Cocktails In Chicago: The College Inn And Terrace Garden Ice Shows

Down in the United States in the years leading up to the roaring twenties, two historic hotels in the Midwest had the bright idea of using figure skating as a novelty to draw in patrons. The College Inn and Terrace Garden's unique ice shows took off like wildfire and set the precedent for many similar productions that followed in the years to come. In today's blog, we will explore the ebb and flow of these early Chicago hotel shows, the stars and the stories that made them so fascinating and the factors that contributed to their ultimate demise. Grab yourself a classic cocktail and a smart hat. We're setting the dial on the time machine to the 1910's and heading to Illinois!

The Hotel Sherman, the Sherman House Hotel... Whatever name you want to call it by, there's no denying this historic space was an iconic Windy City landmark. Through five incarnations, the Sherman was a mainstay on the corner of Randolph and Clark Streets. It stood tall during the Iroquois Theater Fire and the S.S. Eastland Disaster; the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the only all-Chicago baseball World Series in 1906. The second Sherman was destroyed in The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the third demolished in 1910. That same year the fourth Sherman was rebuilt from scratch. It was in that space that some very fascinating figure skating history was made. 

In June of 1914 - four years after the fourth Hotel Sherman opened - a fifty square foot ice tank was installed in the hotel's basement College Inn restaurant. According to promoter Julian T. Fitzgerald, the initial plan for the College Inn's ice tank was not a traditional show but a series of "very clever skating contests decided during the hot weather. It worked in New York City; why not in Chicago?" Fitzgerald's idea never got off the ground and instead manager Frank W. Bering set to work organizing a series of ice shows to entertain diners while they sipped on classic cocktails and puffed on cigars.

What was it like? Well, the College Inn's decor was inspired by 'the old school spirit' with walls plastered with collegiate pennants and crests and tables illuminated by lightbulbs screwed in the ceiling. After paying your four dollars a night for a private room with a bath, you could enjoy dinner, dancing and an ice show at the College Inn for under two dollars a head. The food was indulgent - everything from Filet De Bass De Mer to Au Jus, Asperges En Branche and Tranche De Tomato Au Caviar Frais - and the skating exquisite. Early stars included Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb, Grace Chappell and Eddie Bassett and speed skater Bobby McLean and by 1915, hotel guides and newspapers were raving about the daily, year round shows. "The Bulletin Of The Commercial Law League of America" boasted, "The midsummer ice skating at the College Inn is one of the sights of Chicago." The hotel prided itself on daily ice shows thrice a day "enjoyed at luncheon, dinner or after-the play."

As in any skating production, there was a healthy dose of drama behind the scenes at the College Inn shows. The American Exhibition Ice Skaters Association attempted to unionize the American skaters who felt they were losing out on job opportunities "to Europeans"... in other words, the German skaters who came over to perform in Charlotte's shows at the Hippodrome in New York. Not long after signing a contract the College Inn, speed skater Bobby McLean was hauled into a meeting by Allan Blanchard, President of the International Skating Union of America. He was 'charged with professionalism' for accepting payment for performing in the shows. McLean simply got up in front of his accusers, 'accepted the charges' and told them to get stuffed. Blanchard ultimately lost his position; McLean made buckets of money performing in the shows. Regulars at the College Inn shows included the aforementioned skaters along with Orrin and Ellen Markhus, Bunny Gray, Cathleen Pope and George Kerner, Francis LeMaire, Alonzo Kaney and Dorothy Henri, Roy Fink, James J. McGeever, Art Victor, James Bourke, Marie Nicholson, barrel jumper Claude R. 'Bucky' Lamy and twelve year old Mary Rowe. After the shows, carpet was hastily thrown over ice and stragglers were entertained with dance numbers and lassoing demonstrations.

Approximately two years into the College Inn's run, the nearby Morrison Hotel decided to give the Hotel Sherman a little competition. Located on the corner of Madison and Clark Streets, the Morrison had also been rebuilt following the Great Chicago Of Fire of 1871. Its reputation was certainly considered a little more upscale, as it regularly played host to visiting politicians and dignitaries and generally got in more well-known musical acts.

