Book Review: Kelli Lawrence’s “Skating On Air”

by allison on July 8, 2012

Kelli Lawrence tackles the phenomenon of how figure skating and television intertwine in her book “Skating On Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport.” While even the most ardent skating fan knows that the two have enjoyed a long (and alternatively symbiotic and tempestuous) relationship, any reader will appreciate the incredible level of detail and Ms. Lawrence gives to this long love affair.

The backstory of skating and television is fascinating, and Ms Lawrence gets first-hand accounts from many key players: Doug Wilson, Scott Hamilton, Susie Wynne, Verne Lundquist, Sonia Bianchetti, and Meg Streeter to name just a few. There are some obvious omissions: in her acknowledgements Ms. Lawrence points out that she tried to speak with Dick Button and Peggy Fleming directly and was unsuccessful. Since they are both synonymous with the dawn of skating on television, it is unfortunate indeed that neither could lend their voice.

The author begins pre-television, touching on how early silent films with Charlotte Oelschlagel and Hollywood films with Sonia Henie captured skating on film, and how early camera and blocking techniques were developed. But I was most pleased that credit was given to the under-appreciated Howard Craker, who appeared at every US Nationals from 1953 to 1984 with a single film camera to capture performances for the USFS archives. Because TV crews weren’t always expected at Nationals as they are now, Craker’s films are the only record we have of many of the early performances from the 1950s and 1960s.

Particularly of interest to this reader is how shrewd a businessman Dick Button was, and very much the case of “right place, right time,” as he was the first to not only do on-air commentary for the sport but also to be involved in the business side, and how both skills have grown with him over decades. The description of his ability to maneuver buying the broadcast rights in the early days of television negotiations is fascinating.

Equally fascinating is how the various techniques developed over time, and the details involved in getting the perfect camera angle or shot. It’s also interesting to read about how flexible and quick-thinking the crews had to be when the unexpected happened, and it did. Most viewers of live TV comprehend  that capturing the unexpected is a skill. However, readers will be more impressed once they read the true backstory of how many of skating’s most surprising TV moments almost weren’t captured at all except for the quick reflexes of the camera crews and commentators. Two moments come to mind: the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics when Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner‘s warm-up was televised (unusual for the time), and the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics when Tonya Harding’s lace broke backstage.

This book is extremely well-researched. Besides being flattered that my interview with David Santee was one of her references (and admittedly it was fun to see my own work as a source of reference material, although sadly with an old URL that no longer exists), I was impressed with the thorough list of interviews held, tapes watched, and books read to help inform the book.

There are some wonderful addendums to the back as well: a section describing Doug Wilson’s camera blocking technique, an interview with Carol Heiss Jenkins about her experience making “Snow White and the Three Stooges,” and a great section with additional notes about those she interviews with some terrific stories added (the one from Meg Streeter about how she had to hold Scott Hamilton’s gum during an interview will make you simultaneously cringe and laugh).

As all American skating fans know, the TV coverage of figure skating just isn’t what it used to be. Those glory days are over. The book doesn’t profess to know the answer on how to fix the problem, but is terrific at laying out the multiple symptoms. Most importantly, “Skating On Air” is really a celebration of how the figure skating and television worked together to give the fans some terrific moments and memories. And fortunately for us most of them are preserved and can be enjoyed for years to come.

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