One Of A Kind: The Osborne Colson Story

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

"If you want to win at this game, kiddo, you've got to be tough as nails." - Osborne Colson

The son of Dorothy Delano-Osborne and Harry Arthur Colson, Harry Osborne 'Ossie' Colson was born March 31, 1916 in Toronto, Ontario. He had three siblings - an older sister named Margaret and a younger sister and brother named Joan and James. His parents were both born in England, though his mother grew up in Iowa. His grandfather, who was a big deal in the cigar trade, was born in South Africa. His great-grandmother was born in Germany. The Colson family were devotees of the Church of England and had homes on Saint Clements Avenue and Heath Street. "My family wasn't rich," recalled Osborne, "but they weren't poor either." Despite the fact the Colson's weren't rolling in dough, they were a family of very high social standing. When the Queen Mother visited Canada, she would have supper at one of his relative's homes.

Photo courtesy City of Toronto Archives

Osborne was introduced to figure skating by his famous cousins, the Smith sisters - Cecil and Maude - who ruled the roost at the Toronto Skating Club's rink on Dupont Street during the roaring twenties. After becoming a member, he began taking lessons with Gustave Lussi. In 1927, he had the honour of joining a group of the Club's members in one of the first ice carnivals at Madison Square Garden in New York. That same year, he drew inspiration from one of future Olympic Gold Medallist Karl Schäfer's first North American performances at Madison Square Garden. Schäfer skated a solo replete with a host of dazzling double jumps; twelve year old Osborne was a humble sailor boy whose big trick was tossing his cap into the audience.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Richardson

In the years that followed, Osborne quickly rose through the ranks of Canadian figure skating. After finishing second in the junior men's event at the Canadian Championships two years in a row, the dapper, five foot seven, brown-haired and green-grey eyed skater won the title in 1933. Two years later, he finished second to Bud Wilson in the senior men's class and represented Canada at his first of two North American Championships.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Richardson

In 1936 and 1937, when Bud Wilson didn't compete, Osborne reigned as Canadian Champion in men's singles. During this period, he also placed in the top three at the Canadian Championships in junior and senior pairs, fours and the Tenstep. He was lucky to have even competed in most of these events. His father, a banker, had set him up with a job at the Dominion Bank. He was youngest teller in the bank's history and was making thirty-two dollars a week - no paltry sum during The Great Depression. He convinced the bank's managers to allow him to take time off to participate in competitions. His father didn't approve whatsoever and discouraged his skating.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Richardson

In 1937, Osborne left behind the bank and followed the money down to the States as a member of Shipstads and Johnson's Ice Follies tour. He toured with the production for seven years as a featured soloist. He also skated a pair with former Canadian and North American Champion Frances Claudet Johnson.

Frances Claudet Johnson and Osborne Colson in the Ice Follies. Bottom photo courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Over the years, Osborne played a prince, court jester, jack-in-the-box, Russian dancer, gypsy and a bow-and-arrow toting hunter. Newspaper columnists from Long Island to Los Angeles praised his uncanny ability to interpret music. In 1939, he appeared in the MGM film "The Ice Follies of 1939", which starred Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart. He even lived in Hollywood for a short time, where he met stars like Judy Garland, Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney and Boris Karloff.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Richardson

Osborne began coaching in 1946, just after World War II ended. Two years later, he attended his first major international competitions as a coach - the 1948 Winter Olympic Games and World Championships in Switzerland. His student, a beautiful artiste named Marilyn Ruth Take, finished twelfth in both events. The winner on both occasions was Canada's Sweetheart - Barbara Ann Scott. The two forged a very close bond and not long after, Osborne penned the introduction to her bestselling biography "She Skated Into Our Hearts" and choreographed her cross-Canada Skating Sensations of 1950 tour. Decades later, Barbara Ann and Frances Claudet Johnson would both make trips up from the States to Toronto to visit him. Doug Haw recalled, "Osborne and Barbara Ann became lifelong friends. She completely loved Osborne and was really, really good to him. I'd see her come in the Cricket Club and she'd want to greet Osborne first. They'd kiss on each cheek and it was like the Queen Mother had arrived when she came to the Club."

Barbara Ann Scott and Osborne Colson

Over the years, Osborne taught at the Granite Club, Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, Toronto's Leaside, East York Memorial and Varsity Arenas, as well as the University and Silver Blades Skating Clubs. He also taught at the Cleveland Skating Club and at the Chevy Chase Ice Palace, which was home to the Washington (D.C.) Figure Skating Club. In the late sixties and early seventies, he served as President, Vice-President and Bursary Fund Trustee of the Professional Skating Association Of Canada.

