I MARRIED “SONJA HENIE,” FIGURE SKATER
BY: JAMES F O’NEIL
“I want people to see a real person on the ice. I want to seem tangible, hard-working, passionate about my skating, not just going out and doing something I’ve rehearsed a million times.” –Ashley Wagner, American figure skater. [BrainyQuote]
* * *
Who takes ice skates on a honeymoon? We did, in October 1963, to the Wagon Wheel Lodge, Rockton, Illinois.
Having packed our 1962 Corvair, my new bride-wife had tucked in her ice skates; for we chose our honeymoon getaway partially for its beautiful Olympic-sized skating facility available for us.
SKATING RINK AT WAGON WHEEL RESORT HONEYMOON
But I’m jumping a bit ahead of my story filled with memoriesofatime.
I never knew, all the while we were engaged, that my fiancée was a skater. Not much mention, as I recall, was made of our hobbies, like stamp collecting, piano playing, ice skating, collecting Air Force shoulder sleeve insignia, and the like. The two of us were so submerged in our work, and in our college courses, that there was little free time for hobbies. An occasional lazy summer Sunday afternoon in Lincoln Park was a delicious treat.
So, when we were setting up our apartment before our wedding (we–gasp! –did not live together before our Catholic marriage!), I noticed a large square shoe box on her pile of stuff to be put away: Riedell. White box, blue print, with an ice skate and silhouette of an ice skater on the top and sides. “Do you skate?” I asked on that warm Chicago October evening. “You never told me anything about it. I didn’t know,” I spoke.
SKATE WITH PASSION! SKATE RIEDELL!!
* * *
Sonja Henie (8 April 1912 – 12 October 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star, a three-time Olympic Champion (1928, 1932, 1936) in Ladies’ Singles, a ten-time World Champion (1927–1936) and a six-time European Champion (1931–1936). She won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies’ figure skater.
At the height of her acting career, she was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood and starred in a series of box-office hits, including Thin Ice (1937), My Lucky Star (1938), Second Fiddle (1939) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941) [Wikipedia], and It’s a Pleasure (1945).
Henie retains the record of most consecutive titles, sharing it with skater Katarina Witt. In addition to traveling to train and compete, she was much in demand as a performer at figure skating exhibitions in both Europe and North America, becoming so popular with the public that police had to be called out for crowd control on her appearances in various cities.
Henie is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, wear white boots, and making use of dance choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics.
Probably most young girls wearing ice skates, learning figures and jumps, aspired to be the next Sonja Heinie.
* * *
Once upon a time, Susie Braschko (before she became Susan O’Neil on 10-12-63) grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois. Near the farmhouse where she lived lay a marshy area and watery pond where in winter her dad would set up a skating area for her and her brother. She was a skater here, long before thoughts of Sonja Henie or the Ice Capades, Ice Follies, or Olympic Gold. Here on the pond she learned to fall, and get up again. And tasted the desire to want lessons.
Thus, it all began, with her dad driving her to Park Ridge, Illinois, to an ice-skating school (in an old theater)
for classes and lessons–until she had her own car to make her own way to the ice rink…and to her idol and teacher: Michael Kirby who once had to carry her off the ice–!–how, like a perfect gentle knight, as her calf bled from a gash-clash with another skater’s blade. (Hospital stitches were needed.)
* * *
Michael J.R. Kirby (February 20, 1925 – May 25, 2002) Canadian figure skater who competed in men’s singles, was also (for a short while) an actor, and a one-time ice rink owner and skating coach. When he turned 16, he became a Canadian national champion, winning the silver medal at the 1941 North American Championships and the gold at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships, 1942. He turned professional, joining the Ice Follies in 1943.
In the later 1940s, he moved to Hollywood, appearing in several movies. In 1947, while he was skating in a West Los Angeles ice rink, the manager asked him to skate with Sonja Henie, the rink owner. He joined with her, and later had a role in her film The Countess of Monte Crisco. He also became part of Sonja’s Hollywood Ice Review, which went to Europe and England.
