Episode #44: Jojo Starbuck

An interview with Jojo Starbuck. With partner Ken Shelley, she won three US titles, two World Bronze medals and was in both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. We discuss her career on and off the ice, her love for performing, and her incredible story of why the Japanese Federation made her miss a skating practice at the Sapporo Games. 1 hour, 2 minutes.

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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: We were just the newly signed stars of the Ice Capades, just after the 1972 Olympics. They gave Ken and I two pairs numbers in the show, and each of us had a solo. So my solo opened the second half of the show, and they built a number around me with about 12 or 14 male skaters. And they all came out and sang a song about me, and the spotlight hit the curtain, and the curtain flung open and I came running out and stopped in the middle of the boys. And then we proceeded to do the first part of the number together, and I went from one boy to another and they lifted me and twirled me, and they eventually left the ice and my solo began.  I was so excited that we had signed with Capades and I had wanted to be in an ice show since I was a little girl, the Olympics just kind of happened along the way. So our big debut was in Atlantic City, and so my mother was there and my coach Mr. Nicks and of course the big producer and the director and the choreographer, and all the bigwigs of the company were there at front row center, watching the final dress rehearsal before opening night.

And my number starts and the boys come out and sing a song about me, something like Jojo, Jojo, come along and skate with her, Jojo! She’s a champion you’ve really got to meet, she’s enchanting, delightful and sweet, oh, it went on and on and on. So the curtain opens and I come running out to stop in the center of the boys – and I guess I was so excited I tripped on my toepick or something. I fell flat on my face, and I guess because my costume was all these beads, I was on my stomach sliding on this freshly made ice, I slid and I couldn’t stop, all the way to the front barrier. And I’m down on my stomach and I look up, and there’s all the VIPs, in the front row center and I’m at their knees. And I just wanted to die. So I sheepishly stood up and said, Could we take that one more time? [laughs] So we went back and did it, and I was just so mortified. I held the tears back, but the moment I got backstage in the dressing room I totally burst into tears, and thought, oh no, now my dream’s come true and I’m just not good enough for it. The actual opening night was a great success, but it was a rough way to start. In a way it was kind of good, because it wakes you up to, OK, now you’re not having to compete in the Olympics or nationals any more, but you still have to really pay attention to what you’re doing, and you have to continue to work hard and stay in shape.

On starting in skating: Well, I was part tomboy, part actress growing up. And I grew up in southern California with a mom who’s part Auntie Mame from the musical Mame, she’s very theatrical, and part Mama Rose from the musical Gypsy, and she’s part Unsinkable Molly Brown, if you’ve ever seen that musical, and part Lucille Ball, who’s very very funny. She’s always loved an adventure and wanted to explore everything there was around her. She was a beautiful model in New York when she was growing up. And she raised me alone, my father died when I was very little, she moved out to California and found a job. And I was this tomboy, I couldn’t sit still, I ran and jumped and climbed over everything I could see, but I also loved putting on plays in our garage and forcing the neighborhood kids to be in them and forcing all their parents to come watch [laughs]. And then one Christmas I got a pair of skates. It was kind of a lark, she saw this pair of skates, and it was the perfect outlet for me. So we went to the local skating rink and found out about the Downey School of Ice Skating, which was in this little tiny 40 by 60 foot rink, and they put on shows all the time. They never taught you that much about how to skate well, but they put on these fantastic shows. So that was where I started skating. And it was great because I could go there in the morning, on the way to school with my little lunch pail, and in the afternoon, when my mom was working, rather than come home to an empty apartment, I could go to the skating rink and she’d pick me up from there.

And in the first show I was in, there was an audition and they chose me to do a special step-out, and I was one of a quartet of four special snowflakes. And my partner was Ken Shelley. And we were about seven years old. I thought he was an amazing skater, he did these wonderful leaps and tricks, while I didn’t know what I was doing but I was lucky and I was thrilled. And I wore a white tutu and he wore a white satin suit, and we skated to Walking in A Winter Wonderland with another couple, and that was the very beginning of our skating.

