Episode #57: Roy Blakey

by allison on September 6, 2012

SEPTEMBER 2012
A prolific collector of figure skating memorabilia for over 70 years, Roy Blakey is the owner of one of the worlds largest collection of figure skating memorabilia. Highlights of his collection, and an overview of show skating, can be viewed at his website Ice Stage Archive. His collection is going to be featured in an upcoming documentary by Roy’s niece Keri Pickett called The Fabulous Ice Age. He talks about how a day at the movies started his love for skating, his happiness with being in skating shows himself, and how much fun he had showing a Sonia Henie costume on an episode of Antiques Roadshow (Roy is at the 28:55 mark in the video). 58 minutes, 02 seconds

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: I think probably in the show that I did in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, I was in a circus scene and had on a clown suit with big baggy pants that zipped up the back, from my crotch to the top. And at one point when I bent over the whole thing opened up, and my whole backside and my dance belt was very much visible to the audience, and I got a big laugh. I’m surprised the choreographer didn’t say, keep it in [laughs].

On how he got interested in skating: I grew up roller skating in the streets of Enid, Oklahoma, and loved that and thought it was great fun. And I loved all the movie musicals and went to see one with Sonja Henie, and it had this incredible theme that was just burned into my memory. The ice was painted black and they had put a film of water over it so it was like a mirror. And the skaters were all in white costumes, reflected in this thing. So here were these beautiful skaters, dancing and swirling and spinning on this mirror in their gorgeous costumes. And I think I said to myself in the theatre, I was about 11 years old, that’s the most incredible thing I ever saw in my life, I have to do that, I have to skate in a show. So I knew from then where my life was going already.

We had no ice in Enid so I had no opportunity to learn ice skating at that time. So I got a good pair of roller skates and boots and started taking lessons. And I did a couple of competitions but that was never a big thing for me. I did win a couple of competitions but it wasn’t about being in competitions, it was about being in a show. And at that time there was a very lavish roller skating show called Skating Vanities. And it would come to Oklahoma City every year, so my sister and I would get on the bus and go and see a Sunday matinee. And I started to collect all the programs and newspaper clippings and magazine clippings about it, and also everything I could find about the ice skating shows. So here I am in junior high school in Oklahoma, writing off to the St. Regis Hotel in New York and the New Yorker Hotel and anywhere I could see where the skaters were performing, asking for autographed pictures and programs and things. And I have this amazing collection of all that era, and I had no clue that it had a purpose. I just thought, I love these things, so I put them away. And I have documentation of all the tank shows all over, and I eventually got to participate in them myself when I became a professional skater.

On staying in Germany after serving in the Army and joining a skating show there:  The club [where the show was held] was built by the US Army. Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a gorgeous Bavarian village that looks like Heidi would live there, and the Army had made it a leave and recreation place for all the members of the forces serving in Europe, to come skiing, and in the summertime there was tennis and golf and horseback riding. And they built this beautiful club, Casa Carioca, with an ice skating rink in it, with tables on three sides, tiered up. And there was an 18-piece orchestra over the stage. I saw information about it while I was in the services, in Germany, so some buddies and I took our three-day leave and went to Garmisch and saw the show. And I took my ice skates with me, and the stadium where the 1936 Olympics were held was right next door to the nightclub. So I went skating the two or three days while we were there, since I hadn’t had any opportunity to skate for a year or so, and I left a note at the club — if they could use military personnel in the show, it would be like special service and they could station you there. And by the time I got back to the hotel where I was staying with my buddies, they had called. I didn’t tell them that I was going to write this note, and they said, oh! You got this call from an ice skating show! They want you to come and audition! And I said, oh, they must have seen me skating — not confessing that I had set the whole thing up myself [laughs].

