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The Stoll Ice Theatre

During the Restoration, on December 8, 1660, one Mrs. Hughes (no, not the housekeeper on "Downton Abbey") made history as the first woman in England to take the stage in a Shakespearian play. The historic performance of "Othello" in question took place at a playhouse at Gibbon's Tennis Court in what is now the site of the famous Peacock Theatre in Kingsway, London. A theatre has stood on that spot between Sardinia and Portugal Streets since the seventeenth century. The Royal Opera House, later known as the Stoll Picture Theatre, opened there in the autumn of 1911 and in the days of penny-pinching and rationing just after World War II, the venue played an important role in British figure skating history during its short run as the Stoll Ice Theatre - England's first dedicated ice theatre.

Australian-born theatre impresario Sir Oswald Stoll's fascination with figure skating started in the summer of 1930. Klammek's Ice Ballet, an obscure touring group from the Continent, gave performances at two of his theatres - the London Coliseum and the Stoll. The ice ballet was featured in a variety show featuring a tramp cyclist, musicians, a balancing act and a magician. On June 6, 1930, the "Acton Gazette" reporter, "Skating on artificial ice the sports craze of the moment, its votaries being even more enthusiastic than the followers of greyhound and dirt-trick racing. Nothing could be timelier, therefore, than the appearance of this new ice skating show, in which all the movements of a traditional stage ballet - pirouettes, arabesques, entrechats and so forth - and performed on artificial ice by a skating danseur and five ballerinas. The attraction has been very successful in Paris and Berlin, where enthusiastic audiences have been enraptured by the beauty and grace and acrobatic agility of the skating dancers, led by the prima ballerina, Gertrude Ehrich and the premieur danseur, Bob Laenge."

Pamela Prior with a group of chorus skaters in St. Moritz at the London Coliseum

Seven summers later, Sir Oswald Stoll commissioned Claude Langdon to produce the three-act ice spectacle "St. Moritz" at the London Coliseum. The production, which starred Pamela Prior, Erich Erdös, Sidney Charlton, Eva Keats and Erik van der Weyden and Hermann Scheinschaden, was a smash hit. Claude Langdon recalled, "After my presentation of 'Marina' a representative of Sir Oswald Stoll came to me with the proposition that I should put on a similar show at the London Coliseum, owned by Stoll. I was more than surprised when I knew that Stoll was interested, for despite my modest success with 'Marina' I still did not think I had sufficient stagecraft to present productions of a London Coliseum nature. Also there was an apparently insuperable structural difficulty in constructing a portable ice rink suitable for a theatre stage. With some regret, therefore, I told Sir Oswald that I would have to turn down the suggestion of an ice show for the Coliseum. It just did not seem possible. Stoll, wise showman that he was, did not take No for an answer... The ice show 'St. Moritz' was devised which was a terrific success and enjoyed a record run."

In December of 1937, Sir Oswald Stoll presented "The Merry Doll" at the Stoll Theatre, based on the famous Eisballet performed years prior by Charlotte Oelschlägel at the Admiralspalast in Germany. The forty five minute pantomime on ice was performed four times daily in the weeks leading up to Christmas on an ice stage measuring forty-four feet wide and forty-two feet long. The production had a cast of sixty - many of which had performed in "St. Moritz" -  and featured a visit from Father Christmas.

Sir Oswald Stoll died in 1942, leaving almost ninety thousand pounds to his employees. A few years later near the end of World War II, plans were already in motion to transform the Stoll Theatre to a venue dedicated specifically to ice shows. Howard Bass recalled, "During my demobilization leave I met Bob Giddens, editor of 'Ice Hockey World', Britain's weekly newspaper covering that sport, and began free-lance writing for him, editing a special page mainly about theatrical skating... I soon... found myself at the office of a certain Major Gerald Palmer, who, like me, had not long discarded his uniform and was just beginning to grasp who was who on skates. 'What on earth do you want to see me for?' was his greeting. I told him that, in six months' time, the Stoll Theatre would be transformed into an ice theatre and that he would produce skating shows there for Tom Arnold. He laughed at my cheek, gave me an exclusive story, and we have been the best of friends from that day to this."

