ICELAND FIGURE SKATING CLUB OF HOUSTON, INC., Founded 1959, USFSA
An Abridged History. 1959-2002
Written by Philip Snider, Current Board Member, Music Chairman, past President And skating Member (Ice Dancing) since 1970.
Reviewed and annotated by several other well-informed Members.
May 20, 2003
Full-service, USFSA club, 1959-63.
Ice Dancing only, 1963-2000.
Full-service again, 2000-present
*During these years the Club shared a home-rink with the second Houston FSC, the other USFSA club in Houston soon after ours began. In order to enable this cooperation, the agreement between our two clubs, in accord with USFSA policies and supervision of interclub affairs, was that our Club and the Professionals associated with our Club would handle all aspects of ice dancing and the HFSC would handle all other aspects of figures and free skating. Changes were allowed along the way, by mutual consent between the two clubs. This arrangement was highly successful during the decades of limited ice in Houston, and has really helped to maintain a close and valued working relationship between these two clubs especially, even to this day.
Chapter 1. Full-Service Club, the Iceland Arena Years, 1959-1963.
The Origin and Allure of Pair Dancing on Ice.
Snapshots of the Club: 1959 and 1982.
ICELAND (the ice arena) Period, 1959-1963.
Chapter 2. Ice Dancing Only, 1963-2000.
The Dark Ages: Winterland, 1964-1968.
Springtime in Winterland, 1968-1970.
Ice Everywhere: Galleria and Ice Haus open; Winterland Closes, 1970-1975.
Sharpstown Ice Center, 1975-1982.
Return to the Galleria, 1982-1984.
The Orign and Allure of Pair Dancing on Ice.
Ice dancing is truly an unusual blend of sport and art. From its origin in music-loving Vienna during the 19th century, ice dancing in pairs, skated to music, spread internationally to win acceptance in our day as one of the newer Olympic sports. Wide TV coverage of its introduction in the 1980 Games, its attractiveness as an aerobic exercise much less boring, say, than jogging, and its obvious suitability for life-time participation have all encouraged its continuing growth for recreational as well as competitive skaters in clubs at modern ice centers everywhere. Its appeal combines the challenges of skill, vigorous exercise, a bit of daring and balletic movement to interpret stimulating music. Seasoned ice dancers are said to equal the fitness level seen generally in 2-mile runners. What a fun way to stay slim, trim and aerobically fit!
Snapshots of The Club: 1959 and 1982.
Originally named the Iceland F. S. C., Inc., after our first home ice, our name was later extended to the Iceland F. S. C. of Houston, Inc., at the urgings of our USFSA competitive junior dancers in the late 1970's. This change had the desired effect of ending many naturally curious, but annoying questions to our competitors, like “...and where did you say you are from?"
The Club originated as a Member Club of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) about the same time the Iceland arena (ice surface, 85 X 185 feet) opened in the late 1950's. As the oldest continuously chartered USFSA Club in Houston today, the IFSC emphasized ice dancing almost from the start. We were a full-service club, however, in the 1959-63 initial years, the only USFSA club at the Iceland arena, our home-rink, and of course the other forms of figure skating were also well represented in our total club program. For decades we represented the best – and only -- opportunity in Houston for USFSA-oriented ice dancing on full ice for recreational and competitive purposes at all levels, until eventually a doubling of the number of ice arenas occurred in Houston, from 3 to 6, during the 1990's. By the 1981-82 season, when the Club was then 23 years old, it now had 51 home-club, USFSA members and 9 second-club members, including regular skaters ranging from 10 to more than 70 years old, and from leisure-time beginners to a few National and International class competitors. The active members now included about half a dozen skaters who had earned their Gold Test Dance medals in the club under the training primarily of Brenda Isle, the top designated professional of the Club at that time. This was the largest membership since the initial 1959-63 period in the Iceland arena days. We were really enjoying our active USFSA skating program focused on Ice dancing at the Sharpstown Ice Center, home-rink of both our Club and the second Houston F. S. C. at that time, when the arena closed suddenly on Sept. 15, 1982, from financial failure. We managed to switch back to the Galleria with no more than a one week interruption in the Club's skating program, but we were still unsuccessful, in spite of all our efforts, to care for our 5 pairs of competitive dancers, all scheduled for Southwestern Regional Championships, the USFSA qualifying competitions, early that same Fall, This was the third time the Club had lost its home arena by such a means, but this time the Club was much better prepared, even though our competitors suffered a major disaster. We had picked up rumors about possible financial weakness at SIC and had quietly made contingency plans with the rink management and the USFSA club at the Galleria at least a year in advance, to move back to the Galleria, if and when SIC should close. Rink closures are usually kept secret until one day skaters arrive to skate as usual, only to be shocked by a dark, locked up building and a sign posted announcing the club's arena was now out of business for good. The first two chaotic losses of our home ice had taught the Club leaders to stay awake, in as much as possible, about the general condition of their current arena, and plan ahead, if at all possible, for the survival of the Club and its skating program when such serious interruptions occur.
C. Iceland (the ice arena) Period, 1959-1963.
Our Club was originally granted Interim Probationary Membership in the USFSA by vote of the USFSA Governing Council at its annual meeting, May 7-8, 1959 (Governing Council Minutes). This was the first step in those days toward becoming a fully established Member Club in the USFSA. Their action gave USFSA approval for the Iceland arena (ice surface, 85 X 185 feet) to be the principal skating headquarters for our Club only, as is usual for such a USFSA designation of home ice. This new arena was in a new building designed from the ground up as an ice arena, and included among other things a large Club room, overlooking the ice surface. Members could sit in comfort and warmth, separated from the cold ice area by a floor-to-ceiling partition of glass giving a panoramic view of all the action.
From the start the Club offered a full-service USFSA program, covering all forms of figure skating sponsored by the USFSA at that time for juniors and seniors (the latter defined then by the Club, as skaters 14 or older). With the help of four energetic professionals on ice, principally George Williams, who had recently finished skating with Holiday on Ice, Tom Osborne, who had skated seven years with the Sonja Henie Review; and Gail Rayburn from Canada (later to become Mrs. Shepie Silverman, wife of Dr. Silverman, MD, in Houston); and Joan Hyldoft. The new Club began as the USFSA club at Iceland (and incidentally the only USFSA club in Houston in 1959).
Most of the Club records of this earliest phase, before 1960, were lost or possibly burned in a fire that presumably damaged only a small portion of the Iceland center; but from the surviving minutes of Board Meetings and correspondence it is clear that our Club was not required to seek consent from any other club in Houston before the USFSA could approve our original charter in 1959.
The very first USFA Club in Houston, and the one first to bear the name Houston F. S. C, lost its charter and passed out of existence sometime between the close of its ice center, the Polar Wave Ice Palace (1927-1950's), in the early to middle 1950's and the opening of the Iceland arena in 1958.
The main thrust of our Club, for its first two years, was channeled by the firm leadership of George Williams, toward the production, finally in March, 1961, (after several postponements), of a substantial show (“Carnival"). Complete with theme, costuming, choreography and lighting -- and with Mr. Osborne and Mr. Williams themselves as performing professionals -- the show was well received. Joan Hyldoft wrote (letter on file) to a prospective member inquiring about the Club's activities, that the show was “very good," as Joan was surprised at how well the skating looked. She would not have guessed that most of the skaters had been on the ice less than two years.
Such reactions were perhaps more a tribute to the organizing and artistic abilities of Mr. Williams than a frank evaluation of the skating, but the success was genuine enough to prompt an invitation for a repeat performance. The show traveled to Corpus Christi to help celebrate the opening of a new ice arena there the same spring, 1961.
The USFSA Governing Council, however, was evidently non-pulsed by what they must have perceived as an over-emphasis on showmanship. The Council did advance the Club to a Probationary Member Club in May, 1960, the second step toward becoming a fully established USFSA Club. But, the Council declined each year thereafter until 1963, to grant the third and last step to full status as a regular USFSA Club, with the tart advice that clear evidence was needed for more growth of skating skills, such as USFSA tests passed in school figures, free skating and dance, than for little more than a dazzling spectacle at showtime.
The Carnival, nevertheless, may have made its intended mark of promoting interest in a new sport for South Texas, as the Club membership “mushroomed" in a spurt of growth that some then contemporary members recalled years later as “reaching 200 or more" during the Iceland arena years. Surviving Club records, however, do not confirm official USFSA annual registrations of the membership as ever higher that 60 in that period.
The growth of the Club and of public skating at the Iceland arena was also no doubt attributable in part to the facility itself: its newness, large size, pleasant atmosphere (including an A/C capacity that made the ‘Iceland' name believable, with an inside temperature below 55oF in the ice area and with the doors open for business year around), and the farm tractor, custom-trailer “ice machine" combination that apparently produced an ice finish approaching that of a .modern Zamboni. Iceland also included, as already mentioned, a large club room overlooking the entire ice surface.
In 1963, though, the novelty was over for whatever reason, and the official Club registrations with the USFSA dropped to no more than 40 members. Then the Iceland arena suddenly went out of business on June 9, 1963. The minutes of the Club's Board Meetings in the several months immediately before the close give no clue of the impending disaster, recording only detailed and optimistic plans for 1963-64 (a skating season that never materialized!). Ethnic and social change was afoot in the MacGregor neighborhood, where the Iceland center was located on the Southeast edge of the University of Houston main campus.
The growth of residential areas in Houston was on-the-march toward the west and northwest, and numerous middle-class families, including especially the Jewish community within the MacGregor neighborhood, were re-locating in areas out of convenient reach of this very adequate, still new, but now unfortunately placed facility. A lack of awareness of historic social forces by those who chose the site and perhaps bad management financially as well seem to have combined to doom our first ice home. The rental fees were so low, for instance, that the Club could offer weekly sessions of 2 hours or longer at prices to members that never exceeded $1.00/session; this probably did not make good business sense, despite the considerably stronger dollar at that time.
