Episode #43: Barbara Ann Scott

An interview with Canadian legend Barbara Ann Scott, 1948 Olympic Champion, 4-time Canadian Champion, World/European/North American Champion, and the classiest woman in the sport of figure skating. We discuss her career on and off the ice, her numerous experiences with Sonia Henie, and why her little dog Pierre was her most embarrassing moment in skating. 1 hour, 13 seconds.

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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

(B=Barbara Ann Scott, T=her husband Thomas King)

On her most embarrassing skating moment: You gave me a warning, and I really can’t think of anything that was embarrassing [laughs]. But I can tell you of something that was semi-upsetting. Just before a school figure outdoors in Davos [1948 Olympics], a British person came by while I was practicing, and he said to me, those aren’t loops, those are balloons. Well, my trainer pulled me aside and he said, pay no attention to that man. So I was called out to do my loops, or balloons, and I won the figure. So I felt justified [laughs].

T: Tell them about Pierre, too, in Cincinnati.

B: Well, we were doing The Wizard of Oz, and it was the night of the dress rehearsal, and the choreographer said, there’s a dog in this story. And he said, where is that mutt that follows you around? And I said, well, if you’re referring to my poodle Pierre [laughs], then yes, he does follow me. And the Holiday Ice Revue had a revolving stage that they put the skaters on and it would revolve around, it was quite effective. So he said, let’s see if he will follow you. So I was doing a slow number to Over the Rainbow, just with a spotlight, and I was just doing spirals and spins and things. So the night of the dress rehearsal, they put Pierre the poodle on the revolving stage, and I called to him when he came around, and sure enough, he followed me onto the ice. And when I’d do a spin he’d sit and watch, and then when I’d move around a bit, he’d follow me. And then at the end of the piece, the storm came, thunder and lightning and everything, so I would grab Pierre. And he had his own private spotlight, a pin spotlight. And I would rush him backstage where I was supposed to have blown to wherever I went [laughs]. But he would not perform at a matinee. He’d come out and sit in the middle of the ice, but he would not follow me around or anything else. I guess he wasn’t being paid enough for matinees [laughs].  But one evening, I think it was in New York or Chicago, somebody was calling him, they would say, here, doggie. And you know how [the audience] sits low with the seats around the ice. So I guess he went over to see what was going on, looked at the person, and turned around, raised his leg, and wet [laughs]. It was the only time in the whole season that he did that, but it changed the mood of the whole thing [laughs].

On starting skating: I was about six. I saw pictures of Sonja Henie. I wanted to be like Sonja and have skates and boots. I had a bad habit of getting colds when I was a child, and then I would have ear trouble, so my mother wasn’t too enthused. And finally one Christmas the boots and skates came. But unfortunately they were black ones, they didn’t sell white ones in those days, and Sonja had white ones. And I was heartbroken, and I also had a cold. So I wore these boots and skates in bed, hanging over the side [laughs] because I couldn’t go out and skate.

But actually before that my mother took me to Dow’s Lake in Ottawa with the double runners that buckled on over snow boots. And she took me out and I was so unhappy. There was a man fishing in the ice, and I spent the little bit of time she let me be on the ice watching him fish, because I was not going to skate on double runners [laughs].

On her activities in other sports: My grandparents’ home was on the St. Lawrence River, and the lawn ran down to their dock, so that’s where I learned to swim, at a very young age.

T: And she was a great equestrian. She won so many blue ribbons on our horses, it was just amazing.

B: No, it’s not [laughs]. But I love animals and I loved the horses.

T: And she was also a solo pilot in the airplane.

B: My father was an army colonel, very interested in sports, but he was badly wounded in the First World War, and his hip was partly shot away. He had a limp, and he could play golf, but he couldn’t play tennis or skate or anything like that. But he encouraged me in any sport or any activity that I was interested.

On passing all her skating tests by age 10: I didn’t pass the eighth [figure test] because when I was age 10 we only had the fourth. And there were 20-some figures in one test and 18 or so in another. And I passed the gold medal at age 10, I think I was the youngest to do that. And several years later they divided the figures up and remade all the tests, so I re-tried the whole thing, both Canada and the United States. I was a teenager by then.

When I was 11 I won the Canadian junior championship. In those days there was only junior and senior, not all these side events. And Sonja’s ice show came to Montreal, which is not too far from Ottawa, so my father drove Mother and Mr. [Otto] Gold, my coach, to Montreal to see the show. And Mr. Gold sent a note back to Sonja’s dressing room. And immediately this little man came flying back and said that Miss Henie would like to see him at intermission. He’d known her in Europe. So at intermission he took me back. And there she was, standing in her dressing room, all her gorgeous costumes hanging there, and I was spellbound. And she gave me an autographed picture. It was such a thrill.

On her coaches: In those days, Canada didn’t have summer skating, so my parents took me to Lake Placid. So Walter Arian was my first one. Gus Lussi was actually my first teacher because he was at the Minto Skating Club when my parents first joined. He was just there the one year, but we always continued our great friendship. Then Mr. Gold came to the Minto Club and was there for several years, and then decided he was going to teach one of the American girls. And then fortunately for me, Sheldon Galbraith came to the Minto the next season. And he changed my free skating around – Mr. Gold gave me the same music two years in a row [laughs], Sheldon changed all that. In Europe he just seemed to know how to help me with skating in the wind and the rain and the snow and the whole bit [laughs] so I was very fortunate. We had a great association.

On figures: I loved them. I spent seven of every eight hours on them. But we had 70-some, and you had to know most all of them. You knew there was going to be a loop and a bracket and a three and a counter, but you didn’t know which one, backwards, forwards, inside, outside, whatever. So you had to know all of these figures, which I found fascinating. But it becomes a disease, because to this day I have to have everything in order [laughs]. Who cares if it lines up or not, but it bothers me. When I was professional, in my dressing room, Tommy was the promotion director for the ice show, he would come in and if I wasn’t there, I would find some of my makeup pencils on an angle and I knew he’d been in there because I had them straight [laughs]. And I remember the girl in the next dressing room, Carol Lynne, would just turn her makeup bag upside down and plop, on her dressing table, and I would have to have mine in line. And she would say, I couldn’t stand it if my makeup was like that. And I would say, well, frankly, I couldn’t stand it if my makeup looked like yours [laughs].

I remember an interesting thing, I think it was in 1947, Hans Gerschwiler was coming back to center on a school figure, and you try like golfers to bank into the wind, to figure out what’s going to blow you back to center. And the wind changed and he was just about to come back to center, and he stopped. And you could see the wheels turning in his mind, because you can’t put your foot down or you’re disqualified, so he did a little bunny hop back to center [laughs]. And he got back to center and they didn’t charge him for it.

I thought it was a crime [when figures were removed from competition]. The sport and the art is called figure skating, and to me, it’s like finger exercises for a pianist. They have to do those before they can play the sonatas and the symphonies. Figures were the basis. It taught you control, it taught you determination [laughs]. When you got discouraged it kept you going because you could see what you were doing, because you had to fix that picture and make it better. And it taught you discipline, to do the things you should do first and the things you want to do second.

T: She still does that [laughs].

B: I did the figures because they were what I should do, but I still loved doing them. But I do feel that the skaters years ago like Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Kurt Browning – the edges they had were beautiful, and they had more expression in their skating. But now the poor things are so regimented with, you must do this, you must do that, there’s no time to be yourself. I feel sorry for them. They’re magnificent, but they’re gymnasts now, flying through the air. There’s not as much footwork or as much beauty. I heard Dick Button, who I dearly love, say when he was covering a competition, you know, it’s a shame, the girls are all beautiful but they all have to do the same thing, and by the time the necessity, the ones they have to do, are done, there’s no room for them to do their own interpretation, which seems a shame. Anyhow, I’m an old lady and I’m entitled to my opinion [laughs].

On being the first woman to land a double lutz in competition, at age 11: I did axel, double salchow, double loop, and then I learned the lutz. I wore a pair of slacks out in the seat learning it. I don’t know why I made such an issue of a double lutz, now it’s nothing. But I would fall and slide, fall and slide. It wasn’t nearly so hard to do the double salchow and double loop. But I feel like such an idiot mentioning such a thing nowadays [laughs]. It’s not even a triple, or a quad.

On winning four titles (Canadian, North American, European and World) in six weeks in 1947: You just go from one to the other [laughs]. The North American title was nice because it was good for two years. But you’re in good health, you’re well trained, and there’s no reason to get all excited and think you have to rest or this and that. Don’t make excuses, don’t make life complicated, do what you’re supposed to do.

On being presented with a car in Ottawa after winning the 1947 world championships: Oh, it was gorgeous. Canary yellow Buick convertible, red leather seats, oh, it was fantastic. They had a civic reception, and I said to the mayor, I’ve never seen anything so gorgeous, but I can’t have it. And he said, why not? And I said, because I want to go to the Olympics more than anything, and I’m an amateur. And in those days an amateur, if you skated in, say, the Boston Skating Club carnival, the only thing you could receive was a $25 gift. That was very strict. So I had a lot of silver compacts and things from skating at various clubs [laughs].