And then the school went bankrupt and closed, so our mothers took turns driving us to the Iceland arena, which is where Richard Zamboni invented the Zamboni machine. And we joined the club there and learned what a figure eight was and what various moves were and what competition was all about. And shortly after that a young coach came and sat around in the rink and waited for people to sign up to take lessons from him, he was brand new. And we didn’t know who else to take from, so we signed up, and it was John Nicks, and we were his first pair team and his first Olympians. It all happened so innocently and unexpectedly, unlike today when, I think, a lot of these things are so calculated and carefully planned because it’s such a huge investment. We had no idea. I really think God had his hand on us when I look back and see how amazing it was. I feel so blessed and so fortunate.

Ken was the most fantastic partner, and he’s still a very good friend. We really got lucky. When we first went to Iceland we started with an ice dancing coach because we didn’t know the difference between ice dancing and pairs. We just said to the teacher, we want to take lessons together because our moms are on the same schedule and we’re carpooling. So he thought that because he was a dance coach and we were a boy and a girl that we wanted to take ice dancing lessons. So he started giving us lessons and we laughed through the whole lesson, and he was really not happy with us. So we moved to Mr. Nicks, and because he had been world pairs champion he taught us pairs. And we had no idea why one was this way and one was the other way. But we sure had a ball along the way.

On working with Mr. Nicks: It was wonderful because we respected him so much, and he earned our confidence. If he told us that something was the right thing to do, I now know, as a coach, you’re not really sure if it is the right thing to do, or if it is going to work. You’re giving the skater your best hunch, you’re never truly sure, and sometimes different things work for different people. But because we believed so much in him, because of the way he was with his attitude and his whole personality, we never doubted anything he said. And somehow we’d do everything he would say, and it would work. And I know now that part of it was because he’s a great coach, but part of it was that we believed in him. We were very scared of him, when he came into the rink we really had to be on our guard. The minute he would walk out of the rink, though, we would all goof around like crazy maniacs, because that’s what we were. But when he was there, it was all business, and we really wanted to please him.

On Saturday mornings our parents would come, it was the big morning to show off for all the parents, and we would all skate our hearts out. And then he would call us all into the coffee shop, where he would weigh everyone, and call out your weight, and make a chart and post it. So he had a way of really intimidating everyone into their place, to be respectful and diligent and hard-working, and he really won our trust. Sometimes today I see some skaters and they just don’t seem to have the respect or the diligence, and that’s in a lot of sports, not just skating. They’re often very different in their approach to things. But, you know, my mom was working so hard to pay for every lesson, and I wanted to make the most of it and not waste one single minute of her valuable money which came so hard. She was really struggling to afford the lessons and keep it all going for me.

On Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, also coached by Mr. Nicks: They were just coming up when we were turning pro. So when we came home in the summertime to practice for next year’s tour, we would see them at the rink and work with them a little bit. That was really fun, watching them grow into the great champions that they became. I was there when they won their world championship, and that was a great fun night, to see that victory for them.

On being a high school cheerleader with Ken Shelley, and practicing their lifts as part of their cheer routines:  A lot of skaters are kind of wallflowers at school, because we don’t have the time to socialize.  When we first made the Olympic team in 1968, we were in a lot of newspapers locally, and suddenly we were well-known students at our high school, where before we were these weird ice skaters who really didn’t socialize much [laughs]. But now they understood. So we sort of took advantage of that opportunity and ran for Vic and Vicky Viking, who were the cheerleader mascots of our school. We dressed up in these serious Viking costumes, with sandals that laced up to our knees, and I wore a maroon leotard and I had a sheepskin sort of hanging off me, and a vest, and Viking ears, and golden braids that hung out of the helmet down to my hips. And that’s what we wore for the games. During the pep rallies we did all these lifts that we’d been practicing for skating, because we couldn’t go to all the rehearsals so we didn’t know all the cheers, but they’d bring us in and we’d do cartwheel lifts and butterflies [laughs] and all these funny things.

