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You're An Old Smoothie
Leigh Montville
March 30, 1987
For nearly 40 years Frank J. Zamboni's funny-looking invention has been refinishing ice surfaces all over the world
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March 30, 1987

You're An Old Smoothie

For nearly 40 years Frank J. Zamboni's funny-looking invention has been refinishing ice surfaces all over the world

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Frank J. Zamboni lived in paramount, Calif., before it was Paramount. He was there 65 years ago—long before the Artesia Freeway and the Long Beach Freeway and all the other freeways made this place just another extension of the Los Angeles sprawl. He was there when it was dairy country, with some Dutch farmers and some Portuguese farmers and a lot of cows and more bales of hay per square mile than any place in America.

Zamboni says, "It was just land. I don't think anybody owned a lot of it then. It was land, just sitting there."

He is 86 years old now, and no unoccupied land is left to be seen. One light industry seems to blend into the next, one shopping mall into another. "I still live two blocks from my factory," he Says. "I still live two blocks from my ice rink. I came here in 1922 and I never left."

One day he was a mechanical guy trying to figure out a commonsense answer to a mechanical problem. The next day—or so it seems to him—his solution was famous and his name was famous and his company was sending out herds of funny-looking boxy monsters to clean the ice of the world. Yes, he is that Zamboni.

Can there be anyone who doesn't know what a Zamboni is? If you have ever watched a hockey game, if you have watched a big-arena ice spectacular, if you have gone to a small-arena public skating session, if you have had any introduction to any indoor ice sport, you have seen a Zamboni churning around the rink, scraping off old ice and spewing water to make new ice. There are Zambonis in a majority of arenas in North America. There are Zambonis behind the Iron Curtain, Zambonis near China's Great Wall, in Australia, Korea, South Africa. Geography doesn't matter; politics matter even less. Ice is ice.

The operation began humbly enough—with a single icehouse in Paramount. Zamboni made ice there and sold it to the local farmers. "With all the dairy farms, there was a great need for ice to keep the milk cold in the twenties and thirties," says Frank's son, Richard, 54, who is now president of the company. "My dad had been raised in Idaho. Never went past ninth grade. He came out here when he was 21 to join an older brother, who was in the electrical business. Ice making was a sideline for them, and it was doing pretty well. Then widespread use of the home refrigerator came along...."

What do you do if you own a large ice plant and suddenly the sales of home-delivered ice begin melting before your eyes? In the late 1930s the Zamboni brothers found an answer. "Dad and his brother decided to build a skating rink—Iceland—across the street from the icehouse," Richard says. "They ran the ammonia pipes right under the street to the rink. The first idea was to have an outdoor rink, but that didn't work very well in the California heat, so they put a building over it. It's a giant rink, 200 feet by 100. It was built that size only because those are nice round numbers. What did my dad and his brother know about ice rinks?"

Enough to know that they must be cleaned regularly. At most rinks in those days, making a new sheet of ice was a three-or four-man, 1½-hour job. Usually a tractor dragged a plane across the old ice. Workers then cleaned away the snow and scrapings, after which a hose spread water over the rink to make a new surface. (Between periods at hockey games, half a dozen men scraped the ice, which was then sprayed with hot water. The entire process took about 20 minutes.)

To save time and money, in 1942 Zamboni began experimenting with a new method. He had a Jeep behind his ice rink, and he used to tinker with it the way other young California guys tinkered with their cars. "It probably helped that he was out here, away from a lot of other ice rinks," Richard says. "There weren't as many people to tell him what he couldn't do."

Still, the solution didn't come easily. Seven years passed before a finished product of sorts was ready. It had huge wooden sides and a conveyor-belt system to remove the snow. It looked as though it had been built in a fraternity basement as part of some college-humor contest, but it worked. Whirr, whizz, bing, bang, and presto! The ice at Iceland was clean, which was all Zamboni had ever wanted. Then Sonja Henie arrived at his door. The Sonja Henie.

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