In 1941, in an Enid, Okla., movie theater, Roy Blakey had an epiphany. The 10-year-old was watching the movie “Sun Valley Serenade,” which starred Sonja Henie, a Norwegian figure skater, and featured elaborate skating performances. During one of the numbers, Blakey said to himself, “That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen! I have to do that!”
Blakey, now 90 and a Northeast resident for 27 years, still feels that movie “was the one that changed my life,” a life that would include skating in ice shows, traveling around the world, performing before royalty and huge crowds alike, and amassing a collection of ice-skating memorabilia that is looking for a proper home. He said he began collecting skating souvenirs “probably before I left the theater that day!”
There were no ice-skating rinks in Enid, so he began roller-skating. He would take two-hour bus trips to Tulsa for roller-skating lessons, telling himself, “I’ve got to get on the ice and get into shows.”
When he finally got on the ice, he was a student at the University of Tulsa. A few years later he was drafted into the Army. Roy remembered, “It wasn’t long after the Korean War armistice, and we were sure they would send us there.” But the transport ship he and his fellow soldiers were on sailed in the opposite direction, and he ended up in southern Germany.
He soon found a nearby Army-sponsored night club with a skating show called “Casa Carioca.” He left a note at the club asking for an audition and ended up with a contract, skating while still a soldier. The day after his Army discharge, he became a professional ice skater. He recalled, “Every dream I had in my life was coming true before my eyes.”
While figure skating has been an Olympic sport since 1908, and the first ice shows began a few years later in Berlin, the modern “ice age” became an American phenomenon just before and especially after Prohibition. Small exhibitions called “tank shows” were held in the ballrooms of four-star hotels.
By the time ten-time world champion Henie arrived in the US, skating between periods at hockey games, figure skating had really taken off. Henie’s movies were enormously popular, and her ice shows (12,000 people a show, ten shows a week) proved she was “someone who could make an industry.”
Around the same time, Minnesotans Eddie and Roy Shipstad and Oscar Johnson formed a travelling show that became “Ice Follies.” They put on shows for more than 40 years. Ironically, their first show was in Tulsa in 1936. They used talented local skaters but later hired Olympic champions, increasing the shows’ popularity. Their show, with more than a hundred people in the travelling company, emphasized “family entertainment.”
In 1940, “The Ice Capades” was founded, the style of its shows leaning on both Russian ballet and Hollywood movies. In 1945, another Minnesotan, Morris Chalfen, created yet another show, “Holiday on Ice,” which also toured around the world. Henie skated with that show for three years. In 1980, “Holiday on Ice” merged with “Ice Follies,” later becoming “Walt Disney’s World on Ice,” then “Disney on Ice,” which still performs new shows each year.
After Blakey’s Army tour was done, and between skating shows in Germany, he traveled around Europe, photographing everything he saw, noting, “That’s when I learned to develop and print my photos.” At the time, he wanted to get back to the U.S., hoping to finish his education on the GI Bill. But he was offered a contract to skate in the Conrad Hilton ice show in Chicago, and he signed on. He spent five years with the company skating, and after the shows, taking photos of the rest of the troupe. “I became a semi-professional photographer then.”
Blakey described life on the road: “We traveled to shows by train. We were never apart. There was a lot of partying and drinking. Relationships began and ended on that train, and there was a press conference in every city. Boys could be very flamboyant, and nobody cared. You could just be yourself.” In 1961, Blakey left the Chicago show to skate with “Holiday on Ice” and did shows in 37 countries during his seven-year stint.
In 1964, Blakey and the company visited the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange. He recalled being in Kiev, photographing women in their babushkas and boots, when a passerby stopped him and said: “Why do you photograph our poor people? You have poor people in your country.” Blakey said he was trying to create a picture of the whole country, to which the person replied, “Wait till you get back to Brooklyn.” Blakey added that he felt none of that hostility from the audiences at the shows: “People would come down from their seats on to the ice and give us bouquets of flowers.”
Roy was still skating during the protests and upheavals of the late 1960s, but said the events didn’t affect him or his fellow skaters much: “We were still in the magic business.” Around that time, he became an exhibition skater at Rockefeller Center as he wound down his active career. He spent the next 25 years as a studio photographer in New York City before moving to Minneapolis, retiring in 2010.
Blakey has lived on East Hennepin Avenue, sharing studios with noted local photographer and filmmaker Keri Pickett (who happens to be his niece), since they acquired the property in 1993. He describes a typical day: “A cuppa coffee and the newspapers, which I enjoy reading every day, and then make myself a lunch and then try to do something that needs to be done in the afternoon. I usually get a very small portion of what I set out to do accomplished, but that’s the way it goes.” Until recently, he was a daily cyclist.
Pickett, who was born in South Carolina but has spent most of her life in Minnesota, said, “Because Roy was skating the world when I was growing up, I only saw him a couple of times. When I graduated from college and moved to New York City, he let me stay in his loft in the photo district for a couple of weeks. His presence in New York was instrumental in my starting my career as a photographer in the early ’80s.” She added, “Since he moved here, we have had a chance to grow our relationship and have become travel buddies. We travel together to Southeast Asia and we’ve been to Myanmar (Burma) together three times.” Blakey noted that traveling was among the most satisfying parts of his life: “I fell madly in love with Southeast Asia and Japan. It was such a revelation to me, and I have gone back many times to enjoy it.”
Blakey still makes occasional additions to his collection, but his concern now is its ultimate preservation. He has shown samples to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. “They were very interested in the American parts of the collection, and the University of Minnesota was interested in the Minnesota pieces.” While the U.S. Figure Skating Association in Colorado offered to store the collection, he said, “That’s not what I’m hoping for. I want it to be seen and have it available for people to learn the history of theatrical skating.”
And what a collection! NPR listeners of a certain age may recall a catchphrase used by Tom and Ray Magliozzi on “Car Talk”: “Sonja Henie’s tutu!” Blakey may not have her tutu, but he has ten of her original skating costumes, along with 44,000 other items, from original movie posters, photos, programs, skates, dolls, to a working skate-themed pinball machine. Many of the items are considered museum quality.
Pickett produced an hour-long film, “The Fabulous Ice Age,” in 2013, the culmination of eight years of work. A history of ice show productions, it features clips of theatrical skating over the years and contemporary interviews with Blakey and other stars of the era. Blakey calls it “the only real document of the history of theatrical figure skating out there.” He said viewing the film brought tears to some of his fellow skaters.
Blakey added, “I have been so lucky having Keri and her mother living here in Minneapolis; that’s a big plus. And I like the atmosphere here and the possibilities for entertainment, meeting intelligent people, artists and friends.”
Below: In order: 18-year-old Roy Blakey in Tulsa, 1949 (Photo courtesy Roy Blakey) Blakey with photos of him skating at the Boulevard Room, Chicago,1961 (Photo by Keri Pickett) Blakey playing his 1965 “Ice Revue” pinball machine. Sonja Henie’s career on ice inspired Roy Blakey to skate. Blakey’s archives of 75 years of photos and programs. (Photos by Mark Peterson)