Closeup/Show Business

Unseen forces

Introducing the boys in Toller Cranston’s back room

Ron Base July 11 1977
Closeup/Show Business

Unseen forces

Introducing the boys in Toller Cranston’s back room

Ron Base July 11 1977

Unseen forces

Closeup/Show Business

Introducing the boys in Toller Cranston’s back room

Ron Base

Opening night on Broadway, an event whose glamour, this evening, is marred by a weaving black man with a toothless grin, standing before the Palace Theatre on 47th and Broadway, slamming a stack of yellow cards against the palm of his hand, yelling in a loud, whiskey voice: “Check ’er out, now. Check it out.” He tries to shove the cards into the hands of passersby. The cards advertise the business of Broadway these days, which is not theatre, but sex: “No rip-off! Luxury For Less. $10 complete satisfaction. Beautiful girls. No other charges.” The theatregoers milling in front of the Palace grimly ignore the black man. They are intruders here, camped along the edge of the sewer that is Broadway, desperately searching for some sign of opening night panache.

There’s Julia Meade, the girl who used to do the commercials on the Ed Sullivan Show. Julia Meade? No big star to be sure, but better than the reality of this Times Square hawker.

Andy Warhol, his pale face resembling the skull on an ss officer’s cap, scoots by the black man. In the main foyer, the producer of the new show, a man named Dennis Bass, greets everyone. He pumps hands as if trying to draw water and embraces people in huge, affectionate bear hugs. His ey es are fiercely bright. His smile looks as if it had been drawn shakily on his face by some kid with a crayon. Beside him, and a couple of steps to the rear, stands Bass’s partner and co-producer Robin Cranston. He is more restrained, but his eyes also burn with a weird intensity. He is younger, a thin Henry Fonda with a grin like a knife blade.

In the gold and red plush of the 1,680seat theatre, Julie Newmar, a long and slinky actress who once had a fling with Howard Hughes and who now retails a line of panty hose, purrs against her fiancé, a Texas lawyer. She stares out at the stage, blinks, and looks again. Then she reaches for a pair of opera glasses. There, protruding out from the gold leaf of the Palace’s proscenium arch is . . . ice. A sheet of it measuring 48 by 56 feet, done in powdery blue. The stage where Bob Hope and the cream of vaudeville once performed, where Judy Garland sang, and where Lauren Bacall opened in Applause, is now a glorified ice rink.

Below, in the grey-brick bowels of the theatre where legend has it a ghost still lurks, the star of the new show, Toller Cranston, sits on a brushed corduroy couch in his chocolate brown dressing room. He leans forward carefully lacing

his black Kaneblis skates. His face, as usual, betrays no emotion, although in a few moments he will be onstage with 15 other skaters introducing Toller Cranston’s The Ice Show. If the night works out for him the way he fervently wants it to, he will soon be Broadway’s newest star. He will have lifted ice skating out of the community centres, away from the funny animals and leggy chorus girls of the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies he despises. The night before, during a preview performance, he had been nervous on the ice, seemingly afraid of its narrow perimeters. Afterward, Toller’s supporters were chanting “bad dress, [rehearsal] good show,” like nuns reciting Hail Marys to ward off evil.

Broadway cynics were doubtful of the show. It was the wrong time of the year, they said. The producers were asking a ticket price of $15 top ($16.50 on weekends) for an ice show no one knew anything about, which offered no orchestra (the music had been taped by a 54-piece orchestra in London), and a star who outside skating circles was unknown to a New York audience.

There were other problems that cynics and supporters alike knew nothing about. The story of Toller Cranston’s arrival at this moment, with the hawker outside handing out promises of a dirty time and a first night audience inside wondering if The Ice Show would ever succeed, is one of deception, intrigue, sexual innuendo, brash showmanship, and plain lies. Tempers were lost, friendships were broken, harsh accusations were hurled back and forth, even sabotage was suspected. The cast of characters included a producer who had never before been involved in a Broadway show, yet cheerfully threw nearly one million dollars into this one; disgruntled backers who resented being left out of the planning; a mysterious manager who exercised a strange power over the show’s star.

