Forty-some years ago a company of sixty-one ice skaters, two chimpanzees, and a flock of white homing pigeons arrived in Atlantic City. Ice Capades had been opening its new season in the Convention Hall on the Boardwalk every summer for decades. A few ushers who’d seen their first ice show there as kids liked to brag about bringing their grandkids now. Sometime in between, this once glamorous seaside town—drawing regulars from Philadelphia and New York, with street names familiar to anyone who has ever played a game of classic Monopoly—had gone to seed, so our booking, and the Miss America Pageant that followed, were still Very Big Deals in 1974.
Most of us new members of the troupe had only just graduated from high school, and for most of my peers, touring with an ice show for a year or two or five would be a lark sufficiently colorful and carefree to fill a few photo albums. Me, I believed I was beginning my show business career and was conceited and officious about that belief—which explains why I didn’t have any friends back then, nor any photo albums now to speak of. I was eighteen and misunderstood many things about world. One was that ice show spectaculars such as ours—one part vaudeville, one part (sort of) ballet, one part circus—were not inviolable traditions; they were doomed. By the mid-eighties Ice Capades, and their cousins Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice, would go extinct, fossilize and turn up as the Wikipedia entries they are today, hyperlinked with that other defunct form of wholesome family entertainment, the TV variety show.
Why doomed?: Large economic and societal forces surely had a role. And much as I wish I had the sophistication to tell the story that way, from the safe distance, say, of a cultural theorist, I do not. What I do know is that I was raised in Los Angeles, that I suckled on the myths made in Hollywood—that I tap danced every afternoon on a piece of pegboard I borrowed from my father’s garage and dragged in front of the hulk of our console TV when the “Mickey Mouse Club” came on, thinking that if I could see them they could see me and know that I was a Mouseketeer, just one who hadn’t been discovered yet.
What I do know is that in July and August of that year, the year of the chimpanzees and the pigeons, I was largely oblivious to the fact, among other things, that a disgraced man, a desperate liar, was about to become the first United States president to resign from office. I was aware that hippies existed (wore strange clothing, listened to loud music with offensive lyrics, had promiscuous sex, and reeked of pot and patchouli), but only vaguely appreciative of the young protesters, my age and a scant five years or so my senior, who’d taken to the streets by the thousands upon thousands to end an illegal war and its (obscene and mounting) body count.
What I do know now is that our audiences were dwindling. A divide, that generation gap, had sliced through some idea of what was entertaining, of what represented us, America. The old and older wanted to remember; the young and younger wanted to change everything that had once lulled and placated and reassured, that had induced complacency and blindness. Perhaps popular entertainment, at least the kind offered by ice shows, could go on being all things to all people only so long as spectators tacitly agreed on what mattered, agreed that shows such as ours reflected their ideals: clean-cut, born-free, drug-free, straight-shooting mostly white young men and women who chose the right, and cherished the good old American way.
The orientation packets for the ice show forbade us from wearing blue jeans, which would clearly signify that we were nonconformist, less than professional, when we traveled between engagements. Not even I could make that kind of stuff up.
These days I have a titanium reinforced ankle, an arthritic knee, and ten pounds I could afford to lose, but I still love to skate and do, often. Most of the boys with the ice show are long dead; most got AIDs. Us girls (we were all called boys and girls then) are far in the majority at reunions, such as the upcoming 75th Ice Capades Diamond Jubilee in Las Vegas.
Pigeons live about fifteen years in captivity, so they’ve expired, of course, and the chimps, too, although with a lifespan of up to forty-five years they might have outlived their trainers.
By the mid-seventies many cities on our itinerary had built new and colossal arenas seating thousands—while, again, our audiences were becoming aged and smaller.
And many of those brand-new arenas we played—the centerpieces of coast-to-coast urban renewal projects—are now being razed. Back then they smelled of raw, curing concrete—an odor I’ve always liked and just recently realized was connected with those places. Sometimes I call up videos of their controlled implosions on my desktop—which might seem a strange exercise in nostalgia. How to explain my fascination for those images of buildings falling, my appreciation of the science and artistry of demolition obvious as the sequenced detonations bring down something that seemed so invulnerable just seconds before?
The billowing dust plume obscures the awful destruction for a minute or two, but when it settles and the heap is visible, I’m reminded of the good that re-vision does, tearing down memory, rearranging its parts suddenly, clearing a space for something new to rise in its place.