So I went in and I did have my audition, and I hadn’t skated in more than a year, but the woman said, oh, I think I can use you, leave me your address and where you’re stationed and I’ll see what I can do. Well, here was my dream coming true. I could hardly get my feet back on the ground, I was so thrilled. But I never heard her from after that. I was very disappointed, and it was getting time when they were thinking about sending me back to the States. So I wrote her a letter and told her a lie [laughs]. I told her, I auditioned for you and you said you could use me, but I never heard from you, and now I have an opportunity to go and work in a show in England. Well, you can’t go to England unless you’re a principal, like a world champion, and she knew that, but she sent me a contract [laughs].

So the Army kept me until midnight of my two-year service, I was so valuable to them [laughs], and I was then released and went to Garmisch, and got into the show. It was my very first show, I was green, the whole thing, but I knew this was a very special place and I was very lucky to get there. So I was there for 18 months, all of the beautiful seasons there, and participated in two productions. And finally I said to Terri Rudolph, the choreographer, I can go back to the States and get some education with the military paying for it, but I have to go back by a certain time, and my time is running out. So I think I’ll have to leave the show here and go back and take advantage of the GI Bill to get some schooling. And she said OK. And then a few weeks later I was walking by a shop where I’d seen a jacket that I wanted for ages, and I said, dammit, I’m going to go in and buy that jacket. And we had access to the service club with our contracts to the ice show. So I went there to the snack bar, to have something to eat before the matinee, and in marched Terri Rudolph, and she came over to me and said, oh, you’ve got a new jacket, and here you are showing it off, well, I’m really going to make your day, I’ve gotten you a contract for a show in Chicago at the Conrad Hilton hotel. And that was the second best job in the skating world, because you got to stay in one place and you got a free hotel room at the Hilton and $100 a week and got to eat in the employees’ cafeteria. So I went there and I stayed for five years, two shows a night, seven days a week. It was just so terrific. I did 11 different productions. I look at the pictures now and see the incredibly beautiful costumes they made for us that we took for granted.

So I took a course in photography there. It started at 8 am and at first our very last show was at midnight, so we got through work at 1 am and would go have a bite to eat, so I would get about three hours of sleep. Then they moved the last show to 11 pm so I got another hour of sleep, but I fell asleep in every one of the school classes when we sat at desks and had to listen to the lecturer [laughs]. But I stayed awake for all the practical things when we actually had to focus on photographing and developing and printing and all that.

On skating in the German nightclub: The ice was 15 feet wide and 17 feet deep. You could get enough space to do jumps and the adagio teams could do their lifts and spins, but it was a very unusual configuration. It was tiered on three sides and the sides were quite narrow, but the front was quite wide. And when people came to have dinner, there was a dance floor, and then when they made the announcement that the show was about to start, and people left the floor, the floor split in half, and each side went under the area where the tables were, and then a hydraulic lift brought the ice up. So we were slightly above the eye level of the people who sat in front.

On staying involved in skating after retiring from ice shows: I had kind of a transition in that the last seven or eight years of my career, I went to Holiday on Ice and toured all over the world, in about 40 different countries. At the conclusion of my last tour, which was South America, I said, look, you’re not getting any younger and you’d better start thinking about your future, for the rest of your life. And even before I took that course in photography in Chicago, I had been a photographer. A guy in Garmisch in the show taught me how to develop my film and print my pictures, and then in my years in Holiday on Ice they would carry all my equipment for me. I carried a small darkroom setup with me and I would make prints in the hotel bathrooms. I blew out fuses in cheap hotels in every country [laughs]. I would photograph the stage setups wherever we were, so the company would have a record of how they set up the show in every city. And I was often called in to photograph people in the show for publicity or for new productions. The King and Queen of Thailand came to see the show and I was taken out of the opening number so I could photograph them arriving. So I knew I was going to be a photographer when I left the ice skating business.