But the mayor said, oh no, we’ve checked it with all the amateur associations, and it’s all been sanctioned. So I said, oh, well, thank you [laughs] and I drove it that one day, and went to Brockville and stayed with friends that one night, because I had to be back in the morning to start training again. And then of course Avery Brundage spoke up, and he was the head of the International Olympic Committee. And what Avery Brundage said was quite right. The rules said you cannot accept a gift over $25. And my father had always been very strict. If you play a game, you play by the rules. You must never not play by the rules. So I gave the car back, and they didn’t know what to do with it because evidently the money was a civic grant. And the city couldn’t give it away, they couldn’t sell it, they were stuck with it [laughs]. So they put it in an automobile showroom, and this was part of the sightseeing of Ottawa.

I remember meeting Mr. Brundage in St. Moritz [at the 1947 Olympics], and he said, I suppose you hate me. And I said, Mr. Brundage, for all my life I’ll be eternally grateful to you, because you quoted the rules, and I had broken the rules, and what would I have done if you brought it up now just before the Games start? So we became friends, and it was fine. And he was right.

On the 1948 Olympics: There were two hockey matches played [on the figure skating ice] the morning of the same day as the free skating. And the day we went to do our school figures, they’d had a thaw, like a chinook in Canada, and they sent us home. They said the ice is too soft. Oh, and by this time instead of doing six figures twice, once on each foot, it took so long in 1947 that this time we just did six figures, some on the left and some on the right. But being sent home, it throws you off a little bit, because you’re all keyed up.  But the day of the freeskating, they had two hockey games in the morning, this was all outdoors, and they had brooms and they swept the ice a bit, but that was all they could do. So Sheldon took me, and after the last hockey game we skated all over the ice to see where the biggest holes and the biggest ruts were, and said a prayer that I wouldn’t do a spin or a jump in one of the holes or the ruts [laughs].

And I remember sitting in the dressing room, most of us never watched anybody before we skated, and Eileen Seigh, who was a gorgeous free skater, was out there, and we heard the audience go, ohhhh. And we thought, well, Eileen is doing the program of her life, bless her heart. So she came to the dressing room afterwards, and she said, girls, that ice is impossible, I fell three times. And her chiffon dress was kind of torn. But she was such a good sport to come and tell us all this. We kind of knew the ice wasn’t great, but that’s how bad the ice was. So I don’t think anybody skated their best, just very cautiously. I did all my double jumps and stuff and spins, but [laughs] I was looking carefully before I took off or started a spin.

And in Prague in 1948 [at the European championships] I started out from a standstill, three axels into a sit spin, and as the music went duhhh, the music went screech [as the record skipped]. And I thought, well, what do I do now? If I keep going, the music will all be off. Or do I stop? So I thought, well I’d better stop. And it was the right decision, because they let me start again. It was rather a shock, I can tell you. In those days, we had those big records on the gramophone or whatever it was called. And somehow the arm with the needle went screeching across, I don’t know what happened.

On the Barbara Ann Scott dolls that were made after her Olympic win: When we were married, Tommy had never seen one, so I said, it’s a ratty-looking doll with marabou around the bottom [laughs]. So yes, we have one. And several years later they made another edition.

On her popularity after the Olympic win: The press was very kind to me and very encouraging. But nobody came to the Minto Club, because if it snowed, the snow came through the sides of the rink, and if it was 10 below outside, it was 20 below inside.

On being approached by Hollywood: I wasn’t trained as an actress, I was trained as a skater, and I always thought you shouldn’t try something that isn’t your ball game.

On her first professional show: I toured Canada and we played every town and village that had an arena. One is St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, which had about 900 residents in the winter, it’s a beautiful summer resort. So we played two nights and a matinee and we played to everybody in St. Andrews, I remember that [laughs].

On being challenged to a “duel” by Sonja Henie:  Tommy can tell you about that. She and Arthur Wirtz had a parting of the ways, and my father died when I was 13, so I never signed a contract, friends of mine did that. So I was in London doing Rose Marie on Ice, and they called and said that Arthur Wirtz had come up to Toronto and wanted me to skate in the show where Sonja had been. And they said, he’s a very nice gentleman and it’s a well-run organization [laughs], and the show is just one of his sidelines, and we would recommend that you do it. So what do you do? You say, yes, thank you very much. So then while I was still in London, a friend of mine sent me a clipping from Chicago, which was Arthur Wirtz’ headquarters, that said that Tom King, Arthur Wirtz’ publicity director, had not as yet decided how he was going to glamorize Miss Scott.

