Thursday, 28 January 2016
Guy In The Sky: The Story Of Maribel Vinson-Owen's Leading Man
If I wasn't in the research process for a book on the late, great and utterly fabulous Belita Jepson-Turner, my next choice definitely would have been Maribel Vinson-Owen. Three time Olympian, North American Champion, U.S. Champion, legendary coach, professional skating star, author, journalist and larger than life personality, Maribel was a woman ahead of her time. In the many writings about her over the years, a central figure has of course always been Guy Owen. He was once her husband, the father of her two daughters and for many years, her partner on the ice as a professional skater and coach. However, Guy Owen's story has always been secondary to Maribel's. Today, I want to take the time to shine the spotlight on him.
Born June 20, 1913 in Ottawa, Ontario, Guy Rochon Owen was the only son of Welsh parents James Arthur and Laurence Owen. His grandfather, Alfred Rochon, was a lawyer, Superior Court judge and Liberal politician who represented Ottawa in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec from 1887 to 1892. Young Guy got his start skating as a young boy at the Minto Skating Club and by fourteen, he was already winning competitions in both singles and pairs skating. The March 14, 1927 issue of The Ottawa Citizen noted at that at the Minto Club "in the Gymkhana graceful exhibitions were given by the junior boy champion, Guy Owen, holder of the Sifton Cup, and by the junior pairs, Betty Carter and Guy Owen, holders of the Soper trophy." At that same carnival, Guy also won a quarter mile speed skating race.
By 1929, he was the Canadian Junior Champion in men's singles, beating W.A.H. Kirkpatrick of the Toronto Skating Club and Fraser Sweatman of the Winnipeg Winter Club. That same year, with Frances Claudet, Melville Rogers and Katherine Hopdell he was part of the Minto Four that finished second to the Toronto Four of Veronica Clarke, John Machado, Margaret Henry, Stewart Reburn. Although Guy Owen won four consecutive medals in the senior men's competition at the Canadian Championships from 1932 to 1935, his absolute speciality during his amateur career was without a doubt fours skating. He won a total of eight medals at the Canadian Championships in the category and with his Minto teammates was undefeated from 1933 to 1937.
At the North American Championships, The Minto Four was undefeated from 1931 to 1937, with Guy Owen and Melville Rogers being the two static members of the winning four during that span. The Minto Four were so popular that in 1935 they were asked to perform for the Governor-General of Canada and The Countess Of Bessborough at Rideau Hall. During Guy's reign as North American Champion, he struck up a friendship with Maribel Vinson. They skated together in an operetta organized by Guy's coach Gustave Lussi in Lake Placid and over the years, their friendship blossomed into a romance.
Guy Owen turned professional in 1936. Although he had been a hugely successful fours skater, he had skated in the shadow of other talented Canadian men - notably Bud Wilson and Osborne Colson - for many years. He quickly found the success he was looking for. In the Monday, March 23, 1936 issue of The New York Sun, journalist George Trevor wrote in that at the Madison Square Garden in a benefit show, Owen's performance "eclipsed" none other than three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie. Trevor said, "the smash hit of the evening was slender Guy Owen of Ottawa who held the Garden crowd spell-bound by his sinuous grace and rhythmic fire. Imagine a vivid Goya painting come to life and you will have an impression of the languorous yet vibrant Owen as he executed a Spanish fandango on blades that clicked like [Castanets]. The functional beauty and graceful movements of a Belmonte or Joselito - heroes of the Madrid bull ring - characterize Owen's every motion. Lithe and supple as a matador, he swooped in for the death thrust as described a 'veronica' as he swirled out of range. Hemingway would have exulted in Owen's performance. The Canadian wore baggy black trousers, black leather boots, a gold-embroidered black tunic, set off by a giddy scarlet sash, and a flat-brimmed hat of black glazed straw held in place by a chin strap. He was called back for encore after encore as the Garden thundered its tribute." The program Trevor wrote of was of course Guy's Gaucho program, which would be his trademark throughout his professional career. He performed it following that Madison Square Garden show at the Minto Follies in Ottawa to a similar response and then promptly took a job as a banker in Montreal, eager to settle down and make money after so many years living in the shadow of the strict rules of amateurism.
It was Maribel who convinced him he had the chops to make a living in skating. She encouraged him to join her Gay Blades tour. Skating his "Hey! Hey! Farmer Grey" program to thunderous applause nightly, he often upstaged yet another Olympic Gold Medallist, Vinson's co-star Karl Schäfer on the tour. He headlined at the Minto Follies and at the Montreal Skating Club's carnival. Melville Rogers said that "Mr. Owen was one of the most sought after skaters for exhibitions." Maribel was right. Guy had the goods to make it in skating. He was also, in her mind, husband material.
The couple planned their engagement. In March of 1938, Owen got his affairs in order to leave Canada and take up permanent residency in the States. After spending the summer apart, the couple officially announced their engagement in late August of that year and married shortly thereafter in a private ceremony at the Winchester home of her parents. Maribel and Guy first settled in Minnesota where they coached at St. Paul Figure Skating Club for two years. In 1940, they moved out west to teach at new East Bay Iceland rink in Berkeley, home of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club, summering out east. While at Iceland, they attracted many skaters to Bay area. At one point, the rink got so crowded many skaters had to double upon on patch. Together, they produced weekly pops concerts at in which both students and coaches performed. In 1940, the couple's first daughter, Maribel Yerxa Owen, was born.
