The Original Whirling Dervish: The Ronnie Robertson Story

"Everyone told me it was a natural ability, that I had one of the best centres of gravity they had seen. My weight was distributed just right, my legs were bowed just enough to spin." - Ronnie Robertson, "The Los Angeles Times", 1982

The son of Albert and Christine Robertson, Ronald 'Ronnie' Frederick Robertson was born September 25, 1937 in Brackenridge, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Ronnie was a tot, his father worked as a draftsman at a glass factory After World War II broke out, he moved Ronnie and his sister Patricia to California after taking a job as a naval architect. A sickly child, Ronnie took up figure skating on the advice of his doctor. Jumping and spinning seemingly came natural to him and by the time he was eight, he had won so many competitions on the West Coast that the rules were stretched to allow him to enter the U.S. Championships. However, on his first trip, he finished dead last.

Ronnie Robertson receiving his trophy as winner of the 1952 U.S. junior men's title. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Although in excellent hands with coaches Gustave Lussi and Bob Dench, skating and life were both at times tumultuous for Ronnie. On the ice, he struggled with his nerves when performing school figures under the watchful eyes of the judges. Off the ice, he was having a (not so secret) relationship with a fellow male skater... at a time when same-sex relationships weren't exactly tolerated by many. He later admitted, "I was spending eleven hours a day, six days a week on the ice. I was too tired to study and I knew there would be someplace for me in the profession... There were times when I threw my skates away and said I'd never skate again. But I always went back to it." His hard work on the ice paid off though. By the end of nearly every one of his free skating performances in competition, the crowd erupted in a roar of applause. Gustave Lussi later recalled, "I knew I had a gem on my hands."

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

At the age of fourteen in 1952, Ronnie was the U.S. junior men's champion. The next year, he won the silver medal in the senior men's competition at the U.S. Championships in Hershey, Pennsylvania behind Hayes Alan Jenkins. This afforded him for the first time the opportunity to compete internationally. At his very first North American Championships that year in Cleveland, Ohio, he finished third behind Hayes and Canadian Champion Peter Firstbrook. At that year's World Championships in Davos, Switzerland, he finished just off the podium, behind Hayes, Jimmy Grogan and an Italian you may have heard of before... Mr. Carlo Fassi.

Ronnie Robertson, Hayes Alan Jenkins and Peter Dunfield at the Broadmoor Skating Club. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The following season would prove a challenge for Ronnie. He dropped a spot at the U.S. Championships, finishing behind both Jenkins brothers. He also dropped a spot at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway. Disappointing results - despite awe-inspiring free skating performances full of spins that resembled a whirling dervish - would prove to be a recurring theme again and again throughout the final two seasons of his competitive career... and a point of controversy.

Ronnie finished in second place between Hayes and David Jenkins at the 1955 World Championships in Vienna, but contracted bronchial pneumonia and was forced to withdraw from that year's North American and U.S. Championships. While recovering in Long Beach, his determination only grew stronger.

In 1956, Ronnie won the free skate at both the Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo and World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In Cortina d'Ampezzo, he even made history when the ISU credited him for landing the first ever triple Salchow jump in a major ISU championship... but on account of his showings in the school figures, he finished behind Hayes Alan Jenkins at both events. He became bitterly disappointed over his losses.

Then things got really ugly, really fast... In March 1956, all three men were in Philadelphia for that year's U.S. Championships, which would have had bearing on North American and World assignments for the following season. I'm going to quote at length from an article that appeared in the March 17, 1956 issue of "The Milwaukee Journal", because this piece offers some insight as to what happened just twelve hours before the men's event began: "Controversy boiled up Friday around the amateur status of Ronnie Robertson, America's No. 2 figure skater, and whether he demanded 'excessive expenses' for exhibitions in Europe. [Ronnie] denied the charge which the United States Figure Skating Association said was levelled by 'a representative of a foreign skating association'... 'I believe that this charge probably originated in America and it could be that someone is annoyed that we didn't skate exhibitions,' [Gustave] Lussi said. 'Someone must be a sorehead.' Ronnie's father, Albert Robertson, a naval architect, asserted: 'This thing reeks of politics.' He added: 'I have so much stuff I could blow the lid off the Skating Association.' What riled the Robertson's and Lussi even more, they said, was that the nature of the charges, and who brought them, were not made known... The name of Jenkins became involved, too, when Ronnie's father told newsmen that the American champion was quoted in Toronto - where he appeared in an exhibition - that young Robertson 'would not skate in the national championships at Philadelphia.' Jenkins at first refused to comment, saying he was a competitor and had no connection with the situation. But eventually he told the Associated Press: 'I understand what is being pulled. They're trying to make it look like a fight between Ronnie and me, a fight between competitors. I have had nothing to do with the present matter at all, and have nothing to do with originating it.' Association President Kenneth L. Brown said that Ronnie was participating in the national championships 'under protest' and that his placing, after Saturday's final competition, would remain unofficial until a seven man committee makes it report next May in Berkeley, Calif."