If you wanted to hear fabulous stories about figure skating's golden age, no one could spin a yarn better than Osborne. When school figures were removed from ISU Championships in 1990, he reminisced in "Today's Skater" magazine, "More often than not, the World Championships were held outside... It was a tremendous advantage if you were your country's best. Then, all your countrymen would form a circle around you, like a putting green in golf, while you were skating and hold their coats open to block off the wind. But if you were an also-ran, everyone would leave for the hotel to have a grog while you were skating." 

Osborne Colson with students at the Banff School Of Fine Arts. Top photo courtesy The Banff Center Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives. Bottom photo courtesy Diana Flynn.

In 1947, Osborne founded the Summer Ice Club in Toronto. He went on to operate a similar school in Bracebridge, Barrie and Simcoe. However none of Osborne's summer schools would be as revolutionary as the one he started at the Banff School Of Fine Arts in Alberta.

Osborne Colson, Gordon Crossland and Sonja Davis. Photo courtesy Sarah Kawahara.

When the school was founded in 1961, most skating schools in Canada only offered patch, dance and freestyle sessions. The Banff school added stroking, edge and turn and off-ice dance classes as well as lessons in painting, sculpture and acting. It was perhaps the first school in Canada to give serious thought and effort to skating's artistic possibilities. It was also the first school to really open the door to the concept of team or collaborative coaching. Previously, skaters had mostly just worked one-on-one with one pro exclusively, unless of course they were going down to Lake Placid or something. The Banff school played host to the CFSA's first national training seminar and a host of well-respected coaches including Gustave Lussi, Donald Jackson, Paul Thomas, Sonja Davis, Peter Firstbrook and Gordon Crossland. The skaters all received report cards. A number of talented skaters trained there, including Lynn Nightingale, Ron Shaver, Louise (Lind) and Barry Soper, Karen Magnussen, Marie Petrie McGillvray, Frank Nowosad and Paul Bonenfant.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Richardson

Over the years, Osborne worked with a who's who of figure skating. Some of his students, like Patrick Chan, Karen Preston and Gordon Forbes, went on to become elite international competitors. Others, like Don Laws, Donald Tobin and Danny Ryan, made their mark as coaches. Pierrette Paquin Devine became Canada's first female judge at the World Championships. Sarah Kawahara and David Wilson made their marks as two of the most brilliant choreographers the sport has ever seen. He mentored great champions like Donald Jackson and Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall and often worked a case-by-case basis with elite skaters as a sort of 'finishing school', rather an as a primary coach. He injected style into the programs of skaters who struggled with presentation and amplified the choreography of those who were already well-packaged. "I remember when I was coaching Angela Derochie," recalled Doug Haw. "She wasn't the most artistically inclined skater. Ossie would go 'Oh darling Angela, you've got to soften these arms.' He'd touch her face and be like, 'Let's change this look, darling. Let's relax those eyebrows, darling and bring those cheekbones out... I want you to to feel more like a lady. These are chandeliers hanging, darling and you're wearing evening gloves. Now go skate.' Everything was darling and honey and she would feel all girly and feminine when he worked with her."

Osborne was particularly proud of his work with Patrick Chan. When he was teaching Patrick Chan his double jumps, he would always insist that he learn how to do the jumps from footwork. One day, it would be a double flip out out a counter and mohawk; another day a Split jump into a double Lutz. This played a huge role in Patrick's mastery of edges from an early age. Doug Haw remembered, "I can remember the day landed Patrick landed his double Axel and Osborne played it right down and said, 'It's only the beginning. You've got to do triples tomorrow.' He was like, 'Don't rest on your laurels, you've got triples to do.' Once he got the double Axel, the triples came really fast. He may have even landed a triple Salchow before the double Axel but the Axel took a long time and it was a big deal when it happened...Patrick and Don Laws actually met at Osborne's funeral. That's how Patrick ended up going to Don."

Osborne Colson and Donald Jackson working with a young skater

It was Osborne who convinced Mrs. Ellen Burka to start taking her daughter Petra's skating more seriously. Mrs. Burka, a single mother, had to prioritize teaching other students and earning money over giving her her daughter lessons. His advice proved sage when Petra won the World title in 1965, but the relationship between the two iconic Canadian coaches was at times rocky. They cared deeply about each other but also knew how to push each other's buttons. Mrs. Burka's student Toller Cranston once quipped to her, "Did Osborne dip his tongue in acid this morning?" Most of the time, their barbs at one another had the endearing cattiness of C.C. Babcock and Niles the butler on "The Nanny". Sandra Bezic recalled, "I remember he and Mrs. Burka hooting and hollering together at the Cricket Club. They always seemed to have a private joke going." Doug Haw remembered, "All of a sudden Osborne would start stretching at the ballet barre at the Cricket Club... and this was like when he was seventy-five, eighty years old! Ellen never wore skates at the end and she was always teaching on the other side of the rink and she'd always be leaning against this table she had there. We called it Ellen's table and she had a chair later and she'd always have it turned around and just lean against the back of the chair. All of a sudden I'd hear 'Doug! Doug! Come here, Doug!' Ellen would call me and she'd go 'Look at Osborne. He's stretching his leg up at the barre! There must be a good looking man in the lounge!' Osborne would always start posing if he thought there was a chance there was some hot man there, you know. She'd go, 'I can't see! Is there a man in the lounge?' and I said yes and she'd go, 'Oh, Osborne must like him! He's doing his stretches! Pretty soon, we'll see him do the splits.' Sure enough, he'd try to do the splits and she'd go, 'I told you Doug, I told you!' They used to make me laugh and laugh and laugh."

