The Rise Of The Ice Skating Studio

Photo courtesy "World Figure Skating Guide"

"The ice studio that is well organized and situated in the proper locality will be a great success. The need for proper instruction space for figure skating is one of the big problems for amateur clubs as the average club does not have sufficient ice time available when skaters can use it... an ice studio can serve a real good purpose in offering ice time and instruction to skaters outside of club time [and] render a great service [by increasing] interest in skating." - Gladys Rankin, "Skating" magazine, February 1955

They've now become an increasingly rare, novel holdover from another time like drive-in theaters and ice cream parlours, but small ice skating studios were once incredibly popular. They were a dime a dozen in the sixties - a clever concept which allowed entrepreneurial skating coaches the means of branching out from the big skating clubs. The coaches simply needed to rent a modest commercial space, lay a small ice floor and start offering lessons to beginners. The overhead was often low and many owners of these rinks appreciated the flexibility, privacy and small class sizes.

One of the first studio rinks in the world was a thirty-six square foot private rink in Pembroke Gardens, Kensington, London. Operational for a short period in the mid to late thirties, this rink was run by professional skater Freda Whitaker. The January 25, 1936 issue of "The Evening News" noted that at this rink, "The walls of the hall are orange, and the instructresses where orange jumpers and berets with yellow skirts and long golden colored skating boots. Dancers slip through orange curtains to glide over the ice to haunting tunes of a waltz, fox trot or one-step." Freda Whitaker's rink paved the way for the smaller Arosa rink at the Richmond Sports-Drome in London. The Arosa was constructed by Claude Langdon in 1938 on top of a former saltwater swimming pool that sprung a leak as a 'supplement' to the main rink and was used both for practices and private parties. Young skaters wanting to escape the throngs could pay an extra sixpence for some peace and quiet... and room to practice their spins. The Arosa was where Jeannette Altwegg did much of her training in the years preceding her Olympic gold win in 1952. A similar studio rink, the Glebe in Chelsea, operated in London in the fifties.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

In 1941, the Icelandia rink in Toronto opened its doors. Located at 1941 Yonge Street, the tiny rink offered "strictly supervised" private ice at the cost of fifteen dollars an hour - no paltry sum in the days of wartime scrimping and saving. Bedford Allen managed the rink and for a time, Canadian Champion and socialite Cecil Smith Gooderham taught there and took the reigns of the Icelandia Skating Club. Paul von Gassner also gave lessons there for a time and skaters from the Toronto Skating Club would often scoot over to work with the club's pros on less-crowded ice. Olympic Gold Medallist Bob Paul got his start there and was one of a group of skaters from the rink who travelled by bus, staging carnivals in towns and villages that didn't have the resources to start their own. Peter Firstbrook and Vevi Smith also trained at Icelandia. The club folded in 1950 after receiving heat from the city for holding Toronto Hockey League games on Sundays and backlash from the community for a 'gentleman's agreement' which barred Jewish people and people of colour from skating there.

The first ice skating studio in America was opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1950 by Dorothy Lewis, who had appeared in the 1941 film "Ice-Capades", and her husband James Lamdin. Lewis was a veteran of the St. Regis Hotel and Hotel Nicolett's ice shows during World War II and was accustomed to performing on small ice surfaces. Her studio was located at 2929 Emerson Avenue S. in a former greenhouse and conservatory. There was a six hundred and forty square foot rink on the ground floor, with an office and apartment upstairs. Mirrors were installed so that skaters could have a visual reference and an overhead harness for practicing jumps was even installed. For the fifties, it was groundbreaking stuff. In 1955, she remarked, "I would like it eventually to be worked out that studio owners will be able to give an annual recital which will give their pupils an opportunity to show what they have accomplished... The arenas have their ice carnivals. I hope we can have a Kiddie Revue Recital on ice."

Dorothy Lewis' Ice Skating Studio

The success of Dorothy Lewis' ice skating studio in Minneapolis led to the development of several similar schools. By 1955, there were seventeen skating studios in America, including Ruth Noland's Dance and Ice Skating Studio in Bellflower, California, Eleanor and Lewis Elkin's Ice Flair in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Marlyn Thomsen's school in Melrose, Massachusetts, Gladys Rankin's school in New Haven, Connecticut, Ray and Nadine Schramm's Raydine Marin school in San Anselmo, California, April Schramm's school in Burbank and Jerry Page's studio in West Los Angeles, where 1961 U.S. Champion Diane Sherbloom first learned to skate. The 'Raydine' school in Mill Valley (a play on Ray and Nadine's names) had a twenty one by forty two foot rink and offered eight week group courses for skaters three and up and semi-private lessons for groups of four. The studio also offered evening classes that adults could attend after work, a course so that Girl Scouts could earn a skating badge and party rentals. Gladys Rankin's school in California had a ballet barre, a one thousand, one hundred square foot rink enclosed by glass and offered off-ice exercise and dance classes. The two Essi Davis schools in California also had ballet barres.

Late to the game was a man who would turn his chain of ice skating studios into a very successful franchise - former Canadian Champion Michael Kirby. He opened his first studio in a former garage in River Forest, Illinois. Within a few years, there were about half a dozen such schools, mostly in the greater Chicago area. In 1955, he remarked, "Because of the community response to our first school, I feel that is a community venture. It has brought skating, and the simplest way of learning skating, right to the people... The school provides low cost instruction and uses advertising and publicity to promote skating... I think [the schools] will greatly develop the latent interest in skating."

By the mid sixties, more than fifty ice skating studios popped up in American shopping centers, former dance schools and storefronts everywhere from New Jersey to New Mexico. Mabel Fairbanks taught at Harlan and Margaret Parker's tiny Culver City studio rink for a time. For whatever reason, the studio craze caught on to the same degree in Canada, even though the Icelandia would have been one of the first such rinks in North America. There was, however, the Michael Kirby school in Toronto, where a young Sandra and Val Bezic got their start in the sport before going to Mrs. Ellen Burka.

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Several elite American figure skaters got their start at an ice skating studio. In 2014, Ken Shelley recalled, "For my sixth birthday I was given ice lessons at a studio rink in an old house. The ice was 'L' shaped. I actually started skating in a living room and dining room - twenty by twenty - really a tiny piece of ice. They built another studio behind it and that was called The Big Rink and was about thirty by forty. They only taught show biz skating, no figures or anything like that... and that's how I came to skating. We'd do a little show once every six months or so. In one of these shows, they put JoJo [Starbuck] and I together as a pair in a quartet."

By the seventies, when JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley were standing atop podiums, most of America's ice skating studios had gone the way of the dodo. The rise in popularity of the Ice Capades chalet enterprise which operated about a dozen rinks in California and the Southern states (also ran by Michael Kirby) played a role in their demise. Perhaps the biggest factor in the end of skating studios was their 'ceiling'. Once a skater improved beyond the beginner stages, they really needed to move on to a bigger rink if they wanted to get involved in the competitive side of the sport. Studio owners required a new influx of students every year in order to stay afloat and the competition between them and the skating clubs based in big rinks was often fierce. As is so often the case in business, the 'little guy' sometimes had a hard time making a go of it.

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":