An interview with Randy Gardner, 1979 World Champion in Pairs with Tai Babilonia, two time Olympian (1976 and 1980), choreographer, star of Ice Follies and head of Randy G Productions. We talk about his experiences with Mabel Fairbanks, his injury during the Lake Placid Olympics that caused them to withdraw, and who he’d love to do choreography for next. 59 minutes, 21 seconds.
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On his most embarrassing skating-related moment: When I was a little boy, one of the very first shows that Tai [Babilonia] and I did together at a local skating club, I was Dr. Doolittle and she was Mrs. Doolittle. And my costume was made out of silk or satin, there was no stretch to it whatsoever. And I did a big split jump and my whole crotch came open, with the white underwear. I was only about 10 or 11 and I was quite embarrassed, and I ran off in tears and they fixed me up, but everybody was teasing me and laughing about it. And to this day I still remember that, and always make sure everything is intact before I go out.
On starting skating: I took dance classes before I started skating, and I probably would have been a dancer had I not become a skater. I was doing gymnastics and dancing, both tap and ballet, and then later in life I took jazz. I actually took jazz throughout our skating career. I started skating at about eight years old, and at first I had to be bribed to skate with Tai — you know, candy bars, anything nice like that. I couldn’t really lift her at all. I was a scrawny little kid. I would grab her by the waist and try to get her up, and the other kids would push under my arms to get my elbows straight and get her over my head. And if I did get her up it lasted for about two seconds, and then down she came.
On being coached by Mabel Fairbanks: Mabel was a fabulous black woman, one of the first African-American women to have any kind of professional skating career. She was flamboyant, she was friendly and nice. She loved all of the students that she had. And she had different colored skates, purple and silver and pink. I don’t know how many hundreds of pairs she had, but she had a lot. She kept them in the trunk of the car, and whatever mood she was in she would take them out and wear them for us. And we got such a kick out of that because we hadn’t seen anything like that before. She was a great coach, especially for young kids, and we just loved her. She took us under her wing. She could be strict and firm, but also friendly. A lot of times she’d pick us up in the morning to go to the rink, to take the burden off our parents, and we’d all pile in the car and get to the rink about 6 am, and then our parents would pick us up to take us to school. And she’d have parties for the parents and the kids at her house in the Hollywood hills, with a black swimming pool.
On being coached by John Nicks: He changed our career. We went to him when we were a novice pair team, and he was one of the top coaches in the US at the time, and we felt lucky that he took us. He was very firm and very strict. There was no goofing around at the rink, from the minute he walked in, it was work time.
On Tai being one of the few multiracial skaters at the time: I was always proud for her and with her, that she had done that and was doing it, but after a while I kind of forgot about it, to be honest. Her mom is black and her dad is mixed, and I’m kind of color blind to that. People can be any kind of race to me and I don’t really notice it, and I think that came from the relationship and experience with Tai and her family. Because it was so close-knit, that stuff never really bothered me. And there were a lot of black kids at the rink, and Asians, Japanese, Indian, it was like a stew.
On why he always ties his right skate first: I think it’s habit now. Maybe it started as superstitious or good luck or something, but I still do it today.
On being the first pair to land a throw triple salchow: You build up to it like anything else. We kind of had to take it from the double, and combine it with the regular triple salchow jump and go from there. We had to get it high enough and, you know, just as you would learn anything from single to double to triple, just start doing it more and more and put the pads on and hammer away at it. Harnesses were around, but we did not do them in our training.
On his skating idols as a junior skater: Jojo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, very much, were my idols, and Tai’s too. They also trained with John Nicks, so when we went over to work with him, they were there getting ready for the 1972 Olympics. And it was real exciting to be around them and be part of that. I liked them as people and I loved the way that they skated. All through our competitive career I looked up to them and thought they were terrific. I also liked some of the other US teams, like Melissa Militano and Johnny Johns. There was always someone to look up to and admire and watch and learn from. For me it changed as we went along. I admired the Eastern Europeans for their speed, I would really look at that. Every year there was something new to look at and you would try to capture that for yourself.
