The astounding rise to stardom of Shirley Temple in the 1930s at Fox prompted the studios to recruit more kiddie performers. And to Hollywood they came: Jane Withers, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen, Bonita Granville, Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan – and figure skating prodigy Irene Dare.
Two-thirds of Dare’s film career consisted of a pair of RKO-released musicals for independent producer Sol Lesser: Breaking the Ice (1938) and Everything’s on Ice (1939), the latter her only “starring” feature. Her other film appearance was as a specialty act in Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943).
But what happened to Irene Dare? We’d like to know as part of our research for a movie book project. And is it true that she acted with a young Paul Winchell – or at least the voice of the future ventriloquist legend – in Everything’s on Ice?
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Dare (b. 1931?) came to California to support Breen in Breaking the Ice for Lesser’s Principal Productions. Born Irene Davidson, Dare had been skating since age 4. Dare attracted enough attention, and in and out of her home state, for the standout skater Evelyn Chandler to suggest that the New Yorker Hotel book the girl for its famous ice skating nightclub show.
Dare’s debut at the hotel was abruptly canceled by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia because liquor was sold at the club. The controversy became national news, which prompted RKO Pathe to prepare a newsreel story about Dare. This got her noticed by Lesser, who had been having success with a series of musicals for RKO release starring “boy soprano” Breen — his latest youth protege on a long list that also included Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper and Baby Peggy.
Lesser figured he’d found his next prodigy when he watched the newsreel footage of Dare performing her acrobatics in a St. Paul ice carnival. The little girl moved to Hollywood with her parents, Harry and Violet Davidson, and two siblings, Harry and James; a sister, Louise, was born in California, according to U.S. Census records. Irene’s father, a newspaper engraver in Minnesota, obtained a similar job in Los Angeles.
Lesser’s investment in Dare seemed worth it when the girl earned strong reviews for Breaking the Ice, even though she appeared for only a few minutes and two numbers. Lesser acted fast to sign Dare for her own starring feature, announcing to trade reporters that he would aim all his productions for children in an ambitious slate of films for 1939. Lesser put Dare on a lengthy schedule of personal appearances across the country with a company of 60. He engaged longtime dance director Dave Gould, who had supervised the ice sequences in Breaking the Ice, to conceive a touring two-hour ice show to support Dare and a supporting cast of 10 skaters.
Everything’s on Ice placed Dare with veteran comedians Edgar Kennedy and Roscoe Karns. A special 50- by 75-foot ice rink was set up for the film after originally being built for the International Casino in New York City. When she’s not skating, Dare’s character engineers a romance between her sister (Lynne Roberts) and a young man (Eric Linden) who’s secretly a millionaire. Among the film’s stabs at comedy is a scene in which Kennedy, playing the girl’s father, asserts authority over his wife (Mary Hart) by spanking her.
Director Erle C. Kenton, who would become better known for making Universal horror pictures, doesn’t give Dare much to do besides the production numbers; she’s often shown distracted with practicing or exercising – in other words, being a kid — as the other actors emote. Sometimes she recites dialogue in a self-conscious rhythm that matches dance moves, seemingly to make her more comfortable. But Dare is a real ice dancing dynamo, most notably in a jaw-dropping climactic number that features costumed polar bears singing, and costumed penguins dancing to, the original tunes “Birth of a Snowbird” and “Everything’s on Ice.”
A teenager in 1939, Paul Winchell went on to become a famous television personality and cartoon voice actor, but his participation in Everything’s on Ice seems a bit murky. He had won first prize on radio’s Major Bowes Amateur Hour and had been hired to tour with Ted Weems’ band, so his career was just emerging. According to a Los Angeles Times story in June just as shooting of the Dare movie was about to begin, Winchell was a “Rival for Edgar Bergen!” who had contracted for a part in what was to be his first film: “Funny thing about this engagement, though, Winchell himself won’t be seen on the screen, but his dummy will, and Winchell’s voice will be heard.” This article mentions that plans were in the works to feature Winchell in a series of shorts, which apparently were not filmed.
At least two nationally syndicated articles, both from July, reported that Dare was to do “a duet with a ventriloquist’s dummy,” and the cast list for Everything’s on Ice that appeared in Photoplay magazine just after the film’s release listed Winchell as “Jerry.” However, there was no sequence of that type, and seemingly no Jerry, in the slightly abridged print of Everything’s on Ice viewed by this writer.
Everything’s on Ice garnered mixed reviews – Variety called it “a moderate program supporter [that] … will suffice for the family and kid trade.” But any thought of continuing Dare in a series apparently ended after the film’s 65 minutes.
Dare stayed busy on the skating circuit, then reappeared on film, billed fifth in Silver Skates, which was a showcase for Monogram’s new adult ice skating discovery, the singularly named Belita. Dare was a cinematic has-been, although Everything’s on Ice was shown frequently on TV as Frolics on Ice and fell into the public domain.
What happened to Irene Dare/Davidson? I can’t seem to find anything on her after 1950, except that she apparently was married in California to a man named Shockley from the early ’50s until 1970. Is she still living? And can someone provide more information on Winchell’s possible appearance with her on screen?
“Youngest Star Cashes in on Planned Career,” Washington Post, July 30, 1939.
“Irene Dare on P.A. Tour,” The Film Daily, May 25, 1938.
“Gould to Conceive Show,” The Film Daily, June 29, 1938.
“Another Ventriloquist Signs for Film Duty,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1939.
“Jimmie Fidler’s Hollywood,” McNaught Syndicate column, July 1939.
“Film Reviews: Everything’s on Ice,” Variety, September 6, 1939.