He relocated to Chicago, establishing a chain of instructional ice skating rinks beginning in 1948. He received an offer from Ice Capades, a company that both produced ice-skating shows and developed ice-skating centers. Leaders hired him to bring ice rinks like his Chicago-area studios to cities across the country–and around the world. Nevertheless, success waned in the late 70s, due to the lack of interest and support for ice skating; most of Kirby’s ice studios closed. Later in life he was an ice-skating consultant and then the author of a biography on Sonja Henie. (Sonja retired in May 1956.) He died in 2002 of renal failure, in his home at Orange County, California. [Thanks to Vikki Ortiz, Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2010]
Many skaters who went on to compete nationally got their start at Kirby’s Chicago-area skating studios.
* * *
Sue tells, humbly and modestly, of her abilities and skills, of how much she learned and how much she so desired to go on in skating. But, as fate would have it, two of her friends were chosen to audition for the Ice Capades, one successful: “Jennie.” Sue, though, could never make the cut, for she was 5’0’; 5’7’ or there about, was the minimum height requirement (generic costume sizes).
No doubt disappointment set in with the breakup of the friendship and “teammate-ship,” onset of high school and jobs, and family obligations. (Her father died when she was a junior in high school.) So, the skates were put aside, put away, for a short while, a few years.
* * *
I didn’t ice skate much, growing up in Chicago. I was one of those who used hand-me-down skates and tried my best in a non-Michael Kirby city park rink. Later, years later, I tried with a group of young adults in the bleak mid-winter, skating on frozen lakes near Mundelein, Illinois. And that was it: end of skating, end of grouping. Until the honeymoon, of course.
It was then when I made a complete fool of myself, as I slipped and slid around on the ice, more comfortable sitting down as my new bride skated figure-eights around me, triple-jumped over me (I thought), and smiled as she posed as Ina Bauer, encircling my frozen limbs.
But we had “the time of our lives!” Babies later (two) found us living in Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” all potential skating rinks in the winter.
One of the larger lakes near our home (in 1966) was Lake Winona. The Park Rec provided skating opportunities, complete with crackling ice, motion, and bumps. Yet for the most part, a good venue for kids and adults willing to brave the winds and chills. Sue taught both our sons to skate (but not this big guy), and became a Park Rec Skating Instructor, complete with choreographing a winter skate program. All good rosy-cheeked fun.
Leaving Winona, we had not many ice-time opportunities for a few years after. A backyard rink I once made, for one. But an ice rink in a new shopping mall in Florida, where we traveled for a visit, in 1977. The ice was calling her name; I called her my “Sonja,” this wife-mother who awed us when she got on that small rink by Macy’s and wowed the shopper-onlookers, who clapped at her not-forgotten Michael Kirby “routines.”
We were so impressed.
Fast forward: Our move to Florida, 1980. New skating life gradually came to Southwest Florida Gulf Coast: Two ice rinks, one a professional rink with a team. Open skating, classes for beginners on up, ice shows, private lessons from Olympians practicing in the area and coming from the other coast. Skating teams, competitive teams for all age groups, hockey teams. The Ice Crystals were born (women’s adult skaters) –and medaled, and received trophies, traveled to Las Vegas and San Francisco and other national competitions. And Susie–Run-Around-Sue–with her poodle skirt and all, high-scored for her age group.
So, costumes changed, and blades needed sharpening, and airline travel had to be arranged, and then even new skates. There was rink rental/ice time (that Zamboni!), coaching fees, gas mileage, and other miscellaneous expenses (way beyond a simple city park rink cost). From time to time, Sonja Sue went to adult free skate; she also managed to take her skates on vacation, to her Ohio cottage, using the practice ice of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania–or on ice near Youngstown, Ohio.
SUE, BIG ICE, AND CLEMSON CLEM
Skater Sue, of course, had her share of falls, sore knees, bruises, twists, aches, sore butt, and from time to time a sore wrist or arm from pinwheels–or from an incorrect pull by a teammate. Harder falls, then The Broken Wrist.
Broken wrist casts come in a variety of colors; she chose black, to blend with her costumes for the up-coming Las Vegas competitions. And all went well, her team buddies holding her, supporting her when needed.
Nevertheless, that fall, that incident, set her aback, and recuperating time took much out of her. The team, at the same time, had lost two or three members to illness; the small group barely had enough bodies to make a line across the midline of the rink. The coach had her time cut back; the end was near. The team ceased to exist. The trophy case would never be added to by the adult skate group; only individuals competed from the rink.
* * *
“I think you should consider hanging up your skates,” the doctor said. Glum. Gloom. No tears, but sadness at the realization: a trip to the ER with back spasms, X-rays revealing a fracture at L-2, and degenerative spine disease. A bad score on a DEXA scan was an earlier warning. A dangerous combination should any kind of fall occur, especially one on a cold hard ice surface. Osteoporosis.
