When Scott Hamilton and Bob Kain, a former executive with International Management Group (IMG), came up with the Stars on Ice concept back in 1985, neither would have ever believed that the tour would still be rocking and rolling 25 years later.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Immediately following his 1984 Olympic victory, Hamilton joined the Tom Collins production Tour of World and Olympic Champions.
He turned professional later that year and signed on with Ice Capades. Back in the ‘80s this was the only option for professional skaters.
“I signed on, but in my second year with that tour I started hearing rumors that it was being sold to a private investor whose philosophy was that men did not sell tickets to figure skating shows,” Hamilton recalled. “He did not want anything to do with me or my contract. I needed a job.”
Hamilton knew from his experience with the Collins tour that audiences did want to see male figure skaters. “I realized that fans were more in tune with figure skating and they knew who the players were,” he explained. “I said to myself: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a professional tour as opposed to the competitive exhibition tours that were happening?’
“So Bob and I rolled up our sleeves and decided to put together a series of shows. I don’t think we were ever going to call it a tour,” Hamilton recalled with a laugh. “In our minds we were just trying to put together a good event.”
The first Stars on Ice tour hit the road in 1986. “We started very small, with five shows in the U.S. northeast as a prototype,” Hamilton said. “Four of them were held in small college arenas that we sold out.
“The one city that did not quite get it was Philadelphia, the largest of the five. It was our biggest venue, but no one came to the show.”
Hamilton recounted what happened the night the tour debuted. “The first show we ever did was at a hockey rink at the University of Maine. We almost set the building on fire,” he said.
“The electrical setup for our lighting system was not what it should have been. There was a 100 amp wire hooked up to our 300 amp lighting truck, and the other end of it went straight to a hydro pole. I could jump up and touch the spotlights, they were so close to the ice.
“When we hit our finale and all the lights came up, the wires started shaking and vibrating and then they exploded, and it was like, ‘Oh excuse me, you are on fire.’
“There was smoke and haze everywhere, and people had to be checked out by paramedics. That was how we started. It was a little more excitement than we had anticipated.
“In every city after that we had like four fire marshals checking everything out,” Hamilton recalled.
Every stop was a learning curve that year. “In one of the first five cities we played, we flew in on a puddle jumper from Durham, New Hampshire. We got a call that no crew had shown up at the building to load the show in.
“It was the first show that we were using Genie lifts to hold the lights up, and our crew said they could not do everything in time to get the show happening.
“So two guys from IMG hit the ATM machine and got fistfuls of cash and went around the dorms at the University of Vermont and the fraternity houses asking students if they wanted to make money. They offered them tickets to the show if they would work crew. So they brought in about 40 guys, and we had the show ready to go in about two hours.”
The next stop on the tour had its own challenges. “In Morristown, New Jersey, which was the fourth show in four nights, no building crew showed up,” Hamilton said. “Our crew was exhausted and said that they could not do the lighting package or any of the production without a building crew.
“Dick Button and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were coming to the show that night as well as a bunch of ABC executives, and I said we have to have our whole lighting package.
“So the lighting director and I jumped in and unloaded the trucks. I was tired, but if I did not set some sort of example, we were going to be absolutely stuck. The troops rallied, but it took all of us to make it happen.
“The show was sold-out that night, and it was then that we knew we had something really special.
“But we were all exhausted. Not only had we done four shows in four nights, there were the after-show schmoozes, and we had super-early morning travel times. We were going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning and getting up at 5.”
Hamilton and Kain started strategizing. “Later that year we took the show to a few cities in upstate New York and a couple in the Midwest,” Hamilton said. “We just put together a ragtag-type kind of show that we felt could start building our reputation. We had a lot to learn about how these things were done.
“The following season we went out full bore with a schedule that covered 30 cities. It was a dedicated tour with sponsorship. We were on our way.”
The tour has survived economic downturns, the loss of fans following the 2002 Olympic pairs scandal, and every other negative thrown at it.
“IMG has made a big investment in the production, and even though there were a few years when it did not do well and they lost significant amounts of money, they never lost faith in the tour,” Hamilton said.
“They had a lot of clients that they wanted to ensure were properly employed. In the early days, IMG was as much an event company as they were a management company, and this was something that they felt they could pull off as they had done in tennis and golf.”
Figuring out the best way to present the show was the challenge, Hamilton acknowledged.
“We had been using house lighting like you see at a competition gala, but once we saw the power of theatrical lighting, we knew we could never go back,” he recalled. “We needed to be a theatrical tour, so the big-budget item of having show lighting was introduced, and we became a theatrical tour.”
Stars on Ice has always enjoyed a very dedicated core audience, but IMG is focused on making the show attractive to the casual skating fan as well.
“We know our diehard fans that have supported the tour since day one are there, but we need to draw in the other audience as well,” Hamilton said. “The passive audience that goes to skating events every few years are the people that we need in order for the tour to survive.
“We can’t charge enough to cover the costs, nor would we want to burden our fans with that kind of expense. We always try to keep ticket prices at a reasonable level.”
