Episode #41: Ice Capades 70th Reunion, Part 2

by allison on September 13, 2010

JULY 2010
Part two of the 70th Reunion of Ice Capades in Las Vegas, NV. This was a reunion of about 600 former skaters, costumers, organizers, engineers, and technicians who were involved in the show. Interviews range from those involved from the 1940s to the 1990s. 51 minutes, 10 seconds.

Check out the post from July to see photos I took at the event.

Interviews with: Alex McGowan, Marshall Sanchez, Marjorie McChesney Kunik, Mary Sleichter Hummel, Sarah Kawahara, Will Grendahl, Bob Young, Fred Huffman, and Randy Gardner.

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

Alex McGowan: I was in Holiday on Ice, but I worked at Ice Capades Chalets, so I know lots of people here and they all know me. John Nicks was involved with the Chalets, he was one of my idols growing up in England because he was world champion when I was a big kid. Michael Booker, who’s not here, got me into it. I used to own my own ice rink in the Bay Area, I opened it in 1976, and Debi Thomas [who he coached] came in 1977. And then after I closed it, I thought I was going to quit skating for a bit, but they asked me to come to the Chalets. And then I got Steven Cousins and coached him for two years. And now I’m more of a consultant, I coach about six to eight hours a week for people that have other coaches.

Debi wasn’t a great talent when she came to me. She was only about nine and she kept falling over and crying. But she worked hard. I worked with Surya Bonaly when she was twelve, and she was talented, but the most talented skater I ever worked with was Nicole Bobek, for a whole summer in Sun Valley. To this date I have no doubt she could have been a world champion, because I could have disciplined her, I could have handled her. But she ran into discipline problems. But she was just brilliant. The next most talented was Oksana Baiul. I did a seminar with her in Chicago. She worked with these lower-level kids and she was just great. And before I came to America, I taught this young guy his first basic steps, and he went on to greatness too. His name’s up on the boards at Lake Placid. It was Robin Cousins.

Some of the talented ones, they get to the danger age of 18 when they’re finishing high school, and college, and the boyfriends, and the phone starts ringing. And that’s kind of what killed Debi in the last year, the boyfriends. If you can keep the boyfriends away, you’re lucky. Katarina [Witt] had a boyfriend but didn’t come to the Olympics with him. Liz Manley had a boyfriend but he didn’t go. Debi went to the Olympics and took the boyfriend, and got distracted unfortunately.

After Debi placed third in the Olympics, she went off with her boyfriend — she married him a few weeks later — for five days to Aspen. So I called Jay Ogden, who was the agent, and said, I’m bored, what can I do? And he said, do you want to go to this pro-am ski event, there’s a big banquet and all these movie stars and corporate people, and they pay 100 or 200 thousand dollars each to put a skier up against a celebrity. And I said, yeah, I’ll go, so they got me a room and I watched the ski races. And that night, there was a cocktail party. And you remember at the Olympics, Debi focused on the first jumps, because she knew that Katarina had done well. And I knew that the Russian judge liked her so she could do well. Well, she made her mistake on her first jump and then got disheartened. So I go to this party that night and dress up in a suit and tie, and I got presented to President Gerald Ford and his wife. And I was the only one at this party with no money, I’m telling you [laughs]. So I get up to President Ford, and he gets all excited and says, Betty, it’s Alex McGowan, Debi’s coach. And in this loud voice, he says, did you get my letter? And all these CEOs are looking around, going, what letter, I didn’t get a letter [laughs]. And when we got back to the arena in Boulder, there was the letter, to Debi and her coach, saying, don’t give up for Worlds. Isn’t that something?

And nobody knows this except for a few people, Christine Brennan, E.M. Swift, Phil Hersh — I had a skater, Lisa Tolbert, at Nationals on the same ice as Tonya [Harding]. So Tonya finishes her number and goes off, and I said to Lisa, let’s sit here and watch Nancy [Kerrigan]. So we sat and watched Nancy, and I said, OK, Lisa, off you go and I’ll see you tomorrow for practice. And I heard the screaming and the yelling [when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked], it was just behind the curtain, and I went over and the guard wouldn’t let me in and they were trying to clear the arena.  So I went out and was walking up the stairs, and I run into Doug Wilson, the director from ABC. And I said, Doug, you want to get a camera down there because Nancy’s been attacked. And he said, are you kidding me, because you kid everybody. And Doug said, no, I can’t do that, the pairs final is coming up in about five minutes and we can’t leave them. If you’re joking, I’ll never speak to you again. And I said, no, I’m not joking, I heard her screaming and the guard told me what happened. So I went to the arena and sit down, and Christine Brennan is sitting down, and I said, there’s a scoop downstairs for you, Nancy’s been attacked. And she said, it’s the [pairs final], I don’t know if I can leave, you could be wrong, but they haven’t come out in warmup, so I’ll go down there and try to see what’s going on, maybe she just smacked her butt or something. And then the people next to her, Steve Woodward from USA Today, and Phil Hersh — Christine said to them, I’m just going to check on something, and they said, what’s wrong? And she whispered, Alex thinks that Nancy’s been attacked like Monica Seles. And so about eight of them got up and went down. And Christine came back and said, you broke that big story, we want to thank you. And I said, I didn’t know it was a big story [laughs].

