Starting vaguely in 1984 when I was nine years old, and definitely during the 1988 Winter Olympics, figure skating became, for some time, a big part of my life.
But like many of my childhood interests, it was something I could only watch on TV, and not actually do myself.
Even though my sister and I begged—and even though my high school was next door to an ice rink—we never got to live out our fantasies of becoming Katerina Witt or Nancy Kerrigan or even Debi Thomas.
We would never encircle a partner in a death spiral.
We would never land any salchow, axel, toe loop, flip, or lutz.
We wouldn't even fall trying. We would never get the chance to try.
I held onto my love for the sport as a spectator well after college, sitting in the nosebleed section of Madison Square Garden for one of those Stars on Ice shows just to catch a glimpse of Kurt Browning through the window of a tour bus.
Of course, during a New York City winter or two, I'd tried to ice skate a couple of times—but my old ankles and frustrated brain and intensely strong gravity pull always seemed to sabotage my attempts.
At some point, far into my adult years, I had to accept that my time had passed.
So, I kind of forgot about skating rinks and my ice dancing dreams until I saw an invite for an "open console" event at a place called Paramount Iceland.
Since I'm a sucker for a good pipe organ—especially if I get special access to it—I showed up, not knowing what to expect.
Oh my, I had no idea about Paramount Iceland!
First of all, it was built by the Zamboni brothers in 1939 and opened in 1940. Yes—those Zamboni brothers! But they hadn't developed their infamous ice resurfacer machine yet, because they were still just manufacturing ice at a plant across the street. It was originally an open-air skating facility, though a roof was added just months after it opened. Currently, it's got some nice zig-zag interior features akin to what you might find on a Googie-style bank or supermarket.
Secondly, Iceland is where figure skating legends like Sonja Henie and Peggy Fleming practiced—and probably skated along to music played on the vintage Wurlitzer "Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra," the theater pipe organ that ultimately became known as "The Mighty Wurlitzer." (This is the same type of Wurlitzer that can be found at The Nethercutt Collection.)
It's pretty unusual for a theater pipe organ like this to be such a mainstay in a facility like an ice rink, but it's still regularly in use. The console room and organ loft are accessible via a wooden ladder from inside the rink, or a more stable "stage door"-style back entryway.
Built in 1926, the horseshoe-shaped console was relocated from the Fox Theater in San Jose (now operated as the California Theatre) to Iceland in 1941. It originally had two keyboards and ten ranks, but it's been updated to have three manuals and 19 ranks.
The ranks are important for this type of Wurlitzer, because the "Unit Orchestra" is supposed to essentially substitute a full orchestra. Each rank represents a different instrument that its operator can play—so the more instruments, the better. And I must admit: The Grease medley sounded pretty incredible. "You're the One That I Want" had a distinctly polka vibe.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the theatre organ console as opposed to the church organ console is the replacement of the draw knobs with color-coded stop tabs, which are well within the organist's reach to activate or deactivate any of the ranks by being flipped up or down.
This was actually the third console for the rink after two others (in two different locations) failed to deliver the desired effect. The console came with its current relays—which still uses air pressure combined with electrical currents running along a multitude of wires to push air out of all of those different types of pipes.
Theatre organs like this one differ from those found in more ecclesiastical settings, because they were designed to accompany silent films—with a variety of musical styles creating ambiance for all sorts of cinematic hijinks.
But in a sports arena like this, which wasn't built with musical acoustics in mind, it needs to make an even bigger impact. Fortunately, there are slats called "swell shades" that can open and close to control how big of a boom you want to send out to the skaters. (Those flaps apparently came from the since-demolished Paramount Theatre in LA.)
The pipes in the organ loft surround the console room on each side...
...and there's a room devoted to percussion as well, including drums and cymbals.
This was a hallmark of the "Unit Orchestra" style of organ, whose pneumatic and electrical controls could be used as well to shake a tambourine or beat a drum—remotely, while seated on a bench at the console.
Iceland is one of the oldest continuously-operated rinks in the country, but it has an even bigger claim to fame: It's home to the world's first Zamboni ice surface scraping machine, known now as "Model A."
Photo: Zamboni Archives
The Model A was invented at Iceland and completed in 1949. It was the first of many models to have been developed by Frank Zamboni—who, by 1953, had already completed ten more models and started selling them outside of Southern California (which, as you might imagine, doesn't have a lot of ice to resurface). You can see an antique Model A on display at Iceland, which was restored in 1998.
Photo: Zamboni Archives
There's also a C-model (technically C-11) at Iceland, built upon a civilian version of a World War II-era military jeep, the Willys CJ-3B. The Zamboni company got it back from a private collector in 2011, restored it to its original working order, and put it out on display.
There are other ice resurfacing machines available out there, so Zamboni is actually only one brand of a few. But the Zamboni company sells more of their machines than all of their competitors combined.
Prior to the invention of the Zamboni, it would take as many as five people—with scrapers, shovels, and a hose—an hour and a half to clear the ice. Now, with the modern Zamboni models (many of which are electric / battery-powered), you can resurface the three-quarter-mile distance in about 12 minutes—even though they only go 8 or 9 mph.
During my visit, I didn't strap on some skates and get on the ice. I didn't play the pipe organ (though I was welcome to).
But you know what I did do?
I drove the Zamboni. Very slowly. A few inches. In forward and reverse.
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