T: Misquoted [laughs].

B: I suppose he was thinking of glamorous Sonja and mousy little Canadian, but anyhow, I thought, oh. And up to that I had not cared much for publicity people. Anything to make a picture, do a print, go there. And if I’d see the one in London coming, I would run and hide [laughs]. So I said to my mother, I will fix that Tom King, I don’t want any more of these publicity people. I’ll braid my hair in pigtails and I’ll wear my poodle skirt and bobby socks and saddle shoes. And she said, you will not [laughs]. We were to go on the plane to Chicago when we finished in London. She said, you will get off the plane looking like a lady. Yes, Mother [laughs]. I was very glad because Arthur and Tommy met us, and he was just a delight, and never ever asked any of us skaters to do anything that wasn’t the best. But I was prepared to hate, loathe and despite him. So how’s that? [laughs]. And we will have been married 57 years next September.

T:  Winnie Gardiner was Sonja’s husband at that time, that was her second husband, and Winnie got in an argument with Arthur Wirtz and that led to their divorce. And Sonja left the show, I was asked to go on and be the general manager of their show but I declined. And so they went on and booked their show, and then in Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Times had a big headline in their paper, The War On Ice, Barbara Ann and Sonja. They skated day and date against each other. And Barbara sold out every performance, including every matinee, and Sonja had a real bad time – matter of fact, she couldn’t make the payroll. And she left Indianapolis clearly defeated.

B: But you could never defeat Sonja. It was just too bad.

T: Great show lady, and I liked her very much. Don’t misunderstand me. She was just very badly influenced by Winnie Gardiner.

B: Tommy worked with her in the Wirtz show, doing advertising and all that stuff, so he knew her very well, and he said he was nice to work with. I get so annoyed, we did an interview about her not too long ago, and they were quoting nasty things, and I said, well, that’s not fair. She’s not here to defend herself. She put figure skating on the map, made everybody conscious of figure skating, and did a great job. I must have seen each of her movies five times.

T: She had a language problem, and she didn’t understand well, and she didn’t speak English well. And that was unfortunate because that really handicapped her in her effort to greet the press and talk to the press and have interviews and so on. And therefore she became quite a loner.

She had certain rules, she didn’t want to talk to the press, she didn’t want to have press conferences, she didn’t want to have interviews, because of the language problem. And I said to her, look, Sonja, if we’re going to exploit this show, I need an hour before you open, I need an hour in the middle of the show, and I need an hour at the end of the show so I can get ready for the next city. And she agreed to that, and we had photo ops and so on, and we were able to sell out every show. But she didn’t want to speak to the press because she didn’t understand some of the questions.

On Rose Marie on Ice:  It was so much fun. Instead of going out and just doing jumps and spins, we were acting, you could say [laughs], the story of Rose Marie. And we had, they called them dubbers, that’s not a nice name but that’s what they were, they were singers and did voices. And they were there and we were supposed to mime the words. We had to rehearse off the ice so we knew the dialogue and could act like we were part of it. And it was such fun, it really was. We did it for two summers and it was great.

On being on the TV show What’s My Line in 1955: Pierre was there, he went everywhere with me, absolutely [laughs]. Another show that was fun, Dick [Button] and I, they dressed us up like snow people, you wouldn’t have recognized us. Our faces were all covered in white and we had white outfits. It was a show where you had to guess who the guest was, Dorothy Kilgallen was one of the guessers. And Dick and I sat there looking like idiots, and they didn’t get it, and after they told the audience, Dorothy Kilgallen said, those eyes, I kept looking at them, I knew I’d seen them but I couldn’t place them [laughs]. But that was a fun show to do.

On competing in equestrian sports after retiring from professional skating: We both rode and showed for about 38 years. Just in small shows, and Tommy bought us a trailer so we could load up and off we’d go, and we had a great time. We had saddle-bred horses, three-gaited and five-gaited pleasure [competitions]. Tommy’s horse was our prize, King’s Regal Tipper, he won so many blue ribbons.

On judging professional skating competitions: Dick Button called me years ago because he had that professional competition on television, and he said, Barbara, I want you to come and judge. And I said, Dick, I’m retired now, I’m doing horses. And he said, come on, join us, it’s fun. So we did it for quite a few years. It was great fun, and if the audience didn’t like what you’d judged, they’d boo, so it was fine.  That’s when they had open marking and either sixes or tens. And so many skaters judging that I knew from back then.

T: And great television ratings.

B: Oh, it was wonderful. Anybody could ask you why you gave this mark, it wasn’t behind the scenes or anything, and you would answer truthfully, that, well, I liked this skater because, over that one. It is a matter of opinion, you like apples and I like oranges. And of course there’s no hanky-panky in the professional business [laughs].

