Sunday, 19 July 2015

The American Exhibition Ice Skaters Association


Picture it... Chicago, 1917. The city was recovering from the S.S. Eastland disaster only two years previous, World War I was raging overseas and professional figure skating was in its salad days in the city. Two of the city's hotels, the Hotel Sherman and Morrison Hotel, had installed tank ice shows that were proving enormously successful. With that success, skaters obviously wanted to be able to have some control as to the direction their careers were going. Enter the A.E.I.A.


The American Exhibition Ice Skaters Association was an organization that came together with the goal of nationally controlling the many hotel ice shows that were popping up throughout the U.S. at the time. The Chicago shows had paved the way for countless others and as professional skating enjoyed its first big boom in the U.S. from Los Angeles to Dallas to Kansas City, American professional skaters wanted assurance they'd be paid fairly for their work and that the market wouldn't be over saturated with skaters from abroad. They didn't come right out and say it, but seeing as Charlotte Oelschlägel's shows were in their heyday you have to put two and two together and empathize with where the American skaters were coming from at the time.

The A.E.I.A. was run by a board of directors with William Arlington as president, John A. Scully as vice president, J. Lewis Coath as secretary and general manager and Edward W. High as treasurer. A 1917 Variety magazine explained the gist of what the Association aimed to do: "A plan has been worked out. Instead of the cafe proprietor paying a stipulated sum for the skaters, he can elect instead to turn over to the Association the total amount in cover charges. From that the Association pays the skaters and it also defrays the expenses of installing the tanks, which the Association will supply in such cases. After the engagement the hotel people have the privilege of buying the tank. Where a rink is already installed or where the hotel people so elect, a salary, fixed by the Association, is paid. The various skaters have agreed that the Association put a price on their work. Should a larger figure be obtained, the skater agrees that one-half of the excess salary over the stipulated amount shall be turned into the Association for promotion work... Each skater has weekly dues, $2.50 being paid by those working (in lieu of commissions) and $1.00 weekly for those not working. The figure mentioned as contributed for advance publicity among hotel interests is $2,000 and it is claimed that out-of-town hotels have already asked for bookings from the new Association... The capital stock will be $100,000, subscriptions expected to come from lovers of the sport and ice fans, which number many wealthy persons. There is no salary paid any of the officers save that of secretary."

The organization purported that an estimated eighty percent of American professional skaters performing in these hotel shows were in support of the organization. Quoted members included Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb, Kathleen Pope and George Kerner, Franz La Mar, Bunny Moore and Runcie Martin, Ed and Dottie Lamy, The Fink's, The Old Smoothies, Bassett and Chappelle, Steele and Condon and Davis and Rodgers.

Although the A.E.I.A. probably had the best of intentions, it just wasn't a model that ultimately worked at the time. Skaters from Europe were flocking to North America by the dozens to make an honest living as professional skaters and the Association couldn't ultimately control the market in the way they aimed to at the time. Prohibition in 1920 didn't help either. It wouldn't be until 1938 that the Professional Skaters Association would be formed, but this early attempt to look out for the interests of professional skaters in America is one that shouldn't be relegated to the dusty boxes in the rink attic.

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