CLOSE
Original image
robatsea2009 via YouTube

A Slick History of the Ice Capades

Original image
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."

Original image
Columbia/TriStar
arrow
#TBT
The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
Original image
Columbia/TriStar

If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

Original image
ABC
arrow
#TBT
The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
Original image
ABC

On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios