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Road show

Behind the scenes, life on the pro skating tour is not all sequins and spotlights.(Cover Story)

Source: Maclean's, v108 n15 p36(6).
Date: April 10, 1995
Author: James Deacon
Abstract: The Stars on Ice professional skating tour was founded in 1986, by Scott Hamilton, and has evolved into a major money-making enterprise. Some of the tour's top skaters such as Kurt Browning and Kristi Yamaguchi earn more than $1 million. A behind-the-scenes look at the tour is provided.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1995 Maclean Hunter (Canada)

Despite a profusion of spandex and sequins, the backstage scene is not a pretty sight. The place is the drearily named Centrum in Worcester, Mass., outside Boston, and cast members warming up for the evening performance of Stars on Ice are competing for space with the Zamboni. Ordinarily the domain of the Worcester Ice Cats minor-league hockey team, the arena's concrete corridors smell of sweat and industrial cleanser, and the flickering fluorescent bulbs overhead cast a sickly green light. So much for the glamorous world of figure skating. But the skaters are oblivious. Just a few minutes before taking to the ice, they stretch or run on the spot to keep their muscles loose. And they focus on their routines--although every one of the 14 skaters is a veteran international competitor, they are still prone to pre-performance jitters. Each night may end in a flood of spotlights and thunderous applause, but no one takes that for granted. "You know that people paid money to see this," says cast member Kurt Browning. "So when the lights come on, boom, you do it."

Stars on Ice, which begins its 12-show Canadian tour on April 13 in Halifax, is a rousing modern take on the old ice show. It boasts celebrity skaters, of whom seven--Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Scott Hamilton, Paul Wylie and Browning--are generally considered to be among the top dozen professionals in the world. (Witt and Wylie skate only in the U.S. shows; in Canada, Josee Chouinard, Brian Orser and pairs skaters Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler will join the tour.) Stars is not cut from the mould of the full-production fairy tales or cartoons mounted by Ice Capades and Disney's World on Ice. It is more adult, more hip. And it is proof that, in the post-Olympics, post-Nancy-and-Tonya world, skating has become a big-money entertainment for which there is a seemingly insatiable public appetite--as Maclean's observed recently in five days spent travelling with the tour.

Directed by Toronto choreographer Sandra Bezic, Stars is targeted at baby boomers. The sound and lighting systems befit a rock show, which makes sense considering that the skaters have the profiles of rock stars. Scott Hamilton, the American who leads the troupe, co-founded the tour in 1986 and has watched his creation evolve into a full-blown extravaganza. To begin with, the payroll has swelled--Hamilton, Yamaguchi, Witt and Browning will each take home more than $1 million from the 58-city, four-month tour. Beyond the skaters, there is a full-time technical crew, seamstresses and physiotherapists, and a semi-trailer to haul the 125 high-tech lamps, the computerized lighting board, 20,000 watts of sound system, the set--in all, 65,000 lb. of expensive stuff. There are two buses--one for the cast, one for the crew. Choreographers, coaches, agents, spouses and sponsors drop by unannounced. But when the lights go down and the music comes up--when a skater meets a spotlight and a packed house--the show goes on.

Stars on Ice

Philadelphia--Fat Tuesday in the home of the cheesesteak. The Stars have tucked themselves into a luxurious hotel just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell and other historic attractions. Tomorrow night, the skaters will perform at the Spectrum, home of hockey's Flyers and basketball's 76ers. Tonight, however, is for fun. On tour, the possibilities are endless: movies, shows, great seats for the Flyers' game. Hamilton dines at the hotel's outlandishly expensive restaurant and is delighted to discover a wine he has sought for weeks. "It was $85," he says, "but it was worth it."

Not quite so cavalier with their cash, Christine Hough and Doug Ladret, the Canadian pairs champions in 1988, find quieter pursuits. They do not have drawers full of world and Olympic medals, and they don't earn a tenth of what some of their colleagues take home. Still, pro skating has smiled on Hough, 25, of Toronto and Ladret, 33, of Cambridge, Ont., since they retired from the amateur ranks after the 1992 Olympics. They work almost constantly. "We have to capitalize on everything we can, when we can, because we do not know how long the boom will last," Hough says over lunch in the hotel lounge the next day. "It's kind of like the gold rush." Stars is a great gig, partly because they skate with the gods of pairs skating, Gordeeva and Grinkov, every night. "We are better now as professionals than we ever were as amateurs," says Hough. "We have to be," adds Ladret, "just to keep up with what everyone else is doing."

