The 1953 North American Figure Skating Championships

The Hungarian Cultural Garden in Rockefeller Park in Cleveland, Winter 1953. Photo courtesy Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.

Patti Page's "The Doggie In The Window" topped the music charts and Walt Disney's animated film "Peter Pan" was a month old. A postage stamp was three cents and a loaf of bread sixteen. On March 6 and 7, 1953, Soviets were celebrating Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov's succession as leader of the Communist Party but across the ocean on the flip side of the Cold War coin, Canadians and Americans were gathering at the Cleveland Skating Club to compete in the 1953 North American Championships. 

Interestingly, the 1953 North American Championships were held after the World and Canadian Championships but before the U.S. Championships. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the event, J. Howard Morris, Jr., the President of the Cleveland Skating Club went all out. He and his wife hosted a dinner for the judges and organizing committee at his home. 

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

In addition, there were numerous dinners, a brunch, Club Dance Session, cocktail party, informal dance and a party with a live orchestra. With four hotels within two miles of the Club and most of the skaters staying in the same hotel, the social aspect of this competition was like a grand reunion. Considering the only major figure skating event held in Cleveland prior to these Championships were the 1940 U.S. Championships, the success of this event also sent the message to the USFSA that Cleveland was a perfectly capable host city. Let's take a look back at how things played out!


Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Two time and defending North American Champions Karol and Peter Kennedy had retired the year prior, paving the way for a new couple to strike gold in Cleveland. The heavy favourites were Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden who had recently won the silver medal at the World Championships in Davos and the gold at the Canadian Championships in Ottawa. A performance marked by its speed, unison and precision earned 'Frannie and Norrie' first place ordinals from all six judges. Carole Ormaca and Robin Greiner of Fresno (a last minute entry) skated first and managed to best Tulsa's Margaret Anne and Hugh Graham by just one ordinal placing to take the silver. 

At the time, Frances Dafoe was a twenty-three year old graduate of Branksome Hall and the Central Technical School Art Department who was interested in commercial art, costume design and cooking. Norris Bowden had studied engineering at the University of Toronto, earning a Bachelor of Applied Science in 1950 and Masters of Commerce in 1951. He worked as a life insurance salesman at the Great West Life Assurance Company.


The ice dance competition consisted of four compulsory dances - the American Waltz, Rocker Foxtrot, Blues and Quickstep - and a free dance. As the free dance hadn't yet been adopted at the Canadian Championships, the two Canadian couples entered were at a major disadvantage... to put it mildly. However, when the three American couples took the top three spots after the compulsories, this disadvantage became even more pronounced. Earning first place ordinals from all six judges, Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan of the Washington Figure Skating Club took the gold, followed by Virginia Hoyns and Donald Jacoby of Philadelphia and Carmel and Ed Bodel of California. The Bodel's were the 1951 North American Champions.

Virginia Hoyns and Donald Jacoby. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Canadian Champions Frances Abbott and David Ross placed fourth, defeating Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, who had skipped the dance event at Canadians. Daringly for the time, Dafoe made a fashion statement in the compulsories by wearing a black dress trimmed with white at the neck, complemented by a bright red jacket every second dance. The other couples wore the same costume for all four dances. Dafoe and Bowden also included a daring element of their invention - the leap of faith - in their free dance, which may have cost them marks from the judges. 

Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Carol Ann Peters was the Vice-President of her sophomore class at St. Lawrence University and was studying English and Radio. Danny Ryan, a former roller skater, had recently spent two years as an Army Corporal stationed at Fort Knox, Anchorage and Camp Drum in New York. The couple first met at the Washington Club in 1949.


Two time Olympic Gold Medallist and defending North American Champion Dick Button had turned professional the year prior. Hayes Alan Jenkins, the bronze medallist at the previous two North American Championships and reigning World Champion, was of course the heavy favourite in Cleveland at his home club. 

Dudley Richards

As expected, Jenkins took an early lead over Canadian Champion Peter Firstbrook in the school figures. With an outstanding free skate, Jenkins finally won the title that had eluded him with unanimous first place votes. Firstbrook held on to the silver, while Ronnie Robertson - only fifth in figures - moved up to take the bronze. Dudley Richards, Peter Dunfield and Charles Snelling rounded out the six man field. Recalling the event in "Skating" magazine, Maxton R. Davies remarked, "In the Men's Singles, not the costumes, but speed and daring were the features. Smiling Peter Dunfield led off, skating with a freedom that almost took him into the judges stand. Dudley Richards, whose manner is somewhat reminiscent of Dick Button, followed in an exciting program that brought several near-falls. The Canadian Champion, Peter Firstbrook, skated smoothly, capably and crisply, with many intricate steps. He was followed by Ronnie Robertson, whose dazzling speed and sensational triple loop jump and double Axel had the crowd roaring and raised his rank from five to three. Excellent as Charles Snelling's performance was, it suffered by comparison with the preceding dazzling exhibition. The final skater was World Champion Hayes Alan Jenkins, who soon showed that his World Title was no flash-in-the-pan. Skating smoothly, he unleashed a series of daring and complicated steps, including a double Axel, which brought spontaneous applause."


Sonya Klopfer, the future wife of men's competitor Peter Dunfield, had won the 1951 North American title and turned professional in 1952. Tenley Albright, the bronze medallist at those 1951 Championships, was fresh off a win at the World Championships in Davos. After the school figures, Albright held a unanimous lead over Canadian Gold and Silver Medallists Barbara Gratton and Dawn Steckley. Though Tenley Albright's free skate was by all accounts the performance of the night, thirteen year old Carol Heiss - dressed in a Valentine's inspired red and white outfit - brought the heat with an exceptional performance. Ultimately, Albright took the gold medal with unanimous first place marks and Heiss jumped from fourth to second overall. Barbara Gratton, with a seventh place ordinal from one of the American judges, settled for bronze ahead of Vevi Smith, Steckley, Carole Jane Pachl, Margaret Anne Graham and Miggs Dean. Dean's costume - a sparkly pink tunic and ruffled skirt - was one of the event's biggest showstoppers.

Taught by skating greats like Maribel Vinson Owen, Willie Frick and Eugene Turner, Tenley Albright had started skating at the age of nine, using the sport as therapy to overcome a bout of non-paralytic polio at the age of eleven. Her younger brother was a speed skater who won the juvenile New England Indoor Championships. During the competition, she could be found studying for school between school figures.

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