Historicist: The Greatest Skating Carnival in America
Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Maple Leaf Gardens ice show, between 1938 and 1947. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6666.
When Augustus Bridle, critic for the Toronto Star, called the Toronto Skating Club’s carnival “the greatest skating carnival in America,” he wasn’t merely indulging in civic boosterism. His sentiments were shared by not only Torontonians who eagerly awaited the skating revue each March, but also the thousands of spectators who—at the height of the Depression—travelled from as far afield as Cleveland, New York, and even Mexico City just to watch the on-ice theatrics. Hosted at Maple Leaf Gardens, which had made watching ice sports as comfortable and socially acceptable as a trip to the opera since its construction in 1931, the Skating Carnival’s audience was filled with the city’s social elite.
From its modest origins as a recital for Toronto Skating Club members in 1902, the Skating Carnival grew in stature and artistic merit over the years. By the 1930s, it had, in Bridle’s words, “merged the arts of music, picture, comedy, pantomime, character-acting, ballet and costume into a grand annual festival that uses ice for a stage and skating as the basis of rhythm.” Skaters danced waltzes to the accompaniment of a live orchestra. Costumed ensembles wove intricate patterns across coloured ice and around elaborate sets. And others performed vaudevillian comedy routines. Olympic champions and international stars performed solo routines.
The 1934 carnival, held on March 8 and 9, illustrates what made the ice revues so popular. In that year, Boris Volkoff, the Russian-bred, Toronto-based ballet master, was retained to choreograph a proper ballet on ice for the closing number. The result, thirty-five figure skaters performing Ravel’s Bolero, was heartily praised by the media as the best work of the evening. Where skaters had, according to Volkoff’s ex-wife, previously “just skated around to the music as it played” with “no connection or artistry,” Volkoff’s innovative and artistic choreography over the next decade earned international acclaim. The 1934 season also marked the first Toronto performance of ten-time world champion Sonja Henie, who would borrow more than inspiration from the Toronto Skating Club for her own touring ice show in the coming years. As a pair, Volkoff and Henie illustrate the far-reaching, if difficult to quantify, impact that the Toronto Skating Club Carnivals had on the spectacle of figure skating.
Maple Leaf Gardens ice show, between 1938 and 1947. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6668.
Often acknowledged as the “father of Canadian ballet,” Boris Volkoff arrived in Toronto in the late 1920s as a ballet master and dancer performing before films at the Uptown Theatre. There were few opportunities to dance professionally, and there was little public appreciation for ballet in Canada at the time. So, after establishing a ballet school in 1930, Volkoff worked tirelessly to cultivate and develop an audience for ballet in Toronto, as Lillian Mitchell recounts in her 1982 PhD dissertation, Boris Volkoff: Dancer, Teacher, Choreographer. In addition to recitals, his students performed at schools, folk festivals, and wherever there was an opportunity. When the Toronto Skating Club invited him to choreograph a number for the annual carnival in 1934, he jumped at the chance, which he saw as another opportunity to expose Torontonians to ballet.
Volkoff knew little about ice-skating. In fact, he couldn’t even skate. But he went down to the skating club and watched the skaters to get an idea of their movements and capabilities. He soon realized that while he could bring elements from classical ballet onto the ice, he could also adapt them to the speed and gliding of skating to achieve different effects unattainable in the theatre. For example, the arabesque—which became a spiral in figure-skating terms—could be impressively held for the entire length of the ice. He emphasized dramatic expressiveness and tightened the carnival productions by urging skaters to think of themselves not as individuals but as interdependent parts of a greater artistic whole. He carefully diagrammed all the figures and patterns of his imaginative choreography in a notebook that he’d carry at practice. The club’s skating instructor, Walter Arian, helped translate Volkoff’s ideas into figure-skating terms.
Maple Leaf Gardens ice show, between 1938 and 1947. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6645.
By all accounts, Volkoff was the quintessential Russian ballet instructor: caring, excitable, passionate, and in possession of a temperamental personality. It must’ve been quite the scene at skating practices with Volkoff—in scarf and toque and with a cushion fastened to his bottom—sliding across the ice to offer instruction in broken English. One newspaper reported:
Mr. Volkoff flung himself tempestuously into rehearsal. He flitted over the ice like Eliza, here, there and everywhere, illustrating every move, timing every mass motion, now pleading, now commanding, leading, driving, gesticulating until his face glowed with perspiration. In his hand was a large notebook in which every phase of every ballet was carefully mapped, and when he was displeased, which was seldom, he would drop it to the ice, jam his toque over his ears, mutter mouth filling words in his native tongue, shout ‘stop stop’ and then quickly quiet-spoken would explain what he wanted from some diagram in his book. What he wants is a perfectly trained ice ballet.
Following the success of Bolero in 1934, Volkoff was asked to return as choreographer in 1935. It was another rousing success with the crowds. Once again Augustus Bridle swooned. “In gorgeous colors, groupings, movements and musical magic this may be chronicled as the greatest illusion spectacle,” he wrote, “the club has ever presented.”
For the next decade, he continued to choreograph for the carnivals, mounting full-scale productions of Borodin’s Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and more abstract presentations of concertos by Rachmaninoff and others. Having become famous for his artistry on the ice, Volkoff was offered a position in New York with a professional ice show. He turned the offer down to pursue his dream of developing a professional ballet company in Canada, and he invested whatever he earned from the skating carnivals into his ballet operations. Even after his final ice ballet in 1953, Volkoff occasionally worked with champion figure skaters such as Otto and Maria Jelinek and Barbara Ann Scott.
