Interview With Roy Blakey
I don't want to give all my secrets anyway, but in case you haven't figured it out from reading most of the content here on my blog, one of my biggest interests when it comes to skating is its history. I find history in general fascinating! Rudyard Kipling once said that "if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." I believe that wholeheartedly. In recent years, people like NISA historian Elaine Hooper (who I already had the pleasure of interviewing), the World Figure Skating Museum and Hall Of Fame, Keri Pickett, Carl Moseley, the late Janet Wright, Randy Gardner and the Pro Figure Skating Historical Association and Roy Blakey have done wonderful things in the area of preserving and sharing the sport's history, and I can only aspire to offer some small contribution and share whatever limited knowledge of the sport's history I may know or be able to research and offer insight upon. When it comes to a wealth of information about skating history, who better to look at then Roy Blakey. A collector of figure skating memorabilia for over 70 years, Roy curates the IceStage Archive, which is an online website that shares not only information on the history of theatrical skating but also countless show posters, programs and rare photographs that the casual skating fan would not even be privy to. Blakey's site chronicles everything from Jackson Haines to the Eis Ballett, ice carnivals and hotel and nightclub shows in the early 20th century to Sonja Henie to the Ice Theatre Of New York in the 21st Century. He talks about Ice Follies, a show that changed the history of show skating. My own mother recalls being a very young girl and being taken to go see Ice Follies at the Halifax Forum and watching actor/singer Gene Autry come out on a horse during intermission. Everyone who experienced figure skating's first golden era has a story about it. Roy has thousands. A former professional skater himself, Roy's insight and awe inspiring collection of skating artifacts and curios is a priceless one - and a step into an earlier time when skating was revered by the casual viewer and held a certain magic it has been fighting to reclaim for some time. Don't worry. It will. I had the absolute pleasure of talking with Roy on the telephone today and doing a brief interview and it is my utmost pleasure to share a little bit more of Roy's story and expose his life's work to even just a few more people than before if at all possible:
Q: I listened to Allison Manley's interview with you from September of last year this morning because I really didn't want to repeat myself and ask the same questions she had. In that interview, you talked about serving in the military and being stationed in Germany when you first had an opportunity to live your dream and skate professionally in the Casa Carioca show. What advice would you offer to a skater today hoping to get into show skating?
A: Make your own show since we don't have any! We need someone desperately with a huge imagination to make opportunities happen. It's tragic there are so few opportunities for all of those people who spent so much money and are wonderful skaters. Where are they going to go? That's the problem. No one seems to know that answer. To me, coming from those Nancy/Tonya years when skating was so accessible to everyone, the skaters in that time period were able make their own shows because the audience was there. There was a lot of access for people to make a living. Now, we've got Stars On Ice - with few dates in the U.S. and Disney On Ice (which does offer a lot of opportunities to skaters), but not enough. Back then, things like professional competitions could prolong their careers without skaters having to tour and do multiple shows a day. Many became millionaires from those pro competitions Dick Button put on for years. Fortunately, Willy Bietak has all those shows on cruise ships. The ruling is they can only stay on for six months at a time and then he has to change the cast. He has to have a double cast for 6 months of the year. He has like 200 skaters on his roster although they aren't all working on one time. These are all really strong skaters though! They all have to have the jumps to even be in a show these days. When I was touring, the hardest jump I ever did in shows was a single axel. Now these cruise ship skaters have to do double axels or triple axels to even be in the show. What's also interesting that I learned that the woman that is the president of U.S. Figure Skating is from Minneapolis. She has 2 sisters who were show skaters. She told me that they have a competition every year for Theatre On Ice. They choreograph production numbers with props and costumes. It was held in Troy, Ohio this year but it was a like $700 round trip. I said I think I'll wait but she's going to keep me posted and I do want to see that. I think that with events like this, U.S. Figure Skating is trying to in a tiny way build more opportunities for professionals and show skating. That's what it seems to point towards. It's such a shame we don't have Tom Collins or Champions On Ice: things like that. All of that training needs an outlet.
