Frozen in Time
A new documentary reveals America’s greatest entertainment:
A story of obsession, family, and faded glory—on ice.
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In his studio in northeast Minneapolis, Roy Blakey doesn’t look like he came from Oklahoma. In his 80s, slight, and somewhat dreamy behind the eyes, he doesn’t look like he came from anywhere but here, sequestered as he is in this nondescript, near-windowless building, surrounded by his obsessions. “Enid, Oklahoma,” I say as we sit in the entryway, trying to conjure his birthplace. “What’s that close to?” Blakey looks at me and smiles. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing at all.”
Blakey was a kid in 1941 when he rode his bike to the Enid movie theater and sat in the dark, transfixed. Onscreen was Sonja Henie, the pixieish Norwegian Olympic skater turned Hollywood darling, waltzing on ice in Sun Valley Serenade. The ice had been painted black so that the svelte skaters, dressed in white, appeared to be floating in space. “I said, ‘That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen!’ ” Blakey recalls. “‘I have to do that.’ ”
But there was no ice in Enid. It wasn’t until Blakey was drafted into the Army, during the Korean War, that he found his way onto a rink. He was stationed in Germany on an Army recreation base in the mountains, a kind of Bavarian wonderland of alpine entertainment: golf, tennis, hiking, and ice skating. Theatrical ice skating, as opposed to Olympic-style competition, was peaking in popularity, and every major hotel in every major city from New York to Japan had an ice show in its nightclub, while arenas hosted traveling troupes. Germany, even in wartime, was no different.
“It was a magical, magical place,” Blakey says of the recreation center. He appeared in the ice shows there and became quite good. Good enough to join the Frosty Frills ice show at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago upon his discharge from the Army. Publicity photos from the period show the troupe, which performed with a live orchestra, cycling through one genre after another: baseball, Li’l Abner, Oriental. He skated for five years there, two shows a night, seven days a week. And then he hit the road.
He had met a man from Minneapolis who ran the Holiday on Ice tours, and he signed on, performing in Asia, South America, and Europe—40 countries in six years. It was a circus-like affair, as the troupe took its own ice rink wherever it went, setting up in bullrings, Roman coliseums, wherever they could. Blakey, the kid from Enid, had the time of his life.
As Blakey regales me with these stories, his niece, the photographer Keri Pickett, sits nearby. Her best-known book, Love in the ’90s, documented Blakey’s parents near the end of their 70-year romance. She has heard her uncle’s stories so often that she’s looking at me, not him, to see if they evoke the same astonishment. She has maintained a studio in this building since 1993, and her photographs—of Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev—cover the walls of the entryway. Blakey was the reason she got into photography, and now he’s the reason she has taken up documentary filmmaking.
“I became a filmmaker just to tell this story,” Pickett says, nodding at her uncle. She has spent the past six years and a good deal of her savings making The Fabulous Ice Age, which she was invited to submit to the Tribeca Film Festival, held this month in New York, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film festival, also this month. The film opens with Blakey talking about his childhood dream of skating. But Pickett found many more stories by knocking on doors that opened onto more doors, each with a former skating star in repose behind it.
Pickett eventually interviewed more than 50 former skaters and impresarios for the film, legends like Dick Button and Scott Hamilton and the kind of Sunset Boulevard dames who lounge on wicker in robes and turbans. “Big, big, big!” a man tells Pickett on film, describing the old shows. Another, bursting with pride, tells her, “Everything was brilliant. We didn’t do anything half-assed.”