Six ice troupes traverse North America. Three are mounted by Ice Capades and so named. The other three are run by Ice Follies, although two play under the banner of Holiday On Ice. This is because, even though ice shows are essentially the same, in some parts of the country, notably the South, Holiday On Ice has chipped out a bigger name.
This year about as many people will see ice shows as attend pro basketball, hockey or football games. But ice show roots reach much deeper. These are not the hard-core fans with season tickets. One comes as a child, as a parent of a child, as a grandparent of a child. The ice show often marks a person's first visit to an arena. For many it is the most athletic event they ever see. The audience crosses all generations and is 60% women. An argument could be made that Richard Dwyer is woven into the fabric of American life more than Johnny Bench or O. J. Simpson.
The modern extravaganzas sprang from amateur skating carnivals, held in partially covered rinks as early as 1867. The first took place in Montreal. With the advent of artificial ice, theaters began to offer ice acts—in 1915 New York's Hippodrome opened a show starring the world-renowned German skater Charlotte. Many came to see Charlotte's skating, others to inspect her calves, which she was brave and wily enough to reveal.
Moving right along. The one, the only, Sonja Henie. Ten years in a row world's champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist, a legend in her own time. She came to the U.S. in 1936, after her third Olympics triumph, with a $40,000 guarantee for eight performances. It was pretty much a one-woman show, or, as they say now, a one-person show. The idea for a traveling ice revue was already forming in the minds of the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson in St. Paul, but Miss Henie's stunning box-office success no doubt gave inspiration a boost.
Many think big-time women's athletics sprang just last week, like Athena full grown from the brow of Zeus. Miss Henie was, in fact, a greater presence in the '30s than the top sports women of recent years—Billie Jean, Chrissie, Peggy Fleming, the good-looking blonde on the golf tour—all of them put together. Hard-bitten sportswriters acclaimed Sonja Henie "the greatest box-office draw in the history of sport," taking care of Ruth and Dempsey and the other idols in one fell swoop. She was able to move back and forth from the top of sports to the top of show biz. In Miss Henie's best year in films, only Shirley Temple and Clark Gable were bigger draws. She made $210,729 from movies alone in 1937, more than half again what the president of General Motors found in his pay envelope. By 1940 she had cleared her first million; the Hollywood Ice Revue was her showcase, and it remained in business until 1952. Arthur Wirtz, the Chicago promoter, folded it soon after she quit.
Now Wirtz is chairman of the board of Follies and Janet Lynn is his star—or is supposed to be his star. Suffering from a respiratory disease, she has not performed since late last year. Lynn is touted as the alltime highest-paid woman athlete, having signed for a supposed $450,000 to appear at 16 of the Ice Follies' 28 stops.
While Miss Henie was in Norway winning world championships, the Shipstads and friend Johnson were busy in the Twin Cities at less spectacular endeavors. Eddie sold typewriters, Roy parked cars and Oscar was a chemist of sorts. On the side, Eddie and Oscar worked up a comedy skating routine and made appearances at carnivals and between periods of hockey games. Roy was more of a classic skater—The Human Top, he called himself—and he created his own uniform by sewing 15,000 spangles onto a pair of long Johns.
In May of 1935 Roy stopped parking cars and, along with the other two, went to Chicago to headline what is known in the trade as a "tank show" at the Hotel Sherman. It ran 16 boffo months on a 20' by 40' rink. There are few hotel tank shows left, but for a time after World War II there was hardly a city in the U.S. that didn't boast a stationary ice bill. The Center Theatre in New York, operated by Arthur Wirtz, ran an ice revue for a full decade, until 1950, and, with 3,500 seats, was often the largest-grossing theater in Manhattan. But Sonja is gone, dead of leukemia six years ago, the tanks have disappeared and hockey players make too much money for teams to afford between-period acts. So, all the business is Capades and Follies.
Their era officially began Nov. 3, 1936, when a chartered Greyhound full of 28 souls left the corner of University and Snelling in St. Paul, Tulsa-bound. Emboldened by their tank-show success, the Shipstads and Johnson were taking to the road. Regrettably, when the little troupe arrived in Oklahoma, it found a polio epidemic and an autumn cold snap so bitter that according to the local paper, "Dr. H. M. Hutchinson, Tulsa weather observer, gave out word that it was too cold for him to go outdoors and read the thermometer."
According to Follies folklore, 14 persons were in attendance for the Nov. 7 opening, and Oscar Johnson peeked out and said, "Don't worry, kids, we've got 'em outnumbered." In fact, the Sunday paper reported that "nearly 2,500 spectators sat about the arena," but even excusing the hyperbole, it was a great line and a rotten start. Follies didn't catch on until several weeks later, when the tour hit Philadelphia, the boo-centennial city. To obtain "heavy mitting," as Variety calls it, in Philly was true success. Madison Square Garden rushed to book the revue, and soon Hollywood brought out a Follies movie starring (are you ready for this?) Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart.