Catherine Machado: LA ice queen talks Olympics


I called Catherine Machado yesterday because I wanted to get her reaction to the figure-skating results at the Sochi Olympics.

"I loved Carolina Kostner's performance," she said in her peppy rasp, referring to Italy's bronze medalist. "I thought her program was wonderful. She got it. I was very impressed by Polina Edmunds [from the U.S.]. I thought she was lovely. The future is there for her. [American] Gracie Gold is wonderful, but she was uptight. She didn't quite have it like she had at nationals, but she'll be there for the next four years."

Chado, as her friends call her, is the doyenne of the Southern California skating scene. She started taking lessons at age 7 at the Ice Palace in Westwood, then at the legendary Polar Palace in Hollywood. She competed at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, becoming the first Latina to represent the U.S. at the Winter Games. She performed for John Harris' Ice Capades for a decade and was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Since 1969, she has taught at the Culver Ice Arena. (More on that later.)

The Machado family were early pioneers: they were awarded the Rancho La Ballona land grant in the early 1800s. Her father, Frank, worked at Douglas Aircraft as a night supervisor. He was the one who ferried her to skating lessons and to school.

Chado first got on the ice after tagging along with her sister to a skating party. "I just loved it," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Gee this is fun!'"

With expert coaching from Helen Gage, Eugene Turner and Michael Mickeler, Chado moved up the ranks, from juvenile to novice to juniors, even as she attended University High School. Her mother, Maria, sewed her outfits by hand.

At the time, Sonja Henie was the most famous figure skater in the world. The three-time Olympic champ was a shrewd entrepreneur who parlayed her on-ice persona into a lucrative film career. (She was also one of the first people to recognize the value of a fledgling business started by a guy named Frank Zamboni in Paramount).

Chado respected Henie, but was enthralled by a lesser-known skater: Maria Belita Gladys Olive Lyne Jepson-Turner, known to her fans simply as Belita.

Henie was dimpled saccharine. Belita was noir on blades. Rangy and blonde, Belita made her only Olympic appearance in 1936, at age 12, when she finished 16th at Garmisch-Partenkirchen while representing Great Britain. In the 1940s, she appeared in low-budget films, many for Monogram Studios in Hollywood, stealing scenes in "Silver Skates," "Let's Dance," "Suspense," "The Hunted."

"Belita had beautiful lines," Chado said. "She was 1,000 years ahead of everybody with her moves. She was so balletic and artistic. It was all about the music."

Chado encountered Belita once at the Polar Palace. She was practicing her spins when Belita skated up to her and said: "Could you please move away from here!"

So much for our heroes.

In 1954, Los Angeles hosted the national championships for the first time. It served as a coming-out party for Chado, then 17, who donned a "blazing fireman's red costume and put on a free-skating exhibition to match of daring loops, jump-camel spins and salchows," according to Jeane Hoffman of the Los Angeles Times. "She's as Latin as a Spanish omelette [and] has more rhythm than a five-piece band."

Chado won the U.S. junior title and was awarded the Oscar Richards trophy for the most outstanding free-skating performance. The next year, she finished third at the senior nationals, behind Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss. That earned her a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team.

"Her ability to absorb the music and express it on the ice was so remarkable," Albright said by phone from Massachusetts. "If I could sum up Chado's performance in one word it would be 'verve.'"

Chado was allowed to choose one person to accompany her to Italy. She decided to take her father, rather than her coach, as reward for the sacrifices her family had made.

"I wanted to go and have a good time and enjoy myself," she said. "I went to everything. I saw ski jumping, speed skating, bobsledding. Walking in the parade [at the Opening Ceremonies] - other than having my son that was the greatest moment of my life. You work all these years and only three people every four years make it."

What no one noticed, until years later, was a milestone: Chado was the first Latina to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics. "It just wasn't a big deal back then," she said. "Someone once asked me, 'Was there any prejudice?' I didn't know what they were talking about."

The rink at Cortina was outdoors and, as luck would have it, the temperatures that winter were bitter cold. A Southern Californian accustomed to indoor rinks, Chado struggled to find her rhythm in the school figures, always her weakest element.

"I used to get rattled and get lost with the figures," she said. "That was hard for me. I could keep up with Tenley and Carol in the freestyle, but I was so far behind them in the figures that I wasn't a threat to them."

"A lot of us found it hard to do the figures - especially young people like Chado and myself," Heiss said by phone from Ohio. "We had a lot of energy. All we wanted to do was jump and spin and move."