The Convention Hall in Atlantic City is one of those few arenas we played still standing, remodeled and renamed and dwarfed, after gambling was legalized in New Jersey in 1977, by megalithic hotels and casinos now fronting the Boardwalk. Every season in July, as I’ve said, the ice show opened to a long engagement there, five weeks, during which choreography, costuming, set changes, lighting, and special effects were refined before the twenty-five-city tour commenced.
Erected in 1929, the Hall was already decrepit when I first saw it almost a half-century later, but I wasn’t thinking that on the summer day in 1974 when I posed for a snapshot near the billboard on the Hall, pointing to my name displayed there, one of the minor headliners with the ice show. The building was, frankly, ugly—much like an enormous airplane hanger with a Roman-Greco facade facing the Atlantic Ocean, appended like a monumental afterthought—although I wasn’t thinking that either. Rather, I was thinking about my mother who would eventually see this photograph of me, about her reverence, yes reverence, for show business; about all of the famous people who had performed on its stage whom she’d admired and how I had the proof of my place in that lineage at last.
Inside the Hall the air was indolent, humid; the light, dim; the overall effect, oppressive. There was housed, is still housed, the world’s largest organ with 33,112 pipes. In a nightmare that recurred for years, I’m in the show again, again climbing the stairs backstage to get to the restroom, fully costumed and in my skates, surrounded by rank upon rank of its gigantic tubes, their mouths mute and agape.
New, Convention Hall had been considered a marvel, the largest building in the world with unobstructed interior views, publicized in a photograph of a prop plane flying through it while under construction. And under that same enormous barreled roof was where the pigeons took their first flight.
Seven nights of every week and at each of the three weekend matinees, there came in the finale of our show that violin tremolo on the sound track and a dulcet male voiceover alluding to what would follow—something inspirational about freedom on the wing or winged hope. Then the stage lights blacked out and five spotlights swept together into a single beam, four bright white, one magenta, illuminating a portable coop pushed onto the ice. From there the birds would fly the length of the arena, simulating a dule of peace doves, to a dovecote behind the proscenium, baited with birdseed, ethereally lit, glowing at a distance like a small Grecian temple.
Light. Hush. The lid of the coop would open and startled white birds would flush, a spume of pure instinct. Lift, fly home.
Ed Krieg had trained the pigeons. He’d made his name orchestrating such feats, coaching clumsy horses to gallop on treadmills while harnessed to ersatz Roman chariots, civilizing uncouth camels to stroll nonchalantly through Las Vegas productions taking Lawrence of Arabia as a theme. The pigeons were his special triumph: so many delicate, mercurial creatures, loosed at one time, with a relationship to gravity and to persuasion that Shetland ponies and Dalmatians didn’t share. So many—and each with its own flight pattern. Days would pass before he’d noted each bird’s characteristics as it left the coop and had tattooed it accordingly with a felt-tipped marker: its preferred direction, right or left or center, its preferred order of departure and angle of ascent. Days under his scrutiny before the mix of selected birds resulted in the most impressive effect. Krieg, who laid awake no doubt imagining the various choreographies of animal desire, tamed the pigeons for his purposes, humanely. He understood the mysteries of the homing instinct and the rewards of patience and trust, guided by gentle coercion.
Everything about that finale in advance of the country’s bicentennial could be seen as mawkishly patriotic: red, white, and blue costumes heavy with rhinestones, tambourines, star-studded bunting, Roman candles spewing fire and sulfurous smoke. I loved it. I wished my mother could see it. She’d been watching the Watergate investigation on TV for nearly a year, reading the screed published about the scandal. Wouldn’t this, this, snap her out of her funk, make her feel better?
Better, say, in the way that those musicals had when she was young and the Great Depression was barely over before another world war started. Better, say, in a way I could see in her hands, wadded into smalls fists of ecstasy when we’d watch those reruns together on the late show. Gene Kelly, Ginger and Fred, Sonja Henie. Some rapid-fire tap routine, two dancers whipping each other around, and those Busby Berkeley casts of hundreds draped with chiffon and fluffed out in ostrich plumage on spinning staircases, all of them singing and high-stepping, all of them ascending and descending like angels on Jacob’s ladder.
She was in her late fifties then, as I am now, and the light from the TV flickered across her face as it flickers across mine some evenings when I’m not really watching what’s on.