Wowsa! It didn't even stop there either. After Ronnie lost to Hayes in the figures, his father told the press, "They fix it, they rig it so that Ronnie cannot beat the Jenkins figures in his free skating." Ultimately, he won the Oscar L. Richard Trophy for "the most outstanding free skating performance" at those Championships, but the final result - Hayes first, Ronnie second, David third - stands in the history books to this day.

After the fiasco in Philadelphia, Ronnie immediately turned professional, signing a one hundred thousand dollar contract with the Ice Capades. While headlining the tour, he earned the nicknames 'The Blur' and 'The Human Top' for his jaw dropping spinning ability. For his "Carmen" performance alongside Catherine Machado and Bobby Specht in the show, he even studied flamenco dance with famed choreographer José Greco.

Pamela House and Ronnie Robertson. Photo courtesy City Of Toronto Archives.

Ronnie's contract with the Ice Capades was renewed several times, and he adapted with ease to the professional world. With a few wise investments, he even made a millionaire out of himself. However, his relationship wiith John H. Harris, the tour's owner, wasn't all roses. Reporter Jim Murray remarked, "John Harris, the ice show impresario [and] Ronnie got along like two Balkan dictators. The fighting got so noisy, Harris once barred Ronnie's parents from a performance, and Ronnie once sulked in his dressing room 'til Harris threw in $20,000 in bonus money over the transom. Ronnie insisted on a valet to help him hoist his skate bags on and off trains, and a business manager to help him hoist money out of the box office."

In 1960, Ronnie received a letter from the University of Michigan inviting him to be a subject of a vertigo study organized by Dr. Brian F. McCabe and Merle Lawrence, a professor of etolaryngology. The study aimed to prevent astronauts from taking dizzy spells during free falls and chair tests. A November 16, 1961 article from "The Montreal Gazette" noted, "As a result of the tests on Robertson's famous blinding blur, the astronauts were able to overcome the dizziness and eventually take their dips in the ocean... 'The astronauts got dizzy when they did three revolutions per second in the chair spin,' he [said] 'but tests taken by high-speed cameras showed that I averaged seven spins per second in my skating spin, and I never got dizzy. They put me through all the tests used on the astronauts such as spinning in the chair and putting ice-water in my ears and did everything to force me to get dizzy but I never experienced any dizziness at all.' It developed that Robertson had built up a resistance to his high-speed spins over a period of years. He had suppressed dizziness psychologically. They also discovered that the object would black out doing the tests in a chair but in a standing position dizziness was not prevalent... His longest spin was 55 seconds which would mean 385 spins in less than one minute at his rate of seven revolutions per second."

Ronnie went on to appear in The New York World's Fair and on the television programs "The Ed Sullivan Show", "Summer On Ice" and "The Mickey Mouse Club". He also starred in the NBC special "Once Upon A Christmas Time" alongside Claude Rains, Charlie Ruggles, Patty Duke, Kate Smith and Margaret Hamilton.

Douglas Chapman, Ronnie Robertson and Martin Minshull on the podium at the 1958 World Professional Championships

Ronnie won the World Professional Championships in Nottingham, England in 1958 and in Japan in 1973, including a hydroblading move in his program decades before Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz popularized it. For a time in the early seventies, he was the head coach at the International Ice Palace in Las Vegas.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Ronnie later lived in New York and collected art for awhile before moving to Palm Springs, California, getting the itch to skate again and signing on with Holiday On Ice for several years. He also ran a small hotel with his partner for a time before being persuaded to take on a job teaching skating with Sashi Kuchiki in Hong Kong.

Ronnie continued to coach well into his fifties, imparting his coaching philosophy - "It's the individual that counts" - on to many of his adoring students. Sadly, he passed away in a Fountain Valley, California hospital on February 4, 2000 at the age of sixty-two, after leading a life that was as dizzying as one of his famous spins.

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":