Worth The Waite: The Eric Waite Story

Photo courtesy City Of Vancouver Archives

Eric Lancaster Wait was born May 18, 1915 in Calgary, Alberta. His parents, Walter and Helen (Norton) Wait, had emigrated from Great Britain just four years before he was born. Eric and his older brother Norton grew up in a strict Presbyterian family. His father was a debt collection manager for a trust company.

Eric learned to skate as a very young boy, but showed more interest in playing hockey as a youngster than his brother, who excelled in figure skating and won singles and pairs skating titles at the Calgary Art Skating Club in his youth. Both Eric and Norton had a great sense of humour and spent considerable time clowning around on the ice. They were both inspired by the comedic stylings of Buster Keaton.

Fifteen year old Eric gave an impromptu comedic skating performance in Calgary that was such a hit he was asked to do ten encores. He figured he was "on to something with this skating business" and packed his bags and set out on the road. Skating, he thought, might be his ticket out of a depressing existence in the prairies during The Great Depression.

Eric travelled overseas to England where he found great success performing his comedy acts in the production "Marina" at the Empress Hall, Earl's Court. In autumn of 1937, he made history as the first ice comedian to be presented to royalty, following a command performance of the show in London. It was such a big deal that his fiancée at the time, a young woman from Memphis, Tennessee, made the long voyage over on the Queen Mary just for the special occasion. Eric's success in "Marina" paved the way for a job as a stunt skating double in the 1938 George Formby flick "I See Ice". 

Following his efforts in England, handsome five foot six, brown-haired, blue-eyed Eric returned to North America to appear in Shipstad and Johnson's Ice Follies and the short film "Zero Girl" with Evelyn Chandler and Bruce Mapes. He changed the spelling of his last name from 'Wait' to 'Waite', his widow claimed, because bank tellers didn't believe that 'Wait' was his real last name.

In 1941, Eric became one of the original cast members of the Ice Capades, a gig he continued off and on for over two decades. Whereas his brother Norton mostly confined his own comedy skating acts to occasional carnivals as he taught figure skating full-time in Niagara Falls, much of Eric's life was nomadic, though he called Hollywood home.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Over the years, Eric was billed as 'The Clown Prince Of The Ice' for his hilarious and varied comedy acts. Two of the themes he recycled again and again in his acts went on to become standards in the world of professional skating - the parody of the beginner skater and the drag act. Though he was hardly the first skater to perform either of these acts, he really made them his own. Audiences got a huge kick out of his hijinks.

Left: Eric Waite. Right: Eric Waite and Elizabeth Szalay. Photos courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive

There was a lot more to Eric than his comedic antics. He had an eye for the ladies and was married three times. While touring with the Ice Capades, he carted along a portable workshop with him, which included a radial arm power saw and drill press. He used his tools to fix sets and props for the show but also for his own unique hobby - making educational children's toys. One, a building block train he had originally designed for his son Wally, was sold to a a toy company for a handsome profit.

Photos courtesy City Of Vancouver Archives

Eric parlayed his success with the Ice Capades into several other high profile gigs. He appeared in Holiday On Ice, several of Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revues and wowed crowds at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago.

Photo courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell

In the fifties and sixties, Eric also appeared in a string of ice pantomimes in England, including "Humpty Dumpty", "Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves" and "Puss In Boots". One of his final performances was in the 1972 production "The Peggy Fleming Show - A Concert On Ice". He was fifty-six at the time.

Perhaps the most incredible part of Eric's story were the accidents he overcame. In 1941, he was involved in a serious automobile accident, suffering several bone injuries. Medical professional told him he'd never walk again, let alone skate. He got "his limbs wired together" and returned to the ice despite the doctor's orders. In 1950, he received a broken rib "when a lurching train banged him against a washstand" and in 1965 he skated in excruciating pain on the opening night of an ice pantomime in Wembley after tearing a thigh muscle. This was a man who took "the show must go on" to a new level.

Sadly, Eric's show ended on October 13, 2000 in Tucson, Arizona, when he passed away at the age of eighty-five. Though his name is largely unknown today, he was one of Canada's most successful ice comedians.

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": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.