And the most intriguing character of all, Toller Cranston from Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who fell in love with skating at age seven and grew up knowing someday he would be a star. He is a painter of talent, a writer, at 28 an enigmatic personality who suggests great character strength, but also a sad vulnerability. One felt sorry for him, the suspicion taking root that everyone, no matter how good his intentions, was trying to manipulate him in some way. In his dressing room, Toller finishes with his skates. Upstairs the other performers are swirling on the ice. He can hear the strains

of Toller’s theme, written especially for him by Academy Award winners AÍ Kasha and Joel Hirshhorn. It is time to go onstage.

The first advertisement announcing Toller Cranston’s impending Broadway debut appeared on a full page of the Sunday New York Times, 25 days before the show opened. The headline read: “An Apology to the People of New York—

Only 48,000 of you can see Toller Cranston’s The Ice Show. Sorry ...” No apology was necessary since the ad was not true anyway. If The Ice Show was a hit, it would run as long as audiences wanted to see it. If the show flopped, it would close immediately. In the meantime, there was no harm in trying to hype the box office by making it seem as though only a limited number of people could see it. The ploy was some-

what successful. In the days following the ad, ticket sales, previously almost nonexistent, picked up. The first salvo in the campaign to promote Toller Cranston to New Yorkers had been fired.

The next week Dennis Bass hurried up to Toronto to open phase two of the campaign—publicize a Canadian tour of the show planned for next winter. At a press conference he accused the Ice Capades of trying to stop Toller from touring. He claimed Ice Capades and Ice Follies operated a virtual monopoly. Ice Capades demanded agreements from arenas stipulating no other ice show play 90 days before or after the Capades. “Toller,” he said with great solemnity, “believes totally in the freedom of ice.” Pause. “And right now”— he sighed heavily—“there is no freedom.”

In the following weeks, Bass was seemingly able to uncover all sorts of wild plots against his show. Attempts were made to lure away his staff and performers. Eighty thousand posters disappeared, and those that went up in the Broadway area were tom down. Someone, he said darkly, was stalling completion of the ice surface. He solved the problem by issuing a few warnings to the Sicilian workmen in their own tongue. Intruders tried to get into the theatre, forcing him to hire armed guards.

Finally, Bass’s paranoia appeared to bear fruit when Metromedia, the entertainment conglomerate that owns the Ice Capades, citing a conflict of interest, canceled a radio and television advertising campaign for The Ice Show on its New York outlets. Throughout, it was difficult to tell whether Bass was agonizing over these obstacles or enjoying every one of them. He was either a shrewd entrepreneur or a pretender who concocted wild schemes such as organizing a write-in campaign among Canadian figure skaters to invite Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to the opening.

In the end, he was a man who thought ice was something you add to Chivas Regal. The mystery was how he got involved with the show in the first place.

In 1976, Toller Cranston retired from 20 years of amateur competition with three world free-skating championships, an unprecedented six consecutive years as Canadian men’s champion, and a third place bronze medal at the 1976 winter Olympics at Innsbruck. He celebrated his retirement by throwing his skates into a canal in Sweden. “It sounds dramatic,” Toller says, “but actually it was done as a tremendous joke.” He thought seriously of devoting himself full-time to painting. But then a group of backers was brought together to form a company called Theatre On Ice, and Toller created his own touring ice show.

For tax purposes, the head offices of Theatre On Ice were located in Holland, although much of its financing was raised by a Toronto lawyer, Arthur Smith. Crans-

ton owns half the company. He gets a salary of about $150,000 a year, a home in Bermuda, and a New York apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall. Theatre on Ice contracted the promotion and booking of Cranston’s ice show to Hurok Concerts Inc. Hurok was more at home booking ballets than ice shows and, to make matters worse, the founder, Sol Hurok, had left his company in desperate financial straits, when he died in 1974. After a confused Canadian tour, Cranston was fed up with Hurok. “They treated us like animals and screwed up like I couldn’t tell you.” But the company remained

tied contractually to the ice show.