To capitalize on the skating craze, the Morrison's management installed a somewhat larger tank in its huge Terrace Garden cafe, which seated one thousand, four hundred people. In 1917, "Variety" magazine described the layout of the Terrace Garden thusly: "Starting from the floor, really the balcony, it ranges downward in semi-circular terraces, eight or nine in number, tables on each terrace. At the bottom is a platform upon which the show is given. Whether the general arrangement is a practical one is another question since from many of the tables, guests cannot see below the knee of the artists or skaters only when at the further end of the stage or rink, which is also of semi-circular form... The stage is laid in sections covering the ice surface and before the skating portion of the entertainment; it is necessary for a force of bus boys, resembling slow working canvasmen, to cart away the segments." As was the case at the College Inn, an experienced orchestra accompanied the skaters who performed in the Terrace Garden.

In 1917, "Iceland Frolics" opened at the Terrace Garden featuring Charlotte Oelschl├ĄgelNorval Baptie and Gladys Lamb and a sixteen skater ensemble. It was a two hour show with music by Harry Robinson and Will Harris and production by George F. Lask. The concept was an ice show in 'four seasons' with dancing in between. By the late summer, Charlotte had left "Iceland Frolics" in a sea of controversy. The August 15, 1917 issue of "The New York Clipper" reported, "The row between Charlotte, the ice skater, and the management of the Hotel Morrison, which began several weeks ago, when it was said that the skater walked out of the Terrace Garden show because she was jealous of Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb, in the same show, had an interesting aftermath last week when Charlotte brought suit against the hotel company for $10,500, claiming breach of contract. It appears now, however, that jealousy was not the cause for the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the skater and the Terrace Garden show. It seems that Charlotte took it to heart mightily when her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wilhelm Oelschl├Ągel, were ordered out of the place one evening by Harry Mehr, manager of the garden, when they refused to rise while 'The Star Spangled Banner' was being played by his orchestra. The suit is further complicated by the fact that Charlotte's father has also brought an action against the hotel company for the sum of $1,500 'for services rendered in bringing his daughter to this city for the purpose of rehearsing a certain production.' Charlotte is under the impression that she was 'fired', but Mehr says she quit her engagement, not because of jealousy, but because of the trouble over her parents." Apparently, the rumour that she left the show because of Baptie and Lamb started because the duo had left the College Inn show to join the Terrace Garden show the same night when the drama went down with her parents. Charlotte took a four week engagement at the College Inn and a major pay cut. The lawsuit fizzled and Freda Whitaker replaced her.

By 1918, the popular ice shows at both hotels became targets of the teetotalers, who took issue with these 'cabarets' where booze flowed freely and was cheap, cheap, cheap. For a time, it seemed the hotels had won the war. The August 7, 1918 issue of "The New York Clipper" reported, "The College Inn and Terrace Garden have been permitted to continue their ice skating in connection with the serving of liquors. The City Council granted this permission of a meeting of that body on Friday of last week. At the same time, the Food Administration at Washington issued a bulletin asking the owners of ice making and refrigerating plants to save ammonia. The Council License Committee adopted an amendment to the anti-cabinet ordinance to permit ice skating in connection with the sale of liquors." The party didn't last. The crowds started to thin out and by the end, the biggest draw in the Terrace Garden's show was a relative unknown named Margarete Hoshell, a chorus skater who got her start at the age of eleven in Charlotte's Eisballets in Germany. The North American skaters were getting increasingly fed up with the fact that European skaters were getting top billing in the shows and the show's producers were frustrated by the dwindling numbers. When the United States officially went dry in January of 1920, the ice on the stages melted along with the ice at the empty bars.

In 1933, prohibition ended and the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, the Century Of Progress Exposition, enjoyed success with an ice show in its Black Forest Village. Hoping to capitalize on this, Ernest Byfield and Frank Bering decided to revive the College Inn shows and installed a 20 X 40 tank in the restaurant. Eddie Quigley, writing in "The Billboard" on December 22, 1951 noted, "The Hotel Sherman management got in touch with the Shipstads and Johnson and also Edward Mahlke, a Chicagoan very much interested in figure skating. They formed a show and came into the College Inn with the idea of remaining one month. So great was their success that they remained for 16 months. In the cast were Oscar Johnson, Eddie and Roy Shipstad, Gladys Lamb and Norval Baptie, Bobby McLean, Bess Ehrhardt, McGowan and Mack, LaVerne Busher, Eric Waite, Duke And Noble and others." That show ended summer of 1936 but really paved the way for the success of Shipstad and Johnson's Ice Follies for years to come. The College Inn kept in the ice in year-round until 1940. The Morrison Hotel was demolished in 1965; the Hotel Sherman in 1973. Today, the Chase Tower and James R. Thompson Center stand where the Morrison Hotel and Hotel Sherman once majestically stood, purveyors of cocktails and crossfoot spins in days long ago. 

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