Witt, the former East German ice queen who was freed by the fall of communism to sample the wares of the west, heads for the Barnes exhibit of impressionist paintings at the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art. But that turns out to be more complicated than just walking the few blocks. Someone has been stalking Witt, and police believe he lives in Philadelphia; she is escorted everywhere by burly security guards. "One of them is kind of cute," she says, laughing off some of her anxiety. This is not her first stalker, but that does not make it any easier. "I don't think about it," she says. "I can't--otherwise I wouldn't go anywhere. I have to live my life. I must."

The tour's second home, a custom bus called Chantilly, arrives to take the cast to the Spectrum, and inside is a world unto itself. Fitted with bunks, a stocked kitchen, two toilets, two TVs and two VCRs, it also has two living areas. At the back is the so-called Russian Tea Room, inhabited by Gordeeva and Grinkov, pairs skaters Elena Bechke and Dennis Petrov, and ice dancers Natalia Annenko and Genrich Sretenski. Browning, the intrepid Albertan, occasionally horns in and, when everyone laughs, he asks for a translation of the joke. "Most of their jokes don't translate very well," he says. "Either that or they aren't very funny."

Up front, the remaining skaters sit with perpetual-motion tour producer Byron Allen, publicist Lynn Plage and marketing director David Baden. Baden barks out practice times and any changes in routine. "There's a new hotel for New York," says Baden, passing out sheets detailing the change. "What's the matter with The Palace?" asks Hamilton. "It's on fire," says Baden. People laugh. "Seriously," he says. Sure enough, right there on CNN, fire trucks surround their intended hotel. That gets a really big laugh.

practice

At workouts, the singles skaters--Yamaguchi, Witt, Rosalynn Sumners, Hamilton, Browning and Wylie--go first, followed by the pairs and ice dancers. Yamaguchi chats at rink side with seven-year-old Alexis Boyce, who is suffering from a possibly incurable germ-cell cancer and who had asked the Make a Wish Foundation for tickets to the show. Yamaguchi skated her around and autographed some Stars on Ice memorabilia. Later, during the show, Boyce and family would sit in ice-level seats. "It really puts things in perspective," Yamaguchi says afterward. "These kids have problems that we cannot imagine."

After practice, the entire company heads for "catering," where dinner--chicken legs, pasta, salad--is laid out cafeteria-style. It's the same every night. In black sweats, Witt skips the main course and goes straight to the chocolate cake and coffee. Though not the dominant skater she was in the 1980s, Witt's name and sex appeal continue to make her a star. Off the ice as well as on, she has had a lot to do with the show's success. After winning her second straight Olympic gold medal at the 1988 Winter Games, she and America's Olympic gold-medallist Brian Boitano launched a skating tour that included such "A" buildings as Madison Square Garden in New York City and Philadelphia's Spectrum. The Cleveland-based International Management Group, which produces Stars on Ice, had not been able to book into those buildings until the two tours merged in 1992.

Boitano has since gone his own way, but Witt remains. "I always want to be in the best projects," she explains. "This has the best staging, the best choreography, the best music." With experience, she has learned to take herself less seriously. That is good--the tour is a casteless society and her colleagues can be remorseless in their teasing. "I have never had so much fun on a tour before, or gotten along with everyone so well," she says. "We are all adults--we know what we are doing out here." Now 29, Witt has an apartment in New York and, once the U.S. segment of the tour ends, she will go home to her other apartment, in Berlin, where a new Mercedes convertible awaits. As for her private life, she has not had a steady companion since she broke up with actor Richard Dean Anderson--TV's MacGyver--two years ago. But rumors abound. "Half of the stories are even true," she laughs suggestively. "But really, it's difficult to keep up a relationship. You have to find someone who can tolerate this job."

