An interview with Bob Paul, 1960 Olympic Champion in Pairs with Barbara Wagner, Ice Capades star and top choreographer. 55 minutes, 29 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights
On his most embarrassing skating moment: [laughs] Skating in the last year of Ice Capades, I wore a toupee, even though I was only in my late 20s, and I saw this big dark spot in the middle of the ice and I thought it had fallen off. It hadn’t, but panic set in [laughs].
On starting in skating: In Toronto, and in Canada, most kids skate. I can remember being on double runners with my mother, and I must have been around three, skating outdoors. And then I was in hockey skates, and I went to a rink where my cousin was skating, and it was a skating club. And I really liked that because of the entertainment end of the skating, not the competitive end. We skated for fun and we did exhibitions. And that’s what got me into it. And then someone at that rink told my father that if I wanted to get serious I should go to the Toronto Skating Club, where Barbara Ann Scott’s coach, Sheldon Galbraith, had just been hired. And being a boy I was able to get in there fast. They took boys off the street [laughs].
On being able to jump everything up to a double axel in both directions: At first I jumped one way and spun the other. And when I got to Sheldon Galbraith, we studied the jumps and spins, and looked at which one appeared to be my natural direction. So I had to switch my jumps. It took me a year to switch the axel. But I maintained my ability to spin both ways, and I mostly spun in the opposite direction in the ice shows. I had to learn everything up to the double toe loop the other way because my partner, Barbara Wagner, jumped that way.
On starting in pairs skating in 1952: I continued in singles until 1956, but in pairs we were on the world team by 1954, so that progressed a little faster [laughs]. And we started out with six inches in height difference, and we ended up with a foot difference. I grew a little faster than she did [laughs]. I was told by a Russian that they started in pairs because of us, and they saw that example.
Pairs did not do, in that day, forward camel spins. It was a no-no for some reason. The Ludingtons brought the sit spin in, from roller skating. We saw them and then we added that next year. We added a lot of content from when we first won worlds to the Olympics, because we had to keep up with the ones that were pushing us.
On being the dominant pair in pairs skating: I asked Sheldon Galbraith about that recently, why was that?, and he said, because you were good [laughs]. We always had, all four years we won Worlds, somebody different second to us each year, which I guess means something. But we focused on adding difficulty to our own skating. We didn’t focus on, and I don’t think Sheldon allowed us to focus on, our competitors and who we had to skate against or anything like that.
Our best element was our unison. That was something that we had, and our stature together absolutely matched all the way through. I never even watched the other skaters, except at the  Olympics. I watched one group, and I remember the German pair coming quite close because I had to step back because they hit the rails. But there were rules back then, like you couldn’t leave your arm locked in a lift — you had to get up and then release. So it was very difficult to do things like turning lifts, and we were determined to do everything within the rules. Because the Europeans really had a thing about watching the North Americans very closely, to find ways to not let us get through [laughs].
On winning the 1957 Canadian, North American, and world championships within 16 days: We were, I say, trained like machines. Sheldon would bring out the stopwatch, and we could go through that program without the music and end up within a half-second of when the music was there. And our music was on 78s, and every rink had a variable speed on its record player, so they could get it exact. I don’t think that happens with CDs today.
On being on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1958: The photographer [John G. Zimmerman] became a famous sports photographer and had exhibitions around the country. We spent four hours in the middle of the night at our skating club, watering the surface constantly, to get that one shot. And that shot wasn’t even the most perfect, because there’s a little spray from my blade.
On the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California: I was the flagbearer for Canada at the opening ceremonies, and I almost turned it down because we competed the next day at 10 a.m. I was worried about my arm, so I carried the flag with two arms so that all the weight wasn’t on the one hand that I had to lift her with. And I carried the flag at the closing ceremonies too, but I don’t think that’s how they do it now. It’s different people at the opening and the closing.
