When Roy Blakey was 10, and roller skating along the level horizons of Enid, Okla., he saw an ice-skating movie with Olympic sensation Sonja Henie gliding over mirror-like black ice.
“With all the swirling and dancing and jumping, I thought, this is the most magical thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
He began clipping stories about ice skating shows, and snaring posters when he could. He charmed five-star hotels into mailing him anything — anything — from their latest ice skating extravaganzas.
This was in the 1930s and ’40s, when many grand hotels had small ice rinks, around which their clientele of swells could nibble at lobster or sip champagne while watching ice skaters in lavish costumes (or sometimes, barely any costumes at all) twirl and glide. Minneapolis’ Hotel Nicollet, now long gone, had its own 20-foot-square rink.
Blakey eventually became a professional skater, touring 15 years in ice shows around the world and performing in those swank hotels himself. “I was at the Conrad Hilton in Chicago for five years,” he said. “Two shows a day, seven days a week. It was a magic, magic time.”
And he kept collecting.
Today, his assemblage of skating memorabilia is, by all accounts, the world’s largest. He has 10 of Henie’s spectacular costumes, along with publicity photos, posters and programs from shows in Europe, Japan, the U.S. and South America. He has lunchboxes, ashtrays, Wheaties boxes and coffee mugs featuring skaters — from 1920s superstar Charlotte to current Olympians.
The IceStage Archive is on public display Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the first time Blakey has opened his doors since the World Figure Skating Championships were held in Minneapolis in 1998. (Answers to unasked trivia questions: Alexei Yagudin and Michelle Kwan.)
Blakey, who went on to a career as a professional photographer, thought he had 26,000 pieces until a computer whiz hired three years ago to document each item turned up 30,000, representing the theatrical history of skating on frozen water from the 1860s to Disney on Ice.
It’s right here, sardined into a small studio in northeast Minneapolis, waiting for a patron, philanthropist, sugar daddy or momma (Peggy? Dorothy?) to come up with a fitting museum for such a collection.
“The ultimate goal is to find a home for the archive,” said Keri Pickett, a Minneapolis photographer whose documentary “The Fabulous Ice Age” debuted last spring at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. It earned “best documentary” at the Independent Women’s Film Festival last year in Los Angeles, has been an official selection at film festivals around the country and was screened earlier this year at New York City’s Lincoln Center.
She’s since re-edited it to include more about youth opportunities in skating. Publicizing the archive “was the reason for the documentary. I could see the importance of the ice entertainment genre, and want others to, too.”
Minnesota: Home to Follies
Once, ice skating wasn’t about nailing a quad, or whacking a knee or upholding a nation’s honor.
Skating has been around for thousands of years in some form, likely originating in Finland as a form of recreation. Then in the mid-1800s, an American dancer, Jackson Haines, began adding balletic moves to his skating, going so far as to spin and jump. Skaters were not amused.
Haines moved to Europe where, over time, his fluid theatricality caught on. In 1911, the first professional ice ballet skating company was founded in Germany. Such nuts-and-bolts of history comes alive in Blakey’s archives, which include old photos of Haines and colorized postcards of lavishly costumed skaters.
The collection also documents Minnesota’s pivotal role in skating history.
In the 1920s, St. Paul brothers Eddie and Roy Shipstad and their pal Oscar Johnson formed a comic skating act, entertaining at hockey games in the Twin Cities and at New York’s Madison Square Garden where, yes, they used a blanket to transform themselves into a skating horse.
Their success prompted them to return to St. Paul and launch an even bigger show. In 1936, the Ice Follies were born, the first touring ice show.
Holiday on Ice, produced by Morris Chalfen, later started in Minneapolis. Tom Collins produced the global Champions on Ice from the Twin Cities for years before partnering with Stars on Ice in 2008.
Pickett’s documentary tells these stories, along with other strands of skating history, through interviews with skaters whom Blakey befriended over the years, particularly Scott Hamilton and Dick Button, Olympic champions and longtime skating commentators. (The documentary is available for streaming on Netflix, and also for sale online, as well at the open house.)
In search of a home
Blakey turns 84 in July, yet appears years younger. Trim and charming, you get the impression that he could tell a story about each item in his sprawling collection.
There are the obvious treasures such as Sonja Henie’s costumes which, given that she skated in the 1930s and ’40s, are surprisingly provocative.
“She’d wear a flesh-colored body suit with sequins covering the naughty bits,” Blakey said, arching an eyebrow.
There are the unexpected treasures, such as a working pinball machine with a skating theme. “I love the cling-clangs and the boom-booms,” he said, fingers twitching.
But what makes his collection most unusual are the less flashy treasures: matchbooks, programs, ticket stubs.
“I know that no one else would have these things because they are ephemera,” items with a limited purpose.
“It’s difficult to find things that I don’t have — but I still do!” he said. His collection is so well-known within the skating world that heirs of past skating stars ask if they can send him memorabilia, “so it’s bittersweet.”
Finding a home for the IceStage Archive is more difficult than either he or Pickett imagined. The state historical society is most interested in the Minnesota items. The Smithsonian Institution wants only the national pieces, he said.
But the archive represents an international history of ice skating that shouldn’t be carved up, Pickett said. With mock frustration, she explained her vested interest in finding a suitable destination. She’s Blakey’s niece, and credits his fine arts photography career for inspiring her own pursuit. So when Uncle Roy asked to store some stuff at her business, she said yes.
That was thousands of items ago.
“This used to be my photo studio,” she said, laughing. “Now it’s become a museum.”