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

December 25, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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