germany, I learned there was a recreation center for GIs in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich, in a town called Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The U.S. military had built a nightclub there called the Casa Carioca that had an ice-skating show, so some buddies and I secured three-day passes and went down. Next door to the nightclub was the big ice stadium where Sonja Henie had won her third Olympic gold medal in 1936. It was a historic place, so naturally I went skating in the stadium, with views of snow-capped Alps all around. It was just beautiful.
While we were in Garmisch, I auditioned for the nightclub show. The woman I met with said, “I can use military personnel in the show if they have skating talent. I think I can get you transferred.” Well, here was my lifelong dream coming true, I couldn’t believe it. She said, “Give me the address where you’re stationed and the job you do in the Army, and I’ll see what I can do.” I went back to my unit, looking down my nose at all the officers thinking, “Ha ha ha, I’m not long for this world. I’m going to be in the show business!”
Of course, I never heard from her. Almost two years passed. In 1954, my tour of duty was almost over, and it was just about time for the Army to send me back to the States, but I didn’t want to go back. So I wrote her and reminded her that she said that she had thought she could use me in her show, and just like that, she sent me a contract. I arranged for a discharge in Germany, and off I went to a new career as a professional skater.
Collectors Weekly: How did your parents react to all this?
Blakey: Oh, they were always very supportive. My father had insisted that I go to the university. I kept saying it wasn’t what I wanted, that I wanted to get in show business and travel around the world. But he said, “Well, you’re going to need something as a backup if your dreams of a skating career don’t come true,” which was very intelligent advice, but not something I understood at all at that time.
Collectors Weekly: How long did you stay in Europe?
Blakey: I was at the Casa Carioca, skating in the nightclub show, for 18 months. It was a magnificent facility, like something out of a 1940s movie musical. There were three or four tiers of tables on three sides looking down on the ice stage. We had an 18-piece orchestra and a huge dance floor that came out over the ice so that the people who were dining could dance. Then, when it was time for the show, they pushed a button and the big floor moved back to reveal the ice. It was just incredible.
Collectors Weekly: What were the shows like, and what was your role?
Blakey: They were a little bit of everything, like a variety show on ice. I did some comedy, and like everyone, I was also in the ensemble corps de ballet routines. At one point, the choreographer created a number for me and a female skater in which we’d come out in street clothes, skate back to our dressing room to put on clown makeup and change into clown costumes, then skate back out and do a little clown number. Everyone in the company had lots of opportunities to do lots of different things.
Eventually, the woman I worked for at the Casa Carioca got me a contract to go to Chicago and perform in a show at a Hilton hotel previously called The Stevens, which had an elegant theater-restaurant called the Boulevard Room. Its main attraction was its ice-skating show. The show was so popular it ran for about 25 years. We did a new production every six months—a summer show and a winter show. I skated there for five years, two shows a night, seven days a week, and I would go back and do it all over again. It was so wonderful there.
Collectors Weekly: But you did move on.
Blakey: Yes. After about five years there, I met a man named Morris Chalfen who owned a number of touring ice shows called Holiday on Ice. He was looking for people to go to Europe, and I said, “Here I am!” My original contract with them was to travel to Europe to rehearse a show that was then going on to Asia, but after the first couple of days of rehearsals, the choreographer said, “I’d like to keep you in the European show. We have some parts that might be a good fit for you.” So I stayed in Europe instead of going to Asia, which I kind of regretted after I heard how wonderful Asia was from all my friends who were in that company.
One year later, though, I finally managed to get shipped out to Asia, and I performed for a year-and-a-half in all of those incredible countries—Japan, Singapore, Burma, Indonesia, Korea. It changed my life completely. I had thought Europe was the greatest thing in the world, but it was vastly overshadowed by the experiences I had in Asia. I fell totally in love with Thailand, Japan, and Burma on that first Asian tour. Then I returned to Europe and did another year in Europe and Russia. Luckily, I got to go back for another 18-month tour in 1965 and ’66.
Collectors Weekly: How did the Holiday on Ice crew prepare the ice for its skaters in far-flung locations?
Blakey: Before Frank Zamboni produced his first ice-resurfacing machine in 1949, three or four men would push long-handled scrapers to clean the ice. Then they’d wheel a big barrel of hot water over the rink with an attached thick wet cloth dragging behind it. That smoothed the surface, and that was the procedure during my career. Holiday on Ice skaters encountered every problematic situation imaginable. Often on opening nights in South America, Asia, and Africa, the ice surface was treacherous. But the skaters were troupers and made the best of these situations, usually by eliminating particularly dangerous skating tricks to avoid injury.
Collectors Weekly: Ice shows seem an odd and somewhat cumbersome U.S. export.
Blakey: Well, Morris Chalfen was a genius. He realized ice shows needed no translation; that they would appeal to people all over the world. But the origin of the international shows goes back to the portable ice shows—or tank shows, as we called them—in the U.S., which started with Carl Snyder in 1943. Snyder had been booking bands into hotels when he decided to start producing tank shows. He’d bring a 20-by-20-foot ice rink right into a nightclub or the theater-restaurant of a fancy hotel. The story I heard is that the first one was in Toledo, Ohio, during Christmas and New Year’s, so he called it Holiday on Ice.
