Charlotte Oelschlegel (1898-1984): Ice Queen

Before there was Ice Capades,  before there was Holiday On Ice, before there was Cirque du Soleil, there was the Hippodrome,  5200 seats of theatrical goodness (this was New York – nothing like it on earth).  It was the venue for that needed filling, and Charles Dillingham was just the guy to fill them.

He had taken over the place seats of the from the Shuberts, and those 5200 seats needed filling.  The Schuberts had already gone through the line of elephants act, the wild west show, and any number of water shows.  Dillingham had bigger things in mind.

Job applicants filled in the forms listing their qualifications:  “drive a car, ride a bicycle, dive, ice or roller skate, ride horseback, plus the usual requirement of quality and range of  voice. Dancing – the basic one – was accepted for granted.” *   Among the final cast were  such now forgotten luminaries as Arthur Deagon the Chubby Comedian and Harry Griffiths, The Jaunty Juvenile;  and the unforgettable John Philip Sousa).

Five weeks rehearsal at thirty third street armory , while the venue itself was prepared.  Water shows had become old hat by then, but Dillingham had a new idea.

The Grand Finale was “A Frolic at St Moritz” and you think that it was the ski jumpers that stole the show, but no, as this is the age of Wodehouse, it is the chorines, or in this case, the prima skaterina, Charlotte.

The show was a hit (425 performances).  She was a hit.

It would not have been obvious from the stars.   The daughter of a prosperous furniture manufacturer, she had started life as a musical prodigy (harp, lute, and mandolin), but at a young age suffered something along the lines of a nervous breakdown.  The doctors suggested she should get some fresh air and exercise.  And so – ice skating.

The sport suited her and in a few years she was part of the ice chorus at Berlin’s  Admiralspalast, wowing the pre-war Wilhelmines.

Just the thing for Dillingham’s Hippodrome!  It was soon over the pond with her and twenty of the gang and on with the show.

Star status did not go with her hard to pronounce last name – (provincial Americans! Or perhaps it was the war) – and so Oelschlegel was  quietly dropped in favor of just Charlotte,  pre-figuring the likes of Elvis and Cher and Prince by a good thirty years.  She wrote The Hippodrome Skating Book, which gave the sport a push in America.

With the end of  Hip Hip Hurray!,  she went into the movies, billing herself as Charlotte Hayward.  As the star of The Frozen Warning (1917),  she plays a Vassar student who inscribes “spies” into the ice during a performance for the Red Cross, and so identifies the villains (Gone forever, it would seem.  Alas, it opened opposite Cleopatra The Siren of the Nile with Theda Bara.)  She went on the road,  returning in 1921 to New York for Dillingham’s new review, Get Together, another long run (this one featuring Power’s Elephants, though not, presumably, on ice).

In her time, she introduced the Axel for women.  She introduced the Charlotte Spiral.   She and Kurt Neuman (her husband as of 1926) invented the Death Spiral.   She was dubbed the “greatest ballet dancer on ice” by none other than Palova (one likes to think that this was before the age of irony) who is said to have helped her with her moves.  (Pavlova was another of Dillingham’s 1915 imports.)

Come the 1920s and peace, she and her husband toured the world, showing what could be done on ice (which is presumably why she never competed in the Olympics – the committee was strict on the amateur requirement back in those days).  Good times. She brought The Dying Swan to the ice, to much acclaim.

Of course it couldn’t last.   In 1939,  they returned to Germany only because her mother was dying. Once in, there was no getting out, and she did not endear herself to the regime when she (unlike Sonja Henie)  refused to skate for Hitler.  He closed down her act.  By then she was trapped by the war and so lived in Berlin for the duration.  She lost her house when she fled the Russian zone while the getting was good.  She also lost a good deal of money to them when they seized her bank in Potsdam.

It was a blow she did not fully recover from.   Her performing days were over by 1945 and she spent her declining years teaching skating in relative poverty. Her husband died in 1971, she thirteen years later.

The  World Figure Skating Hall of Fame waited another year before putting her onto their roster.

*  Circus Queen & Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline


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