History on ice: How his job as a road manager for Ice Capades gave him a piece of show business

For decades, Bob Recker’s family has owned Recker Transfer, a trucking business still known for moving equipment for teams like the Steelers and the Pirates and for organizations such as the Pittsburgh Ballet and the Pittsburgh Opera.

At some point, the North Side-based trucking business also picked up work for the Ice Capades, an organization launched in Pittsburgh in the mid-1930s.

And that’s how Mr. Recker ended up with a job in the 1970s crisscrossing North America with the wildly popular traveling ice show — responsible for transporting props and equipment for the lavish sets used in productions that featured more than 100 skaters draped in stunning costumes while dancing, jumping and thrilling crowds.

He loved it.

“It’s an industry of entertainment that’s really not with us anymore,” said Mr. Recker, 79, who is retired. 

Bob Recker, a former road manager for the Ice Capades, talks about some of the memorabilia he has collected. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

His work as road manager for the Ice Capades from 1973 to 1983 gave him a passport to show business — and a role in a theatrical show whose owner once claimed it drew bigger crowds than Major League Baseball.

The ice shows stopped 30 years ago. The company went into bankruptcy in the early 1990s, then went through more than one different ownership group — including one fronted by Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill — trying unsuccessfully to save it.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Recker had turned himself into an unofficial historian for the storied organization that’s already recognized by the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District as part of the Pittsburgh region’s story.

Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Now he’s working to see if the history center is interested in diving even deeper into the world of the Ice Capades, trying to see if they want some of the materials preserved in his Marshall Township home — everything from show tickets and programs to company records showing costs and revenues.

How it all started

The Ice Capades originated in the mid-1930s at the Duquesne Gardens arena on North Craig Street in Oakland with a solo skating performance by Sonja Henie, a three-time Olympic champion.

John H. Harris, who owned the Duquesne Gardens and the Pittsburgh Hornets hockey team, decided to give hockey fans some entertainment between periods. He brought in Henie to do a skate routine. The crowd loved it.

“Mr. Harris was so impressed with it and he got such a response from the public that he decided to form a show,” said Bob Mock, an independent hockey and figure skating instructor who teaches throughout the region.

“Sonja Henie only had about 15 people in it at first,” he said. “Mr. Harris went and put about 150 people in it and he set up a school to train skaters out of Pittsburgh to join the show. They did come from all over the country, but in the beginning, it was primarily all Pittsburgh people.”

Show headliners often included former Olympic and U.S. national champion figure skaters who had retired from formal competition. But unknown skaters also made names for themselves in the Ice Capades as the shows became more elaborate and spectacular. Performers juggled while skating, jumped through hoops of fire and in later years even included animals and car explosions in their acts. 

Audiences were packing sports arenas throughout the United States and Canada in the 1950s.

“The combination of ice shows now touring our country outgrosses baseball in the National and American Leagues,” Harris wrote in a skating publication in 1951. 

By 1961, 189,270 people had attended the 20 performances held at the Civic Arena. The show grossed $598,289 and paid $83,841 in taxes, according to company records.

Harris was born into a wealthy family. His father opened the first movie house in Pittsburgh, The Nickelodeon, in the early 1900s. Harris operated a chain of movie theaters in Western Pennsylvania, which he sold to Warner Bros., which also was formed in Pittsburgh.

Preserving the history

Mr. Recker was hired by the Ice Capades organization in 1973 to work behind the scenes and make sure everything ran smoothly on the road. When he saw the organization changing, he left in 1983.

He believed the curtain was closing on a great era of entertainment. In 1985 — two years after leaving the company — he made himself the unofficial historian of what had been one of the biggest ice shows in North America.

“It was a family business and the third generation had come in,” he said. “I was seeing a lot of changes coming and I wanted to preserve that history. When I started the project, I didn’t realize how vast it was.”

He started taping interviews with past performers to obtain an oral history of the show’s glory days. Once the word spread about his work, show veterans across the country began donating personal memorabilia, like tickets, programs, photographs and company records.