It was July, then August. It was 1974, and a heat wave had stalled over Atlantic City. Even inside the arena where we rehearsed you could smell the Boardwalk baking, the creosote stench rising from its weathered wood. Think of the trees, felled and flayed over the years to build it. The first promenade, twelve feet wide and a mile long, was laid in the summer of 1870 and was dismantled and stored every winter, safe from the reach of the storm tides. The structure presently scenting the damp atmosphere, four miles long and forty feet wide, was built in 1896 and was meant to last. It has: lasted heat waves and hurricanes, dozens of plush hotels rising to much fanfare and falling into inexorable disrepair, decades of shrewd hawkers, and billions of pummeling heels. It has hosted hundreds of Hollywood stars and every imaginable stunt and novelty act: a working replica of an Underwood typewriter 1,728 times normal size that typed on stationery measuring nine by twelve feet; the world’s largest Goodyear tire; singing, dancing Siamese twin sisters; pugilist midgets; and, from 1902 to 1943, guileless babes who were the guests of Dr. Martin Couney’s Premature Infant Exhibit.
The first Miss America was crowned in Atlantic City in 1921. King Neptune himself, who was eighty years old at the time, came ashore from a yacht to escort the eight contestants to the panel of judges. The next year fifty-eight women showed up. Atlantic City, the capital of boosterism, had successfully secured itself a continuing flow of tourists, even after the high season ended, for the next several decades. Soon there were tiaras for everything imaginable: Miss Hydrangea Queen, Miss Beach Patrol, Miss Senior Citizen, Miss Prettiest Waitress, and Miss Submarine. Miss Mermaid, bearing an enormous key instead of a scepter, was in charge of unlocking the Atlantic Ocean on Memorial Day.
The animal acts, though, were at least as popular as the beauty queens—Captain Roman Proske’s dancing tiger, Rex the waterskiing Wonder Dog, Professor Nelson’s boxing cats, and the High Diving Horses mounted by “daring girl riders.” All of them must have been under constant threat of being upstaged.
You would think that in a setting such as this it would be difficult to take yourself seriously as a performer. Not so. I feel right at home here, and I make it a point to spend a good deal of time on the Boardwalk between scheduled rehearsals. I visit the Planter’s Peanut factory every afternoon, where a tall, slender man dressed as Mr. Peanut is paid to stand outside the store and attract customers. A throng of seagulls and pigeons is always loitering at his feet. He is not permitted to speak, but when I pass I catch his monocled eye and I nod. I imagine we understand one another. His plastic peanut shell is somewhat feminine, even sexual, in its pronounced curves and textures. But he is not his shell. Inside it, he is himself, human, sentient, although for the duration of his shift, he is set apart from identity and humanity. He may work among the rabble—the tarot card readers and carnies and souvenir hawkers and cotton candy vendors—but he has a special calling. As do I.
The most popular souvenir in Atlantic City this summer is the Invisible Dog Leash—a leatherette strap stiffened with wire, fastened to a circular collar that hovers and bounces above the Boardwalk, simulating the movements of a small energetic dog. The people who buy the Invisible Dog Leash work to perfect their act. Occasionally they stoop to stroke their invisible canines; they praise them and scold them. These people want what Mr. Peanut and I share: livelihoods in promoting the improbable.
I play a sexpot in a futuristic discotheque to the soundtrack from Pippin and also an innocent girl in a pinafore at a country fair and picnic.
My hair, so they say, is still an issue. As are my breasts. In dress rehearsals we solve problems of this kind: problems of appearance, problems of image. The female star of the show has a haircut with so much appeal that it deserves a career of its own. But my hair has no professional prospects; it is purposely hidden from view. In the service of finding my image, I wear various combinations of switches and falls and full wigs. A cup size appropriate for me has yet to be determined—the costume designer has recommended two sets of bust pads.
I am grateful for his attention, though; I am a principle performer, one of the few whose name is announced when I skate. How these various sectors of my body are treated is, I think, a measure of privilege. I am not unaware of my exalted station: my hair and my breasts feel flattered by and a little giddy over this intense scrutiny. A friend of one of the chorus girls is with a different touring ice show. This friend plays a McDonaldland trash can in the kiddy number. I imagine her sweltering through every performance in a white vinyl cylinder, limbless and completely anonymous. Even her head is hidden under the dome of a yellow plastic lid. I imagine that, if you happen to be an order of French fries in that show, you feel very lucky—at least your face shows, a small, pinched oval framed by a bobbing thicket of foam rubber, dyed golden brown and flecked with glitter for salt.
And speaking of lucky, my mother will miss seeing the skating chimpanzees featured this season in our show whose expressions of distress backstage (screeching, fleeing with arms flying akimbo) and depression (passivity, slumped postures) are so, well, alarmingly human. I feel inclined to rescue them. How, I don’t know.
