#Unearthed: Life In The Big Show

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's fascinating gem, entitled "Life In The Big Show", is an article penned by Toller Cranston discussing the pros and cons of turning professional and joining a touring ice show. It originally appeared in "Canadian Skater" magazine in 1980.


My motive in writing this article is to try to help other skaters who may be contemplating the big jump from the amateur to the professional world. I spent three seasons performing professionally in three of the four corners of the world, and during this time learned a lot about life in the big show.

When I first joined Holiday on Ice, I expected the worst, but was pleasantly surprised. In retrospect, this period was a time of adjustment and change. As fate would have it, one of my "cold spots" followed a barrel jumper and my final number preceded a chimp act. I later interpreted this misfortune as divine nemesis for all the nasty things I had said about the "big shows".

One thing I learned very early on though, was that it is not where or with whom you skate, but how you skate. In almost every world, quality surfaces: the professional ice show is no different.

Another important lesson I learned that helped change my opinion about the ice show was that a skater's talent doesn't naturally deteriorate the moment he or she joins the show. Rather, it is all in an individual's approach.

Some famous skaters have gone completely downhill after joining a show - but on examination it becomes clear that their training habits have also deteriorated. They no longer train with the same spirit and integrity they did as an amateur.

The fact is that if a skater is looking forward to a long-term career with a show, he or she must be prepared to learn a new kind of training and routine. One crucial element of this is recognizing one's own dispensibility. It may seem dehumanizing and even unfair, but the truth is, that anyone can be replaced at the drop of a hat. One of the key rules, then, is not to complain needlessly. Crying wolf too often can ruin one's career and reputation. Complainers seldom last long. They're the first people to be axed when a promising young amateur comes on the scene.

Another adjustment the new professional must make is to the increase in the frequency of performances. The very idea of skating three shows on Saturday and three more on Sunday presents an enormous psychological obstacle. Sometimes on the weekend I would find myself off in a dream - not knowing who I was, where I was, or what day it was. Monday would inevitably come, but not without many depressing hours. Hours that were often lonely and emotionally barren.

 Toller Cranston performing in 1976. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Many professional skaters are lack-luster people who fade out of the show as easily and inconspicously as they fade in. This happens all too regularly. Life in the big show is damn hard - long hours, extreme conditions that are either insufferably hot or unbearably cold, ice surfaces that are hardly of Olympic standards.

Many skaters experience a kind of culture shock when they join the ice show. I remember a young skater from the prairies who flew to Paris to join a show. Not only did she not speak French, but she had no hotel reservations or French francs. She arrived after a thirty-two hour trip and was expected to perform that night. Stories like this are retold again and again. The skaters who announce to their friends that they are off to tour Europe in a glamorous ice show often never recover from the initial shock and return home within a week, dazed and disillusioned. There are others, though, who do stay. These troupers often live lives that are in rich in experience and emotion. Because for all its negative aspects, the big show provides skaters with the opportunity unheard of in most professions.

There are some skaters I know and adore with the ice show. Marie North of Vancouver, for example, used the show to experience the world in a way few others have. Between each show, she read about the cities she was going to visit. There was little she ever missed and she left a million friends on every continent.

Gladys Barrios of Venezuela who has been Holiday on Ice for ten years is another great personality. Fluent in five languages and perhaps the best travelled person I have met, she is a credit to her profession.

Generally, the big shows are against the star system - this philosophy has a legitimate basis. Too often skaters have had entire shows built around them but for personal reasons (marriage, sickness, injury, weight, personal problems) they leave. Performers like Richard Dwyer (Ice Follies) and Janet Lynn are the exceptions. And, of course, there is Sonja Henie - the ultimate professional. A woman who loved being a star and who had the money to live the life to its fullest. Without question, she was  undoubtedly the richest professional skater of all time.

But the ice show is not the place where fortunes are made. The salaries of principal skaters are generally a well-kept secret, but, those in the thousand dollar a week category are in the minority. Many principals who are the 'stars' of the show make little more than five or six hundred a week. Even newly-crowned World or Olympic champions have little chance of receiving those few high salaries offered by the shows. Granted, these titles weild a certain amount of clout at the bargaining table, but if a skater is unknown or not considered good 'box-office material' the salary offered may be a fraction of what the skater expected. If money is your main concern for joining an ice show - you're in the wrong business.

Toller Cranston meeting SCTV's Catherine O'Hara, now the delightful Moira Rose on "Schitt's Creek". Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

So why join? Why put up with the long hours, the loneliness, the low pay and the hard work? For me, its the love of skating, the chance to travel and meet different and interesting people from all over the world. It's a unique opportunity to experience a quality of life that is difficult to obtain in other fields.

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": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.