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

Though he didn't really have any enemies because most people knew that when he got angry it passed quickly, Osborne would at times direct his 'acid tongue' at the skaters and parents at the Cricket Club. Doug Haw recalled him calling over a young skater "bombing around an outside eight" on a patch session to tell them, 'I taught your grandmother, I taught your mother and none of you could skate!' He would go into the Cricket Club lounge and all the mothers would be sitting there watching the skaters and he'd yell, 'What are you all doing here? Why don't you go out and get a job?' When they talked on the phone in the lounge, he'd pull it out of the wall and tell them to 'stop yakking on the phone and watch your kids skate.'"

Photo courtesy Sarah Kawahara

A snappy dresser, Osborne was always known for his famous collection of hats and scarves. He dressed in plaid so often that when the ARC Skating Academy opened its plaid-decorated lounge in 1997, it was named after him. "He was always well-dressed and he always had colour," recalled Doug Haw. "One day he came in and he had this yellow turtleneck and wild vest on. I told him he looked like Mr. Roper from 'Three's Company' and he started to laugh but went home, put another outfit on and never wore that vest again." One of the wildest get-up's he sported was the costume Frances Dafoe designed for him for Toller Cranston's famous television special "Strawberry Ice".

Like Toller Cranston, Osborne was a connoisseur of the arts. He often attended ballets, book readings, plays, operas and art openings. His exposure to different art forms widened the scope of his choreography. Doug Haw remembered, "Back in the day, in the carnivals Osborne's numbers really stood out. Those kids got phenomenal numbers. Other coaches would have stuff drawn out on paper and Osborne would wing it every practice and it would turn out to be a complete masterpiece. He really was a wizard at choreography... I remember him yelling, 'Why don't you go to New York for the weekend? You've got a few bucks, Haw. Get to New York and take in a few Broadway shows and ballets because you've got to learn more than just skating.' I was always fortunate enough to be a busy skating coach but he would think my brain wouldn't develop if I didn't look at other mediums. I took his advice and went to New York and the ballet because Osborne told me... He'd read 'The Globe and Mail' - he called it the Toronto paper - and would always say, 'You've got to know more than an outside edge. You've got to know what's going on the world.'"

Osborne Colson and Sarah Kawahara. Photo courtesy Sarah Kawahara.

Osborne was infamous for his absent-mindedness. Doug Haw recalled, "Sometimes Osborne would come into the Cricket Club with his male purse under his arm. He would put it in the cubby holes that were on the support beams that came down from the rafters. He'd come into the office and go, 'Doug! Doug! My purse has been stolen! Somebody has stolen my purse!' I'd go, 'Oh, Osborne just a second.' So I'd go outside and I'd start looking in the rafters and go, 'Oh, here it is!'... The coaches would go in the coaches room and everyone would just throw their car keys on the table or chair. Of course, the session ends and some coach is coming up to me going 'Oh my God, I can't find my keys' and I'd yell 'Osborne!' and there he'd be with four sets of keys in his purse."

Photo courtesy Skate Canada Archives

Osborne also had a really difficult time managing money. Doug Haw remembered, "He was such an artistic person that he had no concept of money or saving. He never did his bills properly so I would have to do his bills for his kids. I'd say, 'Well, you taught Patrick [Chan] for an hour and a half today.' He'd say, 'Well, no, just put down fifteen minutes.' He didn't want to overcharge Patrick because he didn't want him to leave him. Money was just not in his skill set."

Two other things Osborne was known for were his tendency to push the rules and the fact he hung up on everyone whenever he talked on the phone. Doug Haw recalled, "There used to be, of course, smoking back in the day. All of the coaches smoked at the rink and even the skaters - at the Cricket Club they had an orchestra playing the dances and all of the skaters would be smoking in between their dances. Eventually, the club went non-smoking. All of a sudden one night Osborne lights up a cigarette. I said, 'What are you doing? You can't smoke now.' He yelled, 'Well we used to smoke!' I said, 'Osborne, those rules have changed now.' He goes, 'What are they going to do, fire me?'" Doug took the cigarette "so I didn't have ten parents running into the skating office" and that was the end of that. He would dote on Doug's grandmother whenever she'd visit the Cricket Club. "Osborne would remember her birthday," he recalled. "He called me every birthday after she passed away and say, 'Now Doug, it's Os. I know you're having a tough day but just want you to know I'm thinking about you," and then he'd hang up. He was famous for never saying goodbye. You'd be talking to Osborne on the phone and all of a sudden he'd just hang up."