On carrying the torch in the 1988 and the 2010 Olympics:  In 1988 I was with Ferd Hayward, he was a speed walker for Canada, an elderly gentleman even then. I was so excited and so thrilled. In 1988 I wasn’t nearly as old as I am now [laughs], but I thought, I’m an old lady and I’m going to be in the best condition I can, I’m going to run the fastest. So I practiced on Michigan Avenue in Chicago [laughs], and I carried an andiron or something. And people saw me and said to Tommy, what is she doing? She’s lost her mind [laughs]. But I worked so hard to be a good runner. And then when we got there Ferd and I were the first, so we were right behind the television trucks that were going two miles an hour and taking pictures, and all we did, we hardly even walked after all my training [laughs]. It was ten below zero up in Newfoundland, but oh, what a thrill it was.

Now this time, I thought, I’m really old now so I’d better get in shape [laughs]. So I ran fast or walked really fast around here, and they said that the torch would be three and a half pounds. And the only thing I could find was my heavy garden shears [laughs]. So I went through the neighborhood saying, I’m not attacking anybody, I’m just getting in shape. So I carried the three and a half pound garden shears to get in shape, and then ended up just kind of walking and acknowledging the people that were there. This was like seven in the morning or some early hour. But the greatest thrill was when they asked us to come early in the morning and I found out that I was going to carry the blazing torch onto the floor of the Parliament Buildings. That, I think, was the greatest honor I’ve ever had, and so exciting, because no one knew that the torch was going to go onto the floor. And everybody was joking, don’t set the building on fire [laughs].

T: Did you see her carry the flag in the Vancouver Olympics?

B: And that was such a secret. Tommy always pays our transportation and accommodation and whatnot, but they wouldn’t let us pay for anything, and it was a secret and we couldn’t tell anybody. And there were eight of us [carrying the flag]. And when we got there, we all  went to the same hotel, and if we went anywhere we all went in the same bus, and they kept us under cover. It was so funny. We were told who the other seven were, but we were not to tell anybody. We had a wonderful group, and that dear little astronaut [Julie Payette], she was so sweet and so talented.

On still being the only Canadian skater to win gold in singles skating: I think it’s too bad. And I keep hoping that before I leave this world I will see a Canadian girl with that gold medal.  It was a great thrill when [Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir] won in the dance. I don’t know them but I hear they’re a nice couple. And that’s important, being a good sport and not blowing your own horn. Be a nice competitor and a nice sport, and I gather that’s the way they are.

On her reputation as being polite and cheerful: When you’re out there skating, you’re all competing, but in the dressing room and at the dinner table, it’s nice to be friends. And to this day I have some European friends, which is special. And as far as smiling and being polite, yes, Mother, yes, Father. They were quite strict. And my father would have no nonsense and no excuses, and you are to behave like a lady. I tried my best [laughs].

And people were so nice to me and so considerate. One thing that really annoys me, and I hate to say it, is these baseball players and football players that charge for their autograph. How dare they! If it weren’t for the audience that asks for their autographs, where would their success come from? I think you should spend time with anybody that wants to talk to you or wants an autograph. It’s very little that they are asking of us.

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.

3 comments on “Episode #43: Barbara Ann Scott

  1. Alice Pirie Wirtz says:

    I enjoyed your interview so very much with Barbara Ann Scott. It was fascinating and I do agree with you that she always has been a 120% lady. My late husbands father was Arthur M. Wirtz so I have heard many stories about Sonja Henie, and have known Barbara Ann for many years through my late husband, WIlliam W. Wirtz. Thank you for this enlightening interview which came to me through J. Barlow Nelson.

  2. I just listened to your interview with Barbara Ann Scott.Carol & I met her years ago when we were very young.She was a fine lady & I always considered her our mentor.I was sorry to hear of her death.I have a photo of her which I treasure with her signature.Look forward to enjoying listening to your other interviews.
    Sincerely,Nancy Heiss Jones

  3. Fraser Laschinger says:

    Barbara Ann Scott was well known here in Prescott Ontario during her youth. She was great friends with the Caldwell family of Prescott. Herb Caldwell did a lot to assist Barbara Ann in her career after her father died. Herb’s daughter Betty and daughter-in-law Judith were both good skaters as well so they enjoyed the sport together. Herb bought her the mink fur coat to go to St. Moritz accompanied by Betty, who got one as well. Barbara Ann was a bridesmaid at Betty’s wedding in Prescott. Betty is still alive and living in Florida.

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