The Harlem-On-Ice Tour

Poster for Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue

Less than a decade after Mabel Fairbanks had been turned away from the Gay Blades Ice Casino on Broadway and 52nd Street in New York and told "blacks didn't skate there", a small group of skaters of colour regularly practiced together at the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. 

Pioneering black figure skating Sterling Bough
Sterling Bough. Photo courtesy Lisa Fernandez.

The group included fifteen year old Armida Ambrose, Joseph Vanterpool, a former G.I. who had taken up skating after seeing an ice show while on a Tour of Duty in England, and Sterling Bough and Jimmy McMillan, dancers who later headlined a European tour of Larry Steele's Smart Affairs show in Europe. Sterling was the son of Juanita (Boisseau) Ramseur, a legendary Cotton Club performer who danced with Lena Horne in the early thirties. This group was largely self-taught, and none of them would have had the opportunity to join the big touring ice shows of the time because of the colour of their skin.

Group photograph from Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue
Pioneering black figure skater Jimmy McMillan
Top: Harlem-On-Ice group shot. Bottom: Jimmy McMillan. Photos courtesy Lisa Fernandez.

The idea of an ice show with an all-African American cast had first been floated by Elizabeth and Fritz Chandler in 1946. They'd reached out to Mabel Fairbanks, who had made a huge name for herself in California, but were unsuccessful in their efforts to convince her to return to New York to perform in the show. Mabel's reluctance to headline such a show proved extremely wise, for the idea was soon scrapped. Another skater, Venita Holquina 'Lucky' Berea Petersen, was instead cast in the Chandler's show "Derby On Ice". The September 7, 1946 issue of "The Greater Omaha Guide" recalled, "As a known inferior skater to Mabel, Lucky... skates nightly at Iceland in N.Y. to the tune of 'Shortening Bread' after being announced as 'our little Negro skater'. Mabel's music [in 'Hollywood On Ice' in California] will be international and her part will be as an American."

Headline from Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue

In the summer of 1947, John Brett (who had produced the ice shows at New York's Hotel St. Regis) and Stewart Seymour of the Musical Entertainment Agency put together a cast of the skaters of colour that practiced at the Rockefeller Center rink. 

"Harlem-On-Ice" was billed as the first skating tour to feature an "all-Negro cast". A seventeen year old skater named Dolores Jackson and Jimmy McMillan were cast as the headliners. They were supported by ensemble of 'Harlem Ice-Ballet Dears' and popular jazz musician Gene Sedric and his orchestra. The show was set on a four hundred square foot portable ice tank, and the organizer's plan was to hold auditions in each city the show was performed to grow the cast.

Newspaper clipping about Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue

An article promoting the tour from the October 4, 1947 issue of "The Pittsburgh Courier" raved, "The extravaganza-on-ice, staged by John Brett, famed ice show producer, sets a new high mark for dazzling beauty, brilliant color and kaleidoscopic action. [There are] four thrilling acts, 'Panama', 'Katie Went To Haiti', 'Frankie and Johnnie' and the spectacular 'Harlem-On-Ice' grand finale. Each spotlights a series of striking modern ice skating ballet sequences featuring the Harlem Ice-Ballet Dears, the sensational Gay Blades quartet, Whirlwind Jimmy McMillan and the 17-year old Queen of the Ice, Dolores, whose incomparable beauty, grace and technique and almost incredible speed on the ice have won her stardom despite her youth."

Headline about Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue
Harlem-On-Ice, the first African American ice revue
Dolores Jackson and Jimmy McMillan

Dates in smaller centers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Illinois had already been announced when the Harlem-On-Ice tour made its debut at Turner's Arena in Washington, D.C. on October 5, 1947 as part of a variety night of Vaudeville-style entertainment. 

The tour was abruptly cancelled after a short run for reasons we can only speculate on. Two vastly different reasons were provided in African American newspapers of the day. A clipping from a September 1947 issue of the Los Angeles based "California Eagle" reported that Mabel Fairbanks' manager Wally Hunter had threatened the organizers with a one hundred thousand dollar lawsuit. Mabel was to have been "featured as the star in the production and was merely waiting to begin work, but as yet she had not been called by Brett. As a result Miss Fairbanks has refused work on other jobs." Another account by Elmer Anderson Carter in the National Urban League's "Opportunity" journal claimed that in D.C. the tour's "manager decided their rare performance detracted from the major show. The members of the 'Harlem-On-Ice' cast returned to New York with a full determination to further the Negro in the world famous sport of ice skating."

Though the Harlem-On-Ice tour never made it off the ground after its debut in D.C., its role in skating history is an important one. It was the first skating production in history to feature an all-African American cast... during a time when that simply wasn't done because of racism. When the show went on tour, Jim Crow laws and constitutional provisions meant that public schools, transportation, restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains in America's capital were segregated.

Sadly, the story of the Harlem-On-Ice tour isn't one that can really be fully told based on the little information that was published in newspapers and journals. So many mysteries remain. Was the motivation of the tour's organizers to genuinely showcase the talents of a pioneering group of New York skaters of colour or to exploit them? Why was the tour really cancelled? What were the skaters told when it was? Were they paid? How did they get back to New York? Sometimes history leaves us with more questions than answers.

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":