Photo courtesy Skate Canada Archives

Osborne was perhaps most famous for his driving, which wasn't exactly what you'd call speedy. Doug Haw remembered, "He would never buy a new car. He'd buy a used car. I'm driving one day and I said, 'Oh Osborne, I saw your new car. You need to adjust the seat.' He said, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'Well, you look like Mr. Magoo when you're driving it.' You could only see his hands on the wheel and his cap. He didn't realize that you could adjust the seat to come up higher... Then we were at Divisionals in Woodbridge. Back then it was that new Underhill and Martini arena, basically built out in the middle of a cornfield. There was a snowstorm. I had been there later because I was coaching Marcus Christensen and was there for the senior men's practice. Osborne had, I think, like a novice lady or something and had been done for two hours or so. I walk in the rink and see Osborne and he's like, 'Oh Doug, you need to help me!' and he's like 'You've got to come to my car.' We get out there and his car was full of snow. He left the door open and I had to literally dig the car out... Also, there used to be a little specialty grocery store around the corner from the Cricket Club called Bruno's Food Market. Osborne, of course, would go to Bruno's and he couldn't parallel park so he'd stick the nose of his car into the parking spot and block one lane of traffic on Avenue Road. He'd go in, do whatever he had to do and sometimes, he'd set his things on top of the car. Well, one day he set his groceries on top of the car, got in the car and drove to the Cricket Club. I came out and said, 'Oh, Osborne, you were at Bruno's.' He said, 'I'm not telling you where I've been!' I said, 'Well, you don't have to because you left the Bruno's grocery bag on top of your car.'"

It's important to note that many of the biggest highlights of Osborne's career in the last two decades of his life, when he was in his seventies and eighties. In 1993, he joined forces with Joanne McLeod, Mrs. Ellen Burka and dancer Gaetan Gingras to choreograph the Ice Theatre of Toronto's first show. In 1995, he was inducted to the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall of Fame. In 2005, he earned the Skate Canada Central Ontario Section Competitive Coach of the Year Award.

In 1999, Sandra Bezic talked him into performing in the "The Legendary Night Of Figure Skating" at Air Canada Centre. She recalled, "We had the idea to do a number reflecting the life of a skater with Chris Mabee as the young boy, Emanuel Sandhu as the skater in his prime, and Ossie representing someone who had lived a full life in skating. I started with the request to Ossie and he agreed wholeheartedly. But then he backed out at least twice! I certainly understood his nerves. I think his last decline was just a few days before the show and I do remember having many phone calls with him to try to convince him. But I was also feeling guilty for pushing. What if it wasn't a great experience for him? What if he fell and hurt himself? I didn't want to take advantage either. So I left it up to him. We were never certain the number would ever happen.  We didn't have a plan B for his position since he was irreplaceable. Without Ossie the concept was gone. But finally, he did show up for his performance, and he was magnificent!"

On July 14, 2006, when Osborne passed away at the age of ninety, he was having none of it. He had no interest in dying. He wanted his shoes so he could go to the rink. After his death, a who's who of Canadian skating tried to find the words to express their feelings about him. Sarah Kawahara said, "I studied with Mr. C. from six to fifty one years of age. He was my mentor and my friend. He introduced me to the idea that all the arts are related and that figure skating is also an art form. He molded my artistic vision. Never totally satisfied, he would be constantly changing my programs. My movements were in a continual state of evolution. He guided me through my amateur and professional career. Throughout his life I continued to share my personal life with him, as well as my professional career as a choreographer and director. We thought as one." At his memorial, Joyce Hisey read the following remarks by Ron Vincent: "There is no question that Osborne was eccentric. He would not have had it any other way. He may even have deliberately cultivated his eccentricities and sensitivities. He did not wish to be boring and he certainly didn't want to be around people who were. This sometimes led him into some rather bizarre theatricalities of which his colleagues were familiar. He could be quick to judgment [and] dismissive... He seemed to want to protect skating from being taken over by Philistines and in some ways he succeeded. He was vigilant in his protection of the art and if we think about it, I believe that may explain a lot. Osborne's esthetic, not surprisingly, derived from the era of his youth. It was a time when figure-skating was a little bit upper-crust and strangely perhaps, influenced by the glamour of Hollywood as it then was... I, personally, will remember that he was glamorous, that he was grand and that he was a star!"

Though he may not be with us anymore, Osborne will be long remembered, not only for his immense talent and important contributions to figure skating in Canada, but for his larger than life personality. Ask anyone - he was one of a kind.

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 figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":