The "Superstar Ice Spectacular" at Knott's Berry Farm through the summer is more than a flashy high-tech production starring former Olympians Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. It's also a telling example of how ice shows have strayed from the traditional large arenas to find new life on the small stage.
For decades enormous halls like the Forum in Inglewood have been the customary home for touring extravaganzas like the Ice Capades and Ice Follies. But in recent years, producers have also staged pared-down versions in theaters usually reserved for more standard entertainment. Knott's, for instance, has mounted miniature ice shows since the late 1970s, and last year Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Harrah's in Lake Tahoe offered glitzy productions spotlighting Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming.
The shows are less costly and more sensational, utilizing state-of-the-art special effects like lasers, illusions and other theatrics in a less intimidating space, according to Dick Foster and Willy Bietak, the co-producers of the Knott's "Spectacular" and the Caesars Palace and Harrah's shows.
The skaters have a simpler explanation for the trend: the shows are popular because a smaller theater creates more intimacy between performers and their audience.
"You really get a completely different type of rapport, a much better rapport, than in one of those giant arenas," said Gardner, 28, who with Babilonia, 26, won the Pairs World Figure Skating Championship in 1979 and competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. "You have a smaller crowd that is much closer to the skaters. They get to see the facial expressions and each movement in some detail. I think they get much more involved in the drama of the whole thing."
But the abbreviated skating area--the Knott's stage is 60 feet by 40 feet, while the rink in most arenas (including the Forum) are about 160 feet by 95 feet, Bietak said--has drawbacks. Gardner, noting the dangers in maneuvering through the smaller space, recalled how a skater in the Caesars Palace show tumbled into the orchestra pit after failing to complete a turn.
"You definitely have to watch your turns and be aware of the front (of the stage)," Gardner said. "You really can't ease off (like on the larger rinks) or you may get into trouble. There's more concentration involved."
Babilonia added, "We haven't been hurt yet, knock on wood."
The limitations often inspire better and more intricate skating, said Foster and Bietak, who believe the tight quarters create a heightened excitement for the audience. And if the weaving performers aren't enough, the smoke clouds, flash pots, lasers and other lighting effects should do the job, they said.
Both are former producers for the larger Ice Follies, and Bietak, a member of the 1964 and 1968 Austrian Olympics team, has skated on stages of all sizes. The little theaters allow for more ambitious stagings that would be impossible, both financially and tactically, in the big arenas, they said.
It would take eight lasers at the Forum, for example, to get the same effect one provides at Knott's, Foster noted. Bietak added that the settings and background props used at Knott's would probably be too expensive to re-create on a grander scale for a larger hall. The smaller productions generally have fewer performers, and the cost savings in salaries also reduces overhead.
"Generally, it costs about three times as much to put on something like the Ice Capades," Bietak said, "and that doesn't include some of the wilder things we can do."
Foster quickly added that the "Spectacular" and the casino shows were not designed to replace better-known productions like the Ice Capades, which tend to offer longer performances, more ensemble skating and try to attract families. Bietak's and Foster's productions are designed more for a mixed crowd that wants razzle-dazzle.
"We are not an alternative but an option," Foster explained. "The Ice Capades will always be popular because it tours across the country and gives everybody an opportunity to see skating. Without the Ice Capades, people in Omaha (Neb.) might not get to see skating."
Determining how far to go in the staging is often tricky. Ice skating has always evoked images of Olympic stars from Sonja Henie to Scott Hamilton gliding sublimely through delicate choreography, and producers risk overshadowing that art with technology, Foster concedes. Music videos, Bietak said, are examples of how overpowering images can disrupt a performance.
"We try to enhance the skating and, hopefully, we abandon an effect when it takes the special quality away from the skating," Bietak said. "I guess the audience has to judge how successful we've been."