On skating pairs with a partner of similar size: We tried to turn it into an asset by using it to have the best possible unison, and that’s what we were kind of known for. The lasso lift was always difficult for us, and also the twist lifts, because I could only get so high in the air and then only had so much time to rotate on the way down. Our split twists weren’t really split because I had to start rotating pretty quickly when I got up there [laughs]. But aside from that, I just tried to be as thin as I could, and we practiced a lot off the ice, and I helped as much as I could. I learned from my ballet classes how to be the best possible partner in the air, to help Kenny in the lifting. So we just made the most of what we had. But I think in today’s world it would still be possible, if the training was carefully planned. I think it’s kind of fun to see a couple out there who’s similar in height, as long as the girl is pretty trim for the lifts.

On the 1968 Olympics: It was completely magical, because, not having had all the exposure that kids today have, frankly, I didn’t know all that much about the Olympic Games until 1964. I was outside playing and my mom called me in, saying, honey, you’ve got to see this thing on TV, that girl that you used to skate with is on TV. And we tuned in our black and white TV, and there she was, the skinny girl with freckles and dark hair who always pulled her sleeves over her hands because she didn’t have gloves. It was Peggy Fleming, and she was walking in the opening ceremonies. And when I saw the whole pageantry, that suddenly became my new dream and goal. Before it had truly been only to be in an ice show some day. But after seeing this, I thought, oh my gosh, that’s magnificent, I wonder if we could ever make it to a place like that. So that became our new goal, and four years later we were on the team. With Peggy Fleming [laughs].

They outfitted us with all this wonderful stuff, and we flew over, and we were running around the village and eating in the cafeteria. And then we were on the ice with some really famous athletes, who we had seen pictures of in magazines and heard about and seen on television. And we were one of them, on the ice with them and in the village with them, and it was just a dream come true.  I don’t think we were nervous at all because we were so much in awe of just the whole experience. It was like a wonderland to us, like not real. It was a lot more nerve-racking four years later, when we had more knowledge and experience, and more was expected of us.

On the Protopopovs: I remember them helping us after the Olympics. The world championships were two weeks later in Geneva, Switzerland, and there was an outdoor rink, and one day there was a snowstorm. And nobody came to the outdoor practice except for us and the Protopopovs. So we got to skate around with them, and they were very helpful and encouraging. Their English wasn’t very good at the time, but we were just thrilled to stand there and have our pictures taken with them. We revered them. I grew up with a picture of their death spiral and their cartwheel lift taped to my dressing table that I fixed my hair and makeup every morning at. I would just look at her and her positions and want so much to be like that. And then we got to skate and compete with them. And eventually in later years through shows and professional competitions we got to know them quite well.

On their strengths as a pair: Well, frankly, we never felt like we were fast enough. When you’re the best in your rink, it’s hard to push yourself faster, because you’re faster than everyone there and you feel like you’re doing okay. And then you go to the world championships and suddenly you’re not the fastest one there. It was a real wakeup call. So I don’t feel that we had the speed that, say, the Russians had. But because of Mr. Nicks and our ballet coaches off-ice, we had great attention to detail and to the artistry, maybe more than others did in those days. When I look back now, I think it leaves a lot to be desired [laughs] but in those days I think we were one of the most polished pairs teams out there.

No one was doing throw double axels at the time. I guess it never dawned on Mr. Nicks to try one. I could do a double axel but by the time I got one it was clear that I was going to be a pairs skater, and pairs teams never did beyond double flip in those days. And then while we were competing, in our last two years, the East Germans introduced the throw double axel, and I remember she used to wear a crash helmet when she was learning it. Her dad told me she just about killed herself many times when learning it. In those days, I mean, Mr. Nicks didn’t even do a throw jump [when he competed himself], so you just learn with your students along the way. I loved being thrown into the air, it was such a blast. It was one of my favorite things to do [laughs].  But if I grew up in today’s world, because of my size, I’m 5’ 7”, I would have to do ice dancing.

On winning two world bronze medals: We knew the Soviets were the reigning pairs skaters of the world, and the East Germans were always up there, winning year after year, and sometimes sweeping the podium. So for us to break in there, it was really a wonderful thrill. We’ll never forget getting on the podium the first time, in 1971, it was in Lyon, France. The French audience was really very demonstrative and expressed their love for us, so it was really memorable. I’ll never forget going back to the hotel room and sleeping with the medal around my neck [laughs].

