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Interview With Ken Shelley

Photograph of U.S. Figure Skating Champion Ken ShelleyPhotograph of U.S. Figure Skating Champion Ken Shelley

I've interviewed dozens upon dozens of skaters, coaches, choreographers, fans, skating historians and just about anyone could imagine involved in the sport. You know what? I can honestly say that most of them have been absolutely a joy to interview. Four time U.S. Champion, two time World Medallist, 1969 North American Champion and two time World Professional Champion Ken Shelley was absolutely no exception. Just days before he was ready to leave for Boston and the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the living legend of skating - and yes... he and JoJo Starbuck completely are - took the time to talk via phone with me and share his story. From learning to skate in a living and dining room to four U.S. titles, two trips to the Winter Olympics (he finished fourth in both singles and pairs at the Sapporo Games), a long professional career and a farm in New York state, Ken's life and story is anything but cookie cutter and nothing less than fascinating. Happy Nationals week to my U.S. skating friends and hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

Photograph of U.S. Figure Skating Champions JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley

Q: You won four National titles (three as a pairs team with JoJo Starbuck and one as a singles skater) and represented the U.S. at two Olympic Games and the North American and World Championships. What are your proudest moments from your "amateur" career?

A: Well, you know skating was very good to me. It presented a lot of opportunities. I was and am still not a very competitive person. We always knew if we did well - skated well and placed - other opportunities would come to us. I think that was our motivation: that there was something else to come. People have always asked me because I did two events how I did it. When you're out there with somebody else it's a lot more fun. When you're out there holding someone else's hand there's an extra security. In a way, the pairs was easier. We started when we were seven, grew up together and had issues here and there but we always got along and we always had a lot of fun. I did better with solo skating as I got older. When you go out there and you come out and have done it by yourself, it's always very gratifying. All of it was great. When we went to our first Olympics, we were 16 and had no thoughts that we would eve make it. A lot with skating is hard work. It's talent and timing. All of those things work with you or against you.

JoJo and Ken's winning program at the 1972 U.S. Nationals

Q: How did you manage to devote enough training time to both disciplines, especially with the amount of time really needed to perfect compulsory figures?

A: In reality, back then we did 3 or 4 hours of patch every day. That was still very much part of it. The free skating was like an hour and 45 minutes to 1 hour of pairs. Things have changed and evolved so much. What they do now - I sit there and am like I can't believe what they're doing! I don't coach so I'm not like at the rink everyday so when I go, I'm awed and fascinated by it all and I think they're just incredible athletes. Every generation has improved on the last and the training and off ice is so much better. When I skated the adage was the more you skated, the better you'd be. There wasn't a lot of off ice training. We'd take ballet and had a fellow who'd help with lifts on the floor but there was no weightlifting, upper body, running, cycling... nothing like that. With figures, I had to put in the time like everyone else was putting in time. People have asked me - how did I do it? Because I always did. I didn't know anything different. When I only did one event at a competition, I always felt like I wasn't busy enough! It was what you did, what you had to do and you put in the time.

Ken's winning free skate at the 1972 U.S. Nationals

Q: When you turned professional, you toured with Ice Capades and competed professionally, winning the 1981 and 1983 World Professional Championships. The first time I really became acquainted with your skating - long before the days of YouTube - was in watching the broadcast of the 1997 Legends Of Figure Skating Competition from Little Rock, Arkansas, when you and JoJo returned to competition for the first  in over a decade and honestly really wowed the audience. What was the process of training 3 programs for a professional competition like after all of those years and how did it all come about?

A: To be honest, I can't even remember what that competition was. I have a terrible memory first of all. I give kudos to Rick Dwyer because he still skates every day and just as well as he did umpteen years ago but he never quit and that's the secret to a long successful skating career... if that's what you want. I love to skate. When I skated, I always had a great time. I also got into producing and choreographing - the show biz was what I enjoyed the most. When I was a kid, my parents had taken me and my family to see the ice show in Los Angeles. The magic, lights, music, costumes... I just thought this was the greatest thing. For my 6th birthday I was given ice lessons at a studio rink in an old house. The ice was L shaped. I actually started skating in a living room and dining room - 20 X 20 - really a tiny piece of ice. They built another studio behind it and that was called The Big Rink and was about  30 X 40. They only taught show biz skating, no figures or anything like that... and that's how I came to skating. We'd do a little show once every six months or so. In one of these shows, they put JoJo and I together as a pair in a quartet. They eventually went bankrupt. We still wanted to skate so we went to Iceland (owned by Frank Zamboni) which was way bigger - 100 X 200. We had no IDEA what a club was or how it worked. I was about 11 then. We had no idea what patch was or anything like that. I said "when's the next show?" All we wanted to do was be in show biz. That's where our heart was. After everything, when we left show I went back to school. JoJo and I would live in different cities and get together and rendezvous and practice. When professional competitions came about, absolutely nobody wanted to do them because no one wanted to compete against anyone again. It took Dick Button the longest time to get people convinced and how they started was with teams. The red against the blue team or whatever and then he finally got people to agree to compete against each other. I worked in theatre for many years and would creep back into skating now and again. It got tougher every time. Sometimes I'd get mad at myself because skating was always joyful and positive for me and it got harder. We did our always did our best though. When we had opportunities that came up, we'd train and be serious. If we were going to be out in front of people, we'd try to do the best we could. Every time as we did it getting older, it was a little more frightening and difficult. The last time was about five or six years ago and I said to JoJo, "I really can't do this anymore". But when we knew we had to do something, we were serious about it because we wanted to do the best job we could do, even if that meant private ice time in the middle of the night.