“Someone came up with the idea of Broadway,” Cranston says. “For a minimum amount of publicity, you can put a show into a theatre and possibly have a hit.” Hurok tried to do it on a shoestring. For example, a total budget of$ 15,000 was allocated for advertising. Yet a full page ad in The New York Times alone costs $16,000. Not that it mattered much because in January, two weeks before the show was to open at the Uris Theatre, Hurok representatives announced to the cast they had not “reached financial commitments,” and closed the show.

“I was ready to place a pistol to my head,” Cranston remembers. “It was so degrading, I can’t tell you. If I had the funds, I’d have been on my way to Tahiti, paint brushes in hand, ready to paint myself to death.” Instead, the next morning he boarded a plane for Los Angeles. Lately, he had become friendly with his cousin, a 29-year-old Californian named Robin Cranston. The son of Senator Alan Cranston, Robin helped develop the McCloud television series. Now he was involved in business dealings with a shopping centre developer. And Robin wanted Toller to meet him.

One morning Robin showed up at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a Rolls-Royce that once belonged to King Hussein and whisked Toller off to Bel Air where they descended through iron gates and down a drive that swept past an uncanny replica of the White House. Dennis Bass, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, thick, with unkempt hair spilling over his head, bounded from the house to meet them. His was the sort of Horatio Alger story that makes small boys want to grow up to be rich. Bass was raised in New York’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant, and led his own street gang. He started out with $80 which he used to purchase a real estate salesman’s license in Los Angeles at the age of 21. Two years later, he owned a real estate brokerage business with which he launched the Bass Financial Corporation, a multi-divisional company that today is worth $250 million. In his midthirties he was deeply involved in Democratic politics.

“I thought he was the mob,” Toller says. “I had no idea who he was. I was convinced he was Mafia.” Bass poured champagne. Toller sipped a couple of glasses then, because he hadn’t eaten all day, passed out on the floor. But not before Bass had agreed to back his ice show.

Dennis Bass quickly alienated Arthur Smith, the Toronto lawyer and his wife. They felt they had stuck with The Ice Show through the bad times and were now being left out in the cold by Bass’s high-powered salesmanship. They disliked his harping criticism of Hurok, a company they considered honest, albeit misguided and under-financed. And they distrusted his super-heated efforts to make headlines. And they resented Bass’s implication that he owned The Ice Show. Theatre On Ice owned it. Bass had merely taken over the booking and promotion from Hurok.

On a seamier level, the spreading of sexual innuendo became almost a business tactic. Toller’s manager was a mysterious, one-eyed woman named Elva Oglanby. She had left her family in Vancouver to enter Toller’s life and exercise a Rasputinlike control over him. For her he bleached his hair and constantly wore black, just as she did.

The sexual name-calling that surrounded Toller during the rehearsals was perhaps understandable. Like Mick Jagger

or Rudolph Nureyev, part of Cranston’s fascination lies in the question of his sexuality. He tends to blur sexual boundary lines. When all has been said about his skating style—the wildly exaggerated and expressive movements verging on high camp—he is a man unafraid to appear feminine. Historically, the ice world has had a stem aversion to men who were anything less than masculine in their skating style. The Ice Follies, the original ice show founded in 1936 by a couple of skaters named Shipstad and Johnson after they got tired of touring carnivals, was very straight. The Ice Capades which followed had strict rules against gay skaters in its ranks. But Sonja Henie, a marvelous show woman, welcomed gay skaters and loved their flamboyant style.

