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The Casa Carioca Nightclub

Nestled in the Bavarian Alps, the Casa Carioca nightclub was located in the recreation area of the USAFEUR (United States Air Force In Europe) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany right next to the stadium that hosted the 1936 Winter Olympic Games where Sonja Henie won her third Olympic gold medal. Created by Frank Gammache and managed in its early years by former U.S. infantry officer Jimmy Lynch, the club was built by General George Patton Jr.'s Third Army engineers in August of 1946. The construction of the Casa Carioca was an expensive endeavor. The space featured a sliding festooned roof that was rolled back in the summer and little expense was spared on the Casa's lavish interior.

In his book "The Life And Times Of A Cold War Serviceman: August 1928-30 November 1969", Maurice F. Mercure described the venue as being "in the shape (form) of a large horseshoe, with an ice rink in the center, where ice shows were performed. The dining area consisted of three tiers of tables surrounding the ice rink. This arrangement allowed the people entering dinner to observe the ice show without anyone blocking their view." The club's 30 X 40 foot ice rink was under a retractable dance floor which allowed patrons to get their groove on before and after the lavish skating productions which were without question the club's main attraction.

In the Casa Carioca's early years, the ice shows were directed by Walter Hofer and performed mostly by a cast of West German 'Casa Carousel' skaters. The December 26, 1947 issue of "The Milwaukee Journal" reported on what life was like for the skaters who performed in the second year the club was open: "The girls in the ice ballet wear dresses... made from parachutes. Their pay is small, but they get one hot meal a day and they live the way they want to, just skating. They practice from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the evening they put on a one-hour show."

Peter Voss performing at the Casa Carioca

In 1949, Terry Rudolph was hired to direct and produce the shows at the Casa Carioca. The cast remained largely European at first. Performers included Lydia Veicht, West German junior champions Gabriele Weidert and Inge Jell and adagio skaters Helga Neff and Peter Voss, who went on to later star in ice shows at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. However, there was a regular influx of skating talent from abroad. American skaters serving in the military and stationed in Europe, like Dudley Richards and Jimmy Grogan, became star attractions. Australia's Margaret Godfrey was cast by Rudolph the day she arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to audition. In 1967, she recalled, "I think the director selected me because I was thin and she likes to have thin skaters in her show." A talented Bavarian local named Cathy Steele - yes, Cathy Steele of Romayne and Steele - also got her start at the Casa when she was just sixteen. In an interview with Randy Gardner and Susan Austin for the Pro Skating Historical Foundation, she recalled, "I was underage and really should not have been in the club. Terry took me in to replace another girl. I started my pair skating there with Blair Heimbach." Olympic Medallist Hans-Jürgen Bäumler's mother worked as a seamstress for the show and as a boy, he practiced on the club's ice when it wasn't needed for the show. Traveling companies like the Wiener Eisrevue visited in the fifties and Belita even briefly appeared at the Casa Carioca in the late forties, while on a USO tour when she was under contract with Monogram and living and working in America.

The Casa Carioca was the delightful Roy Blakey's first introduction to professional skating. He joined the club's skating cast after serving two years in the U.S. Army and stayed for eighteen months. In his September 2012 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast, he recalled, "The ice was 15 feet wide and 17 feet deep. You could get enough space to do jumps and the adagio teams could do their lifts and spins, but it was a very unusual configuration... We were slightly above the eye level of the people who sat in front." Among those front-row patrons were a who's who of American celebrities. Everyone from Jeanette MacDonald and Peter Lorre to Errol Flynn and Elizabeth Taylor visited at one point or another. Skaters performed to live music performed by a seventeen-piece orchestra. While serving in the military, Burt Bacharach himself was an accompanist to the club's ice shows.

British professional skater Jock McConnell learned of the Casa Carioca from a skater from Bournemouth who was on holiday from Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier's Eisrevue in Germany. He recalled, "I traveled to Garmisch on the conclusion of the summer run in Bournemouth to find myself housed up the mountain in a hotel called the [Riessersee] Hotel, where only U.S. Army Officers were billeted. What luxury for an ice skater... and for the next six months it was 'something special.' The first three weeks, I sat in the nightclub watching the show which was a tribute to Cole Porter and titled 'Let's Do It' and certainly every skater who went out there to skate certainly did it! The music was provided by Andre and his twenty-two piece Orchestra from Budapest and was located high above ice level. There were two vocalists for the show, and this was a new innovation for the skaters... On Saturday of the third week, we had Officer's night at the club, and there was an emergency call for me, as the skater who did the part of the 'devil' in a Heaven & Hell scene had fallen sick and was unable to perform his part in the show. I was summoned to the club at short notice and tried on the 'red tights' which went with the costume. It was a fiasco, to say the least, as the skater was much taller than me, but this being the only tights on hand they had to be put on and that was that! Having forgotten my jockstrap did not help the situation, but no matter what, Jock was skating the part of the devil which meant that I chased the two Austrian stars into Hell, around the ice in other words, to the music of 'Too Darn Hot'. When I appeared in the light with the costume and my bandy legs in these red tights, there was a 'howl' from the audience, especially when I jumped with the music with the pitch-fork in my hand, needless to say, I was an instant success, and it was not produced as a comedy part, and here I was making it just that, and the rest was easy! On the conclusion of my two-minute debut, the Colonel of the U.S. Army post who was in the audience raced backstage with a large glass of whiskey for me, and congratulated me on being such a fine substitute on short notice, and from that moment on, I knew things would work out and that I had etched my name in the programme and the show as the devil in the Heaven & Hell scene. Joy Aston and her partner starred in this show and we had numerous German skaters who were worthy of stardom anywhere, in any ice show, such was the talent at Terry Rudolph's disposal."

Sadly, the Casa Carioca was destroyed by fire on November 4, 1970. To this day, the rumour mill churns and the court of popular opinion speculate on the circumstances surrounding the club's demise. We do know from proceedings of the United States Congress House Committee on Armed Services in 1972 that Frank Gammache, who had been directly responsible for the Casa Carioca's record-keeping, files and negotiating all contracts with employees of the ice show since 1949, was convicted of fraud under the German criminal code while managing the club... something that came out in the wash in investigations following the fire that burned down the club. Many held out hope that the club would be rebuilt, but all that remains of this legendary venue are fond and fleeting memories.

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 figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":