Peter Pan on Iceby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we all know, the magic of Disney spreads far beyond just the films and the theme parks.
I have always been impressed with the Walt Disney's World on Ice shows produced by Feld Entertainment. The name was changed to just Disney on Ice in 1998. They seamlessly capture the skill and spectacle of ice skating with an authentic Disney experience.
These hour and a half to two hour long touring shows are produced by Feld Entertainment under agreement with The Walt Disney Company. Aimed primarily at children although enjoyable for children of all ages, the shows feature figure skaters dressed as Disney cartoon characters in performances featuring music and plot from elements collected from various Disney films and properties.
The shows continually change, often to reflect the current theatrical property from the Walt Disney Company or an overall theme like "Disney princesses". There are multiple different Feld productions touring at one time in seventy-five countries on six continents.
Here are some spectacular moments from these shows.
The Walt Disney Company has had a long history of partnering with ice skating shows.
The "Ice Capades" began life as halftime show. In 1940, John H. Harris, a Pittsburgh rink owner, noticed that his hockey crowds swelled when he booked a figure skater to perform between periods.
Harris envisioned an ice carnival that would entertain crowds in rinks across America. He hired professional skaters, comedians, clowns, jugglers, barrel jumpers, and swarms of scantily-clad chorus girls.
For the early Ice Capades shows, Harris borrowed liberally from vaudeville. He combined the words "ice" and "escapades" to come up with "Ice Capades".
The first "Ice Capades" show premiered June 16, 1940 at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans and was a huge hit. One of the "Ice-ca-pets" (a scantily clad female ice skater) described it as "A Las Vegas show for the entire family."
In 1949, "Ice Capades partnered with the Disney Studio to showcase a lengthy segment that would feature Disney characters. That first show featured a segment of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and had photos appearing on the back of the program book.
That partnership of having a Disney segment in the "Ice Capades" show lasted for many years with the segments ranging from adaptations of "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella" to a salute to Disneyland itself.
In fact, during the earliest days of Disneyland, Walt Disney would borrow the costumes when the show was not performing in order to have Disney costumed characters in the parks until he made his own costumes.
Feld Entertainment for years was associated just with the circus. The July 16, 1956 performance in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was the last performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth under the direction of John Ringling North.
Irvin Feld and his brother Israel had made their mark as pioneers in the rock and roll concert tour business and they were familiar with the new indoor arenas around the American cities and felt the circus could fit into those venues.
On April 3, 1957, a new Ringling circus tour began as an exclusively indoor presentation with Feld in charge of booking and promotion. On November 11, 1967 Feld purchased the Greatest Show on Earth from John Ringling North at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
In 1970, Kenneth Feld joined Ringling Brothers, learned the craft of production and took over after his father Irvin's death on September 6, 1984 and looked for new opportunities for expansion.
Seeing the success of the Disney costumed characters at the New York World's Fair in 1964, the Walt Disney Company searched for another opportunity to showcase its characters outside of the parks which at that time could only be seen at Disneyland and created its own arena style show in 1969 entitled "Disney On Parade."
Gene Columbus, who was a long time stage manager for those productions, jokes today that it should have been called "Disney On Wood" since it faced the same challenges that ice shows did of loading into arenas and dealing with moving sets and performers across the country.
After several years, Card Walker determined that the show was not making a substantial profit and the challenges of mounting the show were more trouble than they were worth.
Feld had taken over the failing "Ice Follies" and "Holiday on Ice" skating shows in 1979. The "Ice Follies" audience was elderly, and Feld had an idea to reinvent it by making it kid- and family-friendly. After being turned away by Muppets creator Jim Henson because Feld had fired a friend of Henson's, Feld approached The Walt Disney Company who initially weren't interested.
However, arrangements were finally made so there would be a touring show of Disney characters.
"Walt Disney's World On Ice" premiered July 14, 1981 at a New Jersey arena and was an instant hit. That first show featured sixty skaters and four acrobats, and was a success.
In 1986, Walt Disney's World On Ice premiered its first international tour in Japan with "Happy Birthday Donald Duck."
Today, there are five North American and two international touring spectaculars that showcase almost four hundred skaters in over two thousand performances each year. Each group does a different show. It is estimated that over twelve million people see a "Disney On Ice" show during a year.
Vice President of Creative Development for "Disney on Ice" is Jerry Bilik, who recalled that the first Walt Disney's World on Ice production was just supposed to focus on "a parade of Disney characters skating". To give the show an interesting storyline, Bilik created the premise that Pinocchio gets lost in Disneyland, and Geppetto goes looking for him, meeting various Disney characters along the way.
