Extravaganza on Wheels: The Skating Vanities

In the 1940s, as Americans’ amount of leisure time increased, so did their desire for all forms of entertainment. In this pre-television age, a popular form of entertainment was the live variety show. One show created to fulfill this desire for entertainment was the Skating Vanities. From 1942 until 1956, the Vanities roller skating show entertained millions of people, both in America and abroad.

The History of the Vanities

The Roller Follies

A traveling roller skating show was the idea of Harold Steinman, a boxing promoter who attended a roller skating performance in Chicago in 1940. Among the performances in the show was Gloria Nord, who later became the star of the Vanities. Steinman was so pleased with the performance that he was inspired to create a traveling skating show similar to the Ice Follies, a popular show at the time.

After persuading Nord to star in the show, Steinman traveled the country recruiting other skaters to join her. He had some trouble recruiting competitive skaters who did not want to lose their amateur status by skating professional since this would bar them from competing in local and national competitions. Therefore Steinman often hired non-skaters, including acrobats, jugglers, and comedians, and then taught them to skate.

By late 1941, Steinman had enlisted sixty performers. He also hired Gae Foster, who produced stage shows at the Roxy Theater in New York to Choreograph the show. The skaters began rehearsing at Arcadia Rink in Chicago. The show opened on January 7, 1942, in Baltimore, under the name Roller Follies. Initial reviews were unenthused. Many people in the skating community thought the show lacked professionalism the skaters took the summer off to strengthen their acts, and the show reopened in the fall as the Skating Vanities.

The 1940s

In its new form, the show was met with rave reviews. Throughout the 1940s, the popularity of the Skating Vanities grew immensely. The cast members became highly visible celebrities. They appeared in advertisements for products such as Ovaltine, Wheaties, and Camel cigarettes. During World War II, although some cast members left to serve in the armed forces, the show continued with its performances. Cast members helped with the war effort to sell war bonds and with Red Cross Blood Drives. In 1943, the entire cast traveled to Hollywood to take part in a movie entitled “The Pin-Up Girl.” The cast participated in a skating sequence and Gloria Nord had a small speaking part.

In 1944, over 900,000 people attended the Vanities shows and in 1945, attendance reached over one million. In the late 1940s, the Vanities began touring European cities, becoming the first American Show to go to Europe after World War II. The skaters even had the chance to perform for the Pope and for the Queen of England.

The 1950s

In the 1950s, a number of changes took place within the Skating Vanities. One significant change came in 1951, when Gloria Nord left the show to perform in ice shows in England. She was replaced as the show’s star by Peggy Wallace, who had joined the vanities in 1948.

Soon afterward, changes were made in the show’s format. In 1963, the Vanities became part of a combined show with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, a comedy team. In 1954, the Vanities show was absorbed into Harold Steinman’s latest creation, a show called the Hippodrome of 1954. This show included not just roller skating, but also ballet, circus acts, production numbers, and the “Dancing Waters,” a display of light and water set to music.

In the mid-1950s, the popularity of the show was fading due to competition from other forms of entertainment, such as television. As attendance at the shows dropped, the Vanities began losing money, and in 1956, the show closed for good.

The Stars of the Show
Gloria Nord
Gloria Nord was the first star of the Skating Vanities. Born Gloria Nordskog, she was a ballet dancer from childhood, and she performed in vaudeville and nightclubs as a teenager. Her break came when she was introduced to Sid Grauman by Mickey Rooney after he bumped into her and knocked her down at a part at a roller rink in Hollywood. Grauman wanted to train Nord in roller skate dancing. He also introduced Nord to Edward Smith, the editor of Skating Review, who persuaded her to appear in his magazine. Smith felt that roller skating needed an attractive star who could be to roller skating what Sonia Heinie was to ice skating. He sent Nord around the country to performing skating exhibitions like the one where Steinman discovered her.
Peggy Wallace
Peggy Wallace became the star of the Skating Vanities after Gloria Nord left the show. Wallace began skating in 1944 at Park Circle Rink in New York. In her first year of skating she was the New York State Novice Ladies Figure Skating champion. She went on to win many more amateur competitions. In 1947, she won Senior Ladies Figures and captured the Senior Pairs title with Norman Latin. She signed a contract with the vanities in 1948, and she became star of the show in 1951.

Other Stars
In addition to Gloria Nord and Peggy Wallace, the Skating Vanities included many other well known skaters. In the show’s early days, other prominent members of the cast included Dolly Durkin, who had quit her job as a secretary to join the cast, and Ann Manion, an accomplished amateur skater. In the 1950s the cast included Tony Mirelli, a former amateur speed skating champion, who skated at first with Rose Picolla and alter with his wife Caroline. When the show was part of the Hippodrome, it stared Nancy Lee Parker, who had already won many amateur skating titles.

The Rollerettes
The women who made up the chorus of the show were known as the Rollerettes. They were promoted as the first professional roller skating chorus. The original Rollerettes were twenty-four girls who had been chosen form over one thousand applicants. Between them, they had earned thirty-nine local, regional, and national roller skating titles. In later years, the chorus grew to over sixty members and became known as the Vanity Fairs.

National Museum of Roller Skating Audio Tour - Museum Proper
  1. The First Roller Skates
  2. Patented Roller Skates
  3. The Father of the Modern Roller Skating
  4. Rinking
  5. The "Newest" Craze
  6. The Disco Era
  7. Pop Culture! Skating in Lines: Roller Skating and Comics
  8. Pop Culture! Orchestras, Organs, & Disco: Music in the Rink
  9. Pop Culture! Movies: Roller Skating Across the Silver Screen
  10. Competition: The History of Hockey on Wheels
  11. Competition - Speed Skating
  12. Competition - Dance Skating
  13. Competition - Figure Skating
  14. Competition - Derby
  15. C. W. Lowe's Tent Rink
  16. When Skating Goes to War
  17. Skating for Others
  18. Roller Skating Car Hops
  19. Jam Skating
  20. Extravaganza on Wheels: The Skating Vanities
  21. Vaudeville