It was Toller Cranston who finally broke the constraints on men’s figure skating. He performed spirals, and ran around on the tips of his skates, employing movements that previously had been done only by women. His performances awed audiences and shocked competition judges, which is probably why he never placed better than third in Olympic competition. “Toller is the single most powerful force in skating,” says Gordie McKellen Jr., a New York skater who has often competed against Cranston. “Everywhere you go he is the one audiences have got to see.”

Toller is aware of the debates about his sexuality. “The higher you climb, the more liable people are to take pot shots at you. But I can live with it because it’s all so unfounded. People can say anything about you—that you’re a nympho or you’re into boots and whips—and you have to realize these allegations are made because you’re in the public eye.”

Would he like to marry? “Yes, I would. And eventually have children, too. I thought the time for that would come after I retired from competition, but now I’m more of a slave to work than ever before.”

He rehearsed seven hours each night, closely watched by his long-time coach and confidante, Ellen Burka. As opening night approached it became apparent that his style and charisma had to carry the show. The other skaters, with the exception of McKellen whose flashy athletic routines brought an audience to its feet, lacked panache. They were, for the most part, competition skaters who could not understand the demands of the Broadway stage. It was a problem that worried the show’s choreographer, Brian Foley, and the director, Myrl Schreibman.

In the upstairs bar at Sardi’s a week before the show opened, Schreibman said: “The success or failure we have in making those skaters into performers may decide whether this show hits or misses.” He stopped and stared into his drink momentarily. “The show is going to be a hit,” he said finally.

Sitting beside him, Dennis Bass shrugged. “Even if it isn’t,” he said, “we gotta know we tried.”

Two hours after he had finished tightening his skates, Toller Cranston left the stage of the Palace Theatre. Behind him, 1,500 people were on their feet, shouting and cheering the way Broadway audiences are supposed to shout and cheer on opening night. The curtain calls were wildly ecstatic, but it was hard to ignore the fact that this was an audience loaded with friends, relatives, invited guests. When Toller first appeared, outfitted in a black jump suit, swinging from a wood and metal replica of the sun, everyone reacted as if he were some doll-faced Messiah.

But, at the end, the cynics were still unsatisfied. Was this icebound blend of ballet and Broadway dance, brimming with classic excesses of Thus Spake Zarathustra and the syrupy love theme from Nicholas And A lexandra, a hit? Or was it a pastel-lit oddity, full of fresh-faced but lacklustre kids, doomed to close early amidst the snickering of an arrogant Broadway audience?

Such questions are answered only by the theatre critics. At the U.S. Steak House around the corner from the theatre, a glum crowd awaited the reviews. At 11.30 p.m., the first copies of The New York Times arrived. Cyril Ritchard, the actor who played Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, was asked to read the review by a second string dance critic named Anna Kisselgoff. Ritchard stood, straightened his ill-fitting jacket, cleared his throat and, in the kind of resonant voice only 40 years of speaking to back rows can provide an actor, began to read:

“He has the bold-faced appeal of a successful rock star and the virtuosity of a great dancer. He is Toller Cranston and to say he is an ice skater is not the half of it.” Ritchard was interrupted by the noise of the crowd, more a howl of relief than a cheer. He continued: “At Toller Cranston’s The Ice Show which opened last night at the Palace Theatre, the former Canadian men’s and world’s free-skating champion and 1976 Olympic bronze medalist is every bit his outrageous self. He is terrific.”

At that, Dennis Bass threw back his head and laughed. A few feet away, Toller Cranston allowed a smile to interrupt the carefully arranged boredom of his face. The Times review was a rave. It ended by simply saying: “Go see him.” On Broadway, you can practically cash reviews like that in at the box office. For the moment, Toller Cranston had attained his ambition: he was a star on Broadway.

The following day, however, there were no lineups in front of the box office, the usual signal that the theatregoing public has picked up on glowing reviews. But one familiar face showed up. The black hawker, slapping the yellow cards against his palm. This time his presence was more relevant. He seemed to be speaking for Toller Cranston’s future on Broadway. “Check it out,” he called. “You check it out now.”^