Nightclubs, Hotels & Theatres: Dinner On The Rocks

An elegant 1914 Chicago night out with dinner and dancing at the Hotel Sherman’s popular College Inn cost a whopping $1.50 per person including the surprising floor show—an exciting and entertaining show performed by skaters on a miniature rink of real ice. The hotel’s entertainment directors had come up with a real crowd pleaser. Before long the Morrison Hotel, a nearby rival, had also installed an ice carnival to delight guests in their spectacular Terrace Garden restaurant.

This delightful show business innovation caught on in a big way. In the late teens hotels in Cleveland, New York, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles installed small permanent ice stages to offer delighted patrons an evening of dining, dancing, and lively revues on skates. Prohibition melted them all in 1920. Speakeasies had lots of ice, but none of it large enough for skating.

After repeal in 1933 ice shows returned to Chicago’s Sherman Hotel, again to great success. In the late 1930s the huge popularity of Sonja Henie’s skating films and the new touring ice spectacles spawned a golden ice age of theatrical skating that ran well into the 1970s.

Ice stages for hotel and nightclub shows, known as “tanks,” were generally only 20 feet by 20 feet. The stars were often also the producers, like Gladys Lamb & Norval Baptie, McGowan & Mack, Dorothy Lewis, and George Arnold. The 45- to 60-minute performances, sometimes four a day, featured lively solos and romantic pair skating routines, four to six pretty chorus girls, a wacky comedian, and perhaps a skating juggler or magician. Everyone filled the small rink to swirl, spin, and dance in a colorful grand finale. After the performance a dance floor electronically moved out over the ice (or the rink disappeared under the bandstand) and the live show band—sometimes Benny Goodman or Woody Herman—played for the elegantly dressed audience to dance.

Tank ice shows became a craze during the World War II years of the 1940s, spreading to the top hotels and elegant theatre restaurants of Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Big entertainment on small ice filled glamorous show rooms for many years at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, the Minneapolis Nicollet, New Orleans’ Roosevelt, and the Adolphus in Dallas. The Stevens (later Conrad Hilton) in Chicago and the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan had particularly long runs; each entertained happy diners with colorful, original mini ice musicals for over 20 years.

The world famous hotels and casinos of Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Atlantic City are known for their presentation of legendary performers, including such great skating artists as Sonja Henie, Jacqueline du Bief, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Tai & Randy, Toller Cranston, Scott Hamilton, and even “Ice Follies Las Vegas Style.” Skater/producer George Arnold, with co-producer Bill Moore, created many exciting long-running ice productions for the increasingly impressive showrooms along the Las Vegas strip, as well as top entertainment venues around the country. “Brian Boitano’s Skating Spectacular” was an annual event for cheering Las Vegas audiences while being filmed for later television broadcast. Currently the twelve largest cruise ships have been created for Royal Caribbean International and each boasts a skating rink with its own spectacular ice show. In 2007 Las Vegas was home to “Ice, Direct from Russia” with a mix of lyrical skating with all-out acrobatics.

Ice artistry has a special magic on theatre stages, the scene of its earliest U.S. success. Broadway had its own ice skating musicals at the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center all through the 1940s. Five elaborate ice productions there each performed for two years. In 1948 New York’s magnificent Roxy Theatre began a ten-year run of presenting beautiful skating shows on its great ice stage several times each day between showings of first-run 20th Century Fox films. In 1977 Toller Cranston’s “The Ice Show” played The Palace, Broadway’s legendary temple of popular entertainment. Producer Willy Bietak and his staff have created many successful ice productions specifically for theatre. Over time his ever-popular “Broadway On Ice” has been a fine showcase for such great stars as Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, Rudy Galindo, Tara Lipinski, Oksana Baiul, and Brian Boitano. Theatre history was made in 1984 when John Curry’s Skating Company became the first ice company to grace the stages of New York’s Metroplitan Opera House and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Russian companies such as The St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet have impressed audiences around the country with their excellent productions of “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” tailor-made for procenium stages.

World renowned night clubs also continue to dazzle their audiences with skating’s sure-fire thrills and beauty. Since 1952 the legendary French cabaret Lido de Paris has always included an exciting ice skating act in their legendary productions as well as in their long-running Las Vegas Stardust Hotel shows. Nightclubs as far afield as Japan, Malaysia, Lebanon, Australia, and Korea have found skating acts and ice shows to be hugely popular with international night club patrons.