So at the end of the last tour, they flew us to New York City and dropped us there. And I had fallen in love with Thailand and all the tropical places we played, so I said, I’m going to become a photographer in California under the palm trees, and in Los Angeles there would be lots of actors and actresses who would want the kind of pictures I would take. So I’ll stop and see my friends in New York City for a couple of days, and then I’ll go to California. And I went to New York, and all my friends said, California? What the hell do you want to go out there for? If you want to photograph actors and dancers and musicians and entertainers, you should stay in New York. So I think the second evening there, we were invited to friends of ours, a dancer and her husband who was a photographer. And while we were there, she said to her husband, did you tell Roy what you said to me? And he said, no, Roy wants to go to California. And I said, well, what was it you said to her? And he said, well, I’ve seen your work, and I just think that New York is the place that you want to me if you want to photograph theatrical people. So I thought, well, this guy knows me and he knows the business. And then the guy I was staying with said, well, I’m leaving town to go to my brother’s wedding in Oregon, you stay in my place while I’m gone, and go find yourself a loft. So I did, I found a loft, and stayed there for 25 years [laughs].

And while I was building the loft, with a photography studio in front, the phone rang, and it was an adagio team that had been in the Hilton show. And they said, oh, we’ve taken over running the Rockefeller ice rink, and there’s going to be a small exhibition four times a day, after they’ve resurfaced the ice, and we’d like you to be in it. And I said, I’ve never done a solo, I was always in the line or in the comedy number or something. And they said, well, the deal is you get half of any lesson money you get there, you have two meals a day — and I said, I’ll be there tomorrow [laughs]. I insisted on being the opening number, I didn’t want to go after the people with all their doubles and such, and I was there for two seasons. And it kept my body and soul together while I was getting my photography business going.

It was great there, I got to photograph stars and hundreds of thousands of young hopefuls, some of who have won their Tonys and some of who are in television commercials that I see to this day [laughs]. So I feel that I had a little part in that, and that’s rewarding.

On preferring theatrical skating to amateur skating: It’s seeing people who create their skating for the artistry and for the public. To me, there’s no comparison. I would much rather see someone who’s doing something that tells its own story, rather than being there to do specific athletic movements. I love the glitz, I love to see the production. That’s always been a big thing with me. And I’ve missed that so much in the States, now that all we have is the Disney shows. And many many times I’ve gone off to Europe to see Holiday on Ice to get my fix [laughs]. The thing that I love is the large groups of people, the artistry, the presentation. And even though the competitions always have their gala, hmm, it’s okay, I enjoy it. I’m going to make a lot of people mad by saying what I’ve said, but that’s my feeling.

On which country did the best professional skating: The United States, no question. Those great shows — Ice Follies, Ice Capades, Holiday on Ice, Hollywood Ice Revue — everyone copied them. All the other countries were influenced by those shows.

On how large his collection is: Enormous [laughs]. I need another building. I have a young computer guru who comes three days a week to help me photograph and document everything, and we’ve been working for a year and I think we’re one-third of the way through. And this has all been prompted by my dream is that this collection will go to a museum or a university where it can be seen by people who are interested to find out about these great shows, and that can display the costumes or the posters or the photos that I have.

On being on the Antiques Roadshow TV show: I collect all of the skating shows and all of the skating stars, and while I was still in New York I learned about a guy here in Minneapolis who was a big Sonja Henie collector. So we met a few times, and he had a number of her costumes. And he died a few years ago and left his collection to me, and it included 10 of Sonja Henie’s original costumes. So I took one to the Antiques Roadshow, and it turned out that they sent me to the wrong person first, to the textiles, and they sent us over to the other side of the room, to collectibles. We walked over and there was a big long line, and who was standing behind the table but Leila Dunbar. She knows everything, she’s a firecracker. So bingo, I hit the jackpot. And her eyes lit up when she saw the costume. So she brought the producer over, and they were very impressed that I brought a photograph of Sonja Henie wearing that costume. So they wanted to film the appraisal, so they put all this makeup on your face so you don’t shine, and they sit you down and make you wait for a while, and then they film it. It was such an out of body experience. I don’t remember anything I said, so I was very happy to see it.

