An interview with Richard Dwyer, also known as “Mr. Debonair” from Ice Follies. 38 minutes, 43 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating moment: I’ve had a couple, performance-wise, and we were talking about this just the other day, about celebrities and meeting people, and Sonja Henie, being the great name in skating. And of course I started skating at her rink in 1944. Anyway, she came to the show a few times, but this one particular evening I was skating with Dorothy Ann Nelson, she had won the national championships with Pieter Kollen. We used to do the swing waltz, and as the couples came by everybody would applaud their favorite couple. It was kind of a spontaneous reaction. Anyway, we went by and Sonja stood up and applauded, and my God, I almost fell over Dorothy. I kind of acknowledged her and stubbed my toe and fell flat on my face. And Dorothy was “Whaaaa?” If I’d just kept going like I was, I wouldn’t have even looked at her. You feel like a fool at different times — I’m just thinking of the ice show embarrassing moments. Another time, skating with Susan Berens, we fell, and the set at that time you could just slide under the curtain to the backstage. And so I flew back, and Susie was looking, and I kind of got wrapped up in a prop backstage, so I couldn’t get right back out. And she waited — oh, just seconds, but I didn’t come out, so she thought, oh, maybe he got hurt, so she went back. And I came out, and then all of a sudden a stagehand said, oh, he went back out, and I wasn’t back there, so she went out. But when she wasn’t out there I had gone backstage. And it was like a comedy for about 20 seconds, and the audience were just howling because we couldn’t get back together. But these are fun moments, and when you say “embarrassing”, well, they do happen. And the show is so beautiful and elegant, you know, you do feel a little red in the face after something like that.
On how he started skating: My father is from Nebraska and my mother is from Illinois, so I guess we have a little winter blood in us. We went to the Ice Follies in 1943, and my dad said, you know, I would love to take my family skating. And so he finally did at Christmas, we all went skating and had a great time. And then he got very much involved in wanting to do so, so we started going every Friday night to the public session. And that was through ’44 and then in 1945 we joined the figure skating club out in Westwood. And then I started taking lessons from Michael Kirby, my first pro. He took me through my first competition, which was the Southern California interclub, and I was in juvenile or whatever. I came in second out of two [laughs]. I don’t know what kind of beginning you’d call that, but it taught me that I was going to have to work harder if I wanted to participate.
On winning the bronze medal in US senior nationals at age 14, behind Dick Button and Hayes Jenkins: It was terrific, it was wonderful. I was young and I was awed by Dick Button. And the Jenkins were wonderful, we’re still good friends. And actually I got second in freeskating, and it was really close between Hayes and I. And that was a real compliment too. I have moments when I wonder if I should have stayed amateur, but my parents didn’t have a tremendous amount of money for the sport, and they had two other children, and they were trying to make sure that we all were getting an equal amount of their time and efforts.
On turning professional and joining Ice Follies: Ice Follies was a tremendous entertainment, very popular. It was a big decision. I don’t know, if I’d stayed amateur a couple more years it would have been great. [But] I grew up with Eddie Shipstad’s son, so we were great friends. And they had followed my career, I’d gone to Ice Follies and Ice Capades to watch, and it was that kind of entertainment, it was kind of a dream that I’d like to do it. But it came as a shock right after Nationals when Eddie Shipstad called my dad and said, we’d really like Richard to come to Ice Follies because Roy has retired. Roy Shipstad was the original Debonair, and one of my heroes. [And Eddie said] we would like to hire Richard as the young Debonair and to carry out the role with the top hat and tails and the six beautiful girls and giving out the roses. So it was a beautiful opportunity, and I think my dad decided, could we afford to stay in until ’52? Could we afford to keep going? And the Olympics would be another four years, if I made the team, who knows.
My first reaction was no, I don’t want to go, Dad, and he said, great. But then the Shipstads were very persistent [laughs]. And it finally happened that one of the most important things was my education. So my folks talked to Loyola High School, where I was just finishing my freshman year, and they said, oh, that’d be great, we’ll set up Richard’s education on the road. So I went to a different school in every city — 26, in fact.
