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The One-of-a-Kind Zamboni : Name Put a Thrill in Ice Rink's Big Chill

June 16, 1988|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

PARAMOUNT — Sure, the unpainted, unwieldy contraption gave birth to a new industry.

But, it was, after all, only an ice-resurfacing machine.

And yet, in the four decades since, the Zamboni has not only become a recurring gag in the "Peanuts" cartoon strip, it has been cheered by crowds at hockey rinks, the namesake of a racehorse and the subject of a line of novelty items. It even inspired the formation of a fan club.

A scraper/ice-maker with mystique?

"I don't understand it," admitted 87-year-old Frank J. Zamboni, who invented the apparatus to service his ice-skating rink in Paramount. "I was just trying to find a better way of doing something."

More than 4,000 Zambonis have since found their way into 33 countries, including the Soviet Union and China. The Frank J. Zamboni Co. has become the biggest attraction in Paramount, now that the city no longer bills itself as the Hay Capital of the World.

Zamboni, the man, has been inducted into both the Ice Skating Institute of America and U.S. Hockey halls of fame and has received an honorary doctorate of engineering from Clarkson (N.Y.) College.

In an odd sort of way, he owes some of his success to another invention.

Services Homes, Dairies

He started out in the 1930s as an ice supplier to the residents and dairies of Hynes and Clearwater (two communities that later combined to form Paramount). Then came a formidable rival: the home refrigerator. The ice market melted away.

So, in 1939, he and a brother and some associates opened the Iceland rink in Paramount, which is still in operation under its original wooden roof.

The problem with the rink was that it took five workers about 1 1/2 hours to lay down a new sheet of ice after closing each night.

The magical phrase common to inventors popped into his mind: "There's got to be a better way . . ."

"It took him nine years," recalled his son, Richard Zamboni, now president of the company. "One of the reasons he stuck with it was that everyone told him he was crazy. When he finally finished, he was so sick of it that he didn't even bother painting it."

His Model A Ice Resurfacer No. 1 was a true Rube Goldberg contraption, featuring an old war-surplus Jeep engine, two Dodge front ends, a wooden bin to catch the shavings, and a series of pulleys.

"But she did the job," Frank Zamboni said the other day, gazing at the skeletal chassis of the prototype, which is housed in a modest shrine in a corner of the Iceland rink.

15-Minute Icing Whiz

And she did the job in 15 minutes. Like the more sophisticated successors to come, the machine was able to scrape the ice, gather the shavings and propel them into its bin, wash the ice, then lay down a coat of fresh hot water to be spread by a towel.

Still, once he'd put the thing together, Zamboni figured No. 1 would be the start and end of the line.

But, by chance, ice-skating star Sonja Henie and her troupe came to his rink and saw what it could do. She asked Zamboni to make her a Zamboni.

Before long, Chicago Stadium wanted one for the Black Hawks hockey team. "They were a little unhappy about it in Chicago because at the intermissions people would prefer to watch it rather than go out to the concession stands," Richard Zamboni said, smiling.

Zamboni drivers became celebrities, such as Boston Garden's Lito Grasso, who would wave to the fans while tooling about the ice and then, when he finished, bow to thunderous applause.

Along the way came a fan club (at Michigan Tech University), the race horse (the aptly named offspring of Icecapade and Sweeping Beauty), and the novelties such as a license plate frame ("My Other Car is a Zamboni").

(The Astro-Zamboni, a more recent invention designed to suction water off artificial turf, never quite caught on.)

In the beginning, the elder Zamboni had not dreamed of having his name on ice.

"He wanted to call his company Paramount Engineering, but that name was taken," his son said. "So he figured one name that wouldn't be taken was Frank J. Zamboni."

It was a good choice. Part of the product's fan appeal seems to lie in those three action-packed syllables--"Zam-bo-ni." "Well it does have a different sound to it," allowed Richard Zamboni.

"I guess it wouldn't be the same if a public address announcer said, 'Here comes the Smith or Jones,' " pointed out Francis Dagle, a crewman at Boston Garden's rink.

" 'Peanuts' gave it momentum, too," said young Zamboni.

Why Charles Schulz's interest?

"I've got two of my own at my rink" in Santa Rosa, explained the 65-year-old cartoonist who still plays an occasional game of hockey despite a recent knee injury.

Schulz discovered that he is not the only cartoonist who makes use of Zamboni.

"I got an idea to draw one where Snoopy gets a five-minute fighting penalty" in a hockey game, he said, "and Charlie Brown asks him who he was fighting with, and he says, 'With the Zamboni.' But then I saw the same joke in a cartoon in USA Today so I couldn't use it."

Costs Up to $40,000

Today, Zambonis, which are taken for test runs in the streets of Paramount at around 11 m.p.h., sell from $4,000 (the tractor-towed mini-model) to $40,000 (the full-size, battery-operated model).

Of course, a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. The Forum in nearby Inglewood recently switched to a Canadian competitor's product.

"We were a little disappointed," the younger Zamboni said. "We've had tickets supporting them (the Kings) for years."

Why the change?

"Our Zamboni was an antique and another company gave us a great price on a new one," a Forum spokesman said.

What company?

"That's a good question," said the spokesman, in unconscious tribute to the Zamboni name. "I can't think of it."

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