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The Coolest Club : Skating Elite Make Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank Their Base

Times Staff Writer

It was March 10, 1933. On the rink at the Palais de Glace in Hollywood, several skaters were sailing across the ice in an exhibition performance.

Not for long.

Less than 40 miles away, other things started sailing around--chairs, tables, panes of glass, entire walls and whole buildings. The Long Beach earthquake, one of the deadliest of this century in Southern California, had begun.

Those skaters, however, were obviously not the type to be deterred by ominous signs. When all the shaking had stopped, they convened in a meeting room at the Palais de Glace and went ahead with their plans to form a club.

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It might have been the only good to come of that horrendous night.

In the ensuing 54 years, the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club has shaken up Southland ice skating--which had been basically a social activity--and turned it into a tough, competitive, world-class program.

Today, the LAFSC, headquartered at the Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank, has nearly 800 members, including world champions, Olympic performers, about 60 professionals, judges from the junior to the world level and enough quality skaters to qualify 24 for next month’s national championships in Denver.

It all took time.

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When the newly formed LAFSC decided to join the United States Figure Skating Assn., it had a problem. Membership dues were $15.

So what? This was , remember, 1933. The Great Depression had gripped the nation. People were shivering in bread lines, waiting for a free meal, not in rinks waiting for ice time. Few had money.

The LAFSC held a fund-raising dinner attended by 22 members and three guests. The sum raised: $7.68.

The LAFSC finally got the rest of its money by assessing each of its 30 members a quarter.

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The training program was pretty haphazard.

“There were no professionals,” said Eleanor Schultz, current president of the club. “Everybody just kind of followed everybody else around and learned.”

The real breakthrough in popularity for Southland skating came in 1936 in the form of a glamorous Norwegian named Sonja Henie. A 10-time world champion skater and three-time Olympic gold medal winner, Henie decided she wanted to do her future skating across the silver screen.

She came to Los Angeles in ’36 and rented the Hollywood Polar Palace to put on a demonstration for interested film studios. By this time, the Polar Palace was home for the LAFSC; the Palais de Glace was razed in a 1934 fire. The Polar Palace would suffer a similar fate in 1963, sending the LAFSC to its current headquarters.

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Several members of the LAFSC were used in Henie’s local debut, which resulted in a successful film career.

“Sonja Henie turned us around,” says Josephine Lawless, club historian. “It was the first time local skaters had seen a world champion in the flesh and realized what could be accomplished. It changed everybody’s ideas about skating. Sonja Henie was the mother of modern skating. She didn’t just turn people around in this club, but in the whole world.

“I can remember growing up in Minnesota and finding white skates under the Christmas tree when I was six years old.”

From then on, LAFSC members needed only to look in their own rink to find champions. It began in 1938 when Eugene Turner won a national championship in junior men’s competition and followed that with senior men’s national titles in 1940 and ’41. Also in ’41, he teamed with Donna Atwood to win a national senior pairs title. Turner went on to dance professionally with Henie.

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His successors on the LAFSC list of champions form an impressive roll. Along with a total of 47 national titles, the club has placed members on the U. S. Olympic team for three decades. It began with Catherine Machado Gray in 1956, followed by Robert Brewer in 1960, Roy Wagelein in 1968, Linda Fratianne, dance partners Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, and Wendy Burge Dickenson in 1976, and then Fratianne and Babilonia again in 1980.

The club has yet to produce an Olympic gold medal winner, but Fratianne took a silver at the ’80 Winter Games and won world championships in ’77 and ’79 representing the LAFSC. Babilonia danced her way to another world title for the club, also in ’79.

And the beat goes on. Among the 24 headed for Denver in two weeks is Debi Thomas, the club’s current superstar and its hope for a gold medal at Calgary in the ’88 Winter Games.

With the thrill of all those victories, there has been agony. Four members of the club were killed in a 1961 plane crash near Brussels, Belgium, that took the lives of the entire U. S. contingent heading for world competition that year. The four, whose names are enshrined on a plaque at Pickwick, were: Roger H. Campbell, Dona Lee Carrier, Deane McMinn and Diane Carol Sherbloom.

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Some members of the club have never even set foot in Pickwick, nor met the majority of the people in the organization. They skate in other areas of the country but pay their $35 in dues to belong to the LAFSC.

Why? Every skater competing at every level must belong to a club. But why this one? Certainly not for the financial rewards. The club does pay entry fees for the higher-level competitors, but at the most that wouldn’t amount to more than $150.

“It’s like an extended family,” said Cindy Bortz of Tarzana and the LAFSC, one of skating’s rising stars. “They have excellent judges here who will critique you but still be very supportive. I came here just because my coach, Wendy Olson, taught over here. But I’m so glad now. The people here are so caring. They will do anything for you.”

Bortz learned just how prestigious a club she had fallen into when she went to Moscow to compete. People from the Soviet skating community surrounded her and asked in broken English, “You got L. A. club pin? We want L. A. club pin.”

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Frank Carroll, one of the sport’s top coaches, tries to get all his skaters into the LAFSC. If they resist, he tries friendly pressure.

“I had one kid who hadn’t joined,” Carroll said. “So when he would come up, I’d say, ‘Here’s so-and-so from the enemy club.’ It’s not that I demand they join here, but I do ride them and kid them until they change.”

Carroll feels it can be extremely important to enter the national or international stage as a member of the L. A. club.

“It can be so advantageous to be in a good club,” he explained. “As you progress to different levels, it’s important to be in a club where they’ll encourage you and expose you to new levels. The L. A. club is one of the best. This club offers a lot of very knowledgeable people. There are coaches available on all levels.

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“We have national and international judges in this club. It’s not a bad thing to have them on your side, to have them like you when they are judging.

“I’ve taught here for 25 years. One of the things I like is the nice feeling I have with the top officials. If there’s a problem, I can go talk to them as friends.”

Club officials, all of whom work on a volunteer basis, have tried to avoid some problems by keeping parents of current competitors off the board of directors.

“You have to stay above it,” Lawless said, “if you want to do a good job.”

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It’s not nirvana. For one thing, the club, with various fund-raising events, usually is doing well if it breaks even financially.

For another, the club must share Pickwick with a speed skating club, hockey players and the general skating public. The dream of its own arena remains just that for the LAFSC.

“There’s a club in Seattle,” Carroll saids, “that makes something like $200,000 from staging bingo games. And they have no skaters. They’re lucky if they have someone make the nationals. We’re barely breaking even. If this club puts on a show and nobody comes, it’s in big trouble.”

Trouble or not, it has come a long way since that horrible night in 1933.

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“I talked to Pauline Neuman, the club’s original secretary,” Lawless said, “before she passed away two years ago. She told me that if the other original members could have seen the way things turned out, they would never have believed it. . . . Pauline felt, to those original members, it would have just been mind-boggling.”


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