Published: January 23, 2011
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Meet SBF member Don Watson and read about his outstanding career in showbusiness.
Don started out as a child performer in the Adolphus Hotel Ice Show in Dallas, and rose to be Exec Vice-President of Champions On Ice and Director of Booking for Ice Capades, with stops along the way as principal skater in Ice Capades, The Sonja Henie Ice Revue, and Holiday On Ice in the U.S.A., Europe, the Far East, and Russia.
When Don decided to turn the page from his performing days, he became the Company Manager for Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage in Las Vegas, the Production Coordinator for the Moscow Circus and the Advance Man for The Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, along with other endeavors, like meeting such notables as the Duke Of Windsor and sharing a dressing room with Harpo Marx!
Luckily, Don was very enthusiastic in giving SBF an interview, which we are sure everyone will thoroughly enjoy reading.
Ladies and Gentlemen: SBF's Star of the Month!
Don Watson

Don in a publicity photo for Holiday on Ice USA
  • How old were you when you started skating and what inspired you to take it up?
    Don Watson: I was around 11 years old when I was invited to an ice skating birthday party at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Worth, TX. I felt a sense of freedom on the ice and loved the speed. I practically lived at the rink, but it was something that my family couldn't afford. The problem was solved by my helping clean and scrape the ice (this was before the invention of the Zamboni) and for this I received a season's pass to skate free.
    Quote ...My training was basically watching accomplished performers that I admired and attempting to duplicate what I saw...
    I became an official 'rink rat'. When Ice Capades came to town a short time later with its incredible cast and spectacular productions, I knew then that I wanted to become a professional ice skater. It gave my life a direction and I was on the ice every free moment working toward this goal.
    One year later, Dorothy Franey, who presented her Ice Revue in the Century Room of the historic old Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, TX, had heard about a couple of talented youngsters. We auditioned and a short time later my partner Melinda Terry who was 8 and I at 12 made our professional debut.
    During the summers for several years we were added to the luncheon and early evening shows. With a live orchestra and on a very small ice surface measuring about 20' by 20', we performed with a talented adult cast. But more than anything, I wanted to join one of the major touring ice shows that played the big arenas with their huge ice surfaces.

  • You have had an amazing career in the ice business, working with most of the ice shows: Sonja Henie, Holiday On Ice, Ice Capades, Champions On Ice, etc. What's your most memorable show?
    DW: In 1950 I auditioned for Ice Cycles, a 2nd unit of John H. Harris's Ice Capades, in Dallas, TX. The show had been on the road for a month and there was an opening for a male soloist. I was told that the show would be touring across the U.S. and Canada and for the first time would be heading for Europe. The prospect of going to Europe helped me win over my mother's objections to leaving school for this "chance of a life time". At age 15, I was off to Spokane to join the show as its youngest cast member. Oslo, Jordal Amfi
Don with Sonja Henie backstage 
Sonja Henie Ice Revue
August, 1953 I had no idea that more than 50 years would pass by before I finally got off the road. At the time all of the travel was by train and it was one grand adventure. The train trip from Vancouver to Calgary through the Royal Canadian Rockies in January during a heavy snow fall remains such a vivid memory. While the promise of Europe never materialized, I saw plenty of Canada from Victoria to Halifax. After touring for one year I made the decision to quit the show and continue my education. In the meantime my Mom had moved to Los Angeles. Living in and going to school in Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to train at Polar Palace in Hollywood, which attracted some of the finest competitors and professional skaters in the business. I never missed an opportunity to see a professional ice show or to get on the ice with professionals. My training was basically watching accomplished performers that I admired and attempting to duplicate what I saw...
    My big break came in 1952 when I received a call from Sonja Henie offering me a solo spot in her company. Sonja had phoned the Polar Palace rink spoke to one of the instructors there that had formerly toured with her. He came up to me on the ice and said that Sonja was on the phone and wanted to speak with me. I thought this was a huge joke, but it turned out to be true. She wanted me to stop by her home in Beverly Hills the following day to discuss my joining her show. When I arrived, she took me into her awesome trophy room, which held over 500 trophies and medals including 3 Olympic and 10 World gold medals, an achievement that has not been equalled since. Now at 17 years of age I was about to go on the road with the Sonja Henie Ice Revue. We opened in San Bernardino, CA in the summer of 1952 and I continued to tour with Sonja through out the USA, Canada, Europe and South America until her final performance in Rio de Janeiro in the spring of 1956.
    Sonja gave me encouragement and confidence in pursuing my professional skating goals. I remember her working with me on the ice during one of the rehearsals after I had just joined her company. She was helping me with some footwork and, as I recall, I never saw her actually working with anyone else this way. Later one of the older principal performers came up to me and told me: "Kid, you've just received a million dollar lesson". Sonja would often watch my solo from backstage. Copenhagen, The Forum
Holiday on Ice, 1960 - Dutch/Wizard production
Don doing the butterfly in the 'Wild West' solo She would open the curtain only slightly, but I could see her. Later her private dresser would inform me that Miss Henie had watched my solo and was pleased with my performance. I was on cloud nine determined to try harder. During the summer breaks I took ballet and modern dance classes. While I didn't turn into a Gene Kelly (there was no dancer/actor that I admired more) I hoped these classes would improve my versatility and style.