Marshall Sanchez (memorabilia vendor): I worked for Peter Piper [trucking company] as a laborer, loading and unloading trucks, and at the end [of Ice Capades] I asked if I could salvage what was left over. I was looking at the steel and the lighting that was left behind. And I got the salvage rights and kept what I could. And we used to find a lot of boxes, full of things, there was no rhyme or reason — posters, sketches, drawings, negatives. It looked like somebody had left in a hurry, in total disarray. So I’d set a box in the corner and my daughter and my nephew would start sorting things out, and putting programs with programs and pictures with pictures. And at the end of the salvage job we had all this stuff and we were just sitting on it, that was ten years ago. I tried to contact people – originally I thought it could go to a museum or something. But it looked like I’d have to open the museum if that was going to happen [laughs] and I don’t think I’d be a very good museum curator. So I called the organizers of this event and they invited me to come up here.

Most of this is probably worth more than it’s being sold for, but it’s going back to the people who created it, so I’m happy.

Marjorie McChesney Kunik (1944-1948): A man named Johnny Mitchell was a scout for John Harris, and he was up in my hometown of Timmins, Ontario, and he was looking for hockey players, but he was also looking for skaters. So when he went back to Pittsburgh he told them about my friend and I. And I was on the billboards. I went on a date and he drove me to see something, and it was me on a billboard, way up in the air, advertising Ice Capades [laughs]. It was a great show and they took great care of us, they really did. And John Harris was a great boss. I liked Chicago, and I liked Atlantic City, because I met my husband there. He was an usher at the skating rink, and his friend said, you should meet that girl. And that’s how we met [laughs]. He skated, but not professionally.  I liked to wear the Royal Canadian Mounted Police costume, and I liked the Easter Parade number, it was a pretty number. I was a daffodil [laughs].

Mary Sleichter Hummel (1944-1949): I joined when I was 17, and that is young. I just adored skating and could hardly wait until I could join Ice Capades. I worked very hard in the show, I would do my best, and I ended up being an understudy to several principals. And then in the 1948 show, I was asked to do a pair number with Don Bearson, so we did pairs for two years. I had never done pairs before, but Don and I got along very well. We did A Day in Atlantic City and a Mother Goose number. People thought we were very young, but we were just short [laughs]. You go out on the ice the first time and you’re scared to death, all these people looking at you, but you get over that and then it’s just amazing. The people I worked with were absolutely wonderful. Show people, they’re like one big family. And I adored The Old Smoothies. Irma sat next to me in the dressing room, and she was just so sweet. If I wanted to talk about something, she was there, she was like my mother. I last skated about 10 years ago, but we have a granddaughter, and I’ve gone on the ice since then because I wanted to say I’d been on the ice with her.

Sarah Kawahara (1972-1980): I was a performer up until 1980 and then I choreographed the show for five years, from 1984 to 1989. I’ve choreographed since then and I have two Emmy awards, one for Scott Hamilton’s TV special and one for the 2002 Olympics opening ceremonies. I was fortunate enough to be involved with Scott Hamilton’s professional career for over 20 years, and now I’m working for Willy Bietak doing productions for cruise ships.

When I was performing in the show, Dorothy Hamill came in, and I would have to skate after her, and in some ways I feel very fortunate and honored that I was chosen to do a solo after her piece, because she was like the darling of America. But she would always need help with her hair, so I would go in and help her. She was the newbie, and I was the experienced one. And I went on later to choreograph for her, so that was kind of fun.

Will Grendahl (1971-1974): I actually started with Ice Follies as an understudy, but when I got to their opening city, which was San Francisco, they actually gave me a principal spot. So after Ice Follies I went with Ice Capades. I started out as what they called the principal spot, in the opening number. And then the second year I had a spot in the Mandarin Magic number, a soloist called the Ardent Admirer. I was fortunate in that I got to admire Julie Lynn Holmes, who was the national champion at the time. I continued to do understudies, I did a spot that was thrown in when anyone else was out, and I did chorus work. I still skate, and I’m always tempted to do more. I was speaking to Richard Dwyer, he’s my hero, and he’s still doing double salchows and he’s skating every day.

