The Skating Waiters Of St. Moritz

Sketchy judges, 5 AM practice sessions, spill after spill practicing jumps, freezing rinks and that haunting music of the Dutch Waltz on test days... if there's one thing that anyone who's found themselves at a figure skating competition or test day could use, it's a good stiff drink. Many find their libation of choice at the host hotel bar, but what if the drinks were served rinkside? Wouldn't that be so much easier because it was now and not later? If you were visiting St. Moritz, Switzerland in the twenties or thirties, you just might have got your wish.

The Grand Hotel in St. Moritz had a specialized school for waiters where, according to Lesley Blume's "Let's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By", would be waiters "learned to ice skate while carrying trays heavily laden with ice, crystal glasses, and cold champagne to the fur-clad resort guests having lunch and cocktails at the rink. Photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt immortalized this scene with a 1932 shot of a waiter - attired in formal tails - sailing over the ice with a glasses-covered tray, one leg extended gracefully behind him, the snow-covered Swiss mountains in the background." Eisenstaedt's wonderful series of photographs of the skating waiters appeared in the December 7, 1936 edition of LIFE Magazine, which confirmed that "the little lakes are cleared for skating and waiters serve on skates".

Eisenstaedt's photographs piqued the curiosity in me and I was determined to find out more about these skating waiters in St. Moritz... and a great place to start was by learning what Eisenstaedt himself had to say about this fascinating scene he immortalized. Describing one of his famous photographs in the September 16, 1966 edition of LIFE, he said "This is at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz in Switzerland - those are the Engadine Mountains in the background - and this is the headwaiter. He is showing how to bring a bottle of whisky at great speed. He could even jump over a chair and keep his tray steady. He was a great skater, that man. All the waiters were black tie and tails. I went back in '47. But the Grand Hotel had burned down and was never rebuilt. The old glitter was gone." The waiter Eisenstaedt was referring to was Rene Breguet and we know based on the photography of these skating waiters by both Eisenstaedt and Gerhard Riebicke that the skating waiters were in full force from approximately 1925 until at least 1936. We also know that somewhere along the line society got it wrong - instead of well dressed waiters in skates bringing you cocktails at the rink things degenerated to cheaply uniformed teenagers bringing you onion rings on roller skates in a parking lot. A slippery slope indeed, wouldn't you say?

All I know is that the next time I'm in a rink and am dying for a cocktail, I'm going to click my heels three times and say "there's no place like St. Moritz" and wait patiently for a well dressed man to show up with a fizzy. A sister can dream.

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":