On the 1972 Olympics: I roomed with Janet Lynn, and she was a big star in Japan. It was wonderful, and they had it very well organized. But I remember the Japanese not being that great of an audience, because from their perspective, they thought they were being respectful by not clapping until the end of our number. But we kept thinking, what are we doing wrong that they’re not clapping? They were much better in the exhibition part, but in the competition, when they didn’t clap until the very end, that sort of left us feeling a little bit cold. But that was just a cultural thing. And you know, they’re very diligent on every rule, dotting every I and crossing every T. And one day I was on the bus going to practice, and they came and got me off the bus. And as you may know, once you get there you only get about one hour of ice day. So I’m on the bus, on the way to get our treasured one hour of the whole day, and some Japanese official comes and pulls me off the bus. And I didn’t really understand, but he says I have to have a test taken or something, and I didn’t really have a choice, they wouldn’t let me go, they wouldn’t let me get on the ice. So I get into a private car and I go off with these Japanese people, and they take me to some address out in the middle of nowhere. And the driver got lost, so we’re driving around somewhere in the countryside outside Sapporo, and I was missing my practice and I’m just having a heart attack. And we finally get to this place, and it’s a medical clinic. So we go in and they take a swab from inside my cheek. And that’s it, they let me go. But by then I’d missed my practice and I didn’t get to skate, and I was so upset. And eventually some translator explained that I had to have my sex test, to see if I was really a woman. Which just seemed so ridiculous to me. So it was all forgotten, but then about six months later we got this very special grand certificate in the mail from Japan, and I opened it up, and there it was — the official Japanese certificate saying yes, this is to validate that Alicia Jo Starbuck is, indeed, a woman [laughs].  It was so hysterical, but it wasn’t funny at the time.

On starring in Ice Capades: We just loved it. We always loved being in shows and wearing costumes and skating to music and being with skating friends, and that’s what we got to do, and we got paid for it, 43 weeks out of 52 weeks a year. It did get a bit grueling at times, being on the road all the time and not being able to settle down, but all in all it was just a glorious time. And we loved being part of the show, it was like being part of a big touring family. One of my best friends to this day I met because she was my roommate in Ice Capades, Sarah Kawahara. We just met such precious people. You share so many similar experiences and goals and dreams.

On working with John Curry: That really changed my life. I thought I knew how to skate until I stepped on the ice with him. He just took it to such a different level that you suddenly realized, oh, I know nothing, I’d better start all over again and realize how to do this. And I know Peggy and Dorothy [Hamill] said the same thing when they started skating with John. He just had such a deep appreciation for movement and body position and the way the edge touches the ice, and the way you hold yourself and the way you express the music, and the way you work with a choreographer. He just made it all brand new, the whole experience of skating at a whole different level. It was a thrilling thing. You suddenly were learning all over again how to do even the basics. It was a great joy. And he brought in all these dance choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Peter Martins and Eliot Feld and Laura Dean.  It was so fascinating to see a dance choreographer’s questions and perceptions of what should be done to the music and where. The phrasing was different and it wasn’t about getting in a certain amount of elements in a certain amount of minutes, it was about creating something ethereal and beautiful. And to be part of that and just to be part of the rehearsal process was just really wonderful. I feel so lucky to have been part of that.

On working at the rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City: They call me their head pro. I skate there on occasion, but mostly I teach the early morning classes, which I teach to this amazing group of adult recreational skaters. They’re all very accomplished people who live or work in midtown Manhattan, and my youngest is probably in her late 20s and my oldest is in her mid-80s, a producer at NBC for the Today Show. I’ve met these great accomplished people who’ve always fantasized about being a skater but never had the opportunity.  And through this class they get to have private ice for one hour twice a week, and we have breakfast, we put on our favorite CD, we lace up, we stretch, and we just have a ball. And my goal is to just give them a beautiful experience and just really let them feel all the things that make skating a joy, to feel beautiful and accomplished. It’s not about achieving any special requirement for a test or a competition. We do things to music, we put combinations together, and it’s just completely exhilarating. We get off the ice and the flags are waving and the sun is beaming down on Prometheus — it’s  a great way to start your day, you can go off to work and kind of feel like you can conquer the world.