While coaching in California, Guy and Maribel continued to remain active as professional skaters. In February of 1941, they headlined the Spokane Figure Skating Club's revue. The Spokesman-Review on February 16, 1941 noted that "Owen's solo effort will be the famous 'Gaucho' number, most widely-known and popular male figure skating act, which he himself originated. [Vinson and Owen] will skate together twice, one of the duet numbers being the great life and death number, which was termed 'the most dramatic ever seen' by reviewers at several of the large ice shows in which Miss Vinson and Owen have appeared this fall. They present a stirring interpretation of the struggle between life and death, with the inevitable triumph of death." Another Spokane reporter noted that Owen's performance "was full of difficult leaps and figures that he made look easy." That summer, Guy and Maribel made history by starring in the first ice show in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At 5'9", the tall, dark and handsome mustachioed skater fit right in while in South America. The duo were well received and upon their return, they brought back their interpretation of the samba on ice to carnivals in America.
In 1943, Guy installed a private 20 X 25 portable ice rink at a former auto repair shop on the corner of Milvia Street and University Avenue in Berkeley. He called it Maribel Lake. In the September 12, 1943 issue of the Berkeley Daily Gazette, he stated that he could install portable ice rinks "anywhere there is room and have the ice in perfect condition in 12 hours, provided electrical wiring of the place is built to handle the sizeable portable compressor. He found hunting for a downtown site for the lake just about as tough as locating a desirable house in Berkeley." Guy's installation was notable in that it was one of the first private portable rinks in California at the time.
The following May, little Laurence Rochon Owen born, named after Guy's mother. While Maribel took a few months off to be with her daughters, Guy shone while coaching and organizing pops concerts and ice ballets at Iceland. The following year, the family of four packed up and headed to east to teach at the Skating Club Of Boston. While there, Maribel and Guy's performing career as professionals got a second wind.
Engaged in the Oval Room at the Copley Plaza Hotel, they became two of the more prominent names in skating involved in the hotel circuit at the time. Their first show was called "Deep Purple". The November 24, 1945 issue of Billboard magazine noted that"Guy Owens' lightning fast solo to 'Jazz Pizzicato' had ringsiders gasping and won solid applause." As a pair, Vinson and Owen skated a waltz and a "laugh-collecting satire on the tune 'Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry'. Near collisions and spills had the customers sitting on the edge of their chairs." The couple staged two shows in the Oval Room in 1946. In the first, "A Mardi Gras Ballet On Skates", Guy performed a speedy solo to "Louisiana Purchase" as a gambling villain. In the latter, titled "New York Vignette", Maribel and Guy reimagined a Manhattan nightclub in their "Pink Cocktail" program and Guy skated a Broadway inspired solo to "Smooth Sailing".
Maribel and Guy's success at the Copley Plaza Hotel led them next to Boston's Center Theater. In 1947, the couple directed, staged and starred in "Everything's On Ice", a musical comedy on ice. Unfortunately, the show was panned by critics and short lived. An April 19, 1947 review of the show from Billboard magazine opined, "Maribel Vinson and Guy Owen, whose exciting night club shows have played to top business [have] had a hand in nearly every phase of the production, and the fact is
evident, because they have tried to do too much. What they need now is the services of a highly competent director who will weed out the deadwood and point up the good things." Reviewer Bill Riley was critical of the fact that Vinson and Owen, themselves "wonderful to watch", had allowed
themselves to be upstaged by inferior skaters by giving them too much of a spotlight.
In the fall of 1948, Maribel and Guy left Boston and returned to Berkeley, California. As it turned out, the poor reviews of their Center Theater show were the least of the couple's woes. In her fabulous book "Indelible Tracings", Patricia Shelley Bushman explained that "returning to California couldn't reverse the difficulties in the Owenses' marriage. Friends conceded that Owen had a drinking problem that became too much for Maribel. They skated beautifully together, but off-ice their disparities were readily apparent... Instead of shining alongside his wife, Guy withered in her presence. However, his drinking was not evident to everyone, and he maintained his composure and demeanour while teaching. Guy taught for eight months in California, then left his family and took a position with the Sault Saint Marie Club in Michigan. The following summer he taught at the Michigan State University in East Lansing and directed the MSU Skating Show."
During this period, the couple divorced but Owen's work as a coach continued. After coaching at Michigan State University and in New York, he signed on as the professional of the Spokane Figure Skating Club, where he and Maribel had performed in 1941 and 1943 to great acclaim. In the winter of 1942, he was already shoring up plans to teach in East Lansing that summer. His contract to teach in Spokane again in the fall of that year had already been renewed. While visiting his parents in Ottawa, Guy passed away suddenly on April 21, 1952 of a perforated ulcer. He was only thirty eight at the time. Maribel was shocked and troubled by Guy's passing. Despite the fact he'd left her and her two young daughters, she worried that she had indirectly in some way caused Guy's drinking and despite their divorce, did still care about him. To Guy, she dedicated her book "Fun Of Figure Skating". She recalled that, "the late Guy Owen, one of the world's great jumpers, used to lift so high and poise so long on one of the simple back toe jumps... that audiences used to gasp and wonder when he was going to come back down!" It's with tragic irony that while flying high over Brussels, it was her that never came back down. Perhaps now together these long lost souls both hover midair in an Axel and have found peace together on the ice in the sky.
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