Here’s Your Opportunity to Help Continue a Skating Legacy!
By Jan O’Brien Coopman
There is a real need in the figure skating world, and you may help! To join in the goal of continuing the SP-Teri figure skating boot legacy, Olympian, PSA Master-Rated Coach, and new owner Bill Fauver is searching for investors to renovate a weather-damaged manufacturing, storage, and shipping facility.
How this came about
Some years ago, I decided to buy a new pair of figure skates because my former Ice Capades boots were clearly worn. At that time, a skating pro shop employee helped me to obtain a new pair of SP-Teri boots from George Spiteri in San Francisco.
Flash forward to 2010. After a big move from Chicago to Texas, I managed to briefly skate for a sweet 15 minutes at the Dallas Galleria: but that was it. Now at year 17 of MS, I sadly decided to sell my barely used newer skates because I felt it time for someone else to enjoy using them—rather than having the skates adorn my closet in a box. One exploration led to another. I discovered that SP-Teri moved, and George Spiteri retired in 2019.
Three years ago, SP-Teri transitioned in location and ownership from South San Francisco to near Nashville, Tennessee with Bill Fauver. The issue is that the new spot was soon afterward destroyed by a tornado—and then, after relocating to McEwen, further damaged by a historic flood (a state record 31” of rain in 24 hours fell there). Rebuilding will take assistance. If you’re able to help, Fauver and those in McEwen will be grateful (as will many skaters relying upon SP-Teri boots).
“The Fabulous Ice Age” chronicles the era of the great American touring ice shows revealing how, with their dazzling production numbers and variety acts, they dominated family entertainment for decades. It also depicts one skater’s quest to keep this history from being forgotten.
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.
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.
“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.”
It’s often said that in this quirky, sun-baked, fabulous island chain, you never know who could be sitting right next to you. If you happen to take a chair yoga class at Founders Park, you just might find yourself seated next to an Olympian.
“1964 was my Olympic year with Peggy Fleming and that was my generation.” Meet 80-year-old Ann-Margreth Hall-Frei (Margreth spelled the Swedish way). The energetic octogenarian is an Olympic figure skater who, at the age of 22, competed for Sweden and later went on to join the Ice Capades.
“I was on tour with the show for 16 years and really loved it. We went all over the world,” she said.
Frei married an American she met in Vail, Colorado while running an ice-skating school. They were married for 30 years and had a son, Zander. Frei’s husband passed away nine years ago.
Now Frei spends several months a year in Islamorada with her son, Capt. Zander Hall. Hall owns Lightly Salted Charters and Frei loves going to the sandbar with him. She enjoys her time in Islamorada so much that over Thanksgiving, she stayed for 10 weeks.
“My son said, ‘Mom, when are you going back?’ And I said, ‘Well, I came with a one-way ticket,’” Frei said with a laugh. She added that splitting her time between Vail and Islamorada is the best of both worlds.
The visit this time will only be for a month. While here, Frei sticks to a routine and never misses the gentle chair yoga class held at the Founders Park amphitheater. The class is upbeat, with moves choreographed to music. Frei performs every move perfectly, but she does have the inside edge – she has the grace and dexterity one would expect from an Olympic figure skater. This is a low impact workout that helps improve flexibility, strength and coordination.
“It always feels good. The best thing is the music and the joy it brings us,” said Frei.
There’s also a crucial social aspect to the class. Friendships are made here and encouragement is always a given.
“A lot of my students will show up 20 minutes early just to have that time where they can chat amongst each other,” said fitness coach and Plantation Key Fitness owner Heather Head. “You’ll see some of them will linger after class for quite a while and talk. I love seeing that.”
Several studies on aging stress the importance of social interaction for seniors. Strong social ties have been linked to a decreased risk of depression and a longer life span. “I never see frowns in this class,” added Head.
Hip problems have left this former Olympic figure skater with some limitations, but she remains positive and undeterred.
“Everybody does whatever they can. You work with what you have.”
At 80, Frei is nowhere near the oldest “yogi” in this chair yoga class. “The lady next to me, I think she’s 92 now. Amazing. She’s my inspiration.” Turns out the lady Frei is referring to, Mickey, is actually 96 years old and never misses a beat.
Frei is enjoying every second of her retirement and especially loves to travel and meet new people. When asked what it was like competing at the Olympic level, with the best of the best, she paused for a second and said it wasn’t until after the fact that she realized it was a life-changing experience that led to a wonderful professional career.
“It was just a competition with a lot of hype and stress. It’s only afterwards, a few years later, that I realized what an amazing gift that was.”
Karen Ingram Vance became the first African American skater to perform with the Ice Capades in 1967 and later performed alongside “Mr. Debonair” with the Ice Follies.
Article Skater Spotlight Tuesday, May 3, 2022
By Jillian L. Martinez
Skating trailblazer Mabel Fairbanks left New York for Los Angeles in the 1940s. The Black and Seminole skater turned coach sought more opportunities for herself and fellow skaters of color to pursue the sport with less racism and prejudice. Over a decade later, up the coast in San Francisco, another Black skater named Karen Ingram Vance would become enamored with ice shows and eventually make her own mark in the sport. In 1967, Vance became the first African American skater to perform with the Ice Capades.
