Episode #13: Jimmie Santee

MARCH 2008
An interview with Jimmie Santee, National medalist, principal skater with Disney On Ice, and currently Executive Director of the Professional Skaters Association (PSA). 45 minutes, 22 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: Only one? [laughs] The one that’s kind of short but also the funniest one and probably the most embarrassing is…this had to be the mid-70s and I was competing in the Chicago club interclub competition, and I competed in an interpretive event in which I placed second to David Michalowski. And the interesting thing about David Michalowski is that he’s deaf. So I placed second in an interpretive event to a deaf guy. That was embarrassing [laughs].  He’s a great guy, he’s from my hometown and he competed with us, he competed nationally, and he’s a great skater. I interpreted what I felt and he skated to what he felt, so if it sounds like sour grapes, no. To help him, they picked music with a very deep bass line to it, and played it very loud, so he could feel the vibrations, so he could skate rhythmically to it. And you know me, I went out there and was kind of goofy and just playing at it. But it’s just kind of funny when I say I was second to a deaf guy in an interpretive competition [laughs].

On balancing skating and schoolwork as a child: [I did my homework in the car] if I did my homework [laughs]. I was not very studious. Skating was very important. But if there’s one thing I regret about that part of my life, it’s just that I didn’t apply myself in school as much as I should have.

On competing in both figure skating and speed skating: I got to short-track nationals in speed skating. I was a sprinter. Anything more than a couple of laps, I was exhausted. And if you look at my skating career, I was always more of a short-program skater, always good in the short. In the long I don’t know if it was a lack of focus or stamina. The figure skating helped the speed skating [more than the other way around]. In those days we skated what we called a safety track — it was kind of shaped like a diamond, where now it’s an oval. So it had very sharp turns. And my coach at the time, Chuck Burke, was an Olympian in speed skating and also skated with Sonja Henie. So he was also a figure skater and a speed skater. And he rockered my speed skate almost to the same rocker as my figure skates to give more agility and a sharper turning radius. It was fun.

On being a US novice and junior champion: The novice was a great victory. It was hard to describe. This morning I was sitting over at the host hotel (at US Nationals) and talking to Danny O’Shea, who just won novice nationals, just sitting there with him and his mother, having this great conversation, and just telling him, soak it up and enjoy it. I truly did not appreciate my titles until only about two years ago. I did achieve a lot of it very naturally and I had this very weird knack of knowing where I was going to be when I went into a competition. I just knew if I was going to win, or if I was going to be third or fourth, I just knew. So I expected it. There weren’t too many times when I didn’t end up where I thought I was going to. And being five years younger than David [Santee, his brother], I watched him and his success, and I was like, yeah, I’m going to go to Nationals. I didn’t really think of it in a cocky way, it just was. So I didn’t really appreciate it until after I’d been coaching for a long time, and watching some truly talented kids just kill themselves working so hard and giving so much of their soul and their heart, and struggling to make the final round at Upper Great Lakes [regional qualifying event for US Nationals]. And to see and watch the kids achieve nationals and then win a title, it’s special. And I didn’t really get that.

On developing the role of the Genie in Aladdin for Disney on Ice: Michael Eisner [head of Disney Studios] did not want to give up[Aladdin] to Kenneth [Feld, owner of Disney on Ice] because he felt that the way that the Genie changes shape all the time, and the voice, couldn’t be recreated on ice. So they went back and forth for a while, and Kenneth decided that he was going to create the Genie and deliver it to Eisner. So they flew me up to New York City and I met with the costume designer, and they took a full bust of my head and then they designed the Genie’s face over that. And while I was there, Kenneth kept calling and saying, “Tell them what you want. We want you to be able to manoeuvre in this, we want you to be able to do all your tricks, and we want you to do your back flip”. So they started with a bodysuit and laid the muscles out in foam, and it was air conditioning filter foam, so it was very light and porous. And they built it up so that when I made a muscle, the muscle would pop out. And [even with the bulk] it was a very light costume, it was less than five pounds. But the hands at first were made out of rubber, and they were like six pounds each, and I couldn’t move the fingers and with that weight my arms got tired really quickly. And then with the head, they built an apparatus that fit around my skull and then under my jaw, so that when I opened my mouth, the mouth moved.

