Rollers And Ice: The Gloria Nord Story

Photo courtesy "Ice Skate" magazine

"It's quite odd. I opened in the roller show when Harold Steinman had never seen me on wheels, only on ice. Then, I opened as a top star in London on ice, and they'd never seen me on ice, but on wheels!" - Gloria Nord, "Roller Skating For Gold", David H. Lewis, 1997

Born August 2, 1922 in Santa, Monica, California, Gloria Louise Nordskog was the youngest of Arne and Daisy Nordskog's five children. Born and raised in Iowa, where he met his wife, Arne Nordskog was a successful concert tenor and politician of Norwegian descent who co-founded the Hollywood Bowl and established one of the first opera companies in Los Angeles. Around the same time as his daughter's birth, his short lived Nordskog Records company produced the only recordings of Canadian vaudeville singer Eva Tanguay. Little did he know at the time that his infant daughter would grow up to become perhaps the most famous roller skater of all time.

Young Gloria got her start as a dancer, performing professionally in Vaudeville style shows in nightclubs at the tender age of nine and using the money towards ballet classes. As a teenager, she attended Miss Long's Professional School. Having received her first pair of ice skates at the age of four, she took a break from her studies and headed to the Polar Palace and took the ice to do her best impression of Sonja Henie

A producer named Harold Steinman spotted Gloria on the ice with none other than actress Betty Grable and offered both girls spots in his "St. Moritz Express" revue at the Tropical Ice Gardens in Westwood. Grable declined Steinman's offer as she was under contract; Gloria accepted. After a few rehearsals, she got an earache, decided ice rinks were too damp and cold and dropped out of the show. Much more at home on roller skates than flashing blades, she was spotted by impresario Sid Grauman at a roller rink he'd converted from an old Warner Brothers sound stage on Sunset Boulevard. Recognizing her appeal, he invited her to give daily exhibitions in exchange for free skating time and a modest paycheck. After touring to promote "Skating Review" magazine, Gloria (who by then had dropped the 'skog' from her last name for stage purposes) was offered a spot as the leading lady in a roller skating tour Grauman created called "Skating Vanities". Basically a roller skating equivalent of the "Ice Follies", the tour was a glamorous spectacle and would kickstart what would prove to be a legendary career.

Right photo courtesy "The Skater" magazine

The tour opened at the Baltimore Coliseum on January 7, 1942 with a cast of one hundred roller skaters from thirty-one states. Bottle blonde Gloria, skating opposite U.S. novice figure skating champion Douglas Breniser of Highland Park, Michigan, wasn't exactly an instant hit with audiences. In that first show, cracks between the sheets of masonite laid over the floor caused her to trip and fumble around. A prop malfunction in a "Cinderella" routine (her skate failed to come off at the stroke of midnight) left critics pondering why she'd even landed the starring role. Soon enough, she proved her mettle and gained the admiration of audiences.

Travelling throughout North America and even to Cuba with mother Daisy in tow, Gloria was hailed by reporters as "Sonja Henie on rollers". Her style was heavy on showmanship. In the "Fabulous Ice Age" documentary, Gloria recalled, "The first time I met [Sonja] she came and watched me. In her next movie, I saw some of my arm movements. But that's okay... I copied her. I didn't know anything about skating until I saw her. So that was fine... I was flattered."

Gloria was by all accounts an incredibly hard worker, and despite numerous tumbles and mishaps, American audiences embraced her glamorous style. Tour life wasn't without its tribulations though. At one show in Duluth, Minnesota, her roller skates were stolen. When she arrived in the next city, the police were called and a car was dispatched to the nearest sports outfitter to fetch her a new pair. Dennis Holman, writing for "The Newcastle Sun" on July 22, 1954, claimed, "The car, escorted by motor cyclists, and with sirens screaming, rushed a new pair to Gloria with five minutes to spare." After that, she carried two extra pairs of roller skates with her to every show. At another show, a stuffed lamb mounted on skates used as a prop in one of her numbers was stolen and placed among a flock of real sheep. Neither Gloria nor the police called in to look for Gloria's Little Lamb were amused.

Gloria suitably impressed film scouts at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1943 and was, along with her "Skating Vanities" cast, brought in to roller skate in the 1944 Twentieth Century-Fox film "Pin Up Girl" which starred her old friend Betty Grable. Her appearance in publicity materials surrounding the film earned her a following with U.S. soldiers.