A newspaper clipping highlighting Karen Ingram Vance’s talent on ice.
“Ice Follies used to have a home base in San Francisco, so as a child, my parents would take me to see the shows,” Vance shared of her beginnings with skating. “One day, when I was about 10 years old, I told my parents I wanted to take skating lessons.”
Throughout her childhood, Vance took jazz, ballet and tap dance lessons, as well as cello and violin lessons. When she decided to add skating to her activities, it was purely for fun. According to Vance, she never had goals to become a competitor or a performer. However, Vance naturally took to the sport, and it was not long until skating became more than “just a hobby.”
“The thing was, I loved to skate,” Vance said. “I couldn’t go to the ice rink enough.”
In 1958, Vance had three ice rinks in the Bay Area from which she could choose to take lessons. The Ingram family chose the Phyllis and Harris Legg Skating School, run by the retired husband-wife Ice Follies’ team known for their performances on stilt skates. Unlike Fairbanks, who was denied access to her local rink due to her race, Vance was welcomed by the Leggs.
“Phyllis and Harris Legg were both very genuine,” Vance said. “[Phyllis] was really a warm person and always had a smile on her face. I never felt any prejudice or discrimination.”
In fact, Vance recalls other students of color being enrolled in skating lessons alongside her.
“We had a little bit of everything,” Vance referenced to the diversity of races at the Legg Skating School. Alongside Vance, there were fellow African American skaters enrolled in the school, in addition to Asian and Hispanic skaters.
Uniquely, the Legg Skating School was not sanctioned and, consequently, could not allow its skaters to compete. Instead, Vance and her peers were trained to perform in skating shows. Harris was a record holder in barrel jumping, and Phyllis produced the historic annual Christmas show at the San Francisco Emporium department store. Along with her performances at Emporium, Vance skated with the Leggette Precision Group’s shows at the Cow Palace and Oakland Coliseum before ultimately auditioning for the Ice Capades.
“I was in junior college when I decided I wanted to go into [Ice Capades]. I had seen other girls I skated with go into the show, and I thought I wanted to go, as well,” said Vance, a physical education major at the time. “My coach called Ice Capades; [production assistant] Bill Bain came up from Hollywood; I auditioned and I was pretty much accepted immediately.”
Various newspaper clippings featuring Vance.
Vance made her debut with the Ice Capades on Nov. 16, 1967, at the Fresno Convention Center and gained the attention of the media as the first African American skater to sign to the major ice shows. For nearly two years, Vance was a part of the Ice Capades West family. Together, they toured 38 cities across the U.S. and Canada during the course of 42 weeks.
In 1969, Vance told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “The other kids judge me on how well I skate, not my color.”
Much like her time at the Leggs Skating School, Vance was welcomed and accepted.
“It was an exciting time! I enjoyed the skating, the traveling, the friendships. …Every time I went out [on the ice], I was doing something I loved.”
Tragically, on the evening April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis. When news reached the Ice Capades performers, they were preparing to travel to Little Rock, Arkansas, for their next show. Concerned for the unrest erupting across the nation, the Ice Capades adjusted travel plans to ensure safety for their skaters.
“It was scary because you didn’t know what to expect,” Vance said. “Some of the cities we were supposed to travel through were in an uproar. We flew part of the way and took a bus part of the way. My parents were very concerned and contacted the managers to make sure I would be fine. And, then, my grandmother and aunt and uncle drove from Texas to Little Rock to make sure I was OK.”
Following MLK’s assassination, Vance was on higher alert when traveling and out in public, but she continued to have the support of her Ice Capades peers. In 1969, during her third season with Ice Capades, Vance decided to stop performing with the show. After returning to San Francisco for three years, Vance returned to show business – this time with Ice Follies. Hired by Richard Dwyer, better known as “Mr. Debonair,” Vance performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
“We were the opening act for [dancer and singer] Joey Heatherton and, later, Diana Ross,” Vance said. “It was really a lot of fun. People treated us like movie stars.”
Once Vance’s contract with Ice Follies concluded, she decided to hang up her skates and make a new career for herself. After her departure from skating, Vance worked for United Airlines for 27 years until she retired as a manager; became a manager at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; and served as a wedding coordinator. Today, she considers herself “finally retired.” She is a wife, mother and grandmother who loves to cook and drive her grandsons to/from school and their extracurriculars.
“No, I’m not an Olympic skater by any means but I did progress and did quite well. ‘Once upon a time, Karen Ingram was the first Black skater to join a major skating company.’ I did a little something along the way,” Vance humbly said. “I rarely ever skate now. Although, skating will always be in my heart and a part of me.”
Whether you started your skating journey five years ago or 50 years ago, skating likely played a key role in the development of who you are today.
As a follow-up to the year-long Centennial Celebration, U.S. Figure Skating is piloting a new nationwide alumni program designed to bring U.S. Figure Skating alums together in a fun and meaningful way. With local happy hours, bucket-list skating adventures, professional networking opportunities and an online community, Alumni Connect members will have the chance to forge friendships and build connections with current and former figure skaters across the country.