In 1946, less than a year after the armistice, the newly transformed Stoll Ice Theatre presented its first skating production, Tom Arnold's Ice Revue. Produced by Armand Perren and directed and staged by Gerald Palmer under the supervision of Tom Arnold, the show was choreographed by Beatrice Livesey. Hans Witte, who designed the rink, acted as technical adviser. The show's stars were Perren, World Champion Cecilia Colledge and Olive Robinson. 

Cecilia Colledge. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Other acts in the 1946 show included a nod to America's Wild West with a pony supplied by Chipperfield's Circus and a grand nineteenth-century Viennese ball. "Tom Arnold's Ice Revue, like almost all of the Stoll Ice Theatre's productions, went on tour to rinks and theatres throughout England and Scotland after its run in London.

Scene from Stars On Ice at the Stoll Ice Theatre

The following year came the second big Stoll skating spectacle, Tom Arnold's Stars On Ice. Daphne Walker replaced Cecilia Colledge as the leading lady and American ice acrobat Adele Inge was brought in to wow Londoners with her daring backflip and 'Acro Ice Trics'.

Reginald Swinney's Stoll Theatre Orchestra and the Maria Des Anges' vocal sextet provided the music for the lavish show, which included a game of badminton on ice, a nod to London's frost fairs of The Thames and a Spanish-themed ice ballet.

Tom Arnold and Gerald Palmer stepped things up a notch in 1949, with Ice Cascades, billed as England's first 'aqua ice show' and a director named William Manluk was brought in to stage water scenes in a small swimming pool alongside the ice. This time, American Carol Lynne, Terry Brent and Phil Romayne had top billing, with ice comedian Heinie Brock and trick skater Red McCarthy prominently featured.

Ice Cascades acts included a dark number called 'The Furies' featuring witches, vampires, gorgons, sorcerers, sprites and McCarthy as a bat, covered head to toe in silver body paint, and an adaptation of Rodgers and Hart's ballet "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" from the Broadway musical "On Your Toes". The "Croydon Advertiser" called it "a brilliant show... astonishing and exciting... generously seasoned with comedy."

In 1949, the Stoll Ice Theatre presented Ice Vogues, perhaps the flashiest production of them all. Swords, veiled dancers and a warrior prince mesmerized the audience in 'An Enchantment In Kurdistan'. Cecilia Colledge, the show's star, skated no less than four solos and comedian Richard Hearne brought his famous 'Mr. Pastry' act to the ice. Howard Bass recalled, "On final dress-rehearsal night Dicky Hearne invited me to watch him prepare the famous 'Mr. Pastry' make-up, for which, as millions of televiewers have seen for themselves, no wig is ever used, his own hair being actually whitened for every performance. 'Has Cecilia been teaching you?' I asked him that night, knowing the show required him to skate round with her in the guise of a shaky beginner in true Pastry tradition. 'No,' he replied. 'I've never skated before and I've made a special point of not having any lessons or even trying it out in rehearsals, because my falling about will look much more realistic that way.' Well, the price was many tender sports in embarrassing places after opening night, but how typical was that philosophy of this great trouper who, like so many successful comedians, takes his work very seriously in order to provoke such rib-tickling merriment as he unquestionably has."

Photo courtesy "The Skater" magazine

Though there hadn't been any loss of interest, the shows just couldn't compete with the size and pageantry of the lavish ice pantomimes that would take England by storm in the early fifties. The 1950 production of "Rose Marie On Ice" at Harringay Arena, starring Barbara Ann Scott and Michael Kirby, ushered in a new age of full-length pantomimes and musicals on ice at the Empress Hall, Earl's Court and the Empire Pool, Wembley. From a financial standpoint, it didn't help that both Empress Hall and the Empire Pool could accommodate almost ten thousand audience members to the Stoll's five thousand.

Two passersby reading the large sign posted outside the Stoll Theatre when it closed

The Stoll's management turned its attention to presenting plays and films. By 1957, the theatre closed its doors for good, with a large sign posted outside by manager Prince Littler claiming the 'crippling' entertainment tax was the reason for its demise. It was demolished the following year.

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