GENERAL ARTICLES

ICE BALLERINA

It’s a long jump from amateur skater to star of a big ice revue . . . But Eleanor O’Meara made it without nicking a skate

BRUCE McLEOD February 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

ICE BALLERINA

It’s a long jump from amateur skater to star of a big ice revue . . . But Eleanor O’Meara made it without nicking a skate

BRUCE McLEOD February 15 1944

ICE BALLERINA

GENERAL ARTICLES

It’s a long jump from amateur skater to star of a big ice revue . . . But Eleanor O’Meara made it without nicking a skate

BRUCE McLEOD

A BLACKED out arena is suddenly bathed in light. Fifty skating girls, hoop-skirted and beautiful behind fluttering ostrich plume fans, glide over the colored ice. A Strauss waltz is heard and a skating violinist and accordionist join the group. Into this frosted fantasy skates a slim darkhaired girl in a billowing powder-blue dress. Her skates hiss softly against the ice as she moves rhythmically through the shifting patterns of the ballet.

Such is the show goer’s first glimpse of Toronto’s Eleanor O’Meara as star of Ice-Capades’ “Blue Danube” ballet, currently on a cross-continent tour of Canada and the United States. Chester Hale, originator of the Ice-Capades’ ballet routines, calls this pretty, longlegged Canadian girl, with the flashing smile and freckled brow, one of the greatest natural skating ballerinas he’s ever directed. And Hale has created more than 1,500 ballet productions for New York stages and Hollywood movie sets.

Sports writers and critics subscribe to Hale’s assertion. One California columnist told his readers that she was greater even than the fabulous Sonja Henie. While still an amateur Eleanor O’Meara drew seven encores at a Chicago ice carnival and John J. Manley, manager of the arena, proclaimed her “the greatest skater in the world.”

When she signed her professional contract, in the spring of 1943, no one was more surprised than Eleanor O’Meara herself. Though she had a trunkful of trophies and a string of titles longer than Father Time’s beard, she was one of the few top-ranking amateurs with no professional ambitions. She was happy as an amateur. She had success. She had money. She had fame, too. Indeed the pert little Robin Hood cap, and its jaunty feather, which Eleanor O’Meara so likes to wear, were almost as familiar to skating audiences in New York, Buffalo, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Lake Placid and a dozen other places as they were in Toronto where she cut her first ice figures at the age of 12.

As an amateur she had won the Canadian senior ladies’ singles skating championship twice. She held the United States International and Canadian Cold Medals, both coveted skating awards. She had skated to two (ñma'íhan pairs titles and in 1941 at Philadelphia she and 21-year-old Ralph McCreath, now an officer in the Canadian Army, loosed a superb exhibition of lifts and tempo changes to win the North American pairs crown.

Small wonder then that she was regarded by professional skating promoters and rink managers as “a prize

catch.” Trouble was she refused to nibble at their bait. In 1937 she turned down an offer to go to Hollywood and make a movie with the late Jack Dunn, then skating champion of Great Britain. In 1938 the Music Corporation of America made a bid for her talents but was refused. There was an offer from New York’s Centre Theatre, even several from the Ice-Capades, but she declined them all.

Skated For Red Cross

WHEN war came it dashed what hopes she had of going to Europe with the Canadian Olympic team, but she still thought she could do more useful things than skating for money. She preferred, instead, to perform gratis at soldier benefits and Red Cross shows entertaining servicemen in Canada and the United States. Then one day she read how the big ice shows were selling millions of dollars worth of war bonds by giving special shows to which admission could be obtained only through the purchase of a war bond. She learned that Ice-Capades had been cited by the United States Treasury for selling more than $17,000,000 worth of bonds in this manner. Gradually her attitude toward professionalism changed. Next time John H. Harris, president of the IcéCapades, phoned her an offer she agreed to sign a professional contract. Today, with the exception of bare living expenses, every penny she earns is invested in Victory Bonds.