Chado's most valuable performance in Cortina may well have come during a practice session. About ten days before the competition, as Albright was skating backwards, she made a sharp turn and hit a rut. Somehow, she managed to spike herself with her skate in the opposite ankle.

Bleeding profusely, Albright remembers that Chado "came and helped me off the ice. She totally understood that I was trying to hide the fact that I was hurt. She understood the situation."

Albright was unable to put any weight on her ankle for several days. She recovered in time to outlast Heiss for the gold medal.

"Chado just came to my rescue," she said.

* * * * * *

Today, after an Olympic competition in which no American individual skater - male or female -- made the podium, it's difficult to remember just how dominant the United States was in 1956. The men swept the podium at Cortina - Hayes Jenkins, followed by Ronnie Robertson and then his brother David Jenkins -- while Albright and Heiss finished one-two.

Chado took eighth, although she ranked third in the free skate. Later, she finished sixth at the worlds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

"She had a wonderful program at the Olympics with La Bohème," Heiss said. "She always had her distinct style and look. She was lovely to watch."

Back then, the compulsories were worth 60 percent of the skaters' total score. Today, the short program has replaced the compulsory segments. "If I had a short and a long program - and not the school figures -- I would probably have been third overall," Chado said.

Skater Bob Paul, the 1960 gold medalist in pairs (with Barbara Wagner), agrees. "They would have been one-two-three," he said. "Girls didn't do a layback spin back then - only Chado did - and she was the fastest female spinner in the world."

Albright retired from the amateur ranks after the 1956 season. Heiss kept her amateur status so that she could compete at the 1960 Olympics. Her childhood dream was realized when she won the gold medal in Squaw Valley.

Chado decided to turn pro. "We just couldn't do it financially," she says. "My last pair of skates, the people at the Polar Palace had to pay for them, and then my father had to pay them back. We were struggling."

Her mother had turned down an offer from Ice Capades in 1954, so that Chado could aim for the Olympics. After Cortina, Chado signed with Ice Capades.

In the mid-1950s, traveling ice shows were a ubiquitous form of entertainment. Chado earned good money crisscrossing the world, living out of a suitcase, and getting to know the locker-rooms of most every arena in North America and Europe.

culver-city-skater.jpgShe had to "learn to be a pro and charm audiences," she said. Usually, she performed solo, often to music from operas like La Bohème, La Traviata, and Carmen. Sometimes, she was paired with Long Beach's Ronnie Robertson. Nicknamed "The Human Blur," Robertson was known for his spinning and showmanship (and his not-so-secret relationship with actor Tab Hunter).

Chado met John Gray, a Canadian comedian-skater with the troupe, and the two married. She skated until she was four months pregnant with their son. After taking took time off, she returned to the ice. She also performed for the Lido Show in Las Vegas and Paris until deciding to settle in her hometown.

For the past 44 years, Chado has taught children and adults at the Culver Ice Arena. Wearing an oversized blue parka with "INSTRUCTOR" on the back, she is a bundle of nervous energy as she stands by the boards, bundled in scarf and mittens, intently watching her charges perform their spins.

"Push! Push!" she implores one student. "There you go! Good!"

She lives not far from the rink, and not far from where she grew up. She is now widowed. Her son lives in the Midwest and coaches high school hockey. She spends her free time keeping track of her grandkids (and, recently, a great grandchild), watching movies, and taking walks with her pal Bob Paul, who also teaches at the Ice Arena.

* * * * * * *

On the night the Super Bowl was played, the Culver Ice Rink shuttered after 52 years. A rock-climbing business signed a lease to take over the space on Sepulveda Boulevard. The news was disheartening for skating and hockey fans -- and yet another reminder of the steady disappearance of local rinks, including the Polar Palace, the Winter Garden in Pasadena, the Ice Chalet in Santa Monica, and even Ice Castle in Lake Arrowhead

Since the Super Bowl, the situation has brightened. Zoning restrictions forced the rock-climbing business to look for another location. Now, community activists are pushing to have the rink refurbished and re-opened. Stay tuned.

Chado was initially "relieved" not to have to wake up at 5 in the morning to teach another lesson. She thought about retiring. Now, after a spell on the sidelines and another dose of Olympic competition, she says that she definitely will return to coaching if and when the rink re-opens.

"My whole life, everything's been around skating," she said.


More by David Davis:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed

LA Observed on Twitter