On his favorite item in his collection: Oh, I have about 400 [laughs]. I have a couple of posters that are just magical, there are some programs I just love to see even after I’ve seen them hundreds of times. That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite [laughs].

On getting items for the collection: What’s happening now is that so many of my contemporaries are passing on. I have received amazing, wonderful things, from the former wife of a comedian from Holiday on Ice, Ted Deeley, who worked everywhere on the face of the earth. And he got Alzheimer’s, and his ex-wife and her new husband took care of him for the last two years of his life. So in his lucid times, she would discuss with him that she would like to send his things to my collection, and he agreed. So she has sent me three or four large groups of things, including — he did one comedy routine as a Scotsman, so she sent his Scotsman costume and his bagpipes. She sent me a suitcase that has all those wonderful stickers of Holiday on Ice and the hotels around the world. He was a photographer as I was, and did a lot of photography along the way, and so I have his wonderful photographs of the shows and of the cities along the way.

On the state of professional skating today: Do you want to hear me cry? [laughs]. I miss the shows so much, and my contemporaries always hear me say, why is it people don’t want to see that any more? They were so incredible. We haven’t had shows like that since 1980, and there are people who are now adults who have never had any experience of knowing that even happened. A number of years ago, a woman who came from Minneapolis and was in the shows, Ruth Mack — when I heard that she had passed away, I called one of the local newspapers and said, you have to do an obituary on this woman who was a great ice skating star with her husband, they did an act as an adagio team. And they were in the very first Ice Follies show, they were in the very first Ice Capades show, and the second or third show of Holiday on Ice, they were in charge of it and starred in it, and they were in a couple of the movies that were made in the 1940s. And this girl at the other end of the line said, what is this Ice Follies? It was like somebody punched me in the stomach, that people wouldn’t know what that was. Of course, she wouldn’t know what that was, because she was probably in her 20s.

But I just hope that somehow there’s a way to bring it back — I know it will never be like it was, they’ll never be able to afford it. But my story to everyone is that Cirque du Soleil went into Las Vegas with one show, with a whole new way of doing a circus, and now they’ve taken over the entertainment world. So if just the right personality on the ice, or just the right producer, or just the right money man comes and does something like that with ice, it could happen.

On the documentary in production about the Fabulous Ice Age: It’s being made by my niece. All she needs now is a ton of money for all the rights, for the clips and the music. It’s just heartbreaking that she’s run into a brick wall practically everywhere she’s gone to get money. Tom Collins has helped her, Dick Button has helped her, but the people who made millions with their ice shows have not come through. She’s in it up to her neck, she’s spent her own money going all over the place and interviewing people, and we’re praying that a miracle comes along and someone helps her financially.

On his own skating: Keri [Pickett, his niece] has been threatening me for the four years she’s been working on this film, you’re going to get on the ice [laughs]. I said, there is no way, I haven’t been on the ice in 37 years, I wouldn’t even know what to do. So she went away, she’s a professional photographer herself, to photograph organic farms, and I said, dammit, I’m going to sneak into the ice rink and see if I can even get around the ice. I had no muscle memory, I was hanging onto the barrier, going, this is too humiliating, I would never let her film me [laughs]. So then I said, well, maybe I didn’t give it enough of a try. So I went back a few days later, and was getting the feel of the thing, starting to feel a little more balanced, doing some cutbacks, trying a spin or two. And after about 20 minutes, my right leg said, we’re done [laughs]. But she did get me on the ice. We went to Lake Tahoe, in Nevada, where she was interviewing Jill Shipstad, the daughter of Roy Shipstad of the Ice Follies. So I got on the ice and skated a little bit with Jill holding me up, and Keri did photograph that. Although I think it’s an embarrassment from my point of view [laughs].

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