For all the acclaim Volkoff received at the Toronto Skating Club Carnivals, his ballet numbers still had to share the spotlight with international stars, such as seven-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist Karl Schäfer from Austria and Sweden’s Vivi-Anne Hulten, who gave solo performances between the ensemble pieces. It was almost certainly the glowing reports of Toronto these stars carried back to Europe that helped the Skating Carnival land the biggest star in the world, Sonja Henie, in 1934.
Since her Olympic debut as an eleven-year-old in Chamonix in 1924, Henie had revolutionized figure skating. She dared to try the same jumps as the men and performed the most difficult jumps of the time, such as the Axel Paulsen, with the greatest ease and grace. Skating at a level beyond all her competitors, Henie won the Olympic gold in 1928, 1932, and 1936. The “petite, swirling, graceful, dashing blonde figure skating champion,” as The Star described her, had her idiosyncrasies. She travelled with ten identical pairs of skates. Nine were carried in a trunk; the tenth, her lucky pair, was always on her person. Her demands for luxurious travel and accommodation to appear in exhibitions prompted some to question her amateur status. Although newspapers made little comment on her on-ice showing, Henie performed twice each evening of the 1934 Skating Carnival. What would she have thought of Volkoff’s Bolero grand finale as she watched from the wings?
Sonia Henie and Company ice show at Maple Leaf Gardens. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6623.
One of Volkoff’s achievements in figure skating, according to a club history, “Toronto Skating Club (1895-1942),” deposited at the Toronto Reference Library, was to create a spectacle “that did not depend for its interest on the participations of ‘box office’ stars nor on blatant or lurid effects to dazzle the gullible.” Newspapers praised the Canadian talent at the Skate Carnivals as highly as the international stars, so when there were no international stars performing in 1936, The Star claimed that they weren’t missed.
Instead, on the opening night of the 1936 carnival, club members Louise Bertram and Stewart Reburn were jubilantly welcomed home. They’d arrived that very day from taking fourth in the world figure-skating championships and sixth place at the Olympics. Dubbed “the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the ice world,” Bertram and Reburn had become well known locally and throughout the U.S. With their annual duo skate at the carnival “a perennial delight,” the two were emblematic of the local Canadian talent that the skating carnivals had cultivated over the years. Other champion-calibre Toronto skaters who appeared in the 1930s included perennial Canadian champions Montgomery (Bud) Wilson, Constance Wilson Samuel, and Cecil Smith. Even without foreign stars in 1936, the Skating Carnival continued to attract spectators from across Ontario and the northern United States.
By now Sonja Henie had turned professional and started making movies for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Her films, each of which found an excuse for her to figure skate, were so popular that by 1939 she was the biggest box office draw after Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. A keen businesswoman, Henie launched her own all-professional touring ice company, the Hollywood Ice Revue. Selling out venues across the continent, the venture made her rich. She grew dissatisfied, however, with the original incarnation of her show, during which she performed for about twelve minutes of the total running time. She realized that crowds and movie audiences alike would grow restless with the monotony of watching her skate alone—even if she was the most celebrated skater in the world.
Stewart Reburn and Sonie Henie, skating on rink in Varsity Stadium. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4121.
Seeking to add novelty to her show, Henie decided to take a partner. But she needed someone who was worthy of her own skill and talent, and she was willing to pay well. So, in the fall of 1938, she sent a telegram to Stewart Reburn, whom she recognized as one of Canada’s top skaters. Talking with Henie in New York City, Reburn came to a verbal agreement, hurried back to Toronto to gather his things, then rushed off to Hollywood to formalize the contract and begin rehearsals.
Although Toronto was not originally on the scheduled itinerary of the transcontinental tour, the company detoured to Maple Leaf Gardens on December 5 and 6, 1938. Before the home town crowd Reburn appeared in three numbers in the Hollywood Ice Revue, including a tango and a waltz with Henie. His peers from the Toronto Skating Club wished him well and expressed hope that he’d also begin appearing in Henie’s films. He eventually would skate with her in Second Fiddle (1939). Reburn, who was also reputed to be her lover, continued to skate in Henie’s touring company until joining the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Reburn wasn’t the only element of the Toronto Skating Club’s carnivals Henie was accused of poaching. She certainly saw Volkoff’s rendition of Bolero in 1934. Yet in 1941, when the Hollywood Ice Revue staged its own version of the Ravel classic, the souvenir program claimed that Henie’s was the first such presentation. It was an assertion that the Club’s history took exception to: “Not content with their own efforts they immediately claimed in their publicity that they were the originators of features which in reality they had seen or heard years earlier in Toronto.” Perhaps the claim was simply the work of an over-enthusiastic copywriter. Henie was, after all, a capable ballet dancer and widely credited for being amongst the first figure skaters to incorporate elements of ballet into her on-ice performances. Regardless of whether she copied Volkoff’s choreography, or was merely inspired by it, the situation illustrated the impact the Toronto Skating Club had on the broader figure-skating world.
Visiting stars like Henie saw the innovative choreography and elaborate production values of the Toronto skating carnivals and incorporated these audience-pleasing ideas into their own business ventures. Following a similar story-line, Oscar Johnson and Eddie Shipstad performed as an on-ice comedy duo at the Skating Carnival in 1929, 1930, 1935, and 1936, saw the popularity of the show, and formed their own professional figure skating show, the Ice Follies, in 1937. These imitators and a host of others, such as the Ice Capades and Audrey Miller’s Ice Skating Show, were making annual appearances in Toronto by the late 1940s and causing stiff competition at the box office for the Toronto Skating Club. After a brief hiatus during the war, the skating carnivals were resurrected in 1948, but with the novelty wearing away and crowds dwindling, the last carnival was held in 1956.