On placing fifth at the 1976 Olympics: It was great. It was the first year we had won Nationals, so we went to the Games as US champions, and we were working our way up, we were probably tenth in the world at that point. So going in, we didn’t have the pressure, we were able to enjoy the excitement around the Games. I still remember marching in the Opening Ceremonies and being part of the Games for the first time with all the other athletes from around the world. I really took it in. There was the normal competitive stuff and the focus, but it wasn’t as intense as it would become in the next four years after that. I was a young man, but I was old enough to appreciate it and take it all in. And it was a great skating competition, with Dorothy Hamill and John Curry. We knew it was big when it happened, but we didn’t know how big it would be [for Dorothy] afterwards. We were touring in Europe, and managers and producers would be calling her. It was just taking off for her and I was so excited for her. And she was able to do all the TV shows and variety shows, which was great for skating.
On his and Tai’s skating symmetry: We were only about four inches different in height, and we did a lot of off-ice training, ballet and different kinds of training in front of a mirror. And John Nicks was a real stickler on unison too. In his era, which was only two decades before us, I think he skated like that with his sister, and he did it with Jojo and Ken as well, so I think that was important to him. And I understand why, because it’s impressive, and it covers up a lot of stuff [laughs]. Our toughest stuff was doing stuff like triple twists, me getting her high enough in the air to get all the rotations. We could do doubles just fine, but triples, we never really got it. So we had to exceed in other areas like unison and speed and jumps. The lifts were fine, but [we had] our flow and accentuating good pure technical skating. Let the skates work for you. And that I think is what set us apart and really helped us in the end.
On becoming world champions in 1979: We knew we could win because we were next in line, and there were maybe only one or two teams that could have beaten us. But we had to fight for it, we had to be really ready for it and to peak. Had we messed up, we wouldn’t have gotten it. So we had to go in being perfect, being right on our game. We skated really good, one of our out-of-body experiences. And it worked. A lot of hard work really paid off.
On getting a low score from the Canadian judge at that competition: In those days, your marks could range like that, from 5.9 or 6.0 to 5.4. That’s just kind of how it was. Maybe that judge was just judging everybody low that night, I don’t know. I never approached him or her about that.
On the intense media scrutiny after their 1979 win: It didn’t come as a surprise, because the Olympic Games were coming up, and we were coming in as the world champions. And the Olympics were in the States, in Lake Placid, so there was a big rush for that. We did some of it but then we had to pull back. John Nicks was very good at making sure we did enough to appease everybody, but not enough to affect our training or our focus. I think this generation now is used to digital everything, and it doesn’t bother them, I think it’s part of their lives. I don’t know how they have time to do it all.
On sharing a room with David Santee, Michael Botticelli, and John Summers at the 1980 Olympics: We were all good friends, so it was like a college dorm in a sense. And it was comforting for me, because we knew each other.
On not telling Tai about his injury prior to the Olympics: I truly thought that I was going to be well enough to skate, and I myself believed it. So we were just proceeding forward, business as usual as I could. I was in a lot of pain and was going through treatments, but there was no need to bother her or to worry her, because in my mind and in John Nicks’ mind we were going to do it.
On withdrawing from the Olympics: The only thing I noticed, and it was not really good, was that I was pain-free for the moment [after receiving an injection in the injury site]. But then as soon as we started to go and to do things, I could feel that I was off. My balance was off, even like on a sit spin, which I think was the first move we did. I sat all the way down, I couldn’t contract the muscle to get back up. And then I tried to lift her and that was unsuccessful, and we did the double flip and I couldn’t pull my leg in. So I was losing control of my body, which was very unusual and very scary. I was losing control of something I always had control over, which was my skating. It was being taken away.
On getting a note, immediately after withdrawing, from a Chicago Tribune sportswriter saying he now had the most famous groin in the world other than porn star John Holmes: I know who the sportswriter was [laughs]. I think they were trying to make a joke. John Nicks didn’t think it was that funny. I didn’t quite get it because I didn’t know who John Holmes was. But later in life when I realized who he was, I was like, oh yeah, cool [laughs].
