Edges At The Expos: Skating At The World's Fairs

Chorus of skaters at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo courtesy New York Public Library.

During the 1939 New York World's Fair, Norwegian skater Erna Andersen dazzled audiences on a specially constructed ice rink. Sadly, Erna was upstaged when Fair organizers decided to hold a 'Henie Day' when Andersen's compatriot Sonja Henie visited while honeymooning in New York after her marriage to Dan Topping.

Ice rink from the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

By 1946, sawhorses and wheelbarrows lined the area where the skating rink once stood as labourers began construction of the new home of the United Nations general assembly in Flushing Meadows. History was being erased and history was being made.

Maude Reynolds and Francis LeMaire performing their 'Shutlatter Dances' at the 1934 Chicago's World Fair. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Figure skating and these international expositions have had a long standing relationship through history. From Brussels to New York City to Osaka, skating has often taken center stage. The July 16, 1934 edition of "The Lodi Sentinel" recalled how The Black Forest ice show, staged during A Century Of Progress, the Chicago World's Fair of 1934 in the German village became the unlikely hit attraction of the exposition: "At the Black Forest is given one of the finest exhibitions of fancy skating. Men and women in pretty costumes do the most marvellous steps on the ice. The performance lasts about ten minutes, because the ice starts to melt after that time. When the skaters go off a huge dance platform is shot in over the ice, and dancing to fine old German tunes goes until the ice freezes again."

Promotional materials for the Black Forest Village at the Chicago World's Fair of 1934. Photos courtesy the Illinois Digital Archives.

Arthur R. Goodfellow's 1972 book "Wonderful world of skates; seventeen centuries of skating" noted, "An American ice production at a trade fair in [Jakarta] helped smooth relations between Indonesia and the United States at a time when such help was badly needed. Industrial expositions in Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam and many European cities have often found ice the hottest thing in their amusement midways. The two World Fairs in New York featured ice, as did the highly successful Canadian Expo and the massive Expo 70 in Japan. Fairground ice amusements sometimes have been touched by tragedy as well as joy. At the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, two forms of 'ice skating' were in evidence, but one was destroyed by fire before it could be used... The skating rink at the 1893 Columbian Expo was on top of the handsome building erected by the Hercules Iron Works. This building resembled Mohammedan architecture and the smoke stack near the front center was encased in a beautiful tower 191-feet high. The rink measured 54 by 208-feet, and from four to six inches of ice were to have been maintained by the brine pumps. Freezing of the ice had just begun when a fire broke out in the tower, the wooden parts of which had been insufficiently protected from the chimney. Sixteen firemen were trapped and perished before the eyes of thousands of spectators."

At the 1964 World's Fair in New York, Dick Button staged a lavish skating production called "Icetravaganza". Fashion met skating in this high production show. The April 1, 1964 issue of the "Free Lance-Star" noted, "Chinchila dresses, capes of black and white tiger skin pattern made from pieces of Russian broadtail; as well as white Persian lamb suits are among the 'don't-be-a-cheap-skate' numbers." Despite its flashy costumes and glitzy decor, the show wasn't perhaps the roaring success it could have been. Dan Dietz' "The Complete Book Of 1960's Broadway Musicals" explains why: "The show had sparse attendance, and at one point a twelve-foot hedge was deemed the culprit for the show's lack of business. Because of its location, the demon hedge obscured the New York City Pavilion and thus many fairgoers didn't know [it] existed. When the offending hedge was trimmed, the Times said it seemed 'that an additional building had been added to the fair,' and Button hoped 'a new era had dawned' for the ice show's fortunes. Unfortunately, hedge or no hedge, the customers still didn't come. It appears the ice show was more in the format of a book musical than a revue; the script was by Gerald Freedman, who co-wrote the lyrics with John Morris (who composed the score and conducted the orchestra). The direction and choreography were by Button, who coproduced with Paul Feigay. The cast included Sandy Culbertson, Jerry Howard, Guy Longpre, Barbara Martin, Don McPherson, Pat Pauley, Fred Randall, Ronnie Robertson and Eric Waite." The show had an unceremonious and short run but Dick, as always, had a healthy attitude about the whole project: "I've been lucky to have found something I'm interested in. Too many people never get excited about anything. It doesn't matter what you're keen about - even shovelling sand against the tide makes sense if you like it."

Though the Futurama ride at the 1964 World's Fair might not have accurately predicted everything about life in the world today, international expositions still draw in hoards of tourists around the world. The next two 'universal expositions' will be held in Dubai in 2020 and Buenos Aires in 2023, providing Trump doesn't get the whole world blown up by then. Will figure skating be among the entertainment? Only time will tell.

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