  • What's the highest moment of your life as a performer?
    DW: Highest moment as a performer? - There were quite a few. Being introduced by Sonja Henie for my solo appearance on national television would definitely be one. It was NBC's All Star Revue featuring the Sonja Henie Ice Revue at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. This was in 1953 in the very early days of television and I think it was the first hour long live taping of a skating revue. Another high point would be in 1959 appearing with Holiday On Ice in Moscow. We were the first American attraction to go to the Soviet Union under the newly forged cultural exchange between the two superpowers. Holiday played 8 sold-out weeks to a total of some one million Moscovites - truly an unprecedented triumph. The State Dept couldn't have been more pleased. Nikita Khruschev, along with other members of the Soviet Central Committee, paid a surprise visit and invited the principal performers to a champagne and caviar reception following one of the performances.

  • What was your most challenging show?
    DW: Holiday on Ice, 1963 - Operama production
Don performing a spreadeagle in 'Romance in Heidelberg'
Publicity photo
France, 1962 There were many challenges over the years but one comes to mind. Morris Chalfen's Holiday On Ice was playing NYC in 1965 for the very first time. It was very important for the show to be a success. Shows loved to play NYC early on a tour then advertise "direct form NYC". I was the new and relatively inexperienced lighting director with the responsibility of taking the show into Madison Square Garden. This was the old Garden on 8th between 50th & 51st. For this engagement, instead of the normal 8 to 10 follow spotlights, the lighting was expanded to 20 man operated follow spotlights. In addition to these 20 men, I was also cueing the road switchboard operator and the house light man. I was sweating bullets, but managed to pull it off. The show received excellent reviews.

  • What was your funniest moment on stage?
    DW: Wish I could think of one. My funniest moments took place backstage and during rehearsals and fortunately not on stage during a performance that I can remember.

  • At some point in your career you shared your dressing room Harpo Marx of the Marx bros with Harpo Marx of the legendary Marx bros. Can you tell us more?
    DW: This was at a special NBC televised performance of the Sonja Henie 1953 Ice Revue at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March 1953. Harpo Marx was the guest star and his bit throughout the performance was to attempt to sneak into the backstage area to get Sonja's autograph. The two of us were in the makeup room together (the 1st time that I ever had makeup professionally applied & come to think of it the only time) and sitting side by side we had the opportunity to chat...

  • You worked as the Company Manager for Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage, Las Vegas. What was it like for you being involved in a non-ice show?
    DW: I loved it! Thanks to the producer Kenneth Feld in 1990 I assumed the company manager position for the new Siegfried & Roy production that was to be a part of the grand opening of the new Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Holiday on Ice, 1963 - Operama production
Liz Kaufman & Don performing in 'Scheherazade'
Publicity photo
France, 1962 The production was designed and co-directed by John Napier and John Caird, Choreographed by Anthony van Lasst, Lighting design by Andrew Bridge and Costumes designed by William Ivey Long. I was always a fan of the theater and to work with some of the best in the business was an awesome experience. The new Mirage Theater was absolutely magnificent. Then you add the master showmen, Siegfried & Roy, who were unbelievably professional (production meetings after every performance), the incredible animals and the beautifully talented dancers... And once again I was given the opportunity to learn more about different facets of this business.
    After 6 months with S&R, the perfect job came up when Tom Collins, my old friend and owner of Champions On Ice, offered me a position with his company. In the beginning I was handling hotel arrangements, box office and arena settlements, which eventually led to getting off the road and assuming the position of Exec VP. This was the premiere figure skating event with headliners that included Olympic medalists Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, Torvill & Dean, and many more over the years. Following the winter Olympics In 1994, and at the height of skating's popularity, we gave 70 performances in 59 cities. The Nancy Kerrigan/Tonja Harding criminal knee-whacking episode was playing out in the media and we played to full houses. As I look back, I think that every previous work experience prepared me for this great 13 year run with Champions On Ice.