During the Iceland arena period, 1959-63, the main accomplishments of the Club were one good show (net proceeds, $75), but at least a great success as a Club activity and publicity for indoor ice skating – and figure skating in particular -- in the deep south-Texas city of Houston. Until the age of modern ice arenas, ice skating had been a sport limited to northern climates, with natural ice – where enough people grow up ice skating outside, to support indoor arenas and indoor ice-hockey programs.
When did Houston ever have natural winter sports outside, or even snow and ice at all? Well, we do get a wisp about every ten years, but would you believe the record snowfall here was 19 inches around 1900? But, of course, one blizzard doesn't a winter make, and it surely must have melted quickly. The Gulf coast hasn't been a natural winter-sports area since the Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
Other notable accomplishments in the 1959-63 period included the appointment of our Club's first designated club Professional, George Williams in 1961; several large test sessions with 70 or more individual figure, freestyle and dance tests (none of the latter above the pre-silver level); and a generous sprinkling of off-ice activities, such as socials and fund-raising projects. Also outstanding was a member, a certain Miss Hunt, who was presented a large trunk as a gift from the Club and packed off to Ice Capades, to become the Club's first professional in show skating. An early emphasis of ice dancing was noticeable between 1959-63, probably in part a reflection of Mr. Williams' preference for dance, but also in part the result of a significant number of adult skaters in the Club, no doubt coaxed onto the ice in the first place by George's enthusiasm - "hey! Ice dancing is really fun !" he would say, with emphasis.
CHAPTER 2. ICE DANCING ONLY, 1963-2000.
The Dark Ages: Winterland, 1964-68.
During its early decades the Club was usually inactive in summer, and following its loss of home ice after the Iceland arena closed, we were granted temporarily inactive club status by the USFSA in August, 1963, but we managed to maintain our USFSA annual charter renewals anyway. By continuing to skate informally at the Winterland rink (ice surface, 70 X 150 feet) in the 1963-64 season, the Club kept its active membership just above the 25 minimum required by the USFSA. Winterland, located on Norfolk St., near the intersection of Kirby Drive and Richmond Ave, two blocks north of the Southwest Freeway, opened by the early 1960's in an undersized building not intended for an ice arena, but had become home ice for the second Houston FSC, founded in 1962.
Prompt approval from our Club to the USFSA, for the new HFSC's founding, probably facilitated the willingness of the latter to welcome us as a second club into Winterland, so that two USFSA clubs now shared Winterland as their principal skating headquarters. This rather unusual arrangement was made workable by the Iceland club agreeing to limit its program to ice dancing, while the HFSC assumed full responsibility for the juniors and others mainly interested in freestyle and school figures. By November, 1964, the USFSA granted fully active status again to the IFSC, which was already holding regular weekly sessions at Winterland, after successfully working out some tangled problems with the Winterland management.
From 1964-68 our Club remained strictly a dancing club, almost exclusively for adult skaters, although at least one teenager, Dixie Shipps, was making noteworthy progress at the Silver and Pre-Gold levels at that time. The written records for these years, however, are sparse indeed. The Club barely maintained the 25 minimal skating members required to remain an active USFSA club. They held their Club dance sessions in Winterland at these low, stagnation levels, apparently surviving in part by the tactic of “operation bootstrap." Each member was expected to spend some time each session skating with someone less advanced, and part of the time, with someone more advanced. You do what you have to, to survive.
Another accomplishment during 1964-68, besides survival, was the entry of Stan and Ruth Southwick, a married couple and seasoned skaters, to represent our Club in Southwestern Regionals one year in the Bronze and Veterans' dance categories (personal communication). We are unsure of the exact year, but they were evidently the first competitors in ice dancing (or any other category of figure skating) ever to represent the IFSC in a USFSA qualifying competition. They won first place in Veterans' Dance and 5th place in a field of 5 couples in Bronze Dance.
During the Iceland and Winterland years, the Club learned the hard way the importance of separating the Club offices and Board positions from Rink Management personnel. Our Board minutes and other records show that failure to do this caused repeated problems by conflict of interest between Club and Rink.
Another problem area was that, even though our Club was accepted into Winterland by the second HFSC, they would not accept any of our Club's professional skating instructors, unless they taught primarily in the HFSC program. This was not impossible for professionals like Gail Silverman, who wanted mainly to teach figures and free skating anyway and could do this exclusively in the HFSC program, but George Williams especially, who wished to remain primarily an ice dancing instructor in our Club, found this hard to negotiate with Larry Rost, principal professional of the Houston FSC, partly no doubt because our Club was too small now to support even one Professional fulltime. George found it necessary to seek employment for pay outside skating, although he did continue helping the Club informally, on a very limited, spare-time, voluntary basis. As far as is known no professional taught ice dancing regularly in the IFSC program during these years.
Springtime in Winterland, 1968-70.
(The remaining sections, 1970-2002, are not yet available in finished copy.)
This partial copy was given to Gail (Rayburn) Lewis in 2004, who is mentioned above as an early professional in our Club.