It was the last Olympics at an outdoor rink. The practice rinks were outside too — they were right next door to the big rink with hockey boards around them, so people could just come up and lean over and watch. And it was the first Olympics since 1932 that had been held in North America. The Europeans all flew over together in one plane. Scary, huh? Especially after what happened next year [the plane crash that killed the US team traveling to Worlds]. We arrived two weeks in advance because we knew about altitude, and that we had to train to be acclimatized. The Europeans arrived five days before, and we went “yay” [laughs].
The Australian team skated right before us, and I don’t know how many days they had arrived before, but they were so wiped out that when they finished they were sitting on the ice by the entrance way, and we almost had to walk over them to get on the ice [laughs]. And the judges sat on the ice, and one pair skater ended up sitting up on the lap of one of the judges [laughs].
And during our performance, the music jumped a bar or two — enough that I said “stop”, because it would totally throw off our unison. And coming up was our double toe loop, which was a huge jump in those days. So we stopped and went over to the referee, William Powell, and thank goodness that he was American so there was no language problem. And they had no communication [with the music players] so he had to walk across the ice to the music department, which was a record player in the hockey penalty box. Very sophisticated [laughs]. And he said, yes, the music did jump, so we got to start again. And we found out many months later that our coach was standing in that music box, and got a little nervous and made a little thing with his elbow. So we think he was the one that did it [laughs]. Some people now say he did it on purpose, but come on now. It was 10 o’clock in the morning! What freestylists compete at 10 o’clock in the morning? I said to Barbara [after the stop], that’s our warm-up. We had a five-minute warm-up and that day they hadn’t arranged any [practice sessions] for the pairs. We just went out and competed.
And it was the first Olympics that was televised. A friend of my partner was in Lausanne last year and found [a film], I don’t know if the ISU had it or something, so now we have the entire performance on a DVD. Walter Cronkite introduced us, and then Bud Palmer talked us through the entire program after we won, and we critiqued it. I also have a silent film that I bought, which I thought was going to be the whole performance but it wasn’t, but it has the warm-ups and also when we stopped. I don’t even know if we were given the choice [of where to restart], but we wanted to start the whole program again, which is what we did. And it was our best performance ever.
We got all first place votes. I have all the ISU record books from back then, and I believe, from four Worlds and the Olympics, that only one judge ever gave us a second in all those competitions.
And it might have been the only Olympics where the medals were in a box. If we had to go somewhere where they had to be around your neck, my partner took some of her son’s swim medals and stuck them with gum or something onto our medals so we could wear them [laughs].
On performing in Ice Capades: I felt that we should have been there longer, after four years, but we weren’t asked to be there longer [laughs] so that sort of ended that career. I wanted to be an actor and I came to Los Angeles, and my first student, because her coach was away, was Peggy Fleming. And that started a whole new career. I tried to be an actor for four years, and not much happened there, I’ll tell you that [laughs]. But I was on an episode of Bewitched, my only one, and it’s still there. People have seen me in Spanish and in different languages. I was sort of the slapstick coach, the junior coach.
On working with Peggy Fleming: She had the tendency to be a little lazy sometimes, although her mother was quite good at getting her to go. I was only the coach for one season with her, although I ended up being her choreographer for quite a long time. She was one of the great natural talents, just like Mirai [Nagasu] who I was with for eight years. And Peggy’s beauty of her skating was built in, she never had many ballet lessons.
On working with Dorothy Hamill and Linda Fratianne: I worked with Dorothy very little, but I enjoyed it a lot because she’s really dynamic. And then I worked for Janet Lynn for five minutes [laughs] when Slavka [Kohout Button] was pregnant. Janet was in the ice shows by then. And I worked with Linda under Frank Carroll’s supervision. She would come over and take certain things from me at my rink.
On working as a choreographer: I did all five of Peggy’s [TV] specials, and I did the Donny and Marie [Osmond] show [on TV] for three seasons while they had the skating in there. And then there was a little break while my son was born in 1976, and I had a couple of years just teaching. And then Kenneth Feld, who owns Disney on Ice, hired me in 1980, and I did 15 or 16 years with Disney as choreographer.