Unlike the pigeons, the chimpanzees are not a visual effect; like me, they are celebrities, though in their way even bigger stars. Fortunately, the public doesn’t see what I do behind the scenes. Reared for show business nearly from birth, Jacky and Joe have grown into case studies in thwarted primate psychology and biology, with all of the bad manners, twice the intellect, and ten times the strength and exuberance of delinquent teenagers. They live in a house trailer with their handlers, Toyoko and Lucien, when they aren’t napping or raising hell, pulling feathers from our boas, or pouting in their wire cages padded with excelsior.
In the chimp act Toyoko serves primarily as an attractive grip, moving the barrels and crates and other dangerous-looking obstacles that Jacky and Joe jump or somersault over as they taunt and evade Lucien. Jacky has a water pistol and knows how to use it.
Lucien always plays a spoilsport, a benign authoritarian figure. This season he’s dressed as an admiral, but he could just as easily have been a circle boss or a general. The chimps are always his menials and minions: sailors (or cowboys or soldiers). When the house lights come up, Toyoko is bussing tables in a cocktail lounge (or a saloon or a bar). The background music fades and “Anchors Away” (or “Home on the Range” or “You’re in the Army Now”) blares over the sound track as Lucien and the chimps enter the set: Make way, we’re high-spirited sailors (or cowboys or soldiers) ready for a night on the town! Then the boys dawdle a bit, pretending to look for a table, giving the audience time to agree that, yes, by God, those are real chimps out there. Those are not midgets! Can you beat that?
Finally, something a person could believe in.
But what, really, were we all clapping for? There they were, Jacky and Joe, ridiculously encumbered by their child-sized figure skates, wearing the scaled-down white sailor suits with navy blue neckties, doffing their white sailors’ caps, waving and grimacing at the crowd. They couldn’t skate all that well actually, but then the point of an animal act isn’t to demonstrate mastery; it’s to arouse basic wonder, I think—or maybe a subtle mixture of wonder and schadenfreude—that any animal, a human included, can be conditioned to forget itself and behave contrary to its nature, to its own best interests.
Atlantic City. Binghamton. Pittsburgh. Cleveland. New Haven. Springfield. Charlotte. Atlanta. Toronto. Montreal. Buffalo. Providence. Home for Christmas. Then Boston. New York City. Hartford. Washington, D.C. Next, Hershey, then Philadelphia.
Pinkie, who ran the cast concession stand backstage, also looked after the birds. They were hardly any trouble, she said. The only critical aspect of their daily care was keeping them hungry until the finale. Which was why Pinkie eventually had to padlock the dovecote: She lost a pigeon or two in Philadelphia when a prankster or a Samaritan, who knew, slipped the birds some extra rations at intermission. The last we saw of the fugitives were the flashes of white wings high in the dim recesses of the cavernous dome.
Krieg tried to breed the homing instinct out of his pigeons. With these, he’d failed. They flew to the catwalks to look for a landmark, a way to begin the journey back home to Las Vegas. Surely they died there in the Spectrum Arena; for a couple of days, perhaps, a few droppings, a few feathers on the ice. Then nothing.
When Jacky and Joe were calm and naked in their cage backstage, I studied their small bodies, the white flesh underlying the tufts of stiff hair on their chests and armpits. Their thick, wide feet. Their thick, wide palms and long, expressive fingers. I wondered what their dreams were like: Green, maybe, and warm. They looked like bewildered children to me when Lucien and Toyoko led them from their dressing room to the ice.
After Philadelphia came Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, then home for a few weeks before rehearsals began again in Atlantic City.
For a few years the shows went on, those weird amalgams of newly crowned champion figure skaters, themed production numbers, kicklines, pinwheels, skating jugglers, skating slapstick comedians, skating chimps. Ice Follies merged with Holiday on Ice, then U.S. operations were suspended. Ice Capades went bankrupt, was purchased by Olympic darling Dorothy Hamill whose revival attempt failed, then was sold again to Pat Robertson’s Family Entertainment, Inc.—a Christian juggernaut owning an ice show, go figure—which shut it down in the mid-nineties.
I was long gone by then. I could say, melodramatically, that my captivity ended in 1976 when I broke my contract and left the show, but in truth it wasn’t ended, not for years later; not until I started writing about the pigeons and the chimps; not until I discovered I could watch buildings crumble and have faith that what looks like terrible disaster may indeed be terrible—we all want what we cannot have, after all, immortality, everlasting life, one way or another—but that it might also motivate our escape from what truly keeps us bound.