Q: You have worked in theatrical management - with Broadway shows and the American Ballet Theatre. What do you find skating and theatre have most in common?

A: Because I still work a little bit in theatre, it's fascinating because you can have two years to prepare and put in one hundred percent but at eight o'clock on Wednesday night as an example, the show's going to go on no matter what and at eleven it's over. It's funny in that way that in all types of show biz it comes up and down. I think the most remarkable thing in working in show business is the level of talent and creativity that goes into it. People don't realize it. The better it is, the harder they work to make that magic.

Q: As a technical specialist in both singles and pairs, you've certainly seen first hand the ins and outs of the "new" judging system. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of IJS as a judging system compared to the 6.0 system you competed under?

A: It has pushed the sport but has not connected totally with the fan base for some reason. I think for the skater and the coach, it's marvellous that they can really see what the officials liked and didn't like. It really gives you a report card as opposed to 4.8, 4.6. But for general audiences, there's no one they can boo or cheer anymore. If it does get a high number, unless you know it's a high number you don't know what that number means. Unless you know the system, you don't know if it's good or bad. With calling, you have to use your best judgement. You call it as you see it and do your best job. It's disappointing to me as someone who loves the sport that it doesn't have the same viewership and passion, but everything happens in cycles. It's a different world and things change and they move on and that's how you have to look at it. The exciting thing is that the skating itself has never been better. I went to Worlds the last 2 years and you're sitting there and you're just awed. Your jaw is wide open and the true champions are the ones that get the technical and have that quality artistry and are somewhat consistent... those are the people that if they can pull it off, they do it.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: I have a little office with some of my skating memorabilia up. I have my favourite skaters right up on the wall. Ronnie Robertson, who was a competitor in the fifties, a silver medallist to Hayes Jenkins and a fantastic show skater was one. The Jelinek's, a Canadian brother/sister pair... when they skated they had a "I love to skate", such a zest for skating. You could see they had the greatest time of their lives. Cathy Steele and Phil Romayne... Cathy married Willy Bietak of Willy Bietak Productions. He was from New York, she was German. They had both had different partners before then they found each other. They were an adagio team in Ice Capades for many years...

Q: What is your favourite movie... one you could watch over and over again?

A: Shakespeare In Love. I love Shakespeare! You know, years ago in 1979 there was a show on Canadian TV called Stars On Ice. One of the people that worked on it - I'm not sure if they were the choreographer or producer? - was the fellow who put JoJo and I together in that little studio in Downey, California. He invited us to come up and tape two thirty minute shows. This was a variety show on ice and they were shown on CTV or CBC? I can't remember. I came up and filmed one and then I had 4-5 days off and they were going to shoot another 1 after. I had always heard about the Stratford Festival. I thought I'd go and see some Shakespeare so I took the train from Toronto and went to Stratford. You'd stay in someone's home when you went because there were only 2 hotels or something. It was like a revelation. I loved it. I have gone back to the Stratford Festival EVERY summer ever since. Shakespeare In Love was just so wonderfully written intertwining stories.

Photograph of U.S. Figure Skating Champions JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley with ice clown Freddie Trenkler
Ken Shelley, Freddie Trenkler and JoJo Starbuck. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?

A: I grew up in southern California in suburb of L.A, and when I left the ice show I went to New York City and now I have a farm in upstate New York and I have a horse named Waldemere. I have even ridden with the local fox hunt. I've had the best of all worlds! I had never ridden a horse seriously or taken lessons until I was fifty. Dick Button also has farm forty five minutes south of here - Ice Pond Farm. He's an amazing gardener. I talked to him on the phone recently and he said, "I have a book for you" and I thanked him so much. Dick said, "you may not thank me after you see what I've written!"

Q: What's the most important thing in your life at the end of the day?

A: I thank my lucky stars every morning I wake up. I enjoy my family and friends and wow... yeah. I think that's it. This week is great fun because I'm going to get to see people I don't see all the time. I'm going to Boston with my long time partner JoJo. We live pretty close to each other but don't see each other all the time and it's always so much fun. We're having a big Ice Capades reunion this coming summer and I'm looking forward to that too.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":