Oral History: Interview With Austin Holt

You're in for a treat this week! Greg Hill got in touch with me in the spring of 2024 to donate several interviews he conducted between 2001 and 2006, for a project on Maribel Vinson Owen. 

The first of these interviews I will be sharing is with Austin Holt, an American World Team member who was coached by Maribel. 

This interview was conducted on February 27, 2003. I reorganized some of Hill's handwritten notes to group skaters and topics together. 

I think you will agree that this oral history gives an interesting peek behind the scenes of figure skating in the 1940s and 1950s!

ON THE EARLY YEARS

I started skating with Maribel Vinson Owen. The rink in Berkeley opened in 1940. I had already been skating just a little bit once or twice a month down at the old Oakland rink, which was a 1/2 hour streetcar ride for me, at the time.

The opening of the rink was celebrated by a big amateur show, which I presume Maribel produced. I wasn't familiar with her at the time, so I don't know any of those details. My Dad took me to the opening of the show - I was fourteen. Very coincidentally, we sat next to one of the pillars of the skating club - Celia Bissel. She had 2 girls that skated, both Maribel's pupils, and she was a great friend of Maribel's. Mrs. Bissel twisted my arm to join the club, which I proceeded to do. I started taking group lessons. In the early winter of 1941-42, I entered my first competition (via group lesson).

I didn't have any private lessons from Maribel yet [though] I guess I took a private lesson to put together the program that I skated for State Novice - which I won. That was a unique experience in itself, because I came in third in figures, and then I came in third in free skating, and I won the competition. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time. I advanced rapidly.

After my grand triumph at State, I went to Regionals (West Coast) and lost to one of the fellows that beat me in free skating at State. It was a big triumph and then a big let-down, but a huge lesson. That gave me a dose of what was going on.

So, the next year, I was very well prepared, and I won the California and State Junior, and then went to New York City at Madison Square Garden, and won the National Novice - all under Maribel. She started giving me private lessons in the summer or fall of 1942. She was coaching at Iceland at the time. I skated under Maribel from 1940-43. Early on, it was mostly class and minimal contact, and then the last year, a little heavier on the private lessons.

Photo courtesy "Listen" magazine

ON GUY OWEN

Guy Owen was also coaching. He didn't specialize in figures. I took a couple of free skating lessons from Guy and a couple of classes with him. I admired his free skating fantastically, but I didn't much agree with his teaching technique. He was a wonderful showman, outstanding with his famous Gaucho routine. When he came out and did outside edges down the rink, everyone fell down clapping - it was fabulous. He was an amazing jumper because he had good elevation. He was a small person, very light. He could hang [in the air] - he had the idea of hanging. His best jump, I would say, was a stag jump, that looked like he was falling over a six-foot fence. That was sensational. I never saw him try a double jump but he did some spectacular 1 1/2 jumps - very, very high. He didn't do a very good Axel. It was more of a Sonja Henie turn-around jump backward-type Axel - sort of open spinning Axel. But he got tons of applause.

The thing that really appealed to me about his free skating was the effect of lightness - butterfly-like lightness. That was sensational. Because, up to then, I had subjected to the guys in Oakland - can't remember the guy's name and the Baxter Brothers (Skippy and Meryl Baxter). They were just turning pro and going into the show.

Meryl Baxter was one of the guys that I competed with in the State Novice, but Skippy had this very, very manly, not very good form. There was another fellow at the rink there (I can't think of his name), a younger fellow who skated somewhat like Skippy, and they would do a double flip and he got about 3 1/2 feet in the air - absolutely fantastic. I admired this, but it wasn't this light, floating butterfly-like appearance that Guy Owen had. So, that's what I aspired to.

Where I got into problems with his teaching is, I would watch him jump and then I would take a lesson on the same jump, and it would be different from what he did. For example, he always said that on a toe-loop, the emphasis was on the skating foot, not on the toe jump. In other words, it was an edge jump, but with a toe assistance. If you went and looked at the ice after he did a flip jump, you would see a humongous crater where his toe went in. So, I had time at that age reconciling that problem. 

His personality was dashing, easy-going, nonchalant. If he was ever morose, I only saw him in that kind of mood once in a while. I think he kept that pretty well private. At that time, he was just getting into the alcohol.

Guy Owen

ON CHOREOGRAPHY

One thing, however, that I took into my pro career. These days, coaches coach, instructors instruct and choreographers choreograph - and never the twain shall meet. In those days, Maribel taught me figures and free skating elements, and I did my own choreography, with her approval and assistance. That was expected. When I started teaching, I sort of compromised on that because I found that thirteen to fifteen-year-old kids were not really capable of creating a dramatic or athletic effect in a program, but if I created a program for them, it looked artificial. You know, I see that today a lot in international skating. I was totally out of skating for thirty-five years. I didn't watch it on TV or anything and then lately, I watch a little TV and then turn it off quickly. I get disgusted. I can tell when a program has been choreographed 100% for a skater, because I can hear music playing and a movement - like say there's a triplet in the music and a three-turn that's indicated - and then the person does the three-turn a measure late. I can hear the music and then I see the move. Well, the kid has learned the program, but can't skate it. I see that all the time, even in the highest level.

ON LAURENCE OWEN

Laurence Owen got most of her music sense from her Dad. Maribel's catchphrase was, "Pick out a nice waltz and skate to the rhythm." Which I did, a couple of times, that's fine. 

Laurence Owen and Maribel Yerxa Owen Jr.

ON MUSIC

I have a very heavy musical background - junior high, high school, college and all that, so I was really into doing musical interpretation but I didn't really realize that and get into it until I got into international skating, and did the five-minute mega-program, which I did all by myself, because later on, like I say, I was trying to remember the chronology.

ON THE WAR AND MARRIAGE

I was in the service until 1946 and then I got out, and hung around L.A. because I was very interested in a girl. We got married in L.A. and then we moved to Berkeley. One of the reasons we moved there was to skate in Berkeley and take lessons from Maribel.

ON THE 1949 AND 1950 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

At Wembley in England in 1950, I came in fifth. Strangely enough, in 1949 in Paris, that was the best program I ever did and I came in seventh. I did pretty good figures too. Maribel warned me. She said, "Now you're not gonna be known, so you have to go at least one year to get known." Boy, was she ever right! The following year in England, I didn't do so well - didn't skate very well at all - but I got marked a whole lot better than I did the year before! That doesn't say a lot for international judging, but I think we're starting to get the routine on that.

I turned pro in the early winter of 1952. I got a job in Switzerland, due to Maribel indirectly. When I first went overseas to world competition, she set me up with connections like crazy. The big contact in England was Beecher More and a female dance teacher. I met them all. Maribel advised us where to stay, where to go and where to eat. Then, in Paris, again more connections. I can't remember the lady's name, but my wife and I went to dinner at the lady's house, and a big official - a big official in the French Worlds. 

ON CROOKED JUDGING AND WILHELM HENIE

Once Maribel was in direct competition with Sonja Henie (1936), it was a World Championship and Maribel was skating pairs with George Hill. Maribel's father, I believe, was on that trip, or it was one of the American judges. One of them went to Sonja Henie's father or had met him socially, or something. The conversation led to how people were expected to do, etc. Sonja's father was reputed to have said, "If you judge Sonja first in the free skating, we'll give you good marks on your pairs (George Hill and Maribel). So the reply was, "Well, that sounds interesting. What are you talking about?" He said, "Well, if you can put Sonja first, we'll give Hill and Vinson third in the pairs." And the response was, "Why not first?" Sonja's father said, "I'm sorry, first and second are already promised." Maribel recounted this to me, to try and prepare me for international competition.

Robert Brewer

ON COACHING ROBERT BREWER

I coached Robert Brewer for the Olympics. That was sort of my swan song. Coaching Robert was hard work. He was one of those people I talked about earlier, who was not very musical. He was very cooperative and brilliant - a fine mind - but he just didn't have a knack for music. I was telling you earlier about being able to tell when programs were choreographed. At the 1955 World's Championships, I choreographed what I considered one of the best programs I've ever done in my life, to Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody". It was fantastic. I had to teach it to Robert step-by-step, because he didn't feel it to the music. So practice, practice, practice until we got it so it was good. It moved to the music very well. We went to the Worlds in Paris and the record player... They played shellac records at that time. I had a nice shellac record cut of the piece. The record player was on top of temporary grandstands, so you can imagine when anybody got up or sat down, or walked around on these grandstands, the record player would go crazy. Well, that happened right in the middle of Robert's program. I was a nervous wreck. I about had apoplexy. I was beseeching the referee and asking for a reskate. Robert went on through his program as if nothing had happened. He just skated the program the way he knew it... which is totally to his credit. He got rather good marks, but he got marked down a little bit because the program wound up a little too short of the the timer and they were very fussy at that time about that. Robert had fantastic figures. He was one of the few people that I'd taught who was able to just strike an edge and make an absolutely perfect circle. I had one other pupil in the L.A. area that I'd take credit that I taught that to - she won National Novice and did rather good figures. I mostly retired from coaching in 1958. Surprisingly well, Robert did his own program for the '59 and '60 competitions. I coached him a little bit off and on in Pasadena when he was there, and then I got a pass as a coach for the 1960 Olympics. Robert was a very steady person. I couldn't quite say phlegmatic - not outgoing - and that was reflected in his skating. His figures, of course, were fantastic. His free skating was... not flamboyant. He had fantastic edges and developed very nice, steady jumps.

ON ICE SHOWS 

I got acquainted with the idea of fours skating when Maribel and Guy did very a good four routine in a couple of the amateur shows we did. It was 'show biz' with the spotlights, the makeup and a huge production. After I'd won the National Novice, I came back and did a show that spring. I was featured n a ballet number - I was the 'primo donna'. That was fun. Maribel did a big, big choreographed number. I think it was "Les Sylphides" or something like that. It was a huge production. Then, another time (1942 I think) she did a great big show and the theme was Aztecs. She was steeped in Latin American lore and we all ran around with these funny costumes and Aztec headdresses and kilts. Literally hundreds of skaters just pouring around the ice. She was big on big production numbers. I remember every time, about halfway through rehearsal, she would totally lose her voice, she yelled so much.

I also remember one she did, which I thought was standard procedure, and it scares the heck out of me now. She would choreograph the numbers as we were rehearsing them. She didn't have everything all written down. She said, "Well, let's try this. No, that's not gonna work. Go in the other direction. Okay, that works. That's it!" With twenty-five or thirty people on the ice. At the time it seemed normal, but since then, it's enough to give you a heart attack.

ON MARIBEL VINSON OWEN AND GUY OWEN'S MARRIAGE

I remember, about 1948, I was married at the time, and we'd just bought a house. My wife and I remember waking up one morning to something rattling on our window in our second-floor bedroom. Lo and behold, it was Guy outside, throwing pebbles up at our windows saying, "It's time to come for the morning session!" That was a time of difficulty with Maribel and Guy. They argued a lot. They'd argue about day-to-day stuff, like needing a car or whether they should go to a doctor.

ON THE SABENA CRASH

When I heard about the crash, it was a big shock to me, because had I stayed in skating, there would have been a good chance I'd be on that plane.

ON GRETCHEN VAN ZANDT MERRILL

Gretchen Merrill - "Queenie" - was a New Englander, and one whole summer I guess, or a whole year, she came out and trained in Berkeley. That was cats and dogs with Maribel. Gretchen and her mother and Maribel, going at it, around and around. Gretchen was opinionated and had a strong personality. Maribel admired people with strong personalities, but she had to be on a level slightly above, or it didn't work.

Maribel Vinson Owen. Photo courtesy Harvard University Archives.

ON MARIBEL VINSON OWEN

When Maribel was coaching me, I don't remember a lot of technique. I have since become a very technical instructor. I base my instruction on body position, hip position, lean and the mechanics of all the turns, which I worked out very well. Kinesthesiology hadn't been invented when I was teaching but yeah, I got into that pretty deeply and I stood me in good stead. Nowadays, I am just going back to teaching part-time, twice a week - a little class for adults only. I consider myself a very competent teacher but I was not a good coach. I couldn't beat people into doing stuff they didn't want to do. Which, to get back to Maribel, she had a knack of convincing you that you could do something which I thought was outstanding.

She exuded a total attitude of confidence and competence. She appeared to me, even as a kid, as the most sophisticated person I'd ever met. She was overpowering without being authoritarian. She was authoritative. She knew what she was talking about in almost any subject. You talk about Broadway plays or opera, just pick a subject, and she knew it. She was really big on Broadway shows. Noël Coward comes to mind. I was more into classical music, so we didn't have a meeting of the minds there... although she respected classical music and knew it pretty well. One of the things that she did in the summer of 1942 to 1943, she or Nash, the rink manager there, whoever it was, convinced the San Francisco Symphony to do a series of pop concerts at the Berkeley Ice Arena, which they did. Boy, skating to a live, world-class symphony orchestra was unbelievable.

In those days, I remember all of the concerts we did, all of the skating shows and everything - it was wartime, and all of the windows had to be painted black. It was pretty amazing for that time of year.

I got into arguments with Maribel and I still disagree with her on the problem of hip position. She had the world's most natural, easy spread eagle - when your feet are 180° in direction. She just naturally had that position - very open hips. She expected everyone else to be able to do that - and I couldn't. I have very tight hip structure. I can't turn out like that. So, over and over again, she tried to get me to do spread eagles and I never could. I had a problem doing that. I had a bad knee and that aggravated it. At age 65, I had arthroscopic surgery and it fixed me up perfectly. All during my skating career, my left knee would lock now and again. Four years later, I found out it was because of torn cartilage

One of Maribel's most famous remarks that I remember to this day was, on a good position, say on a forward inside edge - as in ballet, I'd turn my leg out and she'd say, "No, no, you look like a dog at a tree!" This really led me directly into analyzing hip position and free leg position on all the edges and stuff, in a very technical way. I don't think - I could be mistaken - I haven't gone back and read her books again - I don't think she presented that stuff in a really technical way.

I don't remember getting an awful lot of technical, basic rules from her. She must have been technically and fundamentally sound because I wound up with rather good figures, but I don't know how...

All the time that I knew her, she was an excellent skater herself, and very, very solid on an edge, and that was impressive.

She was an eminent party girl - particularly the second time around. After the War, when we came back to Berkeley, Maribel wasn't there and I remember corresponding with her, begging her to come to Berkeley. Eventually, she did. I was taking lessons in Berkeley from Hans Johnsen. I passed my gold medal in '48. I think it was with him. Then Maribel came and I went to Worlds under her tutelage. She was there from 1948 to 1950, at least. I was good friends with the Swennings.
 
One of the things Maribel really loved was camping. There would be Maribel, her current boyfriend and another skater I was married to. They went camping at the lake for a weekend. We hung around and always observed the cocktail hour. It was very nice. A couple of times we'd go over to the beach north of San Francisco - Schago Bay or Stinson Beach. That's when Maribel and Laurence were around 9 and 12, around there, maybe a little younger. Maribel [Jr.] was a typical teenager; Laurence was an absolute pixie... In both her manner of movement and her personality, she was a cute kid - bright. You couldn't take a bad picture of her. When Laurence was very young, we'd go to parties at their house. It would be the middle of the night and she'd have to get up and go to the bathroom and that was a big deal. There's this sleepy little kid in her long PJs, staggering around. Then, Maribel and family went back to Massachusetts around 1956. 

I remember that one of [Maribel's] gentleman friends in 1949 or 1950 was Carl Prussing. He was a real gentleman, very correct, sophisticated, a Renaissance man-type, very sociable and businesslike. Around Maribel, he was always very quiet. If you talked to him individually, he was a very forceful personality. She met Carl in the skating world of the San Francisco Bay Area. I think he was an official of the San Francisco Skating Club. He was the gentleman who accompanied us on some of our camping trips, or beach trips.

Maribel's "support group", so to speak, was largely made up of society matrons (I guess you'd call them) and skating mommas of the Berkeley area. A couple were very, very dear friends with her and they were mostly people of breeding [social status]. I remember one friend who actually was a skater - Margo Dodge - of the Dodge automobile family, from the Piedmont section of Berkeley.

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