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#Unearthed: Sheldon Galbraith: The Early Years

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's #Unearthed comes to you from a short-lived online magazine devoted to (mainly Canadian) figure skating history called "Skating Through Time" from the late nineties. The authors of this particular piece are PJ Kwong and Mel Matthews, and this has been shared with the fabulous PJ's permission.


Master coach, professional athlete, devoted husband and father, retired military man - all things that could be said to describe the inimitable Sheldon Galbraith.

Mabel and William GalbraithTo create an accurate portrait of the man, we have to go back to the beginning. Sheldon was born on May 24, 1922, in Sturgeon Creek, Manitoba, Canada. He was the youngest of four children born to William James Boyd and Mabel Agnes Frederika Galbraith: Margaret Irene, Nelson Weaver, Murray Cameron and then Sheldon William.

While Sheldon was still an infant, his family moved for a time to Los Angeles, before settling in Tacoma, Washington in 1928. The Galbraiths were a close-knit family, always doing lots of things together, with a particular emphasis on sports, which the boys all played, becoming particularly adept at baseball and track and field.

Sheldon's father William had been a talented skater, playing amateur hockey until his career was sidelined by the onset of World War 1. Although not 100% sure, Sheldon believes that his father may have played for, among other teams, what is now known as the Los Angeles Kings. Not surprisingly, the Galbraith children were encouraged to learn how to skate, becoming of particular interest to Sheldon and brother Murray. One freezing cold day in Tacoma, Sheldon donned 8 pairs of socks and his father's much too large custom-made Tackeberry-Strauss skates, while Murray wore his mother's Pat Qualey kangaroo leather ones. This marked the beginning of Sheldon's fascination with the ice and one's movement on skates across it. The boys skated every chance they got, including one wintry evening when they went to skate on a lake not far from their home. On his way back, Sheldon took a shortcut and ended up falling in a creek and getting completely soaked. He was able to get dried off with the exception of his skates, with the help of some kindly strangers. The next day and not wanting anyone to know, he decided to try to dry the skates out himself in a gas oven. What happened was that the sole of one of the boots split right down the middle and the skates were ruined! Although he was never spanked, being aware of his father's disappointment at his hand-made skates being destroyed was punishment enough for Sheldon.

GalbraithsWhen the Depression hit, it was keenly felt by the Galbraith family, who had to go on relief. They moved to a much more affordable 10-acre farm. The reasonable rent, due in some part to the fact that it was on, what would be referred to in Ontario, as hazard land. Able to become almost totally self-sufficient, the Galbraiths kept a cow, some ducks and chickens, a well, and 2 or 3 acres devoted to gardening and vegetables. These efforts greatly helped to reduce the costs of raising their growing family, and the only things they needed to buy were meat, flour and sugar.

Life on the farm was very demanding physically, and the whole family participated in its operation. Chores were a part of daily life for the children, and as a by-product, helped them to develop a level of physical fitness and athleticism, which would stand them in good stead. As with lots of farm children, they worked hard and played hard, and could often be found when not in school or occupied with the farm work, playing tag, climbing trees or swinging from a well-used tire swing.

After a time, things improved for the family, and William was able to get back on his feet by moving to San Francisco and taking a job with the National Cash Register Company. By the time Sheldon was 14, the whole family was able to move to San Francisco where they were reunited.

It is here that both Sheldon and Murray started to pursue their dreams of skating. The 48th Street rink, run by the Thompson family, became a second home to the boys. Every Saturday morning they would head there, with 2 streetcar tickets each (at a cost of a nickel per), and 25 cents which covered the cost for a morning skating session, including rental skates. Eventually the boys were given jobs scraping the ice, which paid for their skating.

The first pair of skates that Sheldon bought himself was Johnson Skates a pair of Nestor Johnson hockey skates, costing $8.24, which he earned by selling newspapers at 18th and Geary Streets in the "streetcar zone".

"There is nothing like finally having your own equipment, and not having to rely on hand-me-downs or rentals".

Sheldon was free to finally start really having some fun experimenting with his skating. He was always trying new things; got lots of encouragement from other skaters and coaches; but even the most basic waltz jump and figure eight was pretty difficult to do in hockey skates.

Mostly, Sheldon perfected the art of falling on his left hip, which he did a whole lot, causing him to shift his wallet from left to right pocket, where you can still pickpocket it to this day. In a move that one could only describe as lunatic, Sheldon attempted what he thought would be an Axel jump one-day. This jump was so wild and wide open that he injured himself on the landing. A lesser man might have given up, but this made him more determined than ever to figure this skating thing out.

No surprise to find at this time, that he had grown as a skater beyond the regular pleasure skating session, and was removed from them.

If he was going to continue as a figure skater, Sheldon's next step had to be to buy himself his first pair of figure skates. They were Polar Reginas, an early "open toe model, and interesting from today's perspective because they were a riveted boot and blade. The skate was riveted to the boot as well as the blade being riveted to the sole plate. This meant that any inaccuracies in footwork, where the blades might knock together, would cause them to make a ringing sound.

Life at the 48th Street rink was becoming more difficult. Initially, the boys had agreed to scrape the ice in exchange for ice time. However management came to expect that they would do more and more work around the rink maintaining it. The constant sweeping, cleaning, handing out of skate rentals and ice scraping, to name but a few of their tasks, meant that they had very little time left to skate.

They approached the management for weekly streetcar tickets and a salary of $5.00 per week for their work, and were refused. Their father had already forewarned them that if they were refused, they should be prepared to make a move to another facility, which they did.

The newly opened Sutro's Baths Ice Rink became their new home in 1937. It sported a larger ice surface, and the boys were able to secure a similar "ice scraping in exchange for ice time" arrangement. It was here that their training went into high gear, and they were able to become more serious about skating. They were invited to join the Skate and Ski Club of San Francisco as honourary members. Knowledgeable and interested by-standers at the club suggested to the boys that they consider competing, as they were now members of a USFSA affiliated club and would be eligible.

In 1938, the California State Championships were held outdoors on ice-covered tennis courts and a parking lot in Yosemite National Park, where the boys were entered in the Novice Class. At outdoor events, there was always the problem of the easily shattered top layer of ice, known as "shale" ice, which made "clean" tracings of school figures very difficult if not impossible to do. Sheldon was fortunate at being able to find some good ice for his school figures, which made him the leader going into the freestyle portion of the event, edging his brother by a mere 3/10ths of a point. Sheldon went on to win the Championship.

In recalling that competitive experience Sheldon says: "Not feeling fully confident in my musicality, I skated my freestyle performance to "The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakaki", which was a very strong piece of music and offered a profound meter or beat that anyone could keep time to."

Not everything went according to plan however, and he goes on to say: "during my performance, they used one spotlight that looked like a searchlight. I came out of a spin in the middle of my program, and was completely lost. I had lost not only my orientation, but had forgotten my program. I skated around doing something, waiting for my memory to kick back in as to where I was supposed to be. I remember doing several split Lutz trying to find where I was supposed to be in my music."

Reassuring somehow, to know that it happens to everyone.

These State Championships were important from another point of view, because it was here that they met Meryl Baxter and Neil Rose, against whom they competed, and Meryl's brother Skippy, all of whom hailed from the Oakland Skating Club. These skaters had a similar arrangement at their club, and with so much in common, the boys became very good friends. Wanting the challenge and camaraderie of training with their friends and fellow competitors, the Galbraiths joined the Oakland Skating Club, while continuing to skate at Sutro's.

