Plucked From Obscurity: The Eddie Bassett Story

"He's showing the public on ice that real skating can be done on small space. He is the absolute hit of every bill upon which he plays and the press speak in the highest terms of his clever skating." - "Billboard" magazine, July 4, 1908

The story of Isabella Butler, the Barnum And Bailey circus daredevil turned figure skating star, appeared on Skate Guard back in 2016 and was easily one of my favourites to work on! With a huge thanks to genealogist extraordinaire Jeff Bassett, I'm thrilled to be able to explore the story of Isabella's pairs partner Eddie Bassett, whose contributions to the skating world were every bit as unique!

The son of William and Margaret (Carey) Bassett, Edward 'Eddie' William Bassett was born in April of 1879 in New York City. Edward and his siblings Florence, William and Elmer grew up on 145th Street in Manhattan. Their father, a Civil War veteran who worked as a barber and real estate agent to support the family, passed away around the turn of the century. Their mother moved the family to West 90th Street, and the Bassett children took on various odd jobs to keep food on the table. Although Eddie worked as a 'lowly' plumber and chauffeur, his real passion was ice skating.

Competitors at the 1905 Championships Of America. Arthur Gaetano Keane and Irving Brokaw are third and fourth from the left; Eddie Bassett is sixth.

Eddie took up the sport at the 'ripe old age' of twenty-one and less than a year later, entered his first 'fancy skating' competition at the St. Nicholas Rink. Representing the New York Wanderers Hockey Club, he placed dead last. Three years later, he returned to compete at the same rink in the Championships Of America. Arthur Gaetano Keane won that event, but Eddie finished second... defeating American figure skating pioneer Irving Brokaw by a single point. He moved up to second behind Brokaw the following year and in 1907, defeated George Kerner and four others to win the competition.

With a title under his belt, Eddie decided to turn his passion into a career and turned professional. Teaming up with circus daredevil Isabella Butler, Eddie travelled America on the Keith and Proctor circuit on Vaudeville shows, performing an eleven minute pairs skating act on a 10 X 6 foot artificial ice stage in theatres from California to Tennessee.

Photo courtesy Jeff Bassett

 'Butler and Bassett' had no problem attracting patrons to their shows, thanks to some rather "generous" PR work by their promoter, Stanley W. Wathon. They were routinely billed as the "World's Champion Ice Skaters". One reporter described Edward's "marvelous human top spin... in which he spins at the rate of five hundred revolutions a minute - faster than the eye can follow." A review of one their New York City debut from "Variety" magazine recalled their performance thusly: "On a block of ice, about ten feet long, five feet wide and raised six inches, Miss Butler and Mr. Bassett are doing all possible tricks on skates which seemingly may be accomplished in that limited space. The size of the ice is against various pretty evolutions and team work. Mr. Bassett wears several medals on his breast, probably for fancy skating. He did several 'spins' which elicited much applause, but Miss Butler carried away the balance of favour of the audience. A winter scene was the setting, with the skaters in prettily designed costumes. They have a real novelty, which could be increased greatly if the block of ice were larger, and the performers could improve their fancy work in a similar ratio on the greater area. Opening the show at Fifty-eighth Street this week, two curtain calls were responded to."

Grace Helaine and Eddie Bassett

In 1914, Eddie met Grace Helaine, the half-sister of actress Billie Burke, who went on to play Glinda The Good Witch Of The North in the iconic film "The Wizard Of Oz". At the time, Grace was skating at the College Inn in Chicago with Victor Saron, a skating instructor who taught the Duchess of Connaught and Princess Patricia. The following year, Eddie's partnership with Isabella Butler ended after they performed alongside Gladys Lamb and Norval Baptie in the "Castles In The Air" shows at The Ice Palace above the Forty Fourth Street Theatre in New York City, executing complex figure eights and novel spins while diners guzzled back cocktails between six and nine over supper. Eddie and Grace teamed up to perform in the College Inn shows and at the Hammerstein's roof in New York, performing a duet "assisted by six girls in union suits." They received positive reviews, but failed to capture the public's attention to the same degree as 'Butler and Bassett' had.

Photo courtesy Jeff Bassett

In 1918, Grace obtained a divorce - and a hefty weekly alimony - from her husband 'Manny' Chapelle. This came about after the husband of silent picture actress Dorothy Green hired a detective agency to follow his wife. After discovering Chapelle and Green together several times, the agency raided her apartment and found them together. Shortly thereafter, Eddie and Grace married and settled in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Grace starred in the Broadway play "Lightnin'" while Edward took a job making munitions. The couple later settled in Pittsburgh, where Eddie worked as the assistant manager of an amusement park. He also taught for a time at the Junior Club at Iceland in New York.

Advertisement for Conron Extension Ice Skates featuring Grace Helaine and Eddie Bassett. Photo courtesy Jeff Bassett.

Sadly, Eddie died of heart failure at the age of fifty-five in a rented room on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh on May 24, 1938, less than two years after his wife Grace passed away. Like Isabella Butler, Eddie and Grace had both brought audiences to their feet with their skating... and died in utter obscurity.

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