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Oral History: Interview with Osborne Colson

So many skaters from the golden age of figure skating are sadly no longer with us. I was delighted when Greg Hill reached out to me in the spring of 2024 and offered to donate several interviews he had conducted from 2001 to 2006 while researching a piece on the life of Maribel Vinson Owen. 

Today's blog is an interview conducted with legendary Canadian coach Osborne Colson on May 30, 2002. When transcribing handwritten notes of Hill's interview, I rearranged the order at times to keep skaters and topics together. 

I think you will agree that this oral history provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of figure skating in the 1930s!

Maribel Vinson Owen and Guy Owen


Maribel Vinson Owen had wonderfully peppy music when she skated at the carnivals put on at the Toronto Skating Club. I knew Maribel through the skating. 

Maribel was, again, older than I was, and when she came to skate these shows, we were absolutely mesmerized and hypnotized by the way she behaved on the ice and off. Such flamboyance! The girl was just magnetic. [In her skating] she was a free spirit. There's not many like that. Guy Owen was a free spirit too. All the top skaters are pretty well free spirits. I mean, there's something about us. We're individualists and we can't help ourselves being that way but we don't want to change. That's even stronger.

I was stunned that [Maribel] married Guy Owen. They were a bit too similar. They were both very effervescent, spontaneous people [who] loved life. [There was] more stability in Maribel than in Guy. I knew Guy Owen when he was sixteen years old, I guess. Maribel was older than Guy; Maribel was older than I was. I was just coming up. I always admired her style and her outlook on life. To a younger boy of 14 or 15, she was like a rock star. 

Guy got along with everybody. He had that kind of personality. I never saw him fight with anybody. Guy was terribly likable, very personable. Everybody adored him. He was an Ottawa boy. I'm a Toronto boy, so I got to know him skating through the competitions. He was also in fours. Guy would've been a tennis player because he had great knees. He was very imaginative. He liked to be heard. When there was a group, he would sometimes try to lead it. Skaters are kind of funny, because they're all quite expressive - at least they should be, if they're going to be good. They've got to have that colour. Guy had colour - definitely! 

Guy couldn't beat me in competition. I was younger and duller - much more conservative, at that point. I wouldn't say I'm conservative now. I competed against Guy in the Canadian Championships - both junior and senior - in Montreal, one year, and Toronto another. I envied [his skating] very much because his musicality was excellent. He had a great flair for music and movement - and he produced both at the same time. He had a winning smile, that you don't see very often in the skaters today. He used that personality. He knew he could win people over and he was hard to beat, because of that. You didn't want to skate after him. 2 or 3 fellows after him and the crowd would die down, but he always [brought down] the house. His double loop jumps were superb. [He would do] three consecutively. 

Osborne Colson


I came up in a family that was very level-headed - a wonderful mother, a wonderful father. Both skated a little and played golf. [My parents] insisted I play the game. My father got me into cricket. He wanted me in team games. He thought that was better for you because he thought you get selfish when you're in a competition by yourself - and he was quite right. There's something about a team effort. If the team does well, and if you don't play well that night, your team won and you're all in a happy mood. You have to learn to lose and win. [Guy Owen worked in a bank.] Everybody started working in a bank because it was hard times. We were all of the same era. I worked in the Toronto Dominion Bank (then the Dominion Bank). We did it as a livelihood and to pay for our skating. We got three weeks holiday if we took them in the winter, so that was a great way to get in training.

ON JUMPING IN THE 1930s .VS. THE 2000s
Double Axels weren't done as much then, and triples were not done or even played with. The way they presented the jumps [in the 1930s] was almost better than some of the people that are doing doubles and triples today because they're more like little spins [in the air]. The jumps went up mainly. Today, you're trying to rotate sometimes before you get up and that... can't make a good skater. The hardest thing in the world, from a teaching standpoint, is to get your students to jump up, so that they have the time element to make the three rotations - and for the fourth, even worse. The style of skating has changed enormously.

Frances Claudet Johnson


Everybody was calling me to join [Maribel Vinson Owen and Guy Owen's show] Gay Blades, but I felt that they were all just turning from amateur to professional and they were all... not the most stable people in the world. One reason I didn't go with that group [was] because I knew it was the first time for [the Gay Blades] and at that time, I was Canadian Champion. I thought the company [Ice] Follies would respect what I was at, and I was at the age that I could learn something from being with some professional people - and Shipstad and Johnson certainly knew how to put this show together. They had a wonderful manager. He was from Chicago and really, he was responsible for making it a success. I toured for seven years.

Maribel controlled the show and she gave Guy more money (in salary) than Fran Claudet, and she shouldn't have because Fran did an awful lot of the choreography, plus skating pairs and singles. Fran got cancer. [When she was elderly], she said, "I don't want all those treatments. I've had a wonderful life" and she just died. Fran told me... that Maribel always said, "Oh, Fran, you're wonderful. You're worth more" but she never really gave her more.

Fran was quite an athletic girl, a beautiful tennis player. She was in the 1932 Olympics in pairs, with Chauncey Bangs. As she matured, she became more beautiful. She wasn't as pretty [as her] very pretty sister [in Toronto]. Fran died when she was ninety. I was at her 90th birthday in New York. Her family (on her husband's side) gave her a party. It was a marvelous party. Some of the old show people were there. Chronologically, you get older (you can't help that!) but the spirit of a performer seems to last until they die. I think it's a quality and she had that - just wonderful. When she skated, Fran had beautiful edges, and she admired all the skaters who had good edges. 