Harry Swanson, who managed the facility, and had a sporting goods store at the rink, allowed the Galbraiths to do ice scraping and sweeping to earn their skating. Sheldon contends that the constant work of scraping and sweeping developed tremendous power in the leg muscles and the central back line along the spine. Pushing a scraper full of snow, and trying to turn a corner with it, or trying to push 2 squeegees, water-filled and locked into one another which created the flooding action, required a lot of pressure, spinal strength, and an understanding of gravity of the load, getting behind it and the centre of balance. There were lots of subliminal things they were learning about balance mechanisms, and the science of movement at that time.

Equipment was causing challenges for the Galbraiths. They were having problems with their blades bending and coming loose, as a result of the increased stress placed on them by their improving skating skills. They each solved the problem by buying a pair of Arnold boots from Harry Swanson's Sport Store at the Oakland Club. These boots would be considered very high on the leg by today's standards, but for their time, were considered to be a very well fitting "off the shelf" boot, which came in 4 widths for each size, and saw the boys through their skating careers.. To overcome the blade problems, they got in touch with a man who had worked for J. E. Strauss, and was manufacturing an Olympiad blade. He had a problem with the die he used to stamp the blade. It was missing part of the "d", and he sold those blades at the discounted price of $18.00. Sheldon and Murray each bought themselves a pair, and were now well outfitted to continue.

The training atmosphere at the Oakland Club was a very positive one, not only because friends got to skate and be together, but also because of the support they received from the instructors at the club, in exchange for demonstrations from the members of this group in the basics of skating to their students. These skaters, already working at levels between the 6th and Gold tests, had to rely on help from one another, as the most highly qualified instructor had achieved a 3rd test level.

The Baxter and Galbraith brothers, and Neil Rose would meet on the ice, 30 minutes or so into the public session, after people had had a chance to practice their school figures, and work on whatever good ice that was left. There was no doubt that Skippy Baxter was the most advanced skater at the club at that time.

Sheldon recalls: "Skippy was a jumper from the beginning. He was the first guy we saw do a double anything. In 1939, he did triple Salchows and double Axels in Los Angeles" In that same year he was listed in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" for his triple Salchow which he performed in exhibition along with the split Lutz he invented.

Attending the 1939 Ice Follies they met Gene Turner the Pacific Coast Senior champion and liked him immediately. He was very generous with his time and expertise. It seemed to be the trend of the time that the more advanced skaters were always happy to offer guidance and advice to younger amateur skaters. Gene's mother was a national judge and also very helpful to Sheldon and Murray. Gene was a fighter pilot during World War II.

In addition to the physical preparation required leading up to competition, there was also the need to address the issue of costuming. National Championships were typically held in the dead of winter, late in February or March, and often in the more chilly areas of the northern U. S. This was challenging to the western skaters, who had a hard time adjusting to the much colder temperatures, both out -of-doors and in the rinks. Our skating friends from California often trained in ski pants tucked into their socks and draped somewhat over their skating boots, resembling knickers in a way, but lower.

When competing "back East" in the 1939 US Novice class held in St. Paul Minnesota they wore Eton jackets and a cravat secured with a special pin resembling a figure eight crafted for them by a jeweler in San Francisco. They also wore heavy wool tights, used in stage performances, but useless against the temperatures they were being exposed to. Sheldon remembers trying to decide between cutting the foot out of the tights, and securing them by a strap under the arch of the boot, or leaving them as is, with the big seam at the back of them, which caused cramping in his feet. Never getting used to performing in their costumes was just another obstacle to be overcome in their rise in the competitive ranks.

The Oakland skating club continued to be their training ground on the weekends, but feeling put in a similarly exploited situation by the Sutro's Baths rink, their club, the The Skate and Ski club made a move to San Francisco's Winterland, which boasted an enormous rink. Normal dimensions of the day were 180' long by 80' wide, and this rink was 220' long by 110' wide, considered to be excessive to say the least.

