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Werner Groebli, 1915 - 2008

'Frick' was half of a comic ice-skating duo

April 23, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post
  • IN CHARACTER The New York Times once described Werner Groebli as "a master skater whose knack for comedy and instinct for effect make the technical know-how of brilliant skating a tool for greater artistry."
IN CHARACTER The New York Times once described Werner Groebli as "a…

Werner Groebli, half of the comic ice-skating duo "Frick and Frack" adored by millions in the 1940s and 1950s, and who continued to entertain audiences as a solo artist for decades, died April 14 at a hospital in Zurich. He was 92.

Groebli -- Frick -- and his skating partner, Hans-Rudi "Frack" Mauch, were Swiss-born figure skaters who turned successfully to goofing around.

Life magazine called them the "Clown Kings of the Ice," but they were praised as much for their grace as their comic timing and off-balance acrobatics.

The New York Times described Groebli as "a master skater whose knack for comedy and instinct for effect make the technical know-how of brilliant skating a tool for greater artistry." Olympic figure skating champion Debi Thomas was among his admirers.

When Groebli and Mauch began performing in the early 1930s, their aim was to make fun of what they called the pomposity of professional skaters.

They wore lederhosen -- traditional alpine clothing -- and incorporated spoofs of ballet and other traditional dance styles in their act. They became a mainstay of Shipstads and Johnson's much-praised Ice Follies show from 1939 to 1954 and also appeared in films and on television.

Groebli became best-known for his "spread-eagle cantilever," which he described this way: "Put your knees over a bar, hook your feet behind a solid support, and lean over backward from the knee until you are parallel to the floor and your head is almost touching it." He added, "A lot of people can do it now, but some of them seem to suffer a lot. The whole idea is not to show any pain when you do it. After all, it's supposed to be funny."

Werner Fritz Groebli was born April 21, 1915, in Basel, Switzerland. He lived next door to Mauch, and as children they shared a pair of skates during winter months.

Groebli won Switzerland's junior skating championship in 1934, but he and Mauch found far more applause after lampooning skaters at a local rink.

They adopted the names Frick and Frack so as not to embarrass their families and, after honing their act at local carnivals, began an international career. They appeared in "Rhapsody on Ice" at London's Covent Garden and spent four weeks performing in Los Angeles at the Tropical Ice Garden.

The duo ultimately landed with the Ice Follies, a major touring show started by two Minnesota impresarios during the Depression. Amid their exhausting schedule, Frick and Frack appeared on screen in "Silver Skates" and "Lady, Let's Dance," two low-budget musical-variety films of the early 1940s.

Mauch retired in 1954 because of a debilitating bone condition; he died in 1979. Groebli continued another four decades in a solo career, formalizing his artistic name to "Mr. Frick." He was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1984.

Off the ice, Groebli joked about being a cheapskate. He said he wore his skates on an airplane trip to Europe and placed his lighter shoes in the luggage to avoid paying a fee for excess weight.

That image aside, he was said to be a shrewd real estate investor and spent many years between homes in Zurich and Lake Tahoe.

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