The Peggy Fleming specials were about Peggy, period. There was one in Russia where I had to choreograph the Russian ice show, but Peggy was mostly by herself. Donny and Marie was 12 girls on a little tank, teeny tiny, but they also had to do the dancing with the dance choreographer. So they spent the morning with me and then the afternoon with him. But I had really good girls there, they really knew how to help me and how to make it work fast. Donny and Marie, I tried to teach them how to skate. I think the bosses thought that because they were so multi-talented they were going to learn instantly, and after three seasons they stopped the skating, and the rumor I heard was it was because their skating wasn’t getting any better [laughs]. But they only had five or ten minutes a day at the most to do skating.
And the ice show, I’d never done a big ice show before, so there I was with 24 to 36 skaters on the ice at once. But I had a very good performance director, Annie Schmidt, who was really very helpful to tell me that will work, or that won’t work. Because I had it all figured out on paper before we even got there. I had staff meetings and we all got together, traveling with the show, and we did it with four people.
I worked with the characters with their basic patterns, and someone else worked with them on the acting ability. And I must say, most of the kids that got cast in those characters really were characters [laughs] so it was easy for them. And then occasionally someone from Disney would come out and work with the characters on the floor.
On working with Mirai Nagasu: I was her coach and stylist, but I was never her choreographer. She took from several people like they all do these days. I only had her once a week and we’d spend an hour and a half together, with at least half an hour in front of the mirror upstairs, which I think was a relatively new thing for skaters to do. To walk through the programs on the floor in front of the mirror and look at yourself. She’s a brilliant skater and she’s had great coaches along the line, like Charlene Wong in this group I was with. But with Frank [Carroll], I think it’s whoever he has working with her at the rink he’s at.
On being the only North American pair to win a world championship: It was quite astounding, but like I said we were so focused on ourselves, we weren’t thinking of that, or worrying about that, just about being the best we could. The Russians had a national system going over there, where they backed everyone so heavily. We do have some financing now, I think, through Skate Canada and the USFSA, but back then, my parents had to mortgage the house.
On pairs skating now: Great, but dangerous [laughs]. Really dangerous. The accidents have been horrendous, and those throws! The girls are checking out in the air at least as high as the boy’s chest. How do they land those things? And the power in those legs to absorb all of that, I want to see how many hip replacements they have in the future. And they’re doing triple jumps. I think our generation, when we started in the mid-50s, we were the first to do double jumps. And then, pairs were pairs, it were lifts, not jumping. Sometimes now I have to close my eyes, but I still watch it. I think there’s so many demands of things you have to do that you sort of lose the interpretation, because you’re always doing crossovers to get into something.
On the new judging system: Nothing is perfect, but I like that the judges have to put the marks down for every individual element, whereas in the 6.0 system you had to put just one down, and could you fudge that one. I was reading something on the Internet where they’ve buried the judges so you can’t find out which one gave what, but you have to mark every individual element, and then they eliminate the high and the low. But that’s the technical mark. The mark they can still fudge is the component mark. That’s a personal opinion, but whether you rotate the jump or do the spin, that’s right there in front of you. That’s fact. And you see some brilliant programs, which goes right back into the past. There’s brilliant choreographers that can do great programs no matter if everyone is doing all the same stuff or not.
On reuniting with Barbara Wagner during the 2010 Olympics: We did three interviews that day, two for Canadian TV and one for Universal Sports. It was a lot of fun. I was only there for two days, because Skate Canada gave us tickets for the pairs short and the pairs long, but this was only two weeks before, so I had to scurry around and get a plane ticket and find people to stay with. Barbara and her family had already planned to go to the Olympics no matter what they got, and they would try to get things as they got there. And so that got onto television, and one lady gave four tickets for the pair events, which was incredible. We got nothing from the Olympic association, not even a hello. But it was an incredible experience to be there and to see the pairs event, so that was a plus.