The Inside Edge with Sarah and Drew - April 20

Skating greats back on the ice at Harvard

Dorothy Hamill and Paul Wylie skate a duet at "An Evening with Champions" in Boston.
Dorothy Hamill and Paul Wylie skate a duet at "An Evening with Champions" in Boston. (Sarah S. Brannen)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(04/20/2010) - Last weekend's "An Evening with Champions" took on an epic quality as one skating legend after another, including five Olympic champions, decided to attend the 40th anniversary show. "I heard about who was coming," said Sarah Hughes, "And I just hopped on a train and came up!"

Dick Button and the ever-glamorous Peggy Fleming hosted the show at Harvard University's Bright Hockey Center (Button hosted the first show in 1970 as well). Backstage, Button mentioned that he had lived in Boston for seven years back when he was competing. "I love Boston; I always have a good time here," he said.

The show began with a video telling the story of how U.S. champions John Misha Petkevich founded the fundraiser: the proceeds, then and ever since, benefit the Jimmy Fund and go to adult and pediatric cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Fleming and Hamill are both cancer survivors and during the evening, they spoke about how much the cause means to them.

As the video played, a stellar list of show alumni lined the ice: Olympic champions Tenley Albright, Dorothy Hamill and Hughes; Olympic silver medalists Kitty Carruthers and Peter Carruthers and Paul Wylie; world champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner and Debi Thomas; and U.S. champions and medalists JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Janet Lynn, Judy Sladky, Julie Holmes and Suna Murray.

Albright and Thomas chose not to skate, but all the rest took the ice for an emotionally stirring opening number. One star after another did their signature moves, including the Carruthers' death spiral, Hamill's spin and Wylie's split jump and unmistakable spread eagle. Babilonia, Gardner, Starbuck and Shelley held hands and skated into side-by-side Ina Bauers.

Throughout the show, Fleming and Button interviewed the famous show alumni. Sarah Hughes said that she and her sister Emily had both been influenced by Fleming and Button's comments on television. Peter Carruthers did a spot-on imitation of Button, after which Button threatened, "I hope you enjoy the show because you're not long for this world afterward."

Although many of the current skaters in the cast are just out of juniors, they more than held their own. Junior national pair champions Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth skated to "Orange-Colored Sky" and showed off some pretty spins. Toth skated in the show eight years ago with his first pairs partner, Harvard student Kylie Gleason. "I think I was juvenile or maybe intermediate," he said after the show.

Being fellow bloggers, we compared notes on the experience with Toth.

"I send my blogs to my mom first," said Toth, "And then she cuts about half of what I write."

Jason Wong did his effervescent "American Pie" number. He confirmed at the reception after the show that he's going to compete next year, and he's working on a new long program with Jamie Isley. He wouldn't let us reveal the music, but he's very excited about it.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who skated a lovely, lyrical program to "La Vie en Rose," mentioned that they had been to Boston many times as kids, and that they saw Wylie skate at "Evening" when they were little.

"Our parents met as undergrads at Harvard," said Alex. "They were tutoring at Adams House from 1990 to '92, and I was born in 1991, so I was kind of a Harvard baby. I was born at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, and it's attached to the Jimmy Fund clinic which we toured today. So I'm like, 'Wait, I'm walking through the halls of the hospital where I was born!' It was pretty surreal."

Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov did an adventurous avant-garde number to "Black and Gold," complete with light-up costumes, top hats with lights inside and a steamy on-ice kiss. They wear extreme makeup around their eyes made of rhinestones. Gregory said she applies the stones one at a time, and it must take a while! Petukhov washed his off soon after they skated, but Gregory wore hers to the reception after the show.

Curran Oi, who did a cute duet with Brittney Rizo on Friday, skated last year's exhibition on Saturday and showed that attending MIT hasn't cost him his skating skills. "Yep, I still remember how!" he said, backstage.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir freaked out the audience with the headbanger spin in their "Free Falling" program. At the reception afterward, six-foot four Shnapir climbed on Mark Ladwig's shoulders, which must have made him nine feet tall.

Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre danced to "Give Me One Reason to Stay Here." At intermission, Bommentre said they were looking forward to skating in Sun Valley this summer, after a long season.

"Worlds was tough," he said, "But our performances were actually pretty good."

About skating in the benefit, he added, "Competing feels very self-oriented and inward-focused, so it's really nice to come to a show that's about other people."

Ross Miner brought back last year's show program to Bruce Springsteen and totally rocked it, to the delight of the audience. Harvard junior Emily Hughes skated twice; after taking last semester off to compete, she is back to being a student. Her parents came up to Boston to see both of their daughters skate.

Amanda Evora and Ladwig skated to "On My Own." Evora is still glowing from her dream season, in which she not only competed at the Olympics but also her first world championship.

The show closed with Wylie and Hamill skating a duet to "Somewhere." They both showed that they've still got it: Hamill's soft, smooth edges and Wylie's elegance and superlative presence. It was a joy to see.

"I remember that the first year I skated might have been 1971, maybe 1970, so that's before all the charity benefits were being done," said Hamill. "It's just amazing that this has been around for so many years. It means a lot to come back and be with the kids and the hospital, and help the effort."

By the way, Drew very nearly starred in the show as well. Although he hasn't found a partner yet, he has a singles program (choreographed by Tom Dickson) that he uses to keep up his skills, and the organizers invited him to debut it. Other commitments prevented him from skating, so he'll have to wait for another opportunity to show off his solo.

We all made our way through a cold rainy night to Eliot House at Harvard for the reception after the show (Harvard students organize the show every year and host the party in their beautiful wood-paneled dining room). Fleming came in, wiping rain from her face. "Refreshing!" she laughed. "Actually, I spritz my face with water all the time any way. It sets your makeup."

Fleming was wearing a striking silver pendant, which we admired. "I got it at the Denver airport!" she said, laughing.

Judy Sladky was a bundle of joy all weekend. As you may know, she plays Alice Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street.

"I also played Snoopy for thirty years," she said. "When I go to therapy I get a group rate! I was in "Ice Follies" for three years [with husband and partner Jim Sladky] and after our contract was up, we started skating inside character costumes. We met Jim Henson that way, and when Baby Snuffleupagus was invented in 1986 he called me and had me audition, and I've been Baby Snuffleupagus ever since. So I grew up to be a stuffed animal!"

Babilonia, Gardner, Starbuck and Shelley seemed delighted to be together and were happily reminiscing. They commented that pairs, tiny women and tall men, look really different now than they did in their day. "I think Randy and Kenny deserved extra money and prizes for lifting the two of us!" joked Starbuck.

Babilonia said she hadn't been back to Boston since she came through with the "Champions on Ice" tour in the mid-90s but that she was thrilled to be part of the weekend's events.

"One of the reasons I did it was, I saw the list [of attendees], and I was like 'You know what? This may never happen again,'" she said. "It's an incredible list of legends. I love it. I can't take enough pictures! The reason why I'm skating is Peggy Fleming, so to be her with her is just incredible. And Kenny and JoJo, to skate with them again is a dream come true."

The team leader for the 1980 Olympics, Paul George, came to the show and the reception. Babilonia and the Carruthers siblings were thrilled to see him and reminisce about the joys and tears of the Lake Placid games.

Harvard's oldest a capella singing group, the Krokodiloes, has some schtick they've been performing for at least thirty years: they pick a girl out of the audience and sing "What's Your Name" to her. This year, they serenaded Marissa Castelli, to the delight of the other skaters at the party.

Five shows in eight days, and we think we've earned a little break! We'll be back with more news, pictures and show gossip soon.

Sarah and Drew
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