This move backfired somewhat, particularly evidenced by Sheldon's performance at the 1940 National U.S. Junior Championships hosted in Cleveland. Suffering from a cold, and used to the much larger ice surface where he had been training, he turned in a poor performance in the freestyle event. There were seats for spectators on one side of the rink, and skating on this much smaller ice surface, he crashed through the barrier, landing in someone's lap. He was defeated by Bobby Specht, who went on to become the National Champion with Murray finishing second and Sheldon third.

Sheldon and Murray declined their first offer to join the Ice Follies in 1939, but reconsidered after the Junior Championships and joined the cast in May of 1940. Meryl and Neil followed soon thereafter into the New York Ice Revue at Center Theatre and worked in the chorus, while developing a comedy routine called "The Rookies". Skippy joined New York Revue as a lead performer.

At first, none of the boys skated in the shows, but practiced the routines during the rehearsals. Sheldon and Murray worked on a version of a "synchronized" skating pair that, in the early stages was a variation of Sheldon's solo. They had first started skating as a pair when they had been asked to work up a number for the opening of the Grace Breweries Ice Rink in Santa Rosa, California. It had been very well received, was considered very athletic, and was what had originally brought them to the attention of the Ice Follies.

In late August of 1940, after having learned the chorus numbers and perfected their own featured pair number, Sheldon and Murray were invited to skate in several shows prior to the opening of the following year's tour, which was to be held in Los Angeles.

This was a time of great learning for Sheldon, in addition to learning about the discipline of a professional show, where you simply continued to do something over and over until you got it right, he learned about music and choreography, and putting together a complete "package". There were so many wonderful resource people that the Galbraiths had access to in Ice Follies. A well-known stage, show and ballroom dance choreographer/producer, Miss Fanchon (Hollywood, Ca), was brought in to do the planning and choreography for the Ice Follies; new show.

She was assisted by skating choreographer Fran Claudet (Ottawa, Canada) who would then interpret these Ice Follies numbers and ideas for the ice. When working out new ideas or concepts for their pair, they would present them to the choreographers for their approval. At this time, they were working on developing their musical expression, and what they were trying to express creatively through their skating.

One of their costumes was a champagne like satin top with maroon pants made by MacIntosh of Hollywood. MacIntosh made all the men's costumes for Ice Follies of the best materials. There was no production built around the Galbraith Brothers, for they were an unknown quantity. Sheldon and Murray did strengthen the chorus numbers in which they performed so this was a plus.

Counting music was new to Sheldon and he was still counting by mouthing the counts. On the first tour performing in Los Angles during a performance Murray happend to fall down. Part of the routine came to a skid stop at the end of the rink close to the audience and the people near by started smiling and laughing at Sheldon's counts as if he were counting Murray out in a boxing match.

Sheldon recalls: "Show business does not play around, you don't need to have your music played to rehearse, you hear it in your head and you know it so intimately that every step intertwines with the next to lead to the conclusion successfully for the delivery of a good performance."

Skating in the Ice Follies in the 1940's was a glamorous proposition, and there was lots of fun and parties in addition to the hard work.

Once they had spent some time with the tour they became more comfortable with the show and started to relax and enjoy the events and some of the pranks that went along with it.

In San Francisco during their synchronized pair number, Sheldon remembers hearing a bottle making a bung, bung, bung noise as at it fell down the steps from the balcony making its way to the ice surface. A member of the audience had put his foot on the ice to warn them that the bottle had shattered all over the ice. Sheldon told Murray to continue with their number while he cleared the broken glass from the ice. Having cleared it away he rejoined Murray to finish the number and he got a tremendous hand. In show business you learn to adjust to anything.

Life on the road was not all glamorous and pranks were a part of back stage life. Sheldon recalls:"There was one particular member of the boys' chorus who loved to put short wooden matches in the side of the other skaters shoes. When the guy was wearing his shoes he would divert their attention and light the matches giving them 'a hotfoot'. One night in Philly we got some long screws and drilled through the soles of his shoes permanently attaching them to the floor. Everyone went home in their shoes except the prankster who had to go home in his skates. That put a stop to that."