  • How did you feel when you changed over from being a professional skater to the production/managerial side?
    DW: It was always my goal after my performing years were over, to be able to continue on in show business in some creative and productive capacity. In 1965 I packed away my skates and began my on-the-job education in production and management. From 1965 to 1972, I held many positions with Holiday On Ice from production assistant to show publicist, assistant to the manager and then lighting director and designer. I ventured into the world of Ice Capades in 1972 where I started as road treasurer, then a long stretch as company manager for 15 years and eventually getting off the road with the position of director of booking for two years.

  • Amongst your many accomplishments, you were an Advance Man on tours, including two Rolling Stones Tours. Can you please tell us what that involved?
    Rolling Stones USA & Canada Tour
Signed photo by Mick Jagger
Reads: 'to Don, who never f****d up, Mick Jagger xx'
1972 DW: The Rolling Stones were looking for someone with arena experience to advance there new 1972 tour. By this time I had toured with ice shows that had played just about every major city in the U.S. and Canada as well as the smaller cities in between. At the time I was the lighting director with Holiday On Ice, which was partially owned by Madison Square Garden (MSG). Thanks to Tom Collins, Holiday On Ice company manager, I was suggested for the advance man position and flown from Mexico City to NYC to be interviewed. Originally MSG was to present the tour, but they eventually backed out afraid that their image might be tarnished. Nevertheless, I got the job which involved hotel accommodations, transportation, security, arranging occasional parties and special events, and as a liaison with the local promoters. I would meet the plane with limousines standing by and as the Stones stepped off the plane I would give them envelopes containing their room keys, rooming lists (the Stones all had assumed names for the hotels), local info on restaurants etc. I would coordinate with the local promoter the transportation to be used to get the Stones safely to and from the venues (we used beer delivery trucks, laundry vans and other devious means to transport the Stones unnoticed by the public to the venues). It's hard to imagine how we did what we did before the advent of cell phones. On the final performance of the 1972 tour at MSG Mick Jagger autographed a photo for me. It was signed: "To Don, who never fucked up, Love Mick". There was also a nice bonus, but this photo meant more to me.
    Quote ...When Ice Capades came to town with its incredible cast and spectacular productions, I knew then that I wanted to become a professional ice skater. It gave my life a direction and I was on the ice every free moment working toward this goal....
    In 1972, I was offered the opportunity to handle the booking, scheduling, housing, and immigration tasks for an 8 week U.S. tour of the famed Moscow Circus being presented by Madison Square Garden. In 1974, on the strength and success of the 1972 Rolling Stones tour I accepted an offer from the legendary rock promoter Bill Graham to advance the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Reunion Tour. When the Rolling Stones returned to the States in 1975, I once again joined them as their advance man. Ice Capades didn't tour during the summers so it worked out perfect to do these summer concert tours.
    These were great opportunities to work with and learn from some of the best in the business including the leading local promoters, arena management, production staff and crews, etc.

  • When you think of your showbiz career and all of the things that it has given you, what stands out most in your mind?
    DW: I'm grateful for the friends and mentors that helped me along the way and for the lifelong friendships with people who I respect and admire. George Eby, long time president of Ice Capades was a gentle, ethical and wise man that I was fortunate to have for many years as a mentor and best friend.