Fran enjoyed the show [Gay Blades] very much. She was the right one to start there because she'd been teaching, and she just said, "I'm going to take a fling at show business!" She had a very good smile and beautiful teeth, and found that she could capture an audience very easily. She was never egotistical, never conceived about it, but she literally enjoyed it to the point that nothing was better. We actually became very, very fond of each other. She was six years older than me and we were very, very close friends really until her death. I think she did a bit of a pair with Karl Schäfer and then I think she skated with Walter Arian. She quite liked Karl. He was a lovely skater and had good edges. Walter Arian was trying to make advances towards romance with her and she didn't particularly like him. I think he's Austrian. He was a good coach. I took lessons from him. Arian coached the Jenkins brothers in Cleveland. What Gay Blades really needed was a real manager. Most skaters of that kind of talent aren't the best business people. They don't even like doing the books.

Maribel and Fran understood each other. They were both talented people and they'd have their little arguments but that's only because she suddenly realized that Maribel was kind of favoring Guy - and the money too. But Fran was never bitter about anything. She used to smoke a little bit, and she'd take one drag out of the cigarette and that gave her a chance to [properly think about her] answer. She wasn't impulsive to snap something out at you.

Laurence Owen


Laurence Owen inherited both qualities from her mother and her father and when she did the compulsory figures, a musician or a composer could've composed a piece because of the way she skated. She was so fluent in movement and so magical. I mean, she was a really great skater. [Maribel's mother] Gertrude Vinson wore the same kind of hat as the Queen Mother.


Not the same, but Michelle Kwan gives you a thrill, to this day. There may be better skaters, but there's some spell that she's able to cast on people, and it's endeared her to the world. I hear she's going to skate again, which I'm not sure whether she should, because certainly if she doesn't have a trainer [that's not a good idea].

Gretchen Van Zandt Merrill. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.


Gretchen Merrill was a very lovely girl. Life got too tough for her and she committed suicide. She came up and studied with Otto Gold, a Czech coach, who also used to coach Barbara Ann Scott. Gretchen didn't quite have the temperament for competition, particularly. You have to have ice water in your veins and not be tough. I worked with Barbara Ann myself and she would get me to fire the bullet. She'd say, "You look after that," and she'd just come out smiling. I'm used to the intrigue and Barbara Ann and I still talk to one another frequently.


I felt terrible about the Crash [in 1961] but I said, "You know, Maribel will be up in heaven there, and she'll start the first ice rink." Well, these other people were weeping right, left and center, and I said, "No, I'm kind of envious of her." But I admired her and I knew she had that quality.


Mary Jane Halstead wasn't a great skater. She had a lithe body and she could direction. She turned out to be quite a good teacher, after the show folded. Unfortunately, just like Guy Owen, she ended up being an alcoholic and killed herself with booze. She was a very sweet person, and I knew the whole family. She was just average as a skater. She did a pair - not a great pair - but she presented herself well, and she had a nice body. Whatever she put on, she looked great. I think she enjoyed the Gay Blades phase of her life. It was her first break into professional skating. Mary Jane Halstead, Fran Claudet and Guy Owen were all friends. 

Cecil Smith and Melville Rogers


Melville Rogers was an average skater - very handsome! His son is extraordinarily handsome and lives in Toronto. We have lunch twice a week. Melville was very pompous. He came from a wealthy family. He knew he was good-looking ad he sort of demonstrated that to all. He skated a pair with my cousin, Cecil Eustace Smith. My cousins skated against Maribel at Worlds and Cecil came second to Sonja Henie. She was a very beautiful girl and she never did turn pro. She chose to get married. She didn't want to marry a skater and she turned out to be as successful in golf [as she was in skating]. Melville would come to Toronto (that side of my family was quite wealthy] and he would always sponge off them.

George E.B. 'Geddy' Hill, Grace and James Madden


Geddy Hill was a wonderful architect. He did Richard Dwyer's house in California. A very nice fellow, actually. He was a very good friend of Fran Claudet's.

The Madden Family - Gracie Madden, James Madden - were wealthy people and they were great friends [of Geddy's]. Some Americans are exactly just like we are. They're no different. you know, you think, "Canadians - horribly cold and Americans are so brash [when they win] a title. That's nonsense. I had the privilege of working in the States for seven years and my close, close friends are from America. I brought the boy that - a good coach now [Don Laws] - taught Scotty Hamilton and took him to Worlds. I'm so pleased that I had that part of my career.


Edges are not done as well as they were done in years past. You see, there are no figures done. I don't say the figures should've gone for competitions, but [in] the beginning you should be doing figures, because the parents are paying while you teach them things they would've learned automatically in figures. So they're wasting their money. The discipline, the concentration, the focus and also, the use of time - with your studies and with your school. You could blend it all together. Now they free skate too much, and they have greater injuries and [more knee problems].


I'm not saying that the skating in the past was by any means as good as it is today. I'm just saying that there are certain qualities that I wish were still with us with the new skaters because they would make them absolutely stand out. There's the technology. Biomechanics  is understood by the coaches. We all take courses in it. The systems of training are a little more in-depth.

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 "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" and pre-ordering "Sequins, Scandals & Salchows: Figure Skating in the 1980s", which will be released this fall where books are sold: