Rags, Riches And Restitution: The Arnold Shoda Story

Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive

"I think of myself as a glider floating through space when I am skating. My aim is to please the eye, rather than excite the mind." - Arnold Shoda, "The Reading Eagle", July 19, 1951

Born August 18, 1926, Arnold Shoda grew up in crushing poverty in the tenements of Manhattan, New York during The Great Depression. His father Ignatz was born in Minsk, Russia and kept food on the table as best he could by taking a job with a cleaning firm as a window cleaner. His mother Poli, born in Austria, contributed by working as a housekeeper. The family had arrived in Ellis Island from Steinbr├╝ck in 1911 and hadn't had an easy go of it raising Arnold and their eldest son Stephen. In a sea of Italian, Polish, Czechslovakian and Jewish immigrants, the Shoda's were 'just another' struggling family trying to make it in the Big Apple.

When Arnold was twelve in 1939, he discovered the skating at the rink at the New York World's Fair and was instantly hooked. Every day after school, he showed up at the rink, borrowed skates and taught himself how to skate by following around the experienced skaters like a puppy and mimicking what they did. His parents recognized how much he loved the ice and somehow managed to find the money somewhere to get him his own pair of skates, even though they certainly couldn't afford it. In an interview in August of 1951, he recalled, "My mother bought me my first skates. They were hockey skates, and she bought the shoes too big so that I could grow into them. I scuffed the toes dreadfully." He continued to improve and quickly graduated out of those hockey skates into a pair of figure skates.

There were no competitions; no lessons. Arnold didn't have the inclination and Ignatz and Poli just didn't have the money. What Arnold did have was ambition, sparkling aquamarine eyes and a certain flair about him.

Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive

Arnold auditioned for an ice show in the Bowman Room at the Biltmore Hotel on Madison Avenue and Forty Third Street, got the job and soon found himself skating pairs with Joan Hyldoft. In case you're trying to do the math here, yes, Arnold was an untrained, professional skater at sixteen. He later skated and sang at the Terrace Room at the Hotel New Yorker in its "Circus Daze" show alongside Bob Ballard and Mary Jane Yeo. The May 20, 1944 issue of "Billboard" magazine raved, "Shoda, as ringmaster, darts about on the ice in flashy manner, and also warbles 'Circus On Parade' in nice fashion."

Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive

The Biltmore and Hotel New Yorker gigs led to a fifteen month stint at the Center Theatre in Arthur M. Wirtz and Sonja Henie's shows and a fourteen month engagement skating at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. Once you got your foot in the door in those days, more opportunities presented themselves. More opportunities, luckily for Arnold, meant more money.

After World War II, Arnold found himself headlining a series of tank ice shows at the Roxy Theater in New York with Carol Lynne, Jean Arlen, Bruce Mapes and Martha Firschke, a.k.a. Trixie The Skating Juggler. A versatile entertainer, he skated to everything from gypsy folk music to Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16" and soon gained respect and a keen following among fellow skaters for his artistry and sensitivity toward music.

In a July 1951 interview with society columnist Alice Hughes, Arnold proudly proclaimed, "There are lots of ice skaters, but not many who combine skating with ballet. That's what I do." His dream was to have his own touring show just like Sonja Henie and he stayed in shape "just like any athlete. No smoking; hardly any drinking; as much sleep as I can get and of course, three hours a day training whenever I'm not doing four shows a day, as I am now. Any slight injury to a foot or even an arm is dangerous, for I have to be as supple as a ballet dancer." He kept his dressing room 'neat as a pin' apparently and loved to cook.

By 1951, Arnold was represented by the Fosters Agency, the same talent agency who represented Cecilia Colledge, Carol Lynne and Adele Inge. By 1952, they got him out of the Roxy and into the Boulevard Room at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago, where his big act combined a vocal rendition of a song called "My Heart Is In My Boots" with a 'show stopping solo' which the July 5, 1952 issue of "Billboard" magazine described thusly: "A dance routine to a tango beat, featuring some flashy stag jumps, Axels, headless and sit spins. He ended the routine with a fast spin and pulled a big hand."

Arnold Shoda and Kay Servatius. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

After reuniting with his old partner Joan Hyldoft, Arnold had finally accepted the realization that he'd never have his own touring show like Sonja Henie when he was offered a position as a principal on Holiday On Ice.

Arnold Shoda and Kay Servatius. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

Arnold soon found himself touring with two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button and skating behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow as one of the European tour's male leads. That 1959 Holiday On Ice show was the first American skating production to perform in the Soviet Union. Four years prior to the trip where he met Nikolai Kruschev, Arnold partnered Sonja Henie in her 'Holiday On Ice' Christmas special. His usual partner on the tour was Kay Servatius.

Right photo courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide"

Arnold remained with Holiday On Ice for over a decade and found himself more at home on the North American tour, doing everything from playing the tragic clown Pagliacci in a 'Continental Circus' to skating a pairs routine to the old standard "Begin The Beguine".

Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive

Arnold later coached at the All Weather Roll 'N' Ice rink in Copiague, Long Island. When he died June 25, 2003 in Palm Desert, Riverside, California at the age of seventy six, he may have taken heart in one good deed he performed that few who came to marvel at him in shows ever knew about. The very first thing that he did when he started making money as a teenage show skater was buy his impoverished parents a nice house in Long Island. They took a chance on him when they couldn't afford to, and he never forgot it.

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