In 1967, Roone gave me my first opportunity to direct figure skating. The event was the US National Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska. I tried a few new things: a low camera cut through the hockey boards at center ice and a feature about school figures with a camera looking directly down from rafters above while Peggy Fleming, the National Ladies Champion, traced circular patterns below.
I was quite anxious as the coverage began. Roone always felt that people used the word “anxious” when they really meant “eager,” but there was no doubt in this case. I was just a neophyte with no sensitivity to the emotional quality of a skater’s program, to the ebb and flow of the movements up and down the ice, or to the rhythm of the camera work flowing with the music. All that mattered was that my crew and I caught the skaters on camera and in the frame.
About a week after Nationals, I was in Grenoble, France, preparing for the upcoming Winter Olympics. In the car with Jim on our way to dinner, Roone brought up my rather embarrassing directorial debut in figure skating. He was gently, but clearly, critical of it. He talked to me about a sports television director’s need to have a sixth sense. He said that sports action was not predictable, and great directors must be able to anticipate movement and action as it develops in front of the cameras. He said that some are born with this gift, and some acquire it with experience. The conversation ended without Roone firing me. I was relieved—and assumed that meant he would give me a chance to gain that experience.
Although I spent the next few years in the producer role and directed only occasionally, I was grateful for Roone’s Grenoble pep talk when, despite hardly being able to skate, I was inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2003 for my contributions to the sport. My journey to directing competence consisted of on-the-job training combined with drawing upon experiences working on television dramas earlier in my career. These programs were shot on one-stage studios and were methodically preplanned. With homemade models and a set of floor plans, like most directors, I prepared by blocking the actors and the traffic of two boom microphones and three cameras. It was like playing Tetris. Next, I created shot lists for each cameraman. Zoomar lenses were not yet widely in use, so each camera had a turret with three different length lenses screwed into it. I had to determine not only the sequence of shots but also which lenses the cameramen were to swivel into place for each shot and from what position on the studio floor. It was all very technical.
With skating, my studio was an ice arena, more than twenty times the size. Instead of three cameras, I had at least seven. Instead of relatively static actors moving within a confined space according to script, there were one or two skaters moving at high speed. And although each routine was preset, that didn’t mean the skater couldn’t deviate or slip, and then there was all the action during warm-up sessions and off the ice, which was completely unpredictable.
Like directing, skating has its technical side, upon which the fundamentals are based. More important, however, is the artistic side. If both the skater and I were doing our jobs well, the viewers weren’t distracted by the technical aspects of either the skating or the camera work. Seamless, flowing skating was our objective. Prior to the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, William Taaffe interviewed me for Sports Illustrated. Taaffe wrote that “in no other sport was there a closer affinity between a TV director and the sport’s participants than figure skating.” He described the director as the TV choreographer. As I explained to Taaffe, I approached skating as the ultimate fusion of entertainment and sport. He added it was also the ultimate marriage between sport and the tube.
Utilizing my drama skills also proved to be useful. I learned to get inside the competitors the same way I would a character. For many of the performances I was going to cover, I spent hours at the rink studying each skater’s program and taking notes until I could emotionally glide along with each stroke, feel every movement, and know the climactic moments. Then I would try to marry them all with the camera work. If I cut late in the middle of a jump, caught the skater’s backside on the landing, or missed her smiling face, I had failed us both—which happened more times than I’d like to admit. Let’s just say I grew to understand why professional golfers often miss what seem to be easy putts!
There was one more life experience that surprisingly turned out to be perfect training for a television director, and that was my love for radio as a child. In the 1940s, radio was the center of home entertainment. I loved listening to soap operas, and Grand Central Station was one of my favorites. It opened with the blaring whistle of a locomotive and the voice of a man: “…Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night…great trains rush toward the Hudson River…” His cadence and volume surged along with the chugging engines and grinding of metal wheels against track. “…And dive with a roar…[into] Grand Central Station!…crossroads of a million private lives, a gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily!”
By the time I heard that final line, my heart was racing like a runaway train.
When you watch television, you merely watch. When you listened to radio drama, you actually participated in the production because you used your mind to “see” the scenes. My radio addiction expanded my imagination and taught me to visualize things and recognize a good story. A good story meant good entertainment, and that was our ultimate goal.
So with a pinch of theater, a dash of radio, a little ingenuity, and a marvelous technical crew, I learned to place and use television cameras so that they wouldn’t merely document a skater’s program, as they did in Omaha, but enhance it, help tell the skater’s story. And there were so many good stories to tell during the years I directed skating coverage for ABC…especially when it came to the women.
Here’s to the ladies who skate…