And I do want to mention another factor — Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, they were great friends. And I used to go to their house, it was not too far from the rink in Hollywood, and Harriet was terrific. And [their sons] David and Ricky both skated. It was just a fun family. So they said, oh, Tony — that’s my dad — just let Richard go, it’s a great opportunity. And so there were a few people that really encouraged my dad to put me in the world of skating. And it’s just been great.
On traveling in the ice show with his mother and sister: My dad had to stay home to work [laughs]. He was at Warner Brothers for 40 years in the back lot, as the head of the sheet metal department. So he made many props and sets for fabulous movies, and I used to meet the movie stars through him. So he was in the business in many ways. But I have a brother that is older, and somebody had to be at home with Ron. And they didn’t want me on the road at 14 roaming around. And I think my mother thought, well, he’s got to get to school every morning. So she would be hammering on my hotel room door at 6 o’clock, “Are you up??”, because school started at 8 or 8:30. And my dad would come and visit us at Christmas, and whenever he could. And we were on the west coast all summer, training in San Francisco.
On finishing his bachelor’s degree at age 39: Yes!! [laughs] I always tell everybody, I graduated high school in 1953, and I started at the University of San Francisco that summer, just taking a few courses, and I should have graduated with my class in 1957, but I finished in 1975. So all I did was turn the numbers around [laughs]. But there were moments when I thought I was never going to make it. It was a long drawn-out experience, but a good one.
On being in ice shows for 30 years and doing almost 12,000 performances: We used to do about 400 shows a year and we would travel for 46 weeks of the year. When I think back — and you know, these kids do it today in Disney and these other shows — you know, it never fazed me. We’d do three shows on Saturday and we were right into it. And now, my God, one performance and I feel like I’m having a heart attack [laughs].
On ice shows today: I’m happy that [there’s shows] for the skaters today because there’s not the venues there were. We’ve lost that era and that entertainment, and I’m old-fashioned but I still would love to see an ice show done as we did. I love [shows like Champions on Ice and Stars on Ice] but to me, what made Ice Follies a great success was the ensemble, the variation of numbers, and the interpretive, whether it was Spanish or whatever theme it had. And the precision at the end with the 32 girls — like the Ziegfeld Follies or whatever. I have films and I get goosebumps when I see them doing these great things. And then we had some great stars over the year. But it was also a variety show, with comedy. I guess the only difference I would say that today if you are with a show a lot of times you are playing a personality or a character, and so you can’t make a name for yourself. And Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice always had the elite. So the guys who didn’t quite make it, that were still great performers and so talented, don’t have a place to go. I find that very frustrating. And then, you know, Ice Follies used to take people out of the ensemble and make them stars. They could see the potential of somebody, and then boom! They gave them a small step-out, and then next they had a feature, and they just kept growing. And I don’t think people realize how hard so many of the kids worked. They’d do shows every night but they’d be at that rink improving themselves, taking lessons.
On being in the “Peanuts” comic strip: In 1980, Snoopy wanted to be Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer. It was a Sunday strip and I was playing Boston with the Ice Follies, and my phone started ringing Sunday morning at the crack of dawn. “Did you see yourself? Did you see yourself?” [I have a framed copy] on my wall. And then in 1990 I was in it again with Peggy Fleming. It was a cute strip and so again I became famous. I always tell Charles Schulz, you put me on the map. More people were reacting to that than I ever had in my life [laughs].
On performing at age 72: I [still love it] but I’m probably frustrated because my body’s not cooperating with what I want to do. But I can still do the axel, I can do the double salchow, I try double loop, and I can still do my falling leaf. And the good thing that’s happened is I haven’t lost my flow and my spread eagles and my presentation.
On who he thinks could be the new Mr. Debonair: That’s a tough question. There’s so many talented people out there. I guess what the role calls for is a personality kind of like a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly, and it’s always been a smooth, not a frantic number — you’ve got the girls and the guy who presents the roses . . . boy, you put me on the spot there, Allison, I don’t know who to say [laughs] But there’s a lot of them. Even Scotty Hamilton, he said, Richard, I want to do Mr. Debonair. And he’d be great. It’s just funny how many people did come up to me at different times and say, I want to take over that number. And they were all great skaters. And Brian Boitano had me on his show on NBC and did Mr. Debonair with me. It’s just fun to know that they still recognize and honor me with the fact that they love that number.