Bob Young (1960-1981): I was with Holiday on Ice, with the Capades, and also in Europe for many years and South Africa, so it’s like every year I go to a reunion because of all the different companies [laughs]. It’s good to see all the people. In Ice Capades, we were comedians from England, and I was the straight guy. We were like a cross between Martin & Lewis and Abbott & Costello. We had a nightclub act, so we worked a lot in nightclubs and circus and theatre. One of the directors approached us in South Africa, and said, you used to do your act on ice, and we said, yeah, we did, and he said, would you like to go to Ice Capades and do that, we said, no, we can’t get away because we have to do a circus in Spain. We did pantomime in South Africa, it’s English theatre, and the guys play the dames. So I was always in drag, and my partner would play the wicked guy. But that’s how we ended up going to the States, and I don’t do drag any more, happily married guy [laughs].

Mike and I, we would terrorize just about everybody with explosions and such. We did a lot of pyrotechnics in the show, and I was actually in charge of that, so I would put little hidden bombs under people’s chairs. One of the kids, he was about 12, in one of the skating families, I threw a cherry bomb while he was in the bathroom stall with his pants down, and he couldn’t get out in time. And there was 20 other cast members in the bathroom at the time. It sounds kind of cruel but it was actually very funny.

And we did a part that was Sleeping Beauty, I was the queen and my partner was the king, and Sleeping Beauty was flying around the ice. And it was very serious, Sleeping Beauty, because everyone went to sleep. Well, I had this huge crinoline on and I sat on the throne, and the back of the throne started to fall apart. And we kept pushing this thing, and at this very serious moment where everybody’s falling asleep, we fell over backwards so that I had the crinoline with my legs in the air. We had to go explain this to management [laughs].

Fred Huffman (1993-1995): I came on as a lighting technician. I set up lights for the show and made sure everything was right for the shows, and loaded in and loaded out. It was a lot of work but a lot of fun. I got a call one Sunday night and I thought it was a joke so I hung up on them, but then I thought about it and realized that I did give a resume to Ice Capades, so I called them back and talked to the head technician, and said, sure, I’ll do it. And the next day a ticket was FedEx’d to my house and I was on my way. I’ve always liked the arts, no matter what it is, but I like skating a lot better now. I watch it and I understand what the people go through now, to get to that point. Some of the skaters gave me some lessons on the side, and I got a pair of skates, but I’m not any good like these guys are.

When I was with Dorothy Hamill, there were a lot of interesting things in the show. The snow effect, we had to constantly keep working on it, because it was new and nobody had anything like that. What I was told was that Disney liked it so much when they saw it in LA that they put it into their theme parks. Now it’s very common, and there’s companies that make it and they don’t have the problems that we did.

I never thought I would ever tour, and that was the first tour I’d ever been on. It was fun, but it was a lot of work, and it took me about the first season to get used to the whole idea of touring.

Randy Gardner (1980-1983): We toured in the show for three years [with Tai Babilonia] for three years, and then did guest appearances in the fourth and fifth year, so we did every city on the tour eventually in the end. And I wanted to do some choreographing and directing, and I got the great honor to work with Bob Turk, who was the director and producer for many years. And I worked with him in another show called Legends on Ice. So I got a little bit of Ice Capades training from him, which was really fascinating, and I learned so much.

When we came from the amateur world, Bob Turk said, we don’t do that amateur bit here, and we wondered what he had in mind. So he told us our numbers, Me and My Shadow, an original piece written for us, and I did a solo to Twilight Zone, and then we were going to change in 40 seconds into our finale costumes, and then the finale was skating around fireworks. Which was all new. So those are the things you experience that all sort of enhance your professional career. And we so welcomed that and we never looked back.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger Vincent December 8, 2011 at 11:27 am

Hi,

I came upon your interview with Alex McGowan by accident and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to hear the guy again.

Alex was my instructor at Altrincham Ice Rink in the UK back in 1960 when I was eleven years old. Alex coached me for the next four years until he moved to the USA and, since then, I lost touch with him. He was a great coach – a real hard task-master – but he got the results.

If you are ever in touch with him again and could give him my very best regards I would be grateful.

Thanks again for such a pleasant re-awakening of happy memories.

Regards,

Roger

allison December 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Hi Roger. Thanks for the comment. I’ll forward your information and regards to him. Glad you enjoyed the interview!

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