Skating In Charlotte's Shadow: The Hilda Rückert Story

The daughter of Luise (Schucht) and Fritz Karl Rückert, Hildegard 'Hilda' Charlotte Elisabeth Rückert was born April 8, 1897 in the affluent borough of Charlottenburg in Berlin, Germany. Her father passed away at the age of thirty nine in 1903, when she was only six years old.

After studying ballet in hopes of joining the Imperial Russian Ballet, Hilda got her start as a teenage skater performing in a steady stream of Leo Bartuschek's Eisballets at the Admiralspalast. In August 1916, at the age of eighteen, she boarded the Kristianiafjord, sailing from Bergen, Norway to New York City with twenty six other skaters. Employed by Charles Dillingham to perform in the famous ice shows at the Hippodrome which starred her friend Charlotte Oelschlägel, she received a salary of twenty five dollars a month.
Top: Hilda Rückert, Ellen Dallerup and Katie Schmidt. Bottom: Hilda Rückert.

Only months after her arrival in America, Hilda gave a pairs skating exhibition with Irving Brokaw at the Hippodrome Challenge Cup, which fell somewhat flat. The February 19, 1916 issue of "The Daily Standard Union" recalled, "While the judges were counting up the points Irving Brokaw and Miss Hilda Rückert of the Hippodrome company skated an exhibition and indulged in the most spectacular fall of the week. Miss Ruckert attempted one of the high jumps which she does so well and Mr. Brokaw's hands slipped just as she left the ice. He landed in a heap and she went flying through the air and fell full length on the ice. She buried her face in her arms and never moved a muscle for a moment, and just as the spectators began to think she was badly hurt, jumped up with a laugh and joining Mr. Brokaw skated off at top speed again."

That spectacular fall would prove to be one of the few missteps of Hilda's skating career. Though Charlotte was billed as the star of the Hippodrome ice shows, Hilda, Ellen Dallerup and Katie Schmidt all received considerable attention from New York audiences. After only a year in the city, Hilda had made such an impression that she told a reporter from "The Evening World" that "hereafter she is to be known as just plain Hilda." Though she didn't quite achieve enough fame to be a mononymous skater like Charlotte or later, Belita, her exploits after her stint in the Eisballets and Hippodrome shows certainly played an important role in the development of professional figure skating.

Left: Ellen Dallerup and Hilda Rückert. Right: Advertising card for Healy's Golden Glades.

In the summer of 1917, Hilda was hired by Thomas Healy to appear in the rooftop ice shows at the Golden Glades restaurant on the northeast corner of Columbus Avenue and West 66th Street in New York City. She was billed in Healy's shows as 'The Skating Gazel' and pre-prohibition audiences at the restaurant were astonished by the novelty of the young German skater's spins as they downed stiff cocktails. 

Photo courtesy Library Of Congress

Hilda's stint with Healy led to gigs skating in the Plantation Grill at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, the Henshaw Hotel in Omaha and the Terrace Garden at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago, but as the temperance movement resulted in prohibition, employment opportunities for skaters in hotel ice shows dried up and Hilda was forced to return to lakes, ponds and outdoor rinks to make a living as a professional skater.

In 1922, Hilda gave exhibitions in Indianola Park in Columbus, Ohio and took on a starring role in an ice revue at the Ice Palace at 45th and Market Streets in Philadelphia alongside Gladys Lamb and Norval Baptie, Katie Schmidt and Howard Nicholson.

Hilda Rückert and Howard Nicholson

The following year, Hilda toured the state of New York giving exhibitions in conjunction with professional speed skating races. The January 14, 1923 issue of "The New York Times" noted that she thrilled an audience of five thousand with her spinning in one such exhibition. That same year, she appeared in "The Masque Of Pandora", an operatic interpretation of Longfellow's poem of the same name staged at Humboldt Lodge in Columbus by Edna Fox Zirkel. With a cast of six hundred, the "New York Clipper" raved it was "the largest outdoor musical and dramatic offering ever presented in Columbus and almost entered the field of pageantry in its massiveness."

 Hilda Rückert and Eugene Mikeler

After a plan to revive the now failing Hippodrome with an ice show starring Hilda, Elsie Donegan and Earl Reynolds fell through, Hilda was struggling financially. She made the difficult decision to cut her losses and abandon her American dream in the late twenties around the time of the Stock Market Crash. 

Hilda Rückert and Howard Nicholson

Hilda sailed to Europe and skated gave a series of exhibitions in Chamonix, France before forming her own 'all-girl' troupe, the Eisballet Rückert, and touring Spain. The troupe performed on hastily set-up rinks in fields, theatres and bullrings.

Hilda with members of the Eisballet Rückert. Photo courtesy National Library Of Spain.

Hilda then headed to the skating resorts of St. Moritz, Switzerland. Wowing crowds with a series of exhibitions at the Grand Hotel ice rink alongside Ellen Brockhöft and Paul Kreckow, she reunited with Howard Nicholson, whom she starred with in the ice revue in Philadelphia almost ten years earlier. 

Hilda and Howard formed a professional partnership and introduced Swiss audiences to many of the acrobatic tricks popularized in the American hotel and restaurant shows of the twenties.
Hilda Rückert and Howard Nicholson

Though they likely weren't the first team to perform acrobatic tricks like the neck spin and 'airplane' spin which is reminiscent of the headbanger, Hilda and Howard Nicholson were without a doubt pioneers of adagio skating and audiences couldn't get enough of them.

Howard Nicholson, Hilda Rückert and Paul Kreckow in St. Moritz

However, after appearing in Herbert Selpin's 1934 comedic film "Der Springer von Pontresina" skating with 'Baron' von Petersdorff, Hilda's time in the spotlight all but came to an end. She returned to Germany, survived World War II and much like Charlotte, lived out the rest of her days in relative obscurity. She passed away on November 14, 1960 in Nuremberg at the age of sixty three.

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