Jamie Salé believes the fans are the key to the tour’s success. “There are always great skaters on the tour that make fans want to come to the shows,” she said. “We have such great loyal fans in skating and with this tour.”
Hamilton said IMG’s goal is to keep its skaters working and attract more fans, and it is constantly developing ways to make that happen.
“It is a difficult time in our economy and a difficult time for skating as well,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to rise above any of our challenges to deliver a good product. At this point no one is looking to be a gargantuan success.”
When asked to step back in time and recall the early years of the tour, Hamilton waxed nostalgic.
“It was pretty amazing, we had some incredible performers,” he recalled. “There was myself, Dorothy Hamill, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Rosalynn Sumners, who was in every show every year, Toller Cranston and Brian Pockar. They were the initial players. It was awesome.
“Over the years there have been a lot of incredible champions, too many to count — Robin Cousins, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the legends.”
Every four years a new wave of Olympic stars join the tour. “Following the 1988 Olympic Games, Brian Orser, Debi Thomas, Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, and Peter Carruthers and Kitty Carruthers all put their own stamp on the tour,” Hamilton recalled.
Stars on Ice enjoyed its next wave of popularity after the 1992 Olympics, when Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Browning and Paul Wylie joined the cast. In 1998, newly minted Olympic champions Tara Lipinski and Ilia Kulik signed on.
“I remember one year in the ‘90s when there was Katarina Witt, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Torvill and Dean, Kristi, Paul, Kurt and myself,” Hamilton said. “That was a cast that made your jaw drop. It was like wow, that is amazing.”
In 2002 Sarah Hughes and both Olympic pairs gold medalists, Salé and David Pelletier and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, joined the cast.
“To be able to share the ice with people that you are in awe of and a fan of … Those were really amazing years,” Hamilton said.
“The quality of skaters that have embraced the stage over the years is just amazing. What they have brought to our audiences and the inspiration they have given the rest of us to raise ourselves to the next level of performance is awesome.”
Hamilton could only recall a handful of stars who never performed with the tour. “I think Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, Viktor Petrenko and Peggy Fleming are the only ones,” he said. “Peggy comes to the show every year but she never performed.
“It was a shame Viktor never joined the tour, because I really like him. We talked to him back then, but he was committed to the Champions on Ice tour, and he felt that it would have been a conflict.”
TIES THAT BIND
No matter who you ask from what era, there is one invisible thread that has linked all cast members over the years — the camaraderie.
“Part of our tour culture has always been that if this is going to work, it is going to take all of us,” Hamilton said. “We can criticize each other, but no one from the outside is allowed to criticize us. We police ourselves and inspire each other to be the best we can.
“Because skating is competitive by nature, everyone always wants to show up to do their best. No one ever wants to be the weak one. If someone is struggling, you pick them up, and if someone is not pulling their weight, you sit around and talk about it.
“And when someone is rocking the house, you want to be part of that house that rocks with them.”
Hamilton said that sharing hotel rooms and being on long tour bus rides helps foster that close connection. “We are pretty much our own little community for months at a time,” he said. “How the cast gets along is extremely significant to what happens on the ice.”
Salé agreed. “When David and I first started skating on this tour in 2003, the first thing I liked about it was that it felt like a family, and I still feel that way,” she said.
The cast assembled for the 2011 tour spans a number of eras. “Kurt, who has been on the tour for 20 years, is the elder statesman, as it were,” Hamilton said. “Michael Weiss and Jamie and David are very established, and Katia first toured with us in 1990.”
Evan Lysacek, Joannie Rochette, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto represent the new guard this season. This will be Rochette’s first U.S. tour.
Lysacek recalled going to Stars on Ice as a child. “Before I even started skating, it was always a special gift to go and see the show,” he said. “It was kind of a big Chicago, wintry thing to do.
“Once I started skating, going to the shows was really mot-ivating for me. To see so many champions in one place is very inspiring, and now to be a part of it is great. To be involved the 25th anniversary is very cool. It is a great brand to work for.”
Salé had a similar recollection. “When I first started skating, I would go to the shows, and I could see they were having a great time,” she said. “They were like rock stars on ice. It was a total inspiration for me.”
Hamilton is pumped about the current tour, which kicked off in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Nov. 27. After a series of performances in Mexico, the cast headed to Japan in early January.
“When I saw everyone skating together at the rehearsals, it was pretty awesome,” Hamilton said. “Everyone is top quality.
“They all bring something to the tour that only they can bring. They are an extraordinary group of skaters that span all facets and phases, and they all came with high expectations. The show this year is unique and very exciting.”
Video screens will be set up at every venue that will showcase flashbacks and fun moments from previous seasons.
“Looking back, there is no way in the world we ever thought Stars on Ice would last this long,” Hamilton said. “We just wanted to put together great shows, convince the best skaters in the world to come to us, and hopefully pull it off as long as we could.
“But I never thought it would last 25 years and that I would still be such a part of it.
“The tour this season is a celebration — a rock show like we have never produced before,” said Hamilton, 52. “The sponsors are thrilled with the music, and everyone sees this as a great opportunity to take this tour to a new level and re-brand it. It is going to be awesome.”
Originally published in February 2011