And that’s the tale now.
She has her medals and her certificates, her videos, and her photographs; those can never be disputed. These are her memoriesofatime. For me? By now, you might have wondered what role I played in all this narrative, other than as its author, with what are so many of my memoriesofatime.
Well, I was intimately involved with costume selection (“That’s nice. I like the red one, too.”) or being chauffeur (“What time do I get you to the airport?”) or fixer (“I’ll get some thread and safety pins.” “I have a bandage right here in my pocket.” “Here’s my handkerchief for those tears.”); jeweler (“Are those really real diamonds she’s wearing for that number?”), and charmer (“You guys did so well! You deserved 1st Place, not those young skaters.”), and even technical advisor (“Exactly thirty-three seconds. Just right!”).
At times I was Team Husband, just being there for an evening or Saturday practice–drinking hot chocolate, reading a book, smiling often, eating a hot dog or piece of pizza, or simply watching, enthralled by a group of women doing skating routines that would be in competition. Or single skaters practicing, doing jumps and figures and whatever else ice skaters do to make us smile, make us wonder how they can do that on two quarter-inches of razor-sharpened metal attached by screws to a white boot, shoe-laced tightly around foot and ankle.
“Anything I should know about foot-pounds of pressure?” “And if you feel yourself falling, I want you to relax and . . .” “And, yes, those blades are really sharp!”
[See the movies Blades of Glory, 2007; The Cutting Edge, 1992.]
I seldom complained, about time and money, about illness and injury, cuts and bruises–and expenses for Biofreeze. Our hobbies–well, her “hobby” was really a “passion,” as she called it. My hobby was collecting zinc and lead diecast airplanes. I never had the “passion” as she did. Ever.
So, I would add, in closing, nothing. That’s all what I want to relate about my own “Sonja Henie,” from our beginnings to now, a good skating time of some forty-five years or so. I should mention that there was many a time that I could not believe how beautiful she was “out there, on ice” with her musical motifs and routines–and how often I was choked up by a special performance (and am still moved watching her videos), and how you might even have seen me reach for my handkerchief to wipe my eyes . . .
© JAMES F O’NEIL 2020
I love your stories! This one is especially touching. The strong love between you two comes through loud and clear. What lakes did you skate on in Mundelein. I grew up skating on Lake Zurich and Bangs Lake, but had some fun on the ice from time to time on Diamond Lake (where I also learned to swim!). Can’t wait to read your next story 🙂
Hello Jim. Great story about Ice Skating and Sue. I remember Sue skating on Broadway St. in Fort MYers. Linda and I skating at the Wagon Wheel and we would see Janet Lynn the Olympic Skater there
I even have a match Book in my collection of the Wagon Wheel.
Hope your guys are doing well
Mike & Linda Prentice
Thanks for a wonderful story Jim. I’ve probably watched Sun Valley Serenade a half dozen times. Your tale evokes a lot of memories. When I attended the U of C after the seminary I joined a hockey club and we played at Kirdy’s on 79th street on the south side. I skated there when I was in grammar school as well. Our little seminary team also played there and at Ridgeland Commons in Oak Park. Wonderful memories. We spent a couple of New Year’s Eves at the Wagon Wheel, raising cain and causing mischief. (There’s a couple of good stories in there, but they are for another time.) Do you know that there’s a group of people who gather each year in Rockton to celebrate their memories of the place since it burned down? Have you heard about an online journaling process called *Storyworth*? It ask people a question once a week for a year and then they can publish a little book with their answers/memories. It’s catching on for grandparents to leave something for the following generations. Again, that’s for a great story and for prompting some wonderful memories.
*“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. *
*It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”*
On Sun, Jan 26, 2020 at 12:14 PM Memories of a Time wrote:
> JAMES F. O’NEIL posted: “BY: JAMES F O’NEIL “I want people to see a real > person on the ice. I want to seem tangible, hard-working, passionate about > my skating, not just going out and doing something I’ve rehearsed a million > times.” –Ashley Wagner, American figure skater. [Bra” >
This is great, I did not know all of it but the story tells it well. Thanks for posting this for me to learn and enjoy your “Sonja Henie”, good work!
this was…………….glorious! Thank you for sharing your lovely wife with us all.