Shortly after that, two brothers from Milwaukee named Cal and Emery Gilbert, who owned an ice rink in Toledo called the Ice House, invited Holiday on Ice to perform at their rink. Emery was a brilliant technician, and he figured out how to enlarge Snyder’s portable rink to arena-size. The three became partners, and after a couple of years, Morris Chalfen heard about this little Holiday on Ice company and invested some money in it so they could build several arena-sized, portable ice rinks. That way they could have one rink going in the city where they were performing while another was being set up in the next city for the next show. It made everything more efficient, which was important since by then Holiday on Ice was competing with the Ice Follies, the Ice Capades, and the Hollywood Ice Review, which starred Sonja Henie.
In fact, those three companies had signed exclusives with all of the big arenas, which meant Holiday on Ice was frozen out of places like Madison Square Garden in New York and Chicago Stadium. Holiday on Ice needed its portable rinks, but that turned out to be a big plus for them in that they could go wherever they wanted. They could play on a theater stage, a basketball court, an outdoor football stadium, even a bullring, which they first did in Guadalajara, Mexico.
After Chalfen was made president of Holiday on Ice, he spun up a second unit called Ice Vogues. Holiday on Ice would do an original production for a year, and then Ice Vogues would do the same production during the second year, while the main company created a new production. The international shows were similar to that. By the time I started skating with them in the 1950s, Holiday on Ice had five or six different units playing on five continents. I worked in about 40 different countries during my years with Holiday on Ice. I performed in bullrings in Spain, and a 2,000-year-old Roman coliseum in Nimes, France. They could bring an ice show anywhere.
Collectors Weekly: How long did you skate professionally?
Blakey: My last ice-skating tour was in 1967. We were in South America, and when we finished they flew the company to New York and dropped us off. And so, there I was, 37 years old, and it was time to start thinking about another career.
During the tours, I had developed into a rather proficient photographer, so much so that the company would take me off the ice on occasion to take portraits of everyone from the cast to the King and Queen of Thailand, who had come to see one of our shows. So I knew that my next career was going to be as a photographer. I had fallen in love with tropical climates, so I wanted to be someplace where it was warm, and where there would be theatrical people to photograph. Naturally, I decided to move to Los Angeles.
My plan was to stay with some dancer friends of mine, Broadway people, for three days before heading to California. But one evening during dinner, the photographer husband of a ballerina we all knew promised to introduce me to the New York theatrical photography community and convinced me to stay. I found a loft above a topless bar on 6th Avenue and 24th Street—I was there for 25 years.
Collectors Weekly: Did you skate in New York?
Blakey: During the first two years I was in New York, I had to keep body and soul together while I was getting my photography business started and waiting for the phone to ring. Fortunately, a couple I had worked with in Chicago at the Boulevard Room had taken over management of the Rockefeller Center ice rink. They asked me if I’d be interested in doing a little skating exhibition four times a day. Now, I was never a big solo skater. But they said, “The deal is you’ll get two free meals a day, and if you’re available to teach lessons, you’ll get half of each lesson fee.” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow!”
I did that for two seasons, put a few bucks in the bank, and by the end of the second season, my photography career had a growing client list of actors, dancers, skaters, and musicians.
Collectors Weekly: When did you decide to start collecting paper ephemera and posters documenting the skating world?
Blakey: Early, but collecting was never a conscious thing. I just loved the shows and anything associated with them. Even when I was in growing up in Enid, in junior high and high school, with no possibility whatsoever of being an ice skater, I would write letters to the Saint Regis Hotel and Roxy Theater in New York, asking if they’d send me memorabilia from their ice-skating shows. The Roxy was one of those magic, enormous movie palaces. They always had a stage show between the showings of the first-run films—at one point, they added an ice-skating segment, which ran for years. For some reason they put me on their mailing list, and every time their show changed, I got a program. I didn’t think, “Oh, this is going to be great history someday.” I just loved all those programs. Thank goodness I save them all!
Collectors Weekly: Now that you have settled in Minneapolis, have you continued to collect?
Blakey: Yes, I’m catching up on all the things I’ve missed. I’m getting pieces from the Internet, from everywhere. I just got a wonderful poster from Hungary that features friends of mine—skaters who continued performing after I moved on to photography. I’m getting posters from Israel, from Finland, some really wonderful stuff. So yes, I’m catching up.
Collectors Weekly: And have you taken inventory?
Blakey: To give you the answer to that, I have to go back a little bit and tell you that when a dear collector friend of mine here in Minneapolis passed away, he left his entire collection to me. He was a very serious collector of Sonja Henie, so I ended up with 10 original 1940s Sonja Henie costumes, which I took to a taping of “Antiques Roadshow.” I love “Antiques Roadshow,” and one of my very favorite appraisers on the show is a gal named Leila Dunbar.
Collectors Weekly: We’ve interviewed her!
Blakey: She’s a firecracker. When she gets to talking about baseball, it’s awe-inspiring. So anyway, I went to “Antiques Roadshow,” and during the process when they try to slot you into the right category, I ended up standing in front of Leila Dunbar. She looked at the costumes and said, “I think, we want to put you on camera.” I told her I thought that was a great idea, and then explained that I had been having a terrible time trying to find anyone to appraise my collection because nobody knows a thing about this category.
After we taped our interview, Leila gave me her card, and we arranged for her to come to Minneapolis. She spent two or three days looking at everything, photographing, and asking lots of questions. In preparation for that, I had found an archival specialist named Jesse Rudek to help me organize. And after he had tallied up everything for Leila Dunbar’s visit, he told me that I have more than 30,000 items in my collection, although it’s still growing. So that’s my answer.