The Land Of The Midnight Sun

On January 6, 1930, cultures collided on the ice in the most magnificent of ways. The backdrop was New York City's majestic Madison Square Garden. Sponsored by the USFSA and the Skating Club Of New York, the event was "The Land Of The Midnight Sun" carnival (alternately titled "A Night In St. Moritz") and the undisputed star (in her first North American appearance) was none other than the reigning Olympic Gold Medallist, Sonja Henie of Norway. Fourteen thousand people attended that sold out-show which was" described as "New York's outstanding social event of the year." 

Despite the success of a similarly large-scale show in the Garden in 1928, "The Land Of The Midnight Sun" was originally slated for the smaller upstairs rink in Madison Square Garden. Mary Louise Adams, in her outstanding 2011 book "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport" noted that Papa Henie agreed to seventeen-year-old Sonja's participation "on the condition that the show be moved to the main arena. The club agreed to the upgrade only after Wilhelm Henie offered to rent the arena himself and to keep for his family any profits from the show. Club officials declined his offer, but inspired by his confidence, moved the show downstairs. Father Henie then went out to work drumming up an audience among the large Norwegian community in New York. Twelve thousand tickets were bought the first day they went on sale. The show easily sold out the Gardens." Rinkside boxes went for two hundred and fifty dollars with individual tickets going for twenty-five dollars apiece. With inflation today, that's approximately three hundred and fifty dollars a ticket. This was not a social event or skating show for the average working New York citizen. In addition to those hefty ticket costs, attendees on that chilly winter day were sold coffee, sandwiches, candy and cigarettes for the charity of choice, the New York Music Week Association.

The list of attendees at that show, many decked out in jewels and ermine, read like a who's who of New York high society. Honorary guests were the Norwegian Minister to the United States, Mr. Harvard H. Bachke, the Norwegian Consul General, Mayor James J. Walker and then New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Also in attendance were industrialist Myron Charles Taylor, Brooke Astor, the socialite wife of Vincent Astor (the son of Titanic victim John Jacob Astor) and eccentric millionaire Anthony Drexel Biddle I, a boxer and writer who raised alligators as pets.

The theme of the show was tailored around its Norwegian star. The January 12, 1930 issue of "The Pittsburgh Press" noted, "There was nothing about Madison Square Garden to remind one of the prize-fights and the howling hoi polloi. A bit of Norway with rockbound coasts and frozen fjord, the scene of revelry was one gorgeous display of icy splendor. That radiant display known as the 400 gleamed and glittered... as others from the gilded arc skimmed and scintillated over miniature ice fields... Lila Agnew Stewart, famed executive of society's charitable events, corralled every maid, matron and beau on the island who could skate and used them to add color to the carnival and pageant which was adapted from an ancient Viking legend of affection, passion and hate." The lighting was designed by Johann Kliegl, the famous German-born stage light inventor.

Irving Brokaw

Sonja Henie wasn't the only skater of historical significance in the show. The account from "The Pittsburgh Press" explained, "Irving Brokaw, a leading high-hatter and one who cuts a mean figure on the ice, both literally and figuratively, entered with all pomp and splendor as king of the carnival. Followed a feast and dances for his delectation. Mrs. Blanchard and Nathaniel W. Niles, pairs champions, led off with an intricate terpichorean fantasy which straightway gained the royal favor. They gave way to a gypsy quadrille costumed in colorful array by Charles LeMaire... The most beautiful dance of the night was the 'veiling of the sun', a scarf and balloon dance, to the old waltz tune, 'Blue Danube'. Mr. Ole Windingstad led the orchestra and a chorus of 350 voices." The lighting effects for this scarf and balloon dance were described as being like The Northern Lights and this act in particular proved so captivating that representatives from the Minto Skating Club in attendance invited the Skating Club Of New York to later exhibit it at the Minto Follies show later that winter. Maribel Vinson, Beatrix Loughran, Willy Böckl, Cecil Smith and her sister Maude, Melville Rogers and his wife Isobel, Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb... they were all in the show too.

As impressive as these other acts were, Sonja Henie stole the show. She appeared first briefly in a duet with future U.S. and North American Medallist Gail Borden III. The act was inspired by Norse mythology, with Borden playing Prince Sigurd and Henie a Norse maiden. The Pittsburgh Press described this dramatic duet thusly: "[Sigurd] engages in a duel with Atle, the villain, and is victorious. Atle is borne off dying to his ship, which, according to the old Norwegian tradition, is sent out to the sea in flames. Believe it or not, the fire was real and made a unique appearance against the shivering background." Sonja returned for a solo performance which was described as "beautiful, graceful [and] skillful... Dressed like a golden swallow, in her skating costume of cloth of gold, she flitted here and there and completely captivated her audience." Her final appearance in the show, described in Goodfellow's book, was "a Viking scene in which Norway's 'Golden Girl' was the central figure. Before she came to America Miss Henie was called 'Our Sonja' throughout Scandinavia; her appearance in this Carnival made her everybody's Sonja." I don't know about you, but the "Our Sonja" and "Everyone's Sonja" references instantly made me think of Cecilia Colledge drawing out "My Sonja" in an imitation of Papa Henie when interviewed for the nineties documentary "Reflections On Ice".

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

In her book "Wings On My Feet", Sonja Henie recalled, "Standing in the skaters' entrance to the Madison Square Garden ice the opening night of the Ice Carnival, waiting for my cue, I looked into the dark beyond the spotlights and saw the dim faces of 17,000 people rising row above row to the rafters. It was an awesome sensation... My part in the tremendous 'Land of the Midnight Sun' pageant was fatiguing, but excellent practice for the championship to be held on the same spot two weeks later. Long, sober, and rather pompous, the carnival involved some hundred skaters and lasted four hours. My number was the finale, and waiting through all the preceding program, keeping myself keyed up to do my best long after midnight, was pretty much of a strain. The late and irregular hours we had to keep throughout the run of the carnival were bad for training, but the compensation of becoming acclimated to the Garden ice and for me, to the American crowd, more than made up for it."

If you're going to make a grand entrance, I'd say selling out Madison Square Garden with a burning Viking ship and a future U.S. President in the audience is probably one way to go. With not only a who's who of high society in attendance but key figures from both the American and Canadian skating communities there as well, it's safe to say that North America certainly knew the name 'Sonja Henie' well a month before she claimed that year's World Championships in that very city. In fact, her performance in "Land Of The Midnight Sun" directly contributed to the impressive ticket sales at that competition. Long before she claimed two more Olympic medals, before the tours, before the movies, the name Sonja Henie was on everyone's lips.

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 "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" and pre-ordering "Sequins, Scandals & Salchows: Figure Skating in the 1980s", which will be released this fall where books are sold: