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robatsea2009 via YouTube
robatsea2009 via YouTube

A Slick History of the Ice Capades

robatsea2009 via YouTube
robatsea2009 via YouTube

John Harris, the slick and successful heir to his father’s multi-tiered entertainment business, thought he knew what would bolster his hockey business during the Great Depression. Between periods during pro games being played at his Pittsburgh arena, Harris would invite Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie to the ice. Henie would perform flawless skating maneuvers, giving the impoverished crowd more for their money.

By 1940, Harris had expanded on the idea: Instead of filling time between periods, he launched a plan to have skaters like Henie occupy the arena during the entire hockey off-season, wowing crowds with on-ice narratives, juggling, music, and expressive routines. Together with nine other arena managers, Harris formed the Ice Capades. Over the next six decades, the revue would tour the country, popularize ice skating, and make Harris a very rich man. It would even strike a deal with Disney to equip the company’s library of characters with skates—a move that would eventually prove to be the beginning of the end.

Toronto History via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Born in 1898, Harris had slowly peeled himself away from his father’s financial interests in movie theaters and other attractions to focus almost exclusively on Duquesne Gardens, the Pittsburgh-area arena where he held rodeos, hockey games, boxing matches, and other spectator events. When he saw the success of his halftime skate show, he quickly began arranging for a touring company to take the idea to the next level.

Installing Olympic trainer Rosemary Stewart to advise recruits, Harris enlisted 150 performers. There were some curious mandates: Harris insisted that no woman be under 5-foot-1 or over 5-foot-5; the skaters would live and travel under the guidance of chaperones and a nurse; they'd be paid $65 a week, but would be responsible for maintaining their costumes, which could cost $450. (A skater was once docked a week’s pay for daring to sit down in her elaborate outfit.)

The Ice Capades turned a paltry $174 profit in 1940, but word spread and the tour caught on. Harris enlisted acts like Trixie the Juggler, who could skate without dropping a ball, to join his regular stable of performers. There were adaptations of Broadway plays and elaborate skating numbers. Harris wanted the event to feel like a Broadway show-stopper, only on skates. By the 1950s, the show was so popular that it dragged portable ice makers to baseball stadiums and other rink-less places in order to create a skating surface on which to perform.

Donna Atwood, who was just 15 years old when she joined the show in 1942, quickly became the Ice Capades's biggest star (and eventually Harris's wife). She toured with the show for 17 years, becoming such a celebrity that newspapers were able to report the pending births of her children by writing only that “Donna” was expecting. No last name was needed. Atwood even modeled for Disney animators for the sequence in 1942’s Bambi where Bambi and Thumper tumble on a frozen lake.

Disney’s official link to the Ice Capades began several years later, in 1949, when the two companies agreed to feature licensed Disney characters and stories in Ice Capades shows. With costumes shaped more for practicality on the ice than fidelity to their likenesses, characters like Mickey Mouse could sometimes be hard to recognize, but the relationship was a success. Disney featured in Ice Capades shows through 1966. (In 1969, when Disney launched its own stage tour, critics sardonically dubbed it “Disney on Wood.”)

BlueBearsLanl via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

By that point, Harris had already sold his interest in the revue for $5.5 million. Increasingly, the Ice Capades had turned to the skill and celebrity of Olympic figure skaters looking for a second act following medal wins in competition. Dorothy Hamill, the breakout star of the 1976 Winter Olympics, signed with them; Peggy Fleming opted to join up with the Ice Follies, a rival show. Owing to nervousness, Hamill fell twice during her Ice Capades debut.

“It was worse than the Olympics,” Hamill told the press, citing anxiety over her performance as the reason for her tumbles. But Hamill became as closely identified with the show as Atwood once had been, and the Ice Capades created a venue for athletes to parlay their Olympic notoriety into something more.

By the end of the 1980s, the Ice Capades were wearing thin. Following Hamill’s lead, Olympic stars like Scott Hamilton signed with other promotions, weakening the show's core cast. Disney, meanwhile, had debuted its own Disney on Ice tour in 1981, which captivated kids with recognizable characters (and is still going strong). More importantly, Americans had learned—through shows like Ice Capades—of the athleticism and talent of figure skaters. Once a marginal sport, it became one of the key attractions of the Winter Games.

Although Hamill was no longer in her athletic prime, she still felt she had plenty to offer the stage show. In 1993, she, her husband, and a business partner bought the Ice Capades and pulled it from the brink of bankruptcy. Hamill’s intention was to evolve from the anthology-style revue of old to telling complete stories. Cinderella would be her first production. It would also be one of her last.

In less than a year, Hamill—who suffered a broken rib in 1994 when her Prince grabbed her too strongly in a waltz—sold the floundering company to televangelist Pat Robertson’s International Family Entertainment. By 1997, funding had dried up and two tours were canceled. In an era of cable television and the real-life skating drama of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding feud, the public appetite for professional figure skating had diminished beyond repair. What was left was taken by Disney, which could offer everything from the California Raisins to Donald Duck gliding across the ice.

“I try not to think of the Disney shows as competition," Hamill said in 1994, just before the sale. "They're different from us. We don't have skaters in big suits. Besides, the Walt Disney people have been very nice to us. When we were out in Anaheim to perform at The Pond, they gave me the keys to Toontown."

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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