On retiring in 1980 and not trying for the 1984 Olympics: We probably would have been too old. And we were at our peak, and it’s very hard to keep trying to defend for each year. And we were at a good age to turn professional, and that was kind of in the cards for us. And there were a lot of people coming up behind us too. We joined Ice Capades in April, and I was still in physical therapy [from the injury], but even the first year on the road, it would get tired and achy. I never really reinjured it but it was still building itself back up. It was a good six to nine months before it felt back to normal.
On Tai’s personal struggles: I was able to be there and support her. I didn’t understand a lot of it because I was enjoying it. This is what I was supposed to be doing, making a living in skating, and it was the opposite for her. I don’t think that anyone, even Tai herself, would say that it was a crappy time in her life. It wasn’t a great time, but there were a lot of rewards and recognition and money, and the satisfaction that you’re really good at what you do. And I know she enjoyed that. Physically it’s hard, and I know she said she wanted to do other things. I think she was getting burned out a little bit, and that being the main problem, that created a bunch of other stuff.
On talking to Irina Rodnina about the 1980 Olympics: There were years there where we didn’t see her or talk to her, and then when she came to the US to teach, in the Los Angeles area, I saw her more, and we became kind of friendly. But she never brought it up. There was just one time when her son — the one she was pregnant with in 1979, the year she was out — was around, he was a young kid then. And I said, Irina, that’s the reason why we won the world championships, that son right there. And she said, yes, I know [laughs]. But we never discussed the Olympics.
On his three years in Ice Capades: I liked it. I can’t say I loved it, because it was a lot of really hard work, but it was a great experience. It really taught us to be good professionals. For us, it started our careers as professional skaters, and our pro career was a lot longer than our competitive career because of Ice Capades. We learned about music, and choreography, and costumes, and how to approach our skating in a different environment, which was interesting because we were thrown into all kinds of different situations later on. I made a lot of friends, touring was tough, but at the Ice Capades reunion I met up with all these friends, these people that we skated with in the shows, and it was terrific seeing everyone again. There’s a bond there, you know. You tour together, you travel together, you work together, and you’re young. I’d recommend it to anyone, but those kinds of shows aren’t there now.
I paid attention, and I liked the process. For me, there was nothing more fun than to go in for meetings with the producers and the directors and costumers, going over what we would do, writing the music, creating our stuff for that year. I really sort of took that in, and I liked it. It was a nice creative outlet, and it showed me my own outlet, a way to do it.
On his and Tai’s instructional skating video: I believe the idea was Michael Rosenberg’s, our manager, and then he sort of pushed it through. There wasn’t one out there at the time. We were involved in the teaching aspects of it, the writing of it, and we shot it in two nights, something like that. I don’t know if it sold well — people have it, people bought it, but I don’t know how they tracked it.
On the TV shows they appeared in: I loved doing TV specials. TV is my favorite medium, although I like live shows too. But I love working with a camera, I love working in a studio, I like the result of it because it looks so cool, so great when you’re done. And there’s so much you can do with a camera. There was a Disney special we did, and even more simple ones like the Christmas tree lighting special at Rockefeller Center, which are fun because they’re outdoors and kind of live, on the spot. That was good television. We did Dorothy’s Festival on Ice, it was a theatre show, we did Lake Tahoe every year for three or four years in a row and then we toured with that afterwards. And that was a great experience because it was really creative. Dick Foster and Willy Bietak were producing, and Sarah Kawahara was doing choreography, and there was a lot of innovative stuff in those shows because of that creative team. And we were further able to enhance our repertoire because of doing that show, and it was really kind of cool working in a casino showroom doing two shows a night, like the Vegas stars do [laughs]. Las Vegas is interesting to me. I don’t know if I could live there, because of what it’s become, but it’s the entertainment capital of . . . something [laughs].