Q: What is the "holy grail" of skating memorabilia that you haven't yet come into contact with? Of everything in your collection, what was the hardest to come by?
A: Maybe eight years ago, I came across a program from the very first professional touring production of Ice Follies in 1936 on EBay. This program was from the very first stop on the very first Ice Follies tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma in November 1936. From what I could see on EBay, it looked like a 4 paged mimeographed program. I said "that's mine. I want that." I waited until the last minute because no one bid for first 5 days then 6 bids came in near the end. I put in $212 and someone topped me and got it. Everytime I go on EBay, I put that in for a search. There was a flu epidemic at that first Tulsa show so it's possible a lot of those programs may still be kicking around somewhere. I would love to have seen the face of the woman who put it up, probably thinking it would wasn't worth anything and then it went for over $200. That will encourage her to get out and find another one! The daughter of Harris Legg, a barrel jumper in Ice Follies told me at an Ice Follies reunion in San Francisco that she has an extra copy of this program but she's never found it. It may be a pipe dream. To name my favourite piece of memorabilia... it's like actually asking which of your children you treasure most. The last 2 years, I've had a young guy coming in helping me document everything in my collection. When I was on Antiques Roadshow, I was lucky to have the appraiser... I was already a fan and was just delighted with what I got. She gave me her card and was here a couple months ago for 3 days and appraised my entire collection. In preparation for that, we worked for 2 years documenting everything. It turned out that I have over 26,000 items in my collection. Among my favourites are some Sonja Henie 6 foot by 7 wide film posters - they are gorgeous, I just love them! I have 2 or 3 of those. To narrow it down to the top 5 would be impossible. I have some foreign posters that are very rare and materials from shows in 1915 and gorgeous programs for very early shows in New York City. They are from a big stage show with a German ice skating company with a young lady named Charlotte who was the star. I have a lot of the material from those things and even material from that German company's original shows in Berlin in 1911... beautiful hand-tinted postcards and photos. Those things are treasures. I have too many.
Q: What did the appraisal end up being?
A: After she appraised everything, she went back to her home in Washington, D.C. and got called to jury duty. She has not yet been able to sit down and finalize the appraisal yet. It's going to cost more money anyway, so I'm not in any rush.
Q: Who are your favourite skaters of all time? Your favourite skaters of today's generation?
A: That are still skating today, Kurt Browning and Dorothy Hamill. I went from Minneapolis down to Anaheim, California this year to see Stars On Ice because Dorothy and Kurt were the guest stars. It was worth every bit of the trouble of getting out there! Now I see Kurt is getting a tribute from the Ice Theatre in New York so I'm planning on going to that in October. Everyone should study Dorothy's skating. She has that gorgeous back and fabulous edges. Those two are my favourites of the current skaters. I loved Belita! The films I have of her! I saw her skate in person in the early 1970's I think when they had those SuperSkates and ProSkates events. She was 60 years old and did her solo. It was a little shaky but I did actually see her perform live. Between the U.S. and Europe, I also saw Sonja Henie skate live for 4 times. Another skater I really loved was Frankie Sawers. He was a Canadian guy who was a big star - a longtime Holiday On Ice skater. Like me, he wasn't a very tall man but he had the the teeniest little touch of what Toller Cranston had. He was very flamboyant, a beautiful skater and an all around great performer. Another skater I loved to watch was Jacqueline du Bief of France. She was the same artistic kind of a skater but she also had the technical as well. She was a World Champion.
Q: What I do is write a blog about figure skating. I focus a lot on artistic and professional skating but also do interviews with a wide range of people who have been involved in the sport and research and share stories about the sport's history. What is one untold story from skating's history (or something that most people don't know about) that would you like to see me write about next? Because I'll do it!