Memorabilia from the Ice Capades collected by Bob Recker at his home in Marshall.(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“Skaters and people in management gave me company manuals describing how the shows were sold in different cities and copies of TV and radio promotions,” Mr. Recker said.

“I even ended up with the corporate records,” he said. “When you’ve got that in your hands, the corporate records tells you the whole history and the nuts and bolts of it. You see the dollar figures, the interoffice memos and who was involved. So, I kept pursuing it.”

How he got that job

Some of Mr. Recker’s earliest childhood memories include going with his father to the Strip District to meet the railcars carrying Ice Capades performers and equipment. He helped his father unload the show’s equipment and move it to warehouses in the city.

Recker Transfer has been involved in moving equipment for sports teams and theatrical groups — including the Ice Capades — since the 1940s.

“My father was involved in transporting their equipment — trunks, and personal items — from city to city in one tractor trailer,” he said.

On one occasion after Mr. Recker was old enough, he went out on the road with his dad, and an Ice Capades company manager offered to hire him permanently to move their equipment. He accepted the job.

“They had two tours on the road at that time. (There would later be three.) They called them East and West,” he said. “I was doing the East company.”

An article about the show traveling to Australia in the summer of 1965 reported that 20 tons of costumes were shipped by air. The shipping weight of the show’s costumes by the 1980s was at least four times that, Mr. Recker said.

“The turnover in the cast of one company was about two and a half years, and then you’d get another group of people coming in,” he said. “Young people — 19 years old — traveling around the United States.

“That’s with Ice Capades, not counting Holiday on Ice and Ice Follies,” he said. “They were doing the same thing in different locations. The number of people involved in it over the years was just massive.”

While Mr. Recker travelled with the show, his father, Robert Recker Sr., continued running Recker Transfer in Pittsburgh. He eventually passed the company to his son, who ran it until the pandemic hit in 2020. Mr. Recker’s nephew, Charles Recker, runs it today.

Recker Transfer still moves equipment for groups like the Steelers and the Pittsburgh Ballet, in addition to supplying labor for shows that come into PPG Paints Arena, the Benedum and Heinz Hall.

“The Rooneys and the Reckers go back a long way, and we are proud of the relationship we have had with your father, uncle, brothers and you,” said a letter from Steelers former president and owner Dan Rooney to Mr. Recker in 1992.

“We hope it continues for many years to come,” Mr. Rooney wrote while thanking Mr. Recker for his company’s help with a Steelers food distribution event on Christmas Day.

What comes next

For now, this slice of Pittsburgh’s history is in Mr. Recker’s Marshall home. 

He is working with curators at the history center in the Strip District  to find a permanent home for some of the memorabilia associated with the show, which became a casualty of bankruptcy in 1993.

Some say poor management doomed the business after 50 years of prosperity. Even in the early 1990s the shows were still drawing big crowds.  

There were several attempts to revive the show. Ms. Hamill took it over in 1993, but it failed again under her ownership as well as that of other owners such as televangelist Pat Robertson and the Garden circus family out of Florida.

The history center and sports museum recognizes the important role Pittsburgh played in the founding and development of the Ice Capades, said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western PA Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.

“Bob Recker’s collection preserves important stories about both the people who made Ice Capades successful and the history of this business,” she said. “We are excited to work with him to collect and share these materials and see that this story of sport, entertainment and entrepreneurship has a permanent home.”

The history center already has an exhibit that tells the story of the Ice Capades in a small way. Ms. Madarasz said the museum is in discussions with Mr. Recker about the donation of his materials, not a new or expanded exhibit.

“There are many ways we might use this type of collection, but right now we are not planning a special exhibit on the Ice Capades,” she said.

“We see great value in this kind of documentation and the knowledge that Bob has and look forward to seeing it preserved so this story can be accessed by researchers and used for social media, programs, publications, and exhibits in the future.”

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com

First Published August 22, 2022, 6:00am