I caught my first off-the-ice closeup of Eleanor O’Meara the afternoon following her professional debut before 15,000 home town fans at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. She had been accorded an ovation and, as she sat on the big chesterfield in the living room of her home, she was a bit breathless about it all.

The first thing that impresses you about the girl is her sparkle. Almost in the same glance you realize she is mighty easy on the eyes. Her hair is dark brown and she wears it parted in the middle and pulled tightly back off her high forehead. It falls in soft waves, almost to her shoulders, and usually there’s a flower in it. Her eyes are blue, intelligent, not large but widely spaced and have a habit of disappearing when she laughs. Her cheekbones are high, her nose straight with a sprinkling of freckles faintly visible across its bridge. Her mouth is large; her teeth might have come out of a tooth paste ad. She stands five feet six inches and her 126 pounds are molded into a very trim figure.

She talks with an easy nonchalance and every now and then punctuates a sentence with a stab of a forefinger. She laughs easily and blushes, and

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while thinking has a habit of twisting the Loretto Abbey school ring she wears. That she can be temperamental is no secret, but people who work with her like to describe her as a “thoroughbred.” Literally born with a silver skate in her mouth she doesn’t believe in using social position or family wealth to impress people.

Success in the professional world hasn’t changed Eleanor O’Meara. Money hasn’t gone to her head for the simple reason she’s always had it. She’s interested, like any normal girl, in clothes, preferring sports models or tailored suits. On the ice she likes to wear black velvet trimmed with gold. She doesn’t care much for jewellery, but admits a weakness for French perfumes. Filet mignon is her favorite dish.

“I used to like milk shakes,” she laughs, “but when they told me how many calories a malted contained it frightened me off them.”

She gets a raft of fan mail every month and the usual phone calls and flowers from young admirers who would like to date her. But she wants to get skating out of her blood before taking romance seriously. “Let’s just say I love them all,” she smiles. “Marriage is a full-time job and a girl shouldn’t try to mix it with a career.”

Later she would like a crack at movies but not if Hollywood insists on its usual long-term contract. “I don’t want to tie myself down for seven years —not even in Hollywood,” she says.

Sprained Her Ankle

Acquaintances recall two incidents in Eleanor’s career that stamp her a “thoroughbred.” The first happened in

1936, the first year she planned to try for the Canadian senior ladies’ singles championship. A few days before the big event she burned her skates beyond repair on a live wire. While using her mother’s skates at a practice the next day she fell and sprained her ankle. Friends counted her out of competition but they reckoned without her Irish determination. Refusing to quit she had her ankle taped and, though in considerable pain, skated out and won that senior singles crown.

The second incident happened one spring night about a year ago during her professional debut in Hollywood. She was very nervous, for she sensed the spectators ringing the ice weren’t going to be easily impressed, that they were sitting there silently demanding that she live up to her glowing press notices. Many times before she had skated before larger crowds, but somehow this was different. No longer could she trade on her amateur reputation. She was a professional now—a part of show business, and in Hollywood, where show business is king, one needs more than a reputation to«make good.

Never had Eleanor O’Meara been more conscious of an “out-on-a-limb” sensation and as she skated into her singles routine she felt as though every customer in the rink had come armed with a saw. Then it happened. Off balance after a split jump, she fell. But if she was flustered no one in the rink guessed it. Pushing herself erect she glided smiling to the rink dasher, reached over it and shook hands with a spectator in a rail seat. Applause crackled. From that moment on, Eleanor O’Meara was “in.” She had proved herself a trouper—and Hollywood likes a trouper.

But clicking as a pro wasn’t just a matter of donning a pretty smile and going out and skating her head off. At first Eleanor didn’t quite appreciate

that. She does now because now she’s show-business wise. She doesn’t agree with those skaters who say the only difference between amateur and professional skating is on payday—but learning that difference was for her a sort of Eleanor In Wonderland experience that was, at first, both confusing and discouraging.

First she discovered people expect more of a pro th^n they do of an amateur skater. Dances that used to bring down the house at amateur carnivals scarcely got a rise out of an audience watching a professional show.

