Sunday, June 13, 2021

Person of the Week

Marlene Beckman: A Dazzling Moment in Time as an ‘Ice Folliette’

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Marlene Beckman has made a comfortable home in North Madison for 50 years, but not before two whirlwind years of entertaining on the road with the Ice Follies. Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source

Marlene Beckman has made a comfortable home in North Madison for 50 years, but not before two whirlwind years of entertaining on the road with the Ice Follies. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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Marlene and Chuck Beckman display a copy of Marlene’s book The Magical Life of an Ice Folliette, which has been published by Two Ems in Madison. Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source

Marlene and Chuck Beckman display a copy of Marlene’s book The Magical Life of an Ice Folliette, which has been published by Two Ems in Madison. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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A promotional image for one the of the Ice Follies’ themed performances. Image courtesy of Marlene Beckman

A promotional image for one the of the Ice Follies’ themed performances. Image courtesy of Marlene Beckman )

The “Vermont of Madison” is how Marlene Beckman describes the North Madison home she and her husband, Chuck, have owned the house for more than 50 years. But just a few years prior to buying that house, Marlene’s life was about to take a turn in a radically different direction, entertaining crowds of hundreds and even thousands at some of the largest and most prestigious venues around the country: The Ice Follies.

“It was known as the most beautiful ice skating show in the world,” Marlene says.

Not even out of high school, living with her family in the Los Angeles area, Marlene had begged her parents for a chance to try out for the Ice Follies, a multi-faceted, lavish, and high-energy variety show that combined vaudevillian elements of comedy, showmanship, and some of the most talented ice skaters in the world at that time.

“That was my dream,” she says.

Several decades later, Marlene decided to document in written form what would eventually be only two whirlwind years from 1956 through 1958 as an “Ice Folliette”—a time that she described as an incredibly challenging but almost entirely joyous chapter of her life that also captures a unique slice of American culture and entertainment.

“It was performing with a crowd,” Marlene says. “It was costumes...lovely things, the costumes are always a big draw. It was just my entertainment factor—I love to entertain.”

The Ice Follies was founded in the 1930s by three men living in St. Paul, Minnesota, who started the show as halftime entertainment at hockey games. A 1939 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford helped elevate skating shows, and the Ice Follies name in particular, into the national consciousness.

Touring constantly through much of the next few decades, the company was eventually merged with other ice shows in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually partnering with Disney to produce “Disney on Ice” shows marketed to younger audiences, which are still popular today.

Neither these shows nor anything else currently in production can compare to what the Ice Follies did at its peak, though, according to Marlene, who describes the spectacular and elaborate costumes, state-of-the art special effects, and intricately designed shows that brought audiences back again and again in dozens of cities from Los Angeles to Boston.

“I loved every moment of it,” she says.

Not just a world-class ice skater who trained under Olympic coaches, Marlene describes herself as someone who was born to entertain, and never experienced negative pressure or nervousness when stepping onto the ice and into elaborate, technically demanding performances in front of thousands.

“But they expected a lot from us,” she adds.

Skaters had to trace specific shapes in the ice with their blades as part of a testing process, and someone would come out onto the ice with a magnifying glass to measure how accurate they had been down to the millimeter, according to Marlene.

She says that after signing her contract as a 17 year-old, she was given only a week to prepare before shipping out on tour. Many nights, performers were expected to put on three shows lasting into the early morning hours.

Marlene has raised a family, and spent more than five decades in sleepy Madison, which she says she loves. But those couple of years, short as they were by comparison, are something she wants to share with the world—remnants of a unique and now seemingly lost era of spectacle that filled arenas and thrilled audiences across the nation.

From her early days learning to skate, to late-night encore performances that lasted until 3 a.m., to schmoozing with celebrities and traveling the country on a specialty sleeper train, Marlene’s book The Magical Life of an Ice Folliette is something of a memoir, though it spends most of its pages on her time on the ice. Writing it was inspired by a couple of factors, she says, including connecting with old “Folliette” colleagues through social media and speaking to her grandchildren, who knew of her ice-skating prowess and history but not in detail.

“I thought, ‘[My grandson] doesn’t know much about the career I had.’ We didn’t speak about it that much...so I bought a book about how to write a legacy,” she says with a laugh.

The writing process ended up being extremely arduous—not due to any lack of inspiration, motivation, or ability, but for technical reasons. Marlene says that eight separate times, drafts of her book that she typed on a computer were “scrambled” and ruined, forcing her to start from the beginning after writing as much as 60 pages.

She was finally able to finish after switching software programs and putting in more than a year of work, she says, and the book was published by Madison-based Two Ems Press, complete with dozens of photos and newspaper clippings from her time in the Ice Follies, touring aircraft carriers or dressed in wild costumes for various themed performances, including “Silent Movie Night” and “Garden in the Sky.”

The book also touches on her reason for not continuing her career after 1958- meeting a very special fan, who she had actually noticed in a crowd well before they were officially introduced.

Chuck Beckman, who was serving in the United States Navy and occasionally worked at the hockey rink in New Haven, one of the Ice Follies tour stops, says he became friends with one of Marlene’s colleagues.

He eventually traded a weekend’s use of his brand new 1957 Chevy to this friend in exchange for a friendly introduction to the girl who had been on his mind for more than a year; the rest was history.

Hearing from old friends after decades apart—people who came from all over the world to be a part of The Ice Follies and have mostly retired or turned to other pursuits—has been a special pleasure since the book was released, Marlene Beckman says. She was even able to get in touch with one of the Ice Follies’ founders, who was ecstatic to hear that someone had documented some of those special moments, as well as the spectacle of entertainment that has been somewhat lost to history.

Locally, Marlene says she has also been happy to share the book with local booksellers including R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison and Breakwater Books in Guilford, as well as Madison’s E.C. Scranton Library.

But mostly it’s been a personal journey for Marlene, who grew emotional as she described that first day she stepped onto a train in 1956 with just a single suitcase, ready to take on the world, leaping into the special and dazzling realm of The Ice Follies.

“It was so exciting, my feet didn’t get the ground for hours,” she says. “Just talking about this—I love it so much.”



Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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