Playing With Fire: The Venita Berea Petersen Story

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

The daughter of Emma (McKinnie) and Dr. Solomon Petersen, Venita Holquina Berea 'Lucky' Petersen was born August 15, 1927 in New York, New York. She was named after her paternal grandmother Venita. Her mother came from North Carolina; her father was from the Colombian island of San AndrĂ©s, in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Nicaragua. 

As a teenager, Venita had her first exposure to figure skating in Central Park. "I took my roller skates and tried using those," she said. Her grandmother bought her a pair of ice skates and she taught herself the basics of the sport.

Photo courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide"

After being 'discovered' at the Iceland rink in 1946, Venita was cast in a show called "Derby On Ice" on an outdoor stage at the rink's restaurant alongside Carol Lynne, a star of the Centre Theatre and billed as the "champion sepia skatress". To say her start in the sport was controversial would be to put things mildly. Skater/producer Elizabeth Chandler and her husband Fritz had originally wanted to put on an an ice show with an all-black cast starring Mabel Fairbanks instead of "Derby On Ice". 

An article from the September 7, 1946 issue of "The Greater Omaha Guide" recalled, "Mrs. Chandler finally disbanded the proposed all-Negro show and quickly put an unknown Negro skater, [Holquina] 'Lucky' Petersen into a white show. Why Mrs. Chandler had not secured the same spot for Mabel was never known but conclusions amounted to this: either Producer Chandler was afraid Mabel would skate circles around any other skater she had featured and thus steal [the] show, or after realizing she was a potential money maker, by underpaying her as a star performer on the theory that it was a 'break' and that Negro ice skaters couldn't be choosy. In any event, Mrs. Chandler's many letters and wires to Mabel in Hollywood pleading her to return [to New York] were a failure because Mabel stuck out for the right thing and waited for a better chance. That chance is 'Hollywood On Ice' which will be the first time a Negro has joined the cast as an equal. Lucky Petersen, a Spanish-looking girl, does not have that equal chance. As a known inferior skater to Mabel, Lucky... skates nightly at Iceland in N.Y. to the tune of 'Shortening Bread' after being announced as 'our little Negro skater'. Mabel's music will be international and her part will be as an American." We should absolutely admire Mabel for sticking to her principles. However, it is important to recognize that Venita skating that particular number in the show would have been one of very few opportunities she would have had as a Latino skater with darker skin hoping to embark on a professional skating career just after World War II ended.

After the Iceland show, Venita joined Elizabeth and Fritz Chandler's "Hielo y Estrellas" tour of South America, performing on a portable ice rink in the forties in such exotic locales as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Barquismieto, Maracaibo and Caracas. As a skater of Latin American heritage she was a rarity in the professional skating scene. She recalled that on the South American tour there were "thirty-two blondes, one redhead and one brunette - me."

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Throughout the fifties, Venita made a name for herself in show biz as a singer and dancer. One of her gigs was a dance act in the Voodoo Calypso at Chicago's Blue Angel night club. The show was a wild affair featuring "drums, Haitian chanting, singers, dancers and a guy who's handy at monkeying with the lights during the climax of a dance to simulate lightning."

As a skater, Venita performed in theatres, nightclubs and fairs in shows such as Ice Varieties, Silver Skates, Robin Nelson's Jamboree On Ice, Georg von Birgelen's Symphony On Ice and the Frosty Follies. Sometimes skating on ice cubes as small as nine by twelve inches, her unique act featured "Latin, Spanish, Hawaiian and Oriental interpretive dances" and employed the use of fire torches. She'd open or close every performance by singing a song.

Photo courtesy Lisa Fernandez

Venita began coaching skating in Chicago in the sixties at the Lake Meadows skating rink and taught for three decades, supplementing her income by performing dance acts in places like the Empire Room Supper Club at the Langford Hotel in Orlando.

Venita was involved in show business her entire life, dancing in senior's ballroom dancing contests and singing every chance she got. In 2011, she and her husband (an Elvis Presley impersonator) auditioned for the show "X-Factor". She passed away at the age of ninety on September 26, 2017 in Pahrump, Nevada after a long struggle with Alzheimer's Disease, her unique contributions as a pioneering Latino skater sadly overlooked.

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":