Philadelphia crowds are notoriously tough, but the 17,380 fans at the sold-out Spectrum are loudly supportive. They love Hamilton's Stepping Out routine, Browning's All Alone and Witt's Summertime. Afterward, the "relationship-thing" comes up again: Hough, Browning and Sumners all bemoan the strains of long-distance romance. And on the shuttle to the airport for the flight to Boston the next morning, Annenko watches out the window with tears streaming down her cheeks. "She needs her husband very much because they are all the time separated," explains Gordeeva. Gordeeva does not have that problem: her husband and true love is also her skating partner, Grinkov. But she does miss their two-year-old daughter, Daria, whom she sees at Hartford, Conn., home during off-days from the tour. Still, she is better off than most. "I am very happy that we can travel together," she says, motioning to Grinkov beside her on the flight to Boston. "I think it's the best thing that we can get and be in this life."

The show's many choreographic styles have revealed Grinkov to be a much better skater than he was ever given credit for--he was previously seen only as the setting for the diamond, Gordeeva. "She is by far the most attractive woman in the sport," explains Canadian skater-choreographer-judge Toller Cranston. "She ought to be on the cover of Vogue." Together, the two-time Olympic champions seem content with life on the road. The hotels are deluxe, the organization is first-rate, the food is good and the money is better. Compared with the confused state of their homeland, Stars on Ice is bliss. "We are so lucky here," she says. "In Russia, people can work all month for celery." You mean salary? "No. Celery."

Wylie is throwing a party at his apartment in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, where one attraction is the washer-dryer. "When we get to your place, can I do some laundry?" Bechke asks. "Only few things." Browning, meanwhile, has shuffled off to Buffalo for a day of interviews. Buffalo is one of the few weak markets on tour, and ticket sales need a boost. He is back by late afternoon, in time to work out and then grab a cab to the Boston Garden for the Bruins-New Jersey Devils game. Held up in traffic, he is too late to pick up his primo reserved seats--they have already been sold. He settles for Section 21, Row N, Seat 4, from which all but a fraction of the ice is obscured by the overhanging upper deck. "People pay for this?" he asks as the play disappears from view.

Browning's main tour responsibilities lie ahead, in Canada, where he is the headliner. In the States, where Hamilton and Yamaguchi shoulder that responsibility, he is able to concentrate on skating. He has needed the practice--late last season, he was not skating well, even losing his prized triple-Axel for a time. He is doing better now, but the prolonged slump was scary. "I had had a charmed career until that happened," he says. "Hopefully, I'll learn from it." There is an ethic on tour that helps maintain a high level of performance, he says. In Hartford, he blew a triple Salchow, a relatively easy jump for him. At the next stop, Philadelphia, "the whole company was watching to see that jump because it was such an embarrassing thing the night before," he says. "Things like that are fun, but they remind you that this is serious business."

Stars on Ice

Yamaguchi agrees. Browning's training-mate at Edmonton's Royal Glenora Club when the two were preparing for the 1992 Olympics, the Californian is money in the bank, literally and figuratively. Her consistent performances were the key to her Olympic victory, and they now mark her successful professional career. "There is pressure to live up to your name," she says aboard the bus bound for practice in Worcester. "People know who you are, and they expect a certain quality. It's a different pressure from amateur. Instead of going after one single event, it's every night of the week, having to be `on' for months at a time."

In Worcester, just before the show, tour producer Allen bustles by muttering: "We go on in five minutes and Kristi can't find her contacts." Yamaguchi cannot see, let alone skate, without her contact lenses. Disaster is averted--the contacts are found--but not before cast and crew indulge in a little gallows humor. "What she can't see won't hurt her," a stagehand says.

The Worcester show is particularly important to several of the skaters, and they come through in style. Wylie, who lives in the area, is sensational in both solo routines. Hamilton, who grew up in Boston, brings the house down. Hough, who is dating a member of the Bruins, defenceman Don Sweeney, dazzles even though Sweeney is unable to attend. And Annenko, whose husband has made a surprise visit, is positively radiant. On the bus back to Boston, everyone gathers to sing happy birthday to pairs skater Petrov--he's 27--and share in the cake. Yamaguchi, sifting through her usual heap of post-performance flowers, discovers one huge bouquet from someone named Eric Anderson, whose card reads: "Skating had no meaning for me until you stepped onto the ice." Anderson also notes on the card that he is nine years old.

