The Middlebrow

The Ice Capades

Requiem for the ice carnival.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen is kvetching about Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, which says we’re doomed to repeat the same life over and over. “Great,” Allen moans, “that means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.” Woody needn’t fear any longer. The Ice Capades is dead. America’s most glorious ice carnival, which barnstormed civic centers for nearly six decades, vanished about five years ago. That its death has gone largely unreported is puzzling. For all its aesthetic shortcomings—namely, graying ex-Olympians mingling with men in Smurf costumes—the last thing the Ice Capades would want to be remembered as is retiring and unobtrusive.

The Ice Capades began life as halftime show. In 1940, John H. Harris, a Pittsburgh rink owner, noticed that his hockey crowds swelled when he booked a figure skater to perform between periods. Harris envisioned an ice carnival that would entertain crowds in rinks across America. He hired professional skaters, comedians, clowns, jugglers, barrel jumpers, and swarms of scantily-clad chorus girls. With a Ziegfeldian stroke, he dubbed these girls … the Ice Ca-pets! A 1942 souvenir program lists the pets’ vital statistics with Playboy-like precision: “Their average age is 20 years; average height 5 ft. 3 ½ inches; average weight, 116 pounds. There are 21 blondes, 24 brunettes; 2 with black tresses and one auburn-haired in the group.”

For the early Ice Capades shows, Harris borrowed liberally from vaudeville. A performance might begin with an Olympianlike Megan Taylor gliding out for a dramatic ice-borne interpretation of Tchaikovsky. Then the Ice Ca-pets would swoosh to lighter fare like “Our Dutch Treat” and “Pan Americonga.” Between numbers, producers would unveil one of the show’s beloved stock characters. In the 1940s, that meant Joe Jackson Jr., the vaudevillian, performing his tramp bicycle act. Decades later, the star was the singular “Mr. Debonair” (Richard Dwyer)—a lothario who glided to the edge of the rink to present a female spectator with a dozen roses.

The ice carnival was a smash. In an early notice in the Pittsburgh Press, the critic Kaspar Monahan bridled at the skaters’ sultry movements but admitted that “on steel runners these vulgarisms become something approaching art.”The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pronounced the troupe the “upper crust of rinkdom.” The Ice Capades had achieved the same nirvana sought by Broadway showmen like Florenz Ziegfeld: exhibitionism married with all-American kitsch. Deborah Brandt, a former Ice Ca-pet, pinpoints the duality when she says, “This was a Las Vegas revue on ice for families.”

After decades of magnificent box office, the pitiful decline of the Ice Capades began in the 1980s. Desperate to whip up spectacle in an age of cartoons and video games, Ice Capades producers piled on decades’ worth of pop detritus. Souvenir programs listed numbers ranging from “The Explosive Russian Cossacks” to “Hey, Kids, Meet the Snorks!” The 1997 show included nods to The Pink Panther,West Side Story, Rocky IV, the Macarena,Goldfinger,All Dogs Go to Heaven,andSister Sledge. The show’s deus ex machina was an entrance by a skater dressed as James Bond who had fireworks spewing from his body.

Meanwhile, the Ice Capades faced a deeper problem: Figure skating had become too respectable. The brilliance of Olympians Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton convinced the public that figure skating was a legitimate sport that deserved its own stage. No longer would they suffer the antics of the cartoon characters to see the Olympians perform. Nor would the Olympians: Hamilton joined the Ice Capades in 1984, then bolted to found Stars on Ice, a tour that showcased Olympic-style skating. Champions onIce formed a similar tour that allowed skaters to maintain their amateur status. “From then on, skaters could earn money, lots and lots of money, by being themselves,” says the journalist Christine Brennan. “They didn’t have to jump out of birthday cakes. They didn’t have to be Goofy or Dopey.” Meanwhile, Disney on Ice, which featured both Goofy and Dopey, lured away the wide-eyed pre-adolescents.

By 1990, the Ice Capades was bleeding money; in 1991, its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Out of the desert emerged Dorothy Hamill, who bought the Ice Capades at liquidation sale. She borrowed millions to stay afloat before selling the company in 1994 to Pat Robertson,the 700 Club evangelist. At first, Robertson seemed like an ideal custodian. His media empire included Mary Tyler Moore’s production studio and the Family Channel, and he hoped the Ice Capades could cross-pollinate and regain its former luster. In 1996, the show partnered with MGM and launched a 64-city tour. Robertson’s son, Timothy, announced with great fanfare that the Ice Capades would mount a Cinderella-themed TV special in China’s Tiananmen Square. But America yawned. Faced with half-empty arenas from coast to coast, Robertson’s cronies cancelled the tours and dismantled the Ice Capades forever.

Like other civic-center pleasures—the Harlem Globetrotters, the Lipizzaner Stallions—the Ice Capades was synthetic to its core. It promised no athletic competition, no thrills, no variance from Birmingham, Ala., to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its death has not exactly upset the figure-skating world. The Olympians moved on to other tours, and Mr. Debonair lives in semi-retirement in California. In the end, the Ice Capades was slight and ephemeral. It only felt eternal.