GENERAL ARTICLES

THE BIGGEST SHOW ON ICE

Sold out—50,000 seats — five weeks before opening! It's about time to take a look at this Ice ballet business

FREDERICK EDWARDS March 1 1938
GENERAL ARTICLES

THE BIGGEST SHOW ON ICE

Sold out—50,000 seats — five weeks before opening! It's about time to take a look at this Ice ballet business

FREDERICK EDWARDS March 1 1938

JUST eight evenings from the date of this issue of Maclean's Magazine there will on exhibition in the city of Toronto one of the most astonishing and, in some of its aspects, bewildering phenomena the field of modern sports entertainment has to offer.

At Maple Leaf Gardens in that goodly metropolis, crowds will pack the auditorium to its capacity for four successive nights. The rink seats 12,450 people. Standing room to the legal limit will be sold as well; say an average of 13,000 on each of the four evenings. The estimate is quite conservative. That is, 52,000 people; and 52,000 is a lot of people to draw to an indoor sports entertainment anywhere. Ask your nearest professional promoter.

Those folks will come from all over. Most of them, naturally, will be Torontonians, but there will be crowds pouring in by train and car and bus from numerous Ontario towns and villages. Others will arrive from far distant communities in provinces east and west, and from the United States, the latter probably including a sprinkling of wistful-eyed talent scouts from Hollywood. There will be spectators whose homes are in Europe, and. following the precedent of former years, at least one or two from the West Indies and South America.

There is more to it than that. This sports entertainment has nothing to do with the Stanley Cup, the National Hockey League, tennis, the six-day bike race, championship boxing, wrestling, football, or any sort of a championship whatsoever. It is not a professional show, although there will be a handful of pros. among the entertainers; perhaps one per cent. It is not promoted by the astute and effervescent Mr. Conny Smythe, who on this occasion is just the landlord, with the rent money in the top drawer. Its direction and control are in the hands of amateurs who employ professional talent sparsely where there is a positive need for professional assistance, but not otherwise.

No commercial organization makes a nickel from those 52,000 admission fees. The money taken at the gate goes for the promotion of figure skating as a sport, after the overhead is paid. In the overhead, though, are included wages for musicians, stage hands, dress designers and dressmakers. electricians and scores of other workers whose behind-the-scenes efforts are necessary to the success of the enterprise.

The show will not be ballyhooed. There will be no extensive advance publicity or advertising campaign to build up a demand for tickets. All the tickets were sold five weeks ahead of the opening night. The spectacle will present around 400 performers, whose ages range from under six to over sixty years. It will cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to produce $10,000 a night at the lowest possible figure. It represents the professional promoter's dream of bliss.....and it is run entirely by amateurs.

That, my astounded readers, is the 1938 version of an ice carnival.

Figure Skating is Newest Craze

This particular show, the Thirty-first Annual Carnival of the Toronto Skating Club, produced this year in partnership with the Granite Club of Toronto, is just one of many. In Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, there are skating clubs which produce ice carnivals. New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and a dozen other United States cities, as well as London, England, have suddenly gone completely gaga over similar spectacular doings on skates. But. because it has been going on for so long, has built up so large and enthusiastic a permanent public support, has so great and diversified a group of skilled performers to draw from, and is planned and directed by men and women with so many years of practical experience behind them, the Toronto Carnival tops them all. After you have been fussing around with any project, however ambitious, for thirty years, you begin to get the hang of how to do it.

Figure skating is the newest craze, and it promises to break all records in popular acclaim since Irene Castle first bobbed her hair. Swing music isn't in it compared with this business of doing didoes on the short steel blades with the serrated toes. For generations regarded as an exotic and slightly sissy pastime, numbering among its devotees only a handful of Society (with a big S), people who had time and money to spend on such foolishness, figure skating, sometimes called fancy skating, has at long last come into its own.

Today the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, as well as their wives and offspring, their sisters and their cousins and their aunts, are keenly aware of the sport. Things have developed to the point where both the sub-deb and the shop girl are exhibiting a passionate interest in such intricate convolutions as the outside-inside, the inside-outside, the double three-change-double three, the loop-change-loop, and the bracket-change-bracket.

The sudden—and it is sudden, comparatively speaking—popularity of figure skating and its related ice carnivals is traceable to a number of contributing influences, among them the final triumph of truth over error visible in the general acceptance of the fact that snow and ice and cold weather need not necessarily compel a complete hibernation of the human race. The scientific discoveries which made practical the production of artificial ice at low cost have been an important factor, as they have been in the world sweep of that fastest of all competitive sports, Canada’s own national game of ice hockey. The circumstance that Sonja Henie, former world’s champion figure skater, has advanced to stardom in the cinema is important, too, for the motion-picture influence is international and overwhelming when it comes to guiding popular opinion.

Long before Hollywood heard of skating, however, the ice carnival itself was slowly carrying figure skating toward the sudden public acclaim of the past couple of years. And Canada has had a great deal to do with the development of the modern ice carnival. Thus far most of the world’s greatest individual skaters have come from Europe; but the ice spectacle, whose appeal depends primarily on mass dancing rather than on the skill of individual performers, was Canadian in origin, with the Toronto club the pioneer in the field. For years traditional ballet numbers have been a feature of the Toronto show. And now the “ice ballet” is broadening out to include all kinds of mass dance interpretations, some of them extremely modern in feeling.

Figure skating, itself, of course, has its own special fascinations. It develops muscular control and coordination to a notable degree, and it is graceful, exhilarating, and not too demanding of the human physique. Most skating clubs today have among their members a few enthusiasts who may be seen daily practicing the simple preliminaries at the age of five, with a solemn concentration far beyond their tender years. At the other end of the parade, there are gallant oldsters of seventy out on the club rink two or three evenings a week, enjoying a waltz, or inscribing intricate patterns on the white ice with skill and éclat.

Figure skating is not too expensive for the moderate income; less costly than skiing, or, in the long run, than hockey. You can pay as high as $22.50 for a fine pair of figure skates, and $35 for specially constructed boots; but you can buy them, too, for $5 and $12 respectively. Strike an average between these extremes and you will have a good idea of the outlay involved for equipment in the case of a run-of-mine skater. Elaborate costumes, such as you see in the rotogravure pictures, are expensive, of course, but they are not essential to the happiness of the ordinary skater who goes out for the exercise.

Club membership fees are not high in most cases, because the surplus revenue from club-sponsored carnivals is earmarked for the purpose of advancing the sport, and that keeps the dues down. Some Canadian clubs admit junior members practically without charge, and in all cases the price of a membership for a small boy or girl is purely nominal. They like to catch their future champions young. In fact they have to if they are to develop champions at all, for it takes years of practice to perfect a really topnotch skater in international competition.

The sport is intensively organized, with basic rules and regulations accepted in every skating country. The international body is The International Skating Union in English, Union Internationale de Patinage in French, and International Eislauf-Vereiningung in German. Over in England the National Skating Association of Great Britain controls things, and in Canada the ruling organization is the Figure Skating Department of the Amateur Skating Association of Canada. The figures which must be learned before a club member can qualify for competition are the same the world over—the eights, loops, brackets, counters, and the rest of them—and these, of course, plus an equal skill in the free skating division, form the foundation upon which Olympic competition is organized.

A Gorgeous Spectacle

So much for the sport, as a sport. Recent developments have brought the spectacular features of figure skating so largely into the foreground of the picture that already some of the older sportsmen are beginning to shake their heads and ask whether this is figure skating or the show business they are mixed up in The professional theatre has taken to figure skating in a big way. Carnivals held in New York, Chicago, and other American cities this winter had more the look of a “George White’s Scandals” than a figure-skating convention, and in London three all-ice revues were shown on the stages of leading theatres, including a Covent Garden of all places ballet presentation. There exists a definite trend, deplored by some, applauded by others, toward stressing the interpretive side of skating through the elaboration of ballets, pantomimes and dance numbers; and this has led to a distinct change in figure-skating technique, which is now regarded by the "interpretive" school as being a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The end, of course, is the interpretation of music on ice through the dance. Zealous and stem devotees of figure skating as a sport are grumbling more than a little about this newfangled tendency; but the general public eats it up, which is why 52,000 people will see the Ice Carnival in Maple Leaf Gardens this March.

Any ice carnival promoted by any skating club demands a tremendous amount of enthusiastic and self-sacrificing effort on the part of its membership, whether participating in the spectacle, serving on committees, or just fetching and carrying on behalf of the good cause. This figure-skating business must have something. The Winter Club of Montreal, the Minto Club of Ottawa, whose members for years have specialized in pair and four skating, as well as the clubs in Winnipeg, Regina. Edmonton, Calgary, run their own shows successfully year after year, and it is worth noting that every club helps out every other club, sending featured skaters from its own membership to add a touch of outside glamor to the show. In Vancouver, where the climate is less wintry than in the easterly provinces, the local ice fiestas are almost altogether in the hands of visiting skaters, but the clubs back them, and their members are planning now to take them over in another winter or two.

A Year’s Preparation

It takes a year to put the Toronto Ice Carnival together, using that successful spectacle as an example. One year. Twelve months. No sooner is one jamboree over than the preliminary plans for next year’s show must be drawn. The Executive Committee holds sessions all through the summer months, and by the time Labor Day comes along, the subcommittees are organized and swinging into action. Casting, stage settings, costumes, lighting, choreography, orchestration, ticket distribution, program production, all the complex details of assembling and co-ordinating a theatrical extravaganza on a Broadway scale have to be worked out, checked, double-checked, and then checked over again.

A dozen or more committees and subcommittees are at work by the time the first frost arrives and the last leaves swirl along the sidewalks, with a million things to he done. For the performers, rehearsals start early in winter and continue right up to opening night. From around four o’clock until midnight, six days a week, for months on end, the skaters go through the routines of massed ballets, individual, pairs, trios and group formations under the direction of expert instructors, some of whom are volunteers, others professional stage folk.

