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.”