One of the Christmas ice skating shows at the IceLand rink at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Click to enlarge.
Memories of Christmas often spring from wintry activities such as sledding down a snowy hillside, building a snowman named “Frosty,” or riding in a one-horse open sleigh. Those winter pastimes aren’t often enjoyed in Chattanooga, but for a time, ice skating was. I will always remember being in the cast of Christmas ice skating shows at the IceLand rink at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. There, the wonder of Christmas was celebrated in colorful costumes and sets, ice dancing to holiday music, and things that weren’t in the script.
The IceLand skating rink opened at the Choo-Choo on March 4, 1978. A large crowd waited for the announcement of “all skate.” Many had never skated on ice before that day. A core group of skaters, both youth and adults, quickly formed. The rink was able to send a team of competitors to Atlanta for an event in the summer. When autumn arrived, skating instructor Dawn Malone announced plans for a Christmas ice skating show.
The cast of the first show ranged in age from two years old to over fifty. Entire families participated in the program. Many were taking skating lessons, and parts in the show were offered to every student. That was a challenge for the skating instructors, who employed several methods to motivate their “snow flakes” (their name for the pre-school skaters) to skate correctly. Teachers would skate with their group, and carry a bulky late-70’s type of tape player so that the class could hear the music.
After hours of practicing, constructing sets, and sewing costumes, the cast was ready to present “A Choo-Choo Christmas” the weekend of December 15 – 17, 1978. Some Christmas celebrities were in the program, including Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and his reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman. Chaverim, a folk group from St. Jude’s Parish, provided some of the music. A cast of nearly one hundred skaters were involved in both group and individual numbers set to Christmas tunes. The audience filled to capacity the stands at the end zone of the rink and bleachers along one side.
A year later, over one hundred skaters took to the ice in the production, “Childhood is Forever.” 1979 had been designated as the International Year of Children. The program for the show noted that “we chose to base our Christmas show on the theme of childhood and the belief that childhood is not an age but a way of looking at life.” In keeping with this theme, the skating production was set in a toy shop. My wife and I were costumed as a toy monkey and Bugs Bunny respectively. Some of our adult friends were dressed as rag dolls, a big blue frog, and the Three Bears – all proving that childhood is not an age, but a way of looking at life. In an unscripted maneuver, Mama Bear lost the head of her costume, and had to chase it across the ice.
Some of the performances were set to music of the Carpenters. One number was “Bless the Beasts and the Children.” Others such as “Christmas Waltz” came from the Carpenters “Christmas Portrait,” which has continued to be a musical favorite since its introduction in 1978. In a very beautiful number, a couple dressed as Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh skated to “House at Pooh Corner.” The musical “Annie” was represented in “Tomorrow” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
During the 1980’s, IceLand hosted other shows, and continued to have a core group of enthusiastic skaters. Some participated in national competitions, and a few went on to careers as skating instructors or performers in traveling ice shows. IceLand closed in 1986 as a result of rising liability insurance costs. Two smaller rinks operated for short times at the pavilion across from Finley Stadium, and at Eastgate Town Center. Whenever Christmas and wintry days come around again, there are many who recall the fun of ice skating and wish that they could lace up their skates once more for a show. It would really be like a picture print by Currier and Ives, as long as Mama Bear keeps her head on.
If you ever skated in a show at IceLand, please share your memories of it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.