And in addition I do corporate events and parties. A lot of companies will call and want to do a VIP party either for their clients or for some of their employees, a VIP celebration. They’ll come and they’ll skate, and then we’ll put on a show for them with some terrific local skaters and professionals, and then they’ll go in and have a dinner party. Skating at Rockefeller is very special, there’s nothing like it. It’s difficult sometimes when it’s windy or if there’s freezing rain, and we’ve had to perform sometimes in those kinds of weather.  But the joy of skating outside in Manhattan, to be spinning and to look up and see those buildings twirling around and around above your head, it’s really a blast. I still feel that childlike wonder that I had when I skated there at the age of seven, and just really decided I wanted to be a skater. Of course at that time all I knew how to do was the splits, and thinking I was doing something really special, and my mother would applaud, but that’s all I had [laughs].

On acting in the movie The Cutting Edge: I wish I would have been more of it, actually. It was fun. They do these things very quickly. I went into makeup, I hung around a little, I learned my few lines, and then I got to do my lines with DB Sweeney and Moira Kelly, and before I knew it, it was over and I was flying home. But I’ll tell you, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that tiny little role, because so many people continue to rent that movie to this day. People are always coming up to me to tell me they saw me in that. It must really be a blast for movie stars to have their prime moments remembered forever, because I had just that one little taste of it and it was really a lot of fun.

On why she loves to teach adult skaters: Adults are there because they really want to be, not because somebody talked to them and drove them there and made them get on the ice. They’re paying for it, they’re driving themselves there, and they’re making the investment and the decision. So you know you really have a captive audience, number one. Number two, when you have a kid [student], kids are learning something new every day and they take it for granted, okay, next, what are you going to teach me next, what else am I going to do. But with adults, everything they learn is a wonderful revelation that they’re thrilled to have accomplished. And they don’t take it for granted. They are truly thrilled about each new move, and they love the analysis part of it. So I love seeing them get such a thrill out of their accomplishments, I love seeing the look on their face when they achieve it. Not that I don’t enjoy it with kids, too, but adults are truly jumping up and down for joy with complete abandon when they get something. And they love the process, they love talking about why things work the way they do and what makes it work. It’s just really fun to communicate with adults that way. And they’re so respectful. They truly admire you and think you’re wonderful when you demonstrate a little combination of moves. So even I feel like a million bucks when I finish a lesson with them [laughs]. So it’s a real win-win situation, I enjoy it a lot.

On being in the Caesar’s Tribute to the Golden Age of American Figure Skating: Well, that was a wonderful reunion for me and everybody there, to be together again. Although certain major names were missing, they had a range of skaters from Evan Lysacek to Richard Dwyer, and a lot of people in between. It was just great to be with everyone even fleetingly and to be on the ice together. One of my childhood dreams actually came true during that show. First of all, Ken and I were going to skate in that event, but Kenny had major foot problems all throughout the summer and into the fall, so we weren’t able to do that. But we were asked to be in Richard Dwyer’s number and to be a Dwyer Girl, which is something I’d been dying to do since I was about 11 years old. I loved watching him in the Ice Follies and loved seeing how the girls would float around the rink, and he would come out and glide among them and make them feel like a million bucks, and I always thought, ah, someday maybe I’ll be a Dwyer Girl too[laughs]. And then not only did I get to be on the ice with Richard but Brian Boitano was on the ice as well, sort of as Richard’s shadow, and also on the ice was one of my favorite skaters of all time, Tenley Albright. So I got to be a Dwyer Girl with Tenley and Tai and Linda Fratianne. I treasured every moment that it was happening and I’ll never forget it.

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.

1 comment on “Episode #44: Jojo Starbuck

  1. Tom and Casey Brown says:

    Hey JoJo , just wanted to say hello from the both of us! •<:0)

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