"It was not Hamlet, but it worked," he said.
That production was the first time an ice show "even thought of continuity," Bilik says. "Before that, we were doing 'Ice Follies' and 'Holiday on Ice.' We were really bored."
Bilik says the success of Walt Disney's World on Ice productions is due not only to the sets and storylines that create a mood and theme, but to the skaters who make the show come alive. Unlike a typical ice revue, skaters in a Disney show often are required to act out the parts they are skating in addition to performing stunts and routines on the ice.
Often a Disney consultant will come down to rehearsals to lecture on character integrity and the history of the Disney characters, some of whom are unfamiliar to some of the international skaters who have come to perform.
"The skaters are very self-motivated," Bilik says. "When they have to act, they embrace it. They feel it's a challenge. We can develop all the technical aspects of the show, but it's the skaters' skills that keep us going. They're not out there coasting; they're giving their all. The real show is not what we design but rather the crew and cast's performance."
Bilik not only arranges the music for the Walt Disney's World On Ice shows but also writes and helps direct the shows. Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook and even Tinker Bell have been featured in various short segments in the shows produced by Kenneth Feld.
Feld said, "You have to be in tune with the magic and wonder that children see in the world to understand the joy that Peter Pan brings out in all of us. No magic is too strong, no scale is quite large enough to show us what is possible and what can exist."
From 1989 to 1993, the company toured with a special Peter Pan show (the ninth Walt Disney's World on Ice show produced) devoted just to the classic story divided into ten scenes. Jerry Bilik was the Theatrical Director, Music Director and Writer. Bob Paul was the Skating Director and Choreographer. Disney Characterization Direction was shared by Larry Billman and Roy Luthringer.
The pre-recorded voice track included Christopher Steele as Peter Pan; Corey Burton as Captain Hook, Mr. Darling, Mr. Smee and various pirates; Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy Darling; Wayne Allwine as Mickey Mouse; Russi Taylor as Minnie Mouse; Tony Anselmo as Donald Duck; Diane Michelle as Daisy Duck; Bill Farmer as Goofy and Rob Paulsen doing additional voices.
Act One, Scene One: "In London, Not So Long Ago". While visiting London, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck are introduced to the enchanting story of Peter Pan.
Scene Two: "A Very Special Visit". Peter Pan and Tinker Bell come to the Darling nursery with the tale of Never Land and the secret of how to fly.
Scene Three: "A Magical Flight to Never Land". Wendy, John and Michael join Peter Pan and Tinker Bell on an unforgettable journey through the sky and straight on to Never Land.
Scene Four: "The Pirates Imperil A Princess!" Captain Hook threatens to drown Princess Tiger Lily unless she betrays her friend Peter Pan.
Scene Five: "A Secret Hideaway". The brave Wendy suffers a great fright as the Darling children meet the Lost Boys.
Scene Six: "Indians!" An angry Chief takes the children prisoner but Peter Pan's rescue of Princess Tiger Lily saves the day.
Act Two, Scene One: "A Secret Uncovered." Captain Hook and Mr. Smee discover the Lost Boys' hideout and kidnap the Darling children and the Lost Boys.
Scene Two: "Peter to the Rescue." A hungry crocodile helps Peter vanquish Captain Hook and the Darling children prepare to return home to London.
Scene Three: "A Joyous Homecoming. Fond Farewell." Peter and Tinker Bell lead Wendy, John and Michael back to their home and the parents who love them so dearly.
Scene Four: "A Message to Children Everywhere." Peter is joined by the Indians, the Darlings and even the Pirates to tell children everywhere that Never Land lives on in the hearts of all who believe.
One review for the show in the Los Angeles Times newspaper on January 7, 1991 stated, "The Disney gang wants to hear the story of Peter Pan and suddenly we're in the Darlings' nursery where Peter Pan (Jaimee Eggleton, muscular and athletic) is dancing with his shadow and Wendy, John and Michael are learning to fly (So what if it is on wires?)
"Then they're all soaring over London (It must be London; there's Big Ben.) while hundreds of 'stars' spin in the darkness and skaters in black glide below wearing strings of lights. The effect is spectacular. This unabashedly commercial extravaganza was not only charming and comic, but boasted some pretty fine skating as well."
The Chicago Tribune newspaper of February 1, 1990 stated:
"A sellout crowd packed the Chicago Stadium on Wednesday night to see the first of what promises to be a multifarious array of 'Peter Pans' this season in Chicago.
"This Peter Pan doesn`t have Cathy Rigby, but it does have a guest appearance by Mickey Mouse, a flying pirate ship and all the athletic ice skating one could want.
"While no big-name Olympic champs have come to Chicago this year with Walt Disney`s World on Ice, star Jaimee Eggleton is an athletic and handsome skater. The former Canadian junior barrel-jumping champ, Eggleton has the stamina to be on the ice for nearly half of the more than two-hour show.
"His is a forceful style of skating, typified by a wonderful back flip in the second act. Eggleton can show finesse, too, as in the charming duet with his shadow in the show`s first scene.
"The ice show is nothing if not spectacle, and what really pleased the crowd on opening night was the flying. If you`ve seen Peter Pan performed on stage, you`ll remember that what generally passes for flying is sort of a nauseating see-saw pendulum, with the actor hauled up at a single point and left swaying back and forth.
"What they`ve done at the Stadium is to build an S-shaped aerial track to hold the cables so the skaters (and the whole pirate ship at the end) can really travel. Add the fact that the ceiling is way up there and the effect is marvelous.
"The best skating in the show is found in the pirate number in the second act, highlighted by the duet of Penny Booth and Michael Nemec, whose tango number melds romance and danger, creating excitement. Just as good in a different way is the skating of Capt. Hook (Michael Dolan) and Smee (Christopher Shrimpling) in the same number.
"The heroic, macho-operatic tone of the whole scene is delightful.
"While many a Peter Pan casts a woman in the title role, this one has a woman playing little Michael Darling, and a fine job Dawn-Ann Oliphant does too. She is delightful, with a real flair for physical comedy.
"The single problem Wednesday night was the sound track, which in the first half could not compete with the voices of 12,000 kids. Management turned it up a bit after intermission, helping considerably.
"Though the ice show is one of those kinder, gentler forms of family entertainment, this one does have an especially sizzling moment in the solo of Carla Ericson as Tiger Lily. The ice fairly melted as she went through a dance of gratitude after being saved from death at the hands of Hook by our boy hero, Peter.
"It might have been enough to make him want to grow up after all."
Jaimee Eggleton skated in the 1984 Winter Olympics and the 1986 World Championships. He was twenty-six years old when he portrayed Peter Pan. At the time, he said, "Even though I had to give up my childhood dream of playing hockey in order to succeed as a figure skater, everything has still worked out perfectly, because now I have this incredible opportunity to portray Peter Pan – one last magical chance to be a child again."
Captain Hook and Mr. Darling were skated by Michael B. Dolan. He also served as Assistant Performance Director for the show with Judy Thomas as the Performance Director. Dolan had skated with Walt Disney's World of Ice for five years before being cast as Hook. As Hook, he wore an exaggerated nose and chin so his distinctive silhouette was seen clearly by he stadium audience.
Mr. Smee was Christopher Shrimpling, who claimed "physical, visual ice comedy is a wonderful challenge. It's especially difficult to achieve when you're trying to reach both adults and children at the same time. Being able to make an entire family laugh is one of the greatest satisfactions I've ever experienced." Shrimpling was twenty years old at the time and a native of England who was on his first visit to America.
Christel Bailey played Wendy and Carl Ericson played both Mrs. Darling and Tiger Lily. She stated, "I'm appearing in a one-of-a-kind family entertainment. Not only do I perform as an ice skater but my role also requires a great deal of acting. I couldn't combine those two opportunities anywhere else."
As at most of its shows, Walt Disney's World on Ice sold a lot of exclusive themed merchandise in the lobby including an elaborate souvenir book, a Captain Hook glow-in-the-dark sword, a ten inch plush dolls like Peter Pan and Tick Tock the Crocodile as well as a big button among other items.
Feld never again did a show just showcasing the story of Peter Pan but the iconic flying boy did appear in short segments in later shows. Mickey and Minnie's Magical Journey that began touring in 1995 featured skater Michael Lajtar from Kosice, Slovakia as Peter Pan.
One of the reasons that the entire ice show was dedicated to Peter Pan was that it coincided with the July 1989 re-release of the Disney animated feature tying in with the 45th anniversary of the original film release. The film's re-release pulled in over twenty-nine million dollars domestically, remained in the top ten films for its first month of re-release, and probably helped generate attendance for the Walt Disney's World on Ice show.