  • You have worked with two of the greatest show producers, namely Donn Arden and Ted Shuffle. Do you have a special memory about either (or both) of them that you would like to share with us?
    DW: Donn Arden: Donn, who is credited with producing the first Holiday On Ice production in 1943 as well as coming up with its name, was involved with many ice productions over the years. I worked with Donn for the first time when he produced HOI in the States in 1969. I was a production assistant during the rehearsal period and the lighting director on the tour. Las Vegas, Riviera Hotel
Don with wife Noel (middle) at the dinner table with Donn Arden (left) and Walter Craig (right)
1990 We became good friends for the remainder of Donn's life. What he did quite cleverly was to bring complete production numbers from his Vegas shows and adapt and restage them perfectly to the much larger ice floor. Donn was a genius that could move and stage dancers and skaters like no one else! I use to encourage Donn to write his memoir, which unfortunately he never got around to doing. He had thought of calling it 10,000 Girls Later. Donn worked with so many dancers and I remember when someone came up to him that he couldn't quite place and he asked them: "Did I ever like you"? What a great line! Anyone that ever worked with Donn knew that he could be difficult and there were those that he thought shouldn't be in show business. He once remarked to a skater that they would be better suited to pumping gas and suggested a career change and he was right. Donn was the best at what he did. His extravagant variety revues speak for themselves. Donn's Jubilee! is the longest running show on the strip and is celebrating its 29th anniversary this year - still alive and well at Bally's which was known as MGM back when the show opened in 1981.
    I am very fortunate to have worked with Teddy and Donn and to have shared long lasting friendships with these two brilliant producers. Surprisingly they had never met until in 1971 backstage at MSG when I had the privilege of introducing them to each other. Teddy's HOI production was currently playing the Garden and Donn was scheduled to produce the new HOI show the following year. It would be safe to say that Teddy was influenced a great deal by Donn's work, especially with his Lido productions. Both were 'one of a kind and larger than life'. Sadly they are no longer with us, but their contribution to the entertainment world both on and off the ice is immeasurable. Donn passed on in November 1994 at 78 and Teddy in May 1998 at 66.

    Las Vegas
Ted Shuffle & Don in his office/den
mid 90's Ted Shuffle: when I joined Sonja's show, Teddy, a former national roller skating champion who had made the switch to ice, was skating in the chorus. It wasn't too long before Sonja caught notice of his talent and he quickly progressed to the point that he was her personal choreographer and producer of her shows. Actually Teddy had some dance background having started his career at five years old in a tap dance recital in his home town, Ogden, Utah and is said to have become a film buff a short time later falling in love with the Sonja films of the 40's and 50's. After Sonja retired, Teddy went on to a very successful career with Holiday On Ice that lasted for well over 30 years. He staged and choreographed dramatic ballets that told a story and he had an uncanny talent for bringing out exceptional performances from unlikely skaters. In my performance years in Europe, I was featured in some of Teddy's productions with costuming by the great Folco. This was my best work. Later in the U.S. in the 60's, I collaborated with Teddy on the lighting design of his show. A review in the NY Times that praised Teddy's work also gave a mention to: "the unforgettable lighting of Don Watson". This recognition in another field meant a lot to me.

  • How have your showbiz years helped you in your life after the stage and if you could do it all over again, would you?
    Quote ...Both (Ted Shuffle & Donn Arden) were 'one of a kind and larger than life'. Sadly they are no longer with us, but their contribution to the entertainment world both on and off the ice is immeasurable...
    DW: The work ethic that helped me succeed and all that I have learned during those years of striving to achieve my goals continue to be beneficial. More importantly, the friendships and relationships established over the years continue to enrich my life... Do it all over again? When do I start?

  • What are you doing now?
    DW: I am semi retired and living in the entertainment capital of the world: Las Vegas.

  • What advice would you give to up and coming performers and what, from your own experience, are the "do's & don't" of this business?
    DW: Establish goals and give yourself 100% to achieving them. Look for mentors that can help you along the way. Study your craft and see everything related to your chosen field that you can. Don't let set-backs discourage you - they are all part of the learning process. Enjoy these special years - work hard, play hard, stay healthy & and create your special memories!

  • What do you think of ShowBiz Friends?
    DW: ShowBiz Friends makes it possible to stay in touch and to take advantage of the incredible show archives with their historic information, photos, and videos! There is nothing like it!

    Thank you Don for this heartfelt interview and congratulations on your outstanding career!