In the early fifties, Gloria traded in her rollers for figure skates and found fame in Tom Arnold's ice pantomimes in Great Britain. On her shift to the ice, she said, "I always wanted to be an ice star. Though rollers give a dancer more variety - tap rhythm can be inserted and things like acute angled arabesques can be done on four wheels that would be impossible on a blade - there is more glitter and glamour about ice."

The queen of roller skating meets the queen of the ice - Gloria Nord and Barbara Ann Scott. Photo courtesy "The Skating Times" magazine.

Gloria practiced for three months until the wee hours of the morning before making her big debut in the winter of 1952, and it wasn't all smooth sailing. There were numerous tumbles but Tom Arnold told her, "Don't worry, Gloria, you look better on your bottom than most girls do standing up."

Daphne Walker and Gloria Nord

Gloria ultimately made her big figure skating debut alongside Daphne Walker at Wembley's Empire Pool in Arnold's production of "Sleeping Beauty". The show, which was in direct competition with Claude Langdon's "Jack And The Beanstalk On Ice" at Empress Hall starring none other than Belita, was a success. The two years, she appeared in "Chu Chin Chow On Ice" and "Ice Circus Of 1952" at Wembley. She said, "I have skated on rollers so much for so long at a time that I find when I go ice skating that it sharpens me up, is just enough different to keep my wits about me, and because I do not feel quite as much at home, the 'existence' of hands, arm movements and free-leg position becomes more conscious and I become less careless."

On November 2, 1953, Gloria was selected to appear before Queen Elizabeth II in a Royal Variety Show produced by Gerald Palmer at the London Coliseum. In his book "This Skating Age", writer Howard Bass recalled, "Gerald's own commission was to devise and prepare a production number for her to appear in which would also be worthy of Her Majesty’s approval as a closing scene to the first half of the show. Refrigeration pipes were specially cut for the decorated ice tank, built to revolve in full sight of the audience, to reveal a nineteenth-century ballroom scene with a static, posed group of eight pairs of skaters and, simultaneously on the outer revolving ring, twenty-four dancing couples, the men attired in Ruritanian military uniforms and the girls in large hooped crinolines. What began with the official choice of one artiste culminated with a specially selected corps ale ballet, led by the former British professional ice dance champions, Len Liggett and Pamela Murray, Waltzing to [Tchaikovsky's] 'Eugene Onegin', followed by a 'Blue Danube' octette of four pairs. A formation group in suitable positions then 'dressed' the stage for the entry of Gloria for her specially prepared solo to incidental music and Terry's theme from the film Limelight, composed by Charles Chaplin. Yes, it was certainly fit for a queen and delightful to know that the ever-rising status of theatrical skating had been thus acknowledged." Gloria later admitted that this performance before The Queen could have easily been marred by an errant bead that she spotted on the ice: "But I didn't care. I wanted to give the Queen all I've got. The bead was there when I finished. I skated around it."

Left: Gloria Nord and Charles Hain. Right: Gloria Nord. 

In 1953 and 1954, Gloria appeared in two more Tom Arnold pantomimes, "Humpty Dumpty" and an ice adaptation off Ivor Novello's musical "The Dancing Years" at Wembley. The latter show was in direct competition with Claude Langdon's "White Horse Inn On Ice" starring Belita, and attendance suffered somewhat as a result of the two productions running concurrently. It would prove to be Gloria's final appearance in a major ice production.

Returning to America in October of 1954, Gloria appeared in the "Hippodrome" tour that succeeded "Skating Vanities" alongside figure skater Nancy Lee Parker. On returning to rollers, she told reporters from "The Milwaukee Journal" on October 18, 1954: "It felt really crazy! It was almost the same yet somehow there was a difference. But I skated for nearly three-quarters of an hour. It was a real workout and I didn't slip or fall once. It was wonderful!"

Gloria Nord and Douglas Breniser

On January 7, 1955 at the age of thirty, Gloria married her twenty-seven year old roller skating partner Edwin Delbridge at a Presbyterian chapel in Los Angeles and returned to "Skating Vanities" as a special guest, performing in South America in what would be her final tour. By the early sixties, she'd hung up her skates permanently. She later remarried and had two hip replacements and surgery on her toe, but according to her Washington Post obituary, "She continued to dance socially and wear high heels." 

Gloria passed away at the age of eighty-seven on December 30, 2010 in Mission Vieho, California. Although best remembered today - and rightfully so - for her accolades on rollers, her brave transition to the ice is an often overlooked footnote from skating history that is absolutely worthy of recognition.

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