Mary Frances Ackerman, press agent for the Ice-Capades, puts it this way: “A girl can be the best skater in the country and still flop in show business. Many girls we audition skate beautifully but lack the sparkle every real star must have. Call it o-oomph, showmanship, or whatever you like, but without it a skater is lost in pro company. It’s because Eleanor O’Meara has learned to combine her great natural skating ability with her refreshing beauty and personality that she’s going places.”

Eleanor says show business has taught her more in a few months about skating values than did years oi amateur skating. “I’ve found,” she says, “the things I used to consider important really don’t matter. It’s the things I used to take for granted that count.”

Skates Every Night

The two types of skating differ in other ways, too. She works harder as a professional, performing every night in the week and often twice a week at matinees. Usually it’s after one o’clock when she gets to bed, so she sleeps late, breakfasting about noon on fruit juice, hot chocolate or weak tea. She practices less as a pro than she did as an amateur. Now an hour and a half a day suffices. Back in the days when she was training for the Dominion championships she used to put in three hours a day at school figures and an extra 60 minutes of free skating.

“I’d get so sick of school figures,” she recalls, “I’d vow after every competition never to enter another.”

People who watch Eleanor O’Meara skate are likely to be deceived, for she skates so effortlessly as to make it look ridiculously easy. You are apt to forget that it took hours of practice day after day, week after week, year after year, to produce a skater as slick and poised as she is. Every muscle, every reflex is trained to perfection. Hands, legs, shoulders, hips, every part of her body is a symphony of motion only because she practiced constantly until she made them so. When it comes to spins she can wind up in a blur and stop on a dime. She can uncork spectacular bursts of speed and her leaps and split jumps can bring an audience to its toes. Nor is she always the stately ballerina. When it comes to the tempos of the Latin-Americas, few skaters can outbump Eleanor at the conga.

She won her first singles skating title at the Toronto Granite Club back in 1931—a slim, rather gangling youngster in a plain, dark skating dress. Three years later she won the ladies’ novice skating championship of Toronto. In the spring of 1936, while still a junior, she vaulted into senior ranks and, skating for the Granite Club, became Canadian ice queen by annexing the Dominion senior ladies’ singles crown.

The next year she lost her singles title to her Toronto club mate, Dorothy Caley, but a year later, at Winnipeg, she disproved the old theory that champions never come back by regaining her Canadian singles championship, a feat which, she told reporters, “was

much nicer than being presented in the drawing room at Ottawa.”

She was stripped of her singles title in 1939, made unsuccessful bids to regain it in 1940 and ’41 and then teamed up with the husky six-foot McCreath to win the Canadian senior pairs title for the Toronto Skating Club. Together they added to their laurels by winning the North American pairs at Philadelphia. A year later, skating at Winnipeg with youthful Sandy McKechnie, also of the Toronto Skating Club, she won her second Canadian pairs crown and then rounded out her amateur career by becoming a member of the Canadian championship four.

What, in her opinion, makes a good skater? “Practice,” she says, “practice and more practice under the guidance of a good pro. And don’t be afraid of falls.”

Other factors, too, contributed to her success. Long before she started to skate she studied aesthetic dancing, an excellent preliminary in her particular case to rhythmic skating. An accomplished pianist, she has a keen ear for music, a valuable asset on the ice.

What does it cost to become a champion? When you mention how one world champion says it cost her $50,000 to attain her place in the skating sun, Eleanor O’Meara simply says, “Dear me!” She studied seven years and spent less than $5,000 to become a Canadian champ.

Nate Walley, currently starring with the Ice-Capades, was one of the Toronto pros who taught Eleanor O’Meara. Says Walley: “Eleanor

possessed all the essentials of a truly great skater. She had a natural instinct for co-ordination and balance. She had stamina. She had enthusiasm and intelligence, both of which are very important. A good skater has to use her head as well as her feet.”

And Eleanor O’Meara has used her head.