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Rinking In New Era of Skating Fans : Business Is Gliding Along Across U.S.

October 18, 1988|ELAINE POFELDT | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The year was 1947, and Michael Kirby, a 22-year-old actor and sometime figure-skating teacher, was skating by himself at a West Los Angeles ice rink when the manager approached him. The manager asked Kirby if he'd like to skate with the owner of the arena.

"I told him I'd be honored to," Kirby said.

Who wouldn't have? The name of the arena was Sonja Henie Westside Ice Palace, and the owner, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, was one of the most famous athletes and movie stars in the world.

Henie, a national skating champion in her native Norway at age 14, had won the gold medal for figure skating in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics and had starred in a series of Hollywood films--most of them with ice-skating backdrops--when Kirby met her. It was Henie's showmanship on ice, both in the Olympics and in movies, that helped turn ice skating into a popular recreational pastime in the United States.

Kirby's chance meeting with the star turned out to be much more than that.

"We got along well," said Kirby, now 63 and owner of San Diego Ice Arena. "We seemed to have similar stroking, even though she was a foot shorter than I was. The very first day I skated with her, we were skating side by side, doing some footwork, and she tripped and I caught her before she fell. She thought that was pretty good. And it was just pure luck."

Later that day, Henie asked Kirby if he would like to work with her in an upcoming motion picture, and also invited him to join her Hollywood Ice Review, which was about to go on tour. Kirby said Henie wouldn't have taken no for an answer even if he had been foolish enough to give it.

"She was a pretty determined person and she made up her mind," he said.

Kirby went on tour and the next year co-starred with Henie in "The Countess of Monte Cristo." Later, he signed a contract with MGM for a series of small roles in skating movies.

"Some of those films are still on late-night TV," he said, laughing.

Although skating films have gone the way of many such squeaky-clean forms of entertainment, Kirby said, the movies, in combination with shows such as the Ice Capades, sparked the American public's on-again, off-again romance with ice skating--one that is again in full swing across the country thanks to publicity for this year's winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.

Kirby is trying to keep the romance alive in San Diego. He and his wife, Norah, a former Canadian champion in figure and free skating, moved to San Diego from Newport Beach in April to renovate the 14-year-old San Diego Ice Arena on Black Mountain Road, which they leased from a bankrupt owner six months ago.

The rink underwent $150,000 worth of improvements and reopened Aug. 23. Besides its new refrigeration system, the arena has two new skating teachers and a schedule of beginner classes set up with a system Kirby devised decades ago. So far, he said, San Diego is responding.

On opening night, about 3,000 people showed up to see performances by Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist in figure skating, and Todd Eldridge, the current junior world champion, followed by a free skating period for the audience.

"It astounded me that there was that interest for basically a non-event," Kirby said.

The interest kept up during the heat wave on Labor Day weekend, when the rink drew about 1,000 people, "about three times our usual weekend business," he said.

Business at Ice Capades Chalet at the University Towne Center shopping mall, the only other ice arena in San Diego, is also increasing, said manager Dan Despotopulos.

"My boss used to say that the Olympic year would be a peak and after that the curve would go down," Despotopulos said. "But we have found that that's not so. It doesn't go up and down. We've been pretty steady all along, with more bumps to the increase than a decrease."

The greater Los Angeles area is experiencing a similar increase, according to Arnie Sagarsky, general manager of Iceland rink in Paramount. Sagarsky said that, in the past two years, business at Iceland has increased about 40%.

"Even the competitive skaters need practice time on the ice," he said. "It's not available because there aren't enough rinks in Southern California. It's become a real asset for a rink owner to have a rink in Southern California."

People are, in fact, taking to the ice across the United States, according to Justine Townsend Smith, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute of America, a nonprofit group of rink owners and managers.

"Skating has become very popular all year 'round," Townsend Smith said.

The number of people who took ice skating classes at the 400 nationwide rinks that belong to the institute is up 15% from the last fiscal year, to about 100,000, Townsend Smith said. Kirby, the institute's founder, said that at least 25 million Americans skated at least once last year.

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