There are two orchestras, one of seventy pieces and one of forty, for modern ice carnival production demands the best in music, and the “Blue Danube” and the “Skaters’ Waltz” no longer will suffice. The musicians have to be rehearsed with the performers during the final weeks of preparation. They are professionals, and they get paid for their rehearsal time,which the performers do not. This year the music will nick the carnival’s bank roll for at least $6,000.

Next to the training of the 400 skaters actually taking part, stage settings, costumes and lighting are the most important factors in the success of the spectacle. The stage settings are always elaborate, and this year more than 500 costumes will be used, all of them of original design. Both stage settings and costumes are tested under various lighting conditions on a model stage, miles away from the skating club where the rehearsing performers are literally going around in circles.

In so lavish a production, lighting is of paramount consequence, a matter for many hours and days and weeks of planning and experimentation. Maple Leaf Gardens, built primarily for hockey, boxing, wrestling, and similar sports where plain white floodlighting is all that is necessary, is not equipped normally to supply either the power or the lighting effects the Ice Carnival demands. For the four nights of the show the Toronto Hydro Commission runs extra power lines into the Gardens from Bloor Street, more than a mile away, to supply the additional voltage needed for the elaborate installation of lights required to achieve the more spectacular color effects. When the Carnival moved from the old Mutual Street Arena to the Gardens, extra permanent electrical equipment had to be installed to meet the needs of the Big Show. That job cost over $40,000, split fifty-fifty between the Gardens and the Toronto Skating Club.

This year’s lighting setup has overhead floodlights of 280,000 watts in all, and when you remember that the wattage of the ordinary electric bulb for home use is usually twenty-five, forty, or at the most, sixty, you get some notion of the tremendous light volume involved. In addition to the floods, there will be eight spotlights of 14,000 watts each. Color modulations, spotlight patterns, and ultraviolet rays are employed to create beautiful, often startling effects which never fail to bring long-drawn “Oh-h-hs” and “Ah-h-hs” from even the most blasé among the spectators. When the use of ultraviolet light was suggested a year ago, one of the world’s most noted glass companies said it couldn’t be done, since ultraviolet glass filters large enough to flood a stage as large as the Gardens’ ice surface with ultraviolet rays couldn’t be made. But the carnival people wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and eventually the glass company pioneered the manufacture of filters of dimensions never before deemed possible. And the show went on.

Always a Sell-out

Routine office work involved in keeping up with so vast an enterprise is an important detail. The Carnival Committee has a permanent mailing list of between 20,000 and 25.000 subscribers who each year must receive due notification that the ticket sale will open on a certain day. Mailing dates are staggered, so that subscribers living at distant points are made aware of the opportunity at the same time as Toronto purchasers. Otherwise the house would be sold out to local enthusiasts before the out-of-town customers could get a look-in. A special staff of typists, supplementing the regular club personnel, labors for weeks to handle this job, and the Post Office sets up a substation right in the clubhouse, where trained sorters take care of the flood of mail.

Past and recent history of the Toronto Carnival, now an international institution, supplies an authentic graph of the growth of public interest in this form of winter entertainment. Remember, the show is almost an all-amateur entertainment. The men and women and the boys and girls who take part are doing it for fun. That is why the Carnival cannot play matinees, although if matinees were possible the attendance would be just about doubled. But the children—there will be more than 190 of them in one program feature this year—must have their parents’ consent to participate, and four night shows is just about the limit the youngsters can take.

When the Ice Carnival was first organized in Toronto thirty years ago, it was a free-for-all charivari in fancy dress for one night only. Later, as public interest increased, it developed into an ordered and disciplined entertainment for two nights each winter, and the two-night rule was in force for many years. In 1935 the demand for admissions so far exceeded the supply that the Carnival Committee made it a three-night show, feeling that loss of interest might result if the public felt there was no chance of seeing the show.

That was only three years ago, yet, after having sold out the house for the 1937 show, actually a month before the opening date, and still having disappointed and clamorous applicants for tickets camped on the front porch with blood in their eyes, the schedule was hoisted to four performances this year; and again the thing was a sell-out five weeks before the opening.

Perhaps more important even than the remarkable success of the ice carnivals is the fact that Canadian skating clubs are making a definite contribution to international good will by missionary work, south of the border. Skaters from Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto are featured performers in a score of similar spectacles in New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and a score of other United States cities and towns every winter. Our champions have carried the Canadian idea of what ice is for across the American Republic from ocean to ocean, have been acclaimed everywhere. The Toronto show directly inspired the creation of the recently established Cleveland Club. After putting on shows for the Ohioans for three or four seasons, the Canadians advised and assisted the Cleveland enthusiasts in the organization of their own home enterprise, which now has a membership of more than a thousand. That is Toronto’s baby, and its parents are proud of it.

Make no mistake about the success of the ice carnival as an amusement enterprise. There are a dozen or more shows touring the United States right now, and in many of them Canadian skaters are starring. Sonja Henie has her own troupe, which grossed $140,000 for seven performances in Detroit. Her gross for six days at Madison Square Garden in New York was $156,000. Said the New York Times: “It is safe to say that New York has now been awakened to a form of entertainment that had partly escaped its notice heretofore.”

Figure skating has reached the heights. And Canada has had a great deal to do with putting it there.