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'Ice Follies' celebrates 75th anniversary

Gala reunion planned for America's first touring ice show

The 75th reunion for <i>Ice Follies</i> will be held in San Francisco.
The 75th reunion for Ice Follies will be held in San Francisco. (courtesy of Ice Follies)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(06/23/2011) - "It's a reunion celebrating the beginning of ice shows," says Velma Vaughn, a member of the host committee for the Ice Follies 75th anniversary celebration, which they've named Diamond Jubilee. A reunion will be held September 30 to October 2 in San Francisco.

Although Ice Follies may not have been the very first ice show to exist, it was the first original touring show. Founded in 1936 by Eddie Shipstad, Roy Shipstad and Oscar Johnson, the tour set out on its first tour in an old bus.

"They had everything on it -- all the people, the costumes and the props," says Jill Shipstad, Roy's daughter, who joined the show at the age of 17.

They opened in Tulsa, Okla., but a flu epidemic kept most of the audience away.

"Oscar Johnson looked out the curtain and there was hardly anybody there," says Shipstad. "They never looked back. They moved forward and kept adding quality to the show."

By the time Carol Probst joined Ice Follies the company had a 14-car train by which they traveled the country. Probst, known to many in the skating world as the founder and former owner of the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., (where Michelle Kwan trained for many years), spent 10 years touring with the company.

"It was wonderful. It was family," recalls Probst, who hosted a 60th anniversary Ice Follies reunion at Lake Arrowhead in 1996. "They really watched over us. I loved it. They took care of us and they told us how to dress when we were out in public because we were expected to make a good impression for Ice Follies. It was such a good start for me as a young person."

Probst auditioned for Ice Follies at the old Pan Pacific Auditorium in Hollywood right after finishing high school. She boarded the train at Union Station and, like all company newcomers, was assigned an upper berth (akin to a bunk bed).

"I started out in the chorus," Probst says. "I understudied Frances Dorsey (the female star of the show) and a couple of other people in the show. Two years later, I had my own number, which was a trio with two boys."

The host committee chose San Francisco as the location for the reunion because of its historical connection to Ice Follies. The company would spend three months in San Francisco every year. At night, they would perform at the Winterland. During the days they would rehearse the new show that would open in Los Angeles. A lot of people from the show wound up settling in Northern California permanently.

Although her father was one of the founders, Shipstad also started in the chorus and worked her way up. Her father originated the Debonair role, which Richard Dwyer later came to embody. When Dwyer was called up for military service, a choreographer suggested Shipstad assume the role and skate it as an homage to her father.

"Instead of doing the wonderful fast skating at the end that Richard did, at the end I did a jazz interpretation," Shipstad says. "When Richard came back, I kept getting principal roles. I worked hard in the show. I worked hard on my skating and my performing.

"There was always the thing of the Shipstad name and trying to represent Ice Follies correctly."

Reunion will begin on Friday, September 30, with a welcome reception. On Saturday morning, they're assembling a kickline, which they hope will qualify for a Guinness world record. In the afternoon, visitors will take a nostalgic tour of San Francisco. Saturday night is the Diamond Jubilee Dinner Gala, which Dwyer, a member of the host committee, and honorary chairperson Peggy Fleming will host. There will be some photo and video presentations and a tribute the founders. There will be a final farewell luncheon on Sunday.

A memorabilia room will be open throughout the reunion. People are encouraged to send things in advance or bring things with them. Ice Follies merged with Holiday on Ice in the 1970s and ended its run in 1980.

Over 300 people have registered already for the reunion, and the organizers are hoping for many more. Vaughn, who works in the travel industry, is assisting those who need it with travel arrangements. She said people are coming from all over Canada and the U.S. and from as far away as Australia. The reunion isn't just for skaters. They welcome staff, crew, family and friends.

"When we get together, it's such a feeling of camaraderie," Probst says. "In those days, there were like 100 of us that traveled by train and lived in the hotels. We were like a huge family. So when we get together it's like there's no time. It doesn't matter how old we are. We feel like we're back then. It's a wonderful feeling to do this."

Shipstad, now a well known skating choreographer, anticipates being quite sentimental and emotional at the reunion.

"I'll tear up at the wonder of it all, that it's brought all these people together after all these years," she says. "It was such a wonderful institution and it represented part of Americana -- a very glamorous part of it."

For more information go to http://www.icefollies75.com.