Hamilton, still charged up, gives the impression that every show is special. He tells anyone willing to listen that he has lost his legs, his jumps, his timing. Then, he goes out and nails everything, including six backflips a night. "You work hard in this business," he says, "and you'll have a good career." He ought to know. By rights, the 1984 Olympic champion should have declined into a character skater by now, a little fat and a lot slow. He is neither--at 36, he still has the fastest feet in the business (in competitions alone this season, he earned more than $1 million). "I am still getting used to being around Scott Hamilton," says Gordeeva. "He is always so fun, so great." Says Browning: "Scott Hamilton is the closest thing I have to a hero in skating. He's incredible."

In the fall of 1986, when Hamilton first assembled the cast, the music and some choreography, he took the fledgling Stars on a modest five-city tour. During the first-ever performance, in Orono, Me., a lighting bar in the arena exploded, setting fire to part of the building and sending nine people to hospital. Things certainly have changed. "The show has always been well-balanced artistically, but top to bottom this cast is pretty strong," he says, laughing at his understatement. The payback, he says, comes every night. "There is nothing--nothing--better than that feeling at the end of the show when all those people are standing, cheering, feeling great," he says. "And 14 of us made it happen. It's awesome."

Stars On Ice

The flight to New York is on an aging jet that shakes, rattles and rolls out to its takeoff position, and there is palpable relief when it finally gets airborne. "The shows are easy," says Hamilton. "Getting from city to city is the hard part." Although they do not admit it, the skaters have all been gearing up for Madison Square Garden. Everyone, from Yamaguchi's boyfriend to Witt's parents just in from Germany, is there. At the Garden, as the skaters prepare for the show, an ABC camera crew and two reporters from a German fashion magazine are hot in pursuit of Witt, who doesn't mind the attention. Production manager David Hoffis tries to clear the hallways and wonders aloud how so many people could get backstage passes. "New York is special for the skaters," says director Bezic, who has flown in from Toronto. "They all want to do well here because, well, it's New York."

The performance is superb, the best yet. Strangely, the audience is slow to react compared with those in other cities, and it does not get truly warmed up until Hamilton does his frenetic Cuban Pete, from the movie The Mask. From there on, it is gravy: the rousing Rolling Stones medley that closes the show--suitably to the tune Harlem Shuffle--elicits an immediate and prolonged standing ovation.

There is a real buzz in the dressing rooms--everyone is pleased and a little relieved. But there is still work to do: the show's U.S. sponsor, Discover Card, has arranged a reception at a nearby ballroom. "Receptions" are autograph free-for-alls for clients of the sponsor, and from the moment they arrive the skaters are surrounded. Yamaguchi stations herself by the buffet so that, even if she can't get away, she can still eat. Browning, backed against a wall, waves his empty glass in hopes someone will refill it. Witt, glamorous in a low-cut black gown, attracts a different class of admirers, including Pat O'Brien, a stylish announcer with CBS Sports, and Matthew Laurence, an actor on the top-rated TV show Beverly Hills 90210.

A little after midnight, their duties done, the skaters once more board the bus, this time to a private party in a nightclub beneath The Plaza hotel. There, attendants in leather chokers and skimpy black outfits ploddingly take tickets and check coats; it's exhausting being cool and there is apparently no energy left for their jobs. Inside, exotic birds and erotic dancers gyrate to the deafening techno-pop that beats out an ultimatum: dance or get out of the way. Most in the skating party choose the latter, escaping through a phalanx of bouncers into a crowded private room where the decibel level is less life-threatening. Film actor Aidan Quinn and a friend chat at the bar with Hamilton and others.

One by one, the skaters succumb to fatigue and the wee hours. The week of shows, the receptions, New York--they take their toll. Browning debates whether to order another beer, then opts for hotel and bed. "With the right people and in the right mood, you can have a lot of fun in a place like that," he says as the cab pulls away from the curb. Besides, he has an early flight home for a couple of days to see his girlfriend, ballerina Sonia Rodriguez, and to prepare new routines for the Canadian leg of the tour. Even at 3 a.m., his focus is still on skating. "It's not just what we do for a living," he says. "It's who we are."