Also the choreographers had designed a very elaborate number for Nora McCarthy as an Indian Princess. The chorus boys would place about 8 totem poles around the ice surface before the performance to set the tone for her entrance. The boys would beat tom toms and on her entrance she would signify the exit of the chorus by drawing her bow and aiming at the chorus. During one performance the boys grabbed their rear ends and left yelling in mock pain.

At the opening of the 1943 season, at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, there was a cast party held by the two brothers that owned the auditorium, with lots of celebrities in attendance. In fact, a guest at the party, Ronald Reagan a young actor, along with Jeanne Schulte a Follies cast member and her former roommate Nora McCarthy, a Canadian Ladies Champion spent some time comparing notes on new contact lenses that had just come out. Reagan was a diver at the time specializing in the 3-metre board, and explained that it was the first time he had been able to see the water and didn't have to rely solely on timing and instinct after purchasing his first contact lenses. After that discussion Jeanne was persuaded to purchase contacts of her own.

In the mean time Jeanne Schulte, had caught Sheldon's eye. Jeanne had been a national Junior pairs champion with partner Ollie Haupt. On turning professional, she taught for a season in Michigan, did a stint in a Chicago hotel show, performed in the World's Fair held in New York, prior to joining the Ice Follies.

Sheldon's touring years with the Ice Follies lasted until March 1943. Jeanne retired at the end of August of that year and they were married on the 24th September 1943.

In the summer of 1942, Murray and Sheldon enlisted in the US Naval Air Corps. Sheldon's eyesight meant that he couldn't qualify for the Naval Cadet program, but he discovered that if he continued to study for his commercial pilot's license (he was already a private pilot at this point ), he could eliminate 18 months of training, enabling him to join the AVT (Aviation Volunteer Transport).

While in the Navy, Murray and Sheldon were allowed to continue to perform in Ice Follies provided that the management made an announcement at each show during intermission that they were members of the armed forces, awaiting call to active duty.

The call for Sheldon came in June of 1943, and he went through training as a naval aviator, earning his wings in November of that year. His job would be to teach flying for the Navy for the next 15 months. He was sent to Livermore, California (which would become the Lawrence Observatory, and the facility for research on the atomic bomb), and then transferred in the winter to Bunker Hill, Indiana.

It was Sheldon's observation that many of the skating instructors after the war had been pilots, and many skaters who had gone into flying had been successful at it. He attributes it to something about balance, a sense of level, the eye co-ordination that seemed to compliment the skills required in flying. These were already things that skaters had acquired along the way - in addition to being able to sense varying pressures on the feet, skating having such a different feel on the foot from walking.

In the Navy, Sheldon was exposed to distinctive eye reflex training. They were shown pictures of aircraft or ships at a 75th of a second. This exercise demonstrated that the eye sees history in every case, and retains a picture. It can't predict the future or perceive the present, and is the reason why a series of still pictures shown in rapid succession creates the illusion of a "motion" picture. The delay in the process is caused by the eye having to see something, interpret it upside down, relay the message to the brain, and then come back to understanding. The fact that people think they see in the present what they are seeing, try to report it, and then realize they are out of sync with what is happening. This was an intriguing concept for Sheldon, and knowledge that he would put to later use in devising ways of teaching technique to skaters, recognizing that although something looked like it should be done one way, didn't mean that it in fact was the case. More about that later.

At the end of his term, Sheldon was separated from the Navy on December 18, 1945. After Christmas he went to work on mastering the level of performance required of his skating to pass the figure and free skating elements and achieve his gold medal on November 6, 1946.

Although separated from the Navy, Sheldon was kept in the Reserve because of the Korean War, and on standby in case they needed more pilots trained. He had no option in this matter. He finally got out by sending a letter to the Navy Bureau of Personnel explaining that he was having a hardship having to maintain two residences owing to the regulations of the U.S. Immigration Dept. The Navy released him on November 30, 1955.

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