The Pro-Skate Tour

Shortly after Dick Button's company Candid Productions began presenting the annual World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Landover, Maryland, a grand prix style series of professional competitions was taking the world by storm. 

Pro-Skate was a very much a precursor to the kind of skating we'd see when Stars On Ice started operating - more focused on the merits of individual performances that the ensemble focused Ice Capades and Ice Follies tours. The cast in the touring series of competitions couldn't have been any more star studded, featuring skaters like John Curry, Robin Cousins, Janet LynnToller Cranston, Dorothy Hamill, Peggy FlemingDavid Santee, Brian Pockar, Denise Biellmann, Angela Greenhow, Allen Schramm, Candy Jones and Don Fraser, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Lynn Nightingale, Wendy Burge, Fumio Igarashi, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Kim Krohn and Barry Hagan, Nancy Berghoff and Jim Bowser, Heather Kemkaran and Lillian Heming and Murray Carey. The events were marketed for television as International Professional Figure Skating Championships.

The tour was put on by the Pro-Skate Company, headquartered in New York City, which was formed in 1981. It was owned jointly by Concert Productions International of Toronto (run by Michael Cohl and Bill Ballard) and Leber/Krebs and Pro-Skate International (run by Elva Oglanby), based in New York City. The Canadian events were sponsored by the Labatt Brewing Company Ltd during their first year. Concert Productions International (CPI) had certain connections that made a tour like Pro-Skate viable to them. For instance, Maple Leaf Gardens (a stop on the tour) was owned by Bill Ballard's controversial father Howard, a former hockey coach who owned the Toronto Maple Leafs. Other stops on the tour included Calgary Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and New York City. The New York event, held annually at Madison Square Garden, was advertised as the International Professional Figure Skating Championships.

In her 1994 book "Ice Time", Debbi Wilkes recalled, "When Michael Cohl called Canadian skaters to compete, they all said, 'You'll have to talk to my agent. That was the beginning of a fascinating roller coaster ride. We'd come in all full of bluster and pretend we knew what we were doing. Mel and Gord would stay quiet and make me talk. I'd pull 'girl' and stomp up and down, absolutely refusing whatever they were demanding. I used to think they were standing in the shower in the morning laughing their heads off at us, but we had a good time, learned a lot and made a few bucks. In the end, our skaters weren't the only ones who got paid.'"

Each event offered tens of thousands of dollars in prize money and any skater not placing in the top three earned one thousand just for participating. Although many of the skaters praised the opportunity to compete in a non-traditional atmosphere, the general consensus amongst many of the skaters was that the money was the reason they participated. Janet Lynn remarked, "Money certainly has to be considered, especially with three boys to send to college one day." Candy Fraser said, "It's pleasant to get some return for all the money your parents put into it over the years." Toller Cranston added, "It's like jumping into a swimming pool of sharks - but I'm one of the biggest sharks in there. Everyone is really in it for the money - none of us really likes competing."

The judging panels for the tour consisted of comprised of eight 'regular judges' (everyone from skating folks to members of the artistic community) and a 'public judge' mark, the average of the marks of ten local celebrities (athletes, university professors, radio hosts, etc.). Each was responsible for marking one category of the performance, ie. jumps, spins, footwork, choreography, etc. on a scale of 10.0. The high and the low marks were thrown out. One of the biggest criticisms of the series was the fact that a technical or compulsory short program was included. In "Canadian Skater" magazine, Carole Stafford noted, "The short programs posed problems for the non-skating judges who were not familiar with compulsory elements and skaters who completed this were not always given the credit they deserved while missing elements were not always penalized as they would be in an amateur competition." As always in professional competition, there were also cries of reputation judging. Debbi Wilkes recalled, "They treated the event like a rock concert. There was respectable prize money, but it got out of hand. It seemed that the winner was whoever had the highest guarantee. That didn't last long because the public wouldn't accept it. Then the skaters started to demand such high fees they priced themselves right out of the market. The competitions didn't make much financial sense. The whole effort was premature."

Bill Jones recalled John Curry's experience participating in the tour in his book "Alone: The Triumph And Tragedy Of John Curry" thusly: "The fledgling professional tour played in five Canadian cities. Against all the odds, Curry appeared happy. Not even the vulgarity of a sponsor (something his contracts usually forbade) seemed to wobble him. Unlike Cranston and Cousins, he had stayed out of the men's 'competition', and appeared only as an exhibitor; skating ethereally to Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' in Vancouver, the city where they'd once pelted him with drink cans."

Heather Kemkaran, Toller Cranston and Lynn Nightingale. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

The prize money, appearance fees and operating costs of such a mammoth effort proved overwhelming and in 1984, the tour and competitions concluded. The success of Button's annual Landover event, however, proved so overwhelming that he devised a second competition - The Challenge Of Champions - that would be held annually in Paris, France in its first three efforts before being held in different cities around the world each year including Moscow, Barcelona, London and Tokyo. The days of professional competitions based in Canada wouldn't be over though. The North American Men's Professional Skating Championships (Jeep Main Event of Figure Skating) and World Cup competitions would be held in Canada later in the eighties and briefly enjoy their respective moments in the spotlight. In the nineties, Button's Challenge Of Champions and The Gold Championships would visit Canada and the Canadian Professional Figure Skating Championships would be established in 1994. Although we traditionally think of the explosion of professional figure skating competitions in the nineties as a mainly American phenomenon, its early roots in the Canadian figure skating culture are not merely ephemera. They play a huge role in the popularity of professional and show skating in this country that thrives to this day.

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