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Stars on Ice hits 25

Source: USA Today
Date: January 20, 2011
Author: Barry Wilner
Unemployed at 28, Scott Hamilton needed a place to work.

So he created one.

Hamilton's Stars on Ice celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with, what else, a 25-city tour. Hamilton, who retired from regularly performing in 2001 after a series of health issues, remains the producer of what he calls "such a wild adventure."

"Just putting the shows together at first, at times it seems like yesterday, at times it seems like four lifetimes ago," says the 1984 Olympic champion and, for years, figure skating's primary TV voice. "To see we have endured and the tour has survived over the years — at times thrived — and to kind of be in awe of all the skaters that came through it, it's way beyond anything I would have dreamt or conceived."

The current 11-member cast includes Vancouver Olympics gold medalist Evan Lysacek and bronze winner Joannie Rochette; Turin Games silver medalists Sasha Cohen, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto; and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, co-winners of the pairs gold in Salt Lake City. Returning to join regulars Todd Eldredge and Michael Weiss for the anniversary shows are Ekaterina Gordeeva, who won gold in 1988 and 1994 in pairs with husband Sergei Grinkov; and four-time world champion Kurt Browning, probably the most popular tour skater aside from, well, Hamilton.

It's an impressive group that adds to a Who's Who collection through a quarter century of touring America, Canada and Asia. From the humble beginnings of 1986, when Hamilton and Rosalynn Sumners headlined shows in small college arenas, to sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden featuring Torvill and Dean, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, Brian Orser, Tara Lipinski, Alexei Yagudin, Ilia Kulik, Sarah Hughes, Paul Wylie and Dorothy Hamill, Stars on Ice has sought to be innovative, challenging and fun.

Lysacek, who first saw the show in 1992, two years before he began skating, believes Hamilton's creation has had a profound effect on his sport.

"I was aware Scott had developed the idea, nurtured it and really revolutionized what show skating was," Lysacek says.

"The type of skating in Stars On Ice has changed the sport, added something. The reason being sort of the disappearance of professional skating on both the competitive and show level. Stars on Ice has become the only place for the opportunity to explore, be creative and grow as an artist and as an athlete."

Where Stars on Ice has been trendsetting is in the use of ensemble numbers. Most other tours either have a theme built around characters, such as Disney on Ice, or simply are exhibitions in which skaters perform one or tour routines and are done for the night, a format used by Champions on Ice until it folded in 2008.

Hamilton wanted something else. He had been on Ice Capades and seen Ice Follies, the traditional shows, but he envisioned the skaters being artists, entertainers and athletes in a different manner.

"The idea was that one skater trying to carry a show would probably not have the endurance to sustain a career to make a tour work," Hamilton says. "But the idea of an ensemble with many skaters, from the Olympics, great, entertaining skaters, could provide a memorable evening for an audience."

The group numbers in which all the skaters partake are unique to Stars. Yamaguchi knows the skaters anticipate each year what those ensemble routines will be, and believes the audiences do, too.

"Skaters are used to being individuals on the ice," the 1992 Olympic champion says, "but to interact with a large group or act out certain roles was different and a challenge for all of us. It was something most of the skaters looked forward to and were able to grasp how much the audiences enjoyed them and wanted to see what we came up with next."

Adds Browning: "The group numbers become entities that live forever with the cast and the audience."

Hamilton and his manager, Bob Kain, used their numerous contacts throughout skating to get the tour rolling. Kain even came up with the name.

Quickly, Stars on Ice became a place Olympic-eligible skaters turned to when they were ready to leave competition. By 1990, the tour's fifth season, Hamilton and Sumners were joined by Debi Thomas, Kitty and Peter Carruthers and Orser.

Three years later in what co-producer Byron Allen calls "taking it to a new level," Yamaguchi, Wylie, Gordeeva and Grinkov were aboard.

"When Kristi joined the tour, it really took off," Allen says. "Roz and Debi were wonderful stars in their own right, great skaters and show women, but Kristi took it to a new level. She has such grace and exudes such class.

"With Scott as the veteran and creative guy and the backbone, then we had this lovely young woman who had the world at her feet ... it just doesn't get any better than that."

At times, though, things got worse.

Canada's Rob McCall, a former cast member, died of AIDS in 1991. Tragedy struck the tour again in 1995 when at November rehearsals in Lake Placid, Grinkov died on the ice of a massive heart attack. He was 28, and he and Gordeeva had a 3-year-old daughter.

"It happened in front of everyone and everyone saw it and felt it," Gordeeva says. "And I even felt terrible because everyone went through the pain, sudden and terrible pain, when this thing happened with Sergei.

"I am very thankful for them and their support to me for the dedications they did for Sergei; every day on the show they did a small pause for Sergei. It was right in a number and that was very special."

In 1997, Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was back on the next tour, but later had a brain after retiring from regular performances. He beat that affliction, too.

"What brought us all a little closer and is still part of the bond today is that we went through that," says Sumners, who never missed a show in her 13 years with Stars on Ice. "We all held Katia and Scott up with what they went through.

"They did not just have the support of us on Stars on Ice, but the entire country, and that was incredibly amazing. That's how close the audience had gotten to us through Stars."

Hamilton realized that bond couldn't be forged — and a tour that some years crisscrossed the country for 60 shows couldn't have existed — without sponsors footing the bills. Discover Card was first aboard, followed by Target and, since 2003, Smucker's.

"We had an owner in International Management Group and they really wanted it to be successful, but you need the financial support and we knew title sponsorship was necessary to even get off the ground," Hamilton says.

Along with Discover Card's involvement came a charity affiliation with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Target's charity was Target House at St. Jude's Children's Hospital, and Smucker's brought along the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and their literacy programs.

"Most of these kids have never seen anything like Stars on Ice, not even on TV, or done anything like that," six-time U.S. champion Eldredge says. "Who knows, some kid in, say, Columbus, Ohio, ends up being a skater someday just because we went there and met him or her and they got interested in skating because we were there."

Twenty-five years later, Stars on Ice is still there. With, Hamilton, hopes, another 25 years ahead.

At least.

"Stars on Ice was brave enough in its inception to chart new ground," he says. "Now that we have hit this milestone, once we get past patting ourselves on the back and thanking the audience, we should look at new elements of the show. That's what we've always been about and what we always want to be about."

___

AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chicago contributed to this story.