So eventually [we went to Miami] and they got a television crew and rented out the St. Pete Arena for two days, to make this MTV-type video. And the first time I went out there in this costume and went up to do the back flip, I came down and landed on my head. The mouth was so loose that it came up over my eyes and I lost my sight. And the hands were so heavy that it totally messed up the timing. So at the end of the day I took the head out and ripped out all the metal, and they got a pair of gloves done really fast and made them out of the same air conditioning material. So the next day I completed the back flip without hurting myself [laughs]. And a couple of weeks later Kenneth walked into Mr. Eisner’s office and said, “Here’s the Genie”, and handed him the tape, and they made the deal right after that. I was pretty pumped about that. But then after they told us we could have it, Robin Williams was upset with Eisner because he didn’t get any royalties or points off the character, so he wasn’t going to give the rights to use his voice. So we rehearsed with the guy who did the voice of Roger Rabbit doing the voice of the Genie all through rehearsals. And then the week that we opened we got the rights to use [Robin Williams’] voice. But the whole time I had been preparing to be Robin Williams. I read how the animators drew the character — his shape was drawn from an S, like smoke. Very sss-y. So the lower half of my body, I usually took very small steps, and I tried to make the upper body bigger. And I studied a bunch of [Robin Williams’] films, I listened to a bunch of his audiotapes, to try to get the sense of timing and rhythm down. I really felt like I could mimic him. I was told that he came to the show, I never saw him so I don’t know, but Michael Eisner did and he came back and shook my hand, and that was pretty cool.

On competing versus being in ice shows: I wanted to be in the Olympics, but I really wanted to be in the ice show. I really wanted to be a comedian. I always told people I was born a couple of decades too late. I would have loved to have been in the heyday of [Ice] Follies, when they had the big openings and all the stars would come in Hollywood in limos and all that stuff. That’s what I always wanted to do, and when I was in it that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I grew as a performer over the 11 years [in ice shows]. I did appreciate it when I was doing it, but I really grew to appreciate it when I went back and watched other people perform, sometimes to a great standard, and sometimes not to a great standard [laughs] which actually bothered me more. I did not like to see people disrespect the craft, and when I saw people not being respectful, not respecting the tradition of either competitive skating or the show itself, that would bother me. You know, people who did not put the effort into performing, who would just go out there and go through the motions. It was hard to see that sometimes.

On touring with a newborn baby: He [his son Ryan] was born during our last tour. Jamie [his wife] went back to Montreal, where she’s from, and she went into labor. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, and she called at 10 am and said, “Do you want to get on a plane? There’s a flight at 11 and a flight at 1”. So I had to go to the building and pack up my skates and stuff, and I got out of there at 1 o’clock, and the plane was delayed, but I ended up landing about 9 o’clock and I got to the hospital and Ryan was born about 1 in the morning. And we had five days off and then I went back [to the tour], and the following weekend Jamie flew down [to Miami] with Ryan. He was ten days old. And my brother and my mom and dad flew down and they all sat in the front row at the very first show, and I jumped over the lights and picked him up in my palm and held him over my head, pointing at him like in Lion King [laughs]. It was pretty cool, people were laughing. And then we did the last six months of the tour with him. But we knew it was the last tour, it was time.

On his goals as the executive director of the Professional Skaters Association (PSA): [I wanted to] give the association back to the members. I felt it had gotten away from that. What I’ve been doing is involving as many people as I can in voicing their opinions. It’s really important. Some of it’s just basic marketing. Our current president was our ratings committee chairperson before, and she’s really turned it around. We’ve started training the examiners, where before it wasn’t formal and it wasn’t continual. Now the master rated coaches who come in, they’re trained in a classroom and they do a small test, and then they go and do their ratings. And this is something we do continually. We take surveys on everything. Unfortunately I think we’re still living down some of the mistakes of the past. We had some really serious issues of trust in California and in the East Coast as well. I think a lot of the people felt they didn’t have a voice.

On retiring from skating and then working for the PSA: I care about this sport. Everything I’ve had in life, and everything I’ve gotten or received in life, is from skating. When I retired from Disney, I retired, but I consider this my second career. I want to provide for my family, but I also want to enjoy them, and I want to enjoy them skating. I want them to get those moments, to watch them skating in the show, and I want to watch them fall down, and I want to watch them get up, and I want to watch them cry when they don’t do well, and I want to be able to hug them and pat them on the back and say, “I love you anyways, and the next time will be better”. And when they achieve those great things — that’s what it is, it’s the journey. And I’m so thankful and blessed that I have the family that I do. The skating, we’ve gotten everything from it, and talking to David — we just owe everything to skating.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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