On working with Champions on Ice: I was the skating director for a couple of years. The show was all the champions, and so there wasn’t a lot of production. There was an opening and a finale, and the staging of stuff in the show, but it was a nice big arena tour with big lighting, and Tom Collins did a great job with the production values. And I loved working with all those skating stars – that was just a thrill. I’d never know who I was going to get that year, but whoever won Olympics or worlds, that was it. So you get to build relationships from there, and to learn. I learned a lot about my craft from doing that show. Just because they were a champion – every single one was different. So you have to learn to tailor your approach and choreography to everybody differently, which was really an education.
On working with singles or with pairs: I don’t have a preference. I like them all. I like ice dance as well. I can’t choreograph a free dance because I’m not in that world, especially now with IJS, but choreographing for pros and doing things with professional ice dancers, that’s fine. I’d love to work with Alissa Czisny — I got a touch of that for the RISE premiere, we worked on that at [2011 US] Nationals in Greensboro. I had her and Brian [Boitano] and all the new ones, we did a special piece, and that was really a highlight. Once I got to work with Brian, I thought, well, this is good. So talented, such a hard worker, so focused — that was a great experience for me. The junior pair team [Ashley Cain and Joshua Reagan] that won  nationals, they’re from Texas and they work with David Kirby — the girl is Peter Cain’s daughter, and he was Australian national champion when we were champions, we all trained together in Santa Monica. I’m really proud of her and of him, that that’s happened, and I’d like to work with them.
On working with the Professional Skating Historical Foundation: I’m the president of the foundation, and we preserve and archive anything and everything to do with the history of professional skating. We have a lot of artifacts, and we have a collection of stuff going way back to the 1920s. We have costumes and posters and programs and photos. And I have an audiotape of Belita, who was a skating star and a movie star around the same time as Sonja [Henie], speaking about her life. What I like about it is that I’m learning so much, and I wonder if I should be an archivist somewhere later in life [laughs]. It’s just fascinating to me learning about all the different kinds of skating and the venues there were for skating around the world, and in the United States. They used to have hotel shows in the 1940s and 1950s, year round. It was part of American culture to go to these dinner clubs and see an ice show. I speak to a lot of people who were in those shows, they’re older now, and it’s fascinating to me.
It’s sort of another way of giving back to the sport, or to the business, to try to preserve all of this stuff. We want to get some sort of placement in a museum with our collection, but we’re going to do an online museum as well with tidbits of people and shows. It’s just real interesting to me, and it keeps me busy. Roy Blakey, his collection is unbelievable. I can call him and say, I’m looking for such and such, and before I can put the period on my sentence, he has the information. Or I can say, Roy, who’s in this picture from 1946, and it’ll be like 10 skaters in a row, and he can name them all. He’s one of a kind, and he just has a goldmine.
On running Randy G Productions: It’s an event production company. For two summers I put on the nighttime entertainment at Sea World in California, which was dancers, singers, gymnasts, aerialists, all kinds of variety acts. And I do special events, private events, and corporate events as well. I work with other producers in town to implement those sorts of shows. I did a Bat Mitzvah in Chicago, the girl was turning 13 and was a skater, and I came in as a special surprise guest. Her family had taken over the old Chicago library, and put in plastic ice in what they call the ballroom, and I came out in a tuxedo and skated with her and with her friends, had a good old time. It was one of the most unusual things I’ve done, in a very good way.
On his skating now: When I teach, I try to take 20 minutes or half an hour for myself. I do all the basic stuff, what we call moves in the field now, I do all of that. I’ll be doing waltz jumps and salchows, all single jumps, just to get going. And I like to skate in the adult session because there’s a lot of camaraderie, we all know each other and we all cheer each other on, it helps you get through the session.
On the state of US pairs today: I was shocked to hear that [Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin] broke up. It’s really a shame because they’re so good. I don’t think it was a really quick decision, I think it was something that was brewing because things like that don’t happen overnight that quickly, but I don’t know. We have a lot of really good pair coaches in the US, and there are a lot of good teams, so hopefully they’re going to come and fill in these spots. I think we’re going to be OK. I don’t know why we end up so low at Worlds and Olympics all the time, because we’ve got the talent here to teach. We have some lovely-looking teams and some talented teams, and I think there’s a nice future in American pairs skating. So I’ll keep my fingers crossed on that.