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.
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.”)
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."