A: I could care less about competition skating. The theatrical aspect has been so neglected. I'm about the only one who has really cared about the show skating. As for interesting stories, I went to Toronto to interview Sandra Bezic for Dance Magazine when Katarina Witt was training with her. I took some of my postcards from 1911-1913 of this incredible Germany group that was the first professional ice skating company. Imagine it! The very first. The costumes were mind boggling and gorgeous. I think it was mostly tableaux, storyline but there were strong skaters in the company. The corps de ballet was really just carrying costumes around. I showed them to Katarina. She had never heard of them. She had never heard of Charlotte. If Sandra Bezic and Katarina Witt - and Katarina's from Germany and was Olympic Champion - didn't know about Charlotte, that's been sadly neglected. More people need to know about that. Another is Willy Bietak and his wife Cathy. Cathy was a giant adagio star in Ice Capades in the 1950's and 1960's. He's from Austria, she's from Germany. They hadn't heard of Charlotte or this show or Charlotte either. Also, the fact that Holiday On Ice took skating all around the world. I worked for 7 years and went to 40 countries skating. I don't think skaters are aware of how extensive it was back then. We were rock stars in Bangkok. I didn't go on the tour of Africa, but it was the same. There, even the most educated people thought there were magnets under the ice making us do these things! Ice Follies took portable rinks to countries that had never even seen skating. That is an aspect of theatrical skating and skating in general that I think people aren't aware of.
Q: How can more people become involved in preserving and sharing skating's history?
A: A lot of skaters are writing their memoirs and that's a wonderful way to let people know a very personal approach to their stories. I don't think they are getting nearly as much distribution as if they were published by a big publishing company but it's definitely a step in the right direction. I get e-mails frequently from people who say that their relatives passed away and wanting to offer things that they'd just be throwing out otherwise and that's just terrifying to me... that people don't know the value and importance of this. I don't know how to let people in future generations know to KEEP that history. We need to inform people about the history of skating and get someone's imagination going to create a new kind of thing or show.
Q: Speaking of new shows, it sounds like Robin Cousins is trying to get something like that on the go over in England. I wish it was here!
A: Robin has been the leading light of the European Holiday On Ice show. They have had three companies touring simultaneously since the group in Holland purchased show. Robin has been a gold mine of bringing wonderful ideas to the Holiday On Ice show. I miss those shows so much - I haven't been to one for 3-4 years. Wonderful theatrical, artistic skating!
Q: I hate to ask someone how old they are because you just don't do that!...
A: I am 83. I'm old enough to be my own father! My mother lived to be 102 and my father was 92 so I think I've got a few good years left in me yet! My whole purpose in documenting and appraising my collection is that my ultimate goal is to donate everything to a university or a library or a museum but I first needed to find out what I've got. I will not sell it, I will leave everything so that this great history is somewhere safe and accessible to everyone. Ice skating shows broke all records for live entertainment. Whatever it takes to get a bunch of people into an arena watch an ice skating events again, that's what we need to figure out and DO.
Q: What's next for you?
A: My niece Keri's documentary film "The Fabulous Ice Age" will be shown on each of the four days of the Napa Valley Film Festival in California on November 13, 14, 15, and 16. She and I are flying out to be there for the showings. The Film Festival organizers have asked that we present a live discussion at each showing. Keri is contacting some well known show skaters in that area to participate in them.
Roy showing his 83rd birthday made him jump for joy!
Roy's IceStage Archive is available online at http://www.icestagearchive.com and offers a glimpse into his massive collection, research and incredible knowledge base when it comes to show skating. I immensely enjoyed speaking with Roy and hope to have chance to speak to him more when researching specific writing about historical content in the future! If you enjoyed my interview with Roy, please give this blog a like on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard - I update the Facebook page regularly with all kinds of goodies and skating news not here on the blog, so it's definitely worth checking out. You can also find me on the Twitter at https://twitter.com/ohh_N. As always, I want to thank you so much for your continued support. Without people reading like you, this would just be one really cool diary.