Irene Dare: A life beyond skating

Three years ago, I put out a call on this blog for the whereabouts of Irene Dare, the juvenile figure skater who performed in RKO and Monogram musicals of the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Irene Dare in the 1930s

I have my answer.

Irene, a “lost” player who death has (at this writing) gone undocumented on the Internet Movie Database and similar websites, died on May 29, 2020, in Pacifica, California. She was 89.

I have members of her family to thank for spotting this blog and helping me fill in the details of Irene’s post-skating and post-acting life. Skating fans of the ‘30s and ‘40s got to know Irene for her precocious stylings before live audiences. But film buffs remember her as the little girl who danced in RKO’s Breaking the Ice (1938, starring boy soprano Bobby Breen) and Everything’s on Ice (aka Frolics on Ice, 1939, with Edgar Kennedy); and Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943, co-starring Kenny Baker, Patricia Morison, and adult skating star Belita).

My original 2018 blog about Irene, which discusses her pre-1945 life, is here: Irene Dare, where have you gone? – earlysoundguy.com

Recent chats with two of Irene’s five children reveal a woman who endured sometimes difficult times after her retirement from professional skating. But she raised a family – often on her own  – and lived life (and saw its end) in her own way.

“She really didn’t talk about (her show-business career) too much to other people,” her son Will Shockley said from his home in northern California.

Irene retired from professional skating in the early 1950s, he said. “After she made her movies, she did [skating] appearances here and there professionally. But she skated up until she was 65 or 70 years old, and she was g-o-o-d, too. Every day after work, on the way home before she retired, she would stop off to go skating.”

“I remember her walking around the house on her hands even in the 1950s,” her son John Shockley said in a separate phone interview. “She stayed in pretty good shape.”

Irene was busy raising her family during the 1950s into the ‘70s. One of her two husbands, Sentell Shockley, was a professional speed skater.

“What she took away from acting was her love of reading,” Will Shockley said of his mother. “She was such an avid reader of everything, she just loved books … and she got that from reading scripts. At the studios, she would leave school in the morning around 11 o’clock and would read her script for the next day, and she did that every day.

Bobby Breen, she really didn’t care for; she thought he was kind of an arrogant guy. Edgar Kennedy was a real professional; she really liked him. Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, she really liked them; she would hang out at their houses.”

Even one of Irene’s most famous ice contemporaries, Olympic champion and Hollywood star Sonja Henie, was a mentor. “Sonja Henie was a really lovely person,” Will said. “My mother picked up a lot of skating tips from her. My mother was Norwegian (in ancestry}, and they really hit it off that way.”

In 1938, Irene – so the family story goes – was approached about the opportunity to play a part in the mega-hit Gone With the Wind. (The role of Bonnie Blue Butler, daughter of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, who were portrayed by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, would have been suited for someone about Irene’s age.)

“She told me … she tried out for the part,” Will Shockley said. “But her mother turned it down. … (Irene) was kind of upset about that; she really liked Clark Gable.”

Born Irene Davidson in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Valentine’s Day of 1931, Irene moved West with her family at a young age. During her professional skating years as Irene Dare, she lived in the Los Angeles area with her mother, while her father, a newspaper engraver, resided in the San Francisco area with Irene’s three siblings. Irene moved to San Francisco to graduate from public school. She married for the first time, but the union did not last.

Eventually, with five children to raise, she took a job as a cocktail waitress. “The last place she wanted to be,” Will said.

“The job she really loved to do, and that she retired from, was running the newborn intensive care unit for Children’s Hospital up here in the Bay Area,” Will said.

Irene worked at the hospital for more than 20 years, he said. By 1966, she had divorced for a second time and was raising her family on her own.

“I remember, as kids, we would feel sorry for ourselves because we couldn’t get this or that,” Will said. “She would have us come in for lunch and make us help feed the babies. (Her attitude was,) ‘When your life is hard, I want you to think about this. Coming into this world, have to fight to stay alive.’ … That’s something I always carried with me.”

“She was tough,” Will said. “She had four boys to raise, these big monsters, (but) she wouldn’t back down from anything until the day she died. … You didn’t want her mad at you.”

“If you pushed her, she would push back,” John Shockley said.

Around age 65, Irene had to stop skating after she broke both ankles in a freak accident that began when she stepped into a pothole, Will said. A longtime smoker, she suffered from COPD, and her health worsened.

At the end, Will said, “she didn’t want to stay in the hospital, she wanted to die at home. … She died quietly in her sleep. She said, ‘I want to go my way,’ and that’s what happened.

”She was a talented person her whole life. Perseverance would have been her middle name.”

Irene Dare, where have you gone?

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.

irenedare
Irene Dare skated in a pair of late-1930s RKO musicals.

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?

 

SOURCES

“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.

Ancestry.com