Similar to a collegiate alumni association, Alumni Connect is rooted in local events, and opportunities for participation are dependent upon the wants, needs, motivations, and locations of our alumni base. This is where you come in!
As a former or current member of U.S. Figure Skating, we invite you to join Alumni Connect (for free) and help us steer the trajectory of this pilot program. Once you sign up, you’ll receive a free welcome gift in the mail, an invitation to our online networking group, and a promise of future communication.
Once enrollment is underway, the staff at U.S. Figure Skating will get to work identifying locations for an initial series of local meet-ups and will reach out to you for feedback in planning our kickoff destination events and bucket-list skating adventures.
We look forward to welcoming you back to the skating community in an on- or off-ice capacity!
It’s been a dozen years since the United States was atop the Olympic gold medal podium in men’s figure skating. However, last week the clock recalibrated as Yale undergraduate Nathan Chen became the seventh American man to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating (it is the eighth gold medal as Dick Button won two back-to-back in 1948 and 1952). The 1984 Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton, knows how to end a figure skating drought. When he won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, it was the first time that an American won the top spot in twenty-four years. The iconic Olympic champion, known for dazzling audience members on the ice with his backflips, shared his incredible story with me.
Adopted at six weeks of age, Scott Hamilton was a very sick child, spending years in and out of hospitals as his growth stunted. Then, plagued by one misdiagnosis after another, doctors gave Hamilton a six-month life expectancy, news his mother refused to accept.
The desire to live a normal life
After four years of sleeping on a chair at Hamilton’s bedside, his parents were exhausted and burned out. A doctor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital saw the toll this was taking on his family and instructed the family to remove Hamilton from all restrictive diets and let him live a normal life. For one morning a week, Hamilton was to play with other children and partake in regular childhood activities. The doctor recommended a new skating rink that recently opened at nearby Bowling Green University.
Thrilled to be surrounded by healthy children, young Scott Hamilton went to the rink and skated with abandoned freedom. The consistency of his training led to improved skating. “Finally, after years of being stuck in the hospital and always being the last person selected for a team,” shared Hamilton, “I was the best in my skating class.” He also got his first dose of self-esteem. He wasn’t just good, he stood out.
Nurturing your talent
Realizing this was more than a passing interest, Hamilton started skating full time. A famous judge saw Hamilton’s potential and recommended he train with Janet Lynn, a renowned figure skater. Having the right coach made a difference as Hamilton eventually made it to the men’s championship. “I skated in front of a packed house and fell five times,” recalled Hamilton. He came in last place. The following year he competed again and only fell twice. His future wasn’t looking bright.
By the time he was sixteen, Hamilton’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and no money was available to continue his training, but they committed to one more year where he ended up winning the Junior National Title. A couple heard about Hamilton’s dilemma and sponsored his training. Hamilton’s newfound independence, complete with an apartment and sponsor, resulted in him being distracted. He came in ninth place at the next national championships in a disastrous performance. Sadly, that was the last time his mother would see him skate as she died four months later.
Hamilton was at a loss and did not know how to resume without the one person who always had his back and loved him unconditionally. Hoping to honor his mother’s memory, Hamilton decided he would work harder than ever. With a newfound focus, Hamilton returned to his training with an unstoppable mindset. Fearing not trying more than he feared failing, he completed jumps he never could before.
The top spot is in sight
Hamilton soon became fifth in the world. Two of the top five decided to turn professional, and one decided to go to medical school. The top spot was now in view, and Hamilton wanted it badly. There was only one problem. He excelled as a free skater but struggled to perfect his figures– the practice of tracing circles with your blades so precise that leaning on the wrong side of the skate could result in point deductions.
Fall in love with what you hate the most
For years, on and off the ice, Scott Hamilton is a cancer survivor, performer, Olympic commentator, Hamilton decided he was going to find a way to fall in love with figures, the skill he hated most. “The greatest strength is a lack of weakness,” Hamilton shared. Determined to excel at this core skill, day and night Hamilton worked on his figures. He felt he had no choice, as it was the only thing standing between him and a gold medal. Hamilton saw them improving and within time, learned to love figures. He had half the ice for three hours every morning, and he worked non-stop at perfecting this skill. “I knew I had to master this foundational skill if I was ever to win a competition,” exclaimed Hamilton.
In the next event in England, Hamilton came in second place. After that, a four-year winning streak commenced. “In Sarajevo, standing on the top spot on the Olympic podium was a relief,” said Hamilton.
As the exuberance set in, Hamilton realized he was only the fourth American man to ever win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. His predecessor was not far away. David Jenkins, who won gold in 1960, was now a physician and volunteered to be a team doctor at the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships to make sure Hamilton was supported heading into his Olympic season.
While retired from competitive skating, his love for the sport never waned. He became a fixture in the professional skating shows, was a commentator at numerous Olympic Games, and coaches students at the Scott Hamilton Skating Academy in Tennessee.
After losing his mother to cancer, and a survivor himself, Scott Hamilton, dedicates much of his efforts to the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education, and Survivorship), which focuses on cancer research and caring for the patient.