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Frank Deford
March 29, 1976
Medalists Peggy Fleming and Janet Lynn came leaping and twirling out of the Olympics into ice show biz to dazzle and delight millions as Sonja Henie did 40 years ago when she kissed amateurism goodby and put on spangles and a saucy suit
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March 29, 1976

Skating Rings Around America

Medalists Peggy Fleming and Janet Lynn came leaping and twirling out of the Olympics into ice show biz to dazzle and delight millions as Sonja Henie did 40 years ago when she kissed amateurism goodby and put on spangles and a saucy suit

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Ironically, Shelley is a better entertainer than ever. This is typical. As the skater's athletic curve declines, his performing one ascends. "And there's one other thing never to forget," says Phil Romayne, the great adagio dancer, now a Capades coach. "Fear. Skaters lose their nerve after a while. That's not a solid floor you're jumping on out there. It's ice and it's frosty, and with those blades it's like you're on racehorse legs. You're not embarrassed to fall. You're scared. The shame is that the good skaters often end up leaving just when they're beginning to understand what they are doing as performers."

The survivors, the statesmen of the business, are the funny men. Is that true of any other society? Mr. Frick, now 60, has skated with Follies since 1939, only three years after it came into being. The Capades' Freddie Trenkler has been skating nearly as long and has hardly missed a curtain in 20 years, appearing in more than 7,500 performances. The comics, tough, indestructible men, provide the continuity: Hans Leiter, Terry Head, Johnny LaBrecque, Paul Andre. "If Broadway had such good knockabout comedians," Brooks Atkinson once wrote, "it could consider itself lucky."

"To be an ice show comedian," LaBrecque says, "you have to be a creator, choreographer, musical director, costumer and, probably more than anything else, gutsy. We skate hurt. Comedians are the toughest." LaBrecque, from Montreal, was a boxer and first-rate amateur hockey player. Now he captains the Capades' broomball team.

Head, who grew up in England, also was a hockey player. "Hockey is a great training ground for comedy," he says, a statement calculated to be ratified by Washington Capital fans, "because you can't think about your feet. It is not a question of funny skating, you know. It is a question of being funny on the ice, of being a comic personality. The feet must take care of themselves."

The routines rarely change and have the quality of a religious litany. With the passing of the small touring shows and the tank shows, there is no place for an aspirant to ice comedy to learn the craft, and few line skaters in the big shows have a taste for the rough-and-tumble. So the same laughs go on and on. "All the major comics are of an age," Head says. And how old are you? "Well, I'm 43, if you want to know, but Freddie Trenkler told me that an ice show comedian should never reveal his age. We should be ageless."

Apart from the comedians, there is only one Peter Pan in the business. He is Richard Dwyer, the Follies' perennial matinee idol. At 5'9", 160, with mountain-lake-blue eyes, Dwyer is somewhat taller than a twinkle and almost as heavy as a large gee whiz; on and off the ice he lets a smile be his umbrella. Just turned 40, he has skated the same act since he was 14, when he was selected to fulfill a role for life.

Dwyer was discovered in 1947. Roy Shipstad, The Human Top, had advanced to become Mr. Debonnaire, making an institution of the swing waltz in white tie, top hat and tails. Follies decided that no mere mortal could replace him when he retired. At that time young Dwyer was the third-ranked U.S. skater. Ahead of him were Dick Button and Hayes Alan Jenkins, and amateur skating being the set piece that it is, Dwyer figured that it would probably be 10 years, even 12, before he could reasonably hope to win an Olympic gold medal. So when Follies suggested he succeed Shipstad and grow (up) into the Mr. Debonnaire role, he turned professional and made his adolescence into a takeout order.

Through the years, Dwyer has skated with five regular partners. The incumbent, Susan Berens, is retiring after next year's tour. The search for Richard Dwyer's next partner is about to begin! The daughter of his first partner, an older woman of 17 when he skated with her, is an Ice Folliette now. During each show he presents a bouquet to an old lady in the crowd, and thousands of them are graveyard dead by now. The partners grow old, have children, the old ladies die and Richard Dwyer skates on. He has long since eclipsed Button and Jenkins. They have their gold medals, Dwyer his tails. With the exception of Fred Astaire, he is the last man in the land capable of wearing tails with �lan.

But Dwyer is not just some front man, some Wayne Newton playing a jock. "I still have a unique style," he says, "one that represents the '50s—more fluid, more glides, a lot more edges. But I challenge myself. I still do a lot of jumps. Maybe I'm getting more cautious every year, but I'm not scared. You have to be the athlete out there first."

Without a Garden date in New York last year, Follies stitched together a tank show at Radio City Music Hall. They hired Peggy Fleming, a free lance, as the big name, and then cannibalized their own show by bringing Dwyer in as leading man. Clive Barnes, the Times dance critic, reviewed the show, awarding it a split decision. The celebrated Miss Fleming left him cold (noting her "lack of physical harmony," he said, "As a ballet dancer, she wouldn't, in her present state, be even a starter"), but Barnes was enthralled with Dwyer, "a very considerable artist—a veritable Fred Astaire of the ice."

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