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ITNY gala celebrates 62 years of 'Mr. Debonair'

Bradley charms crowd in Webster's classic ensemble

Dwyer is flanked by Moira North (left), founder of Ice Theatre of New York, and Debra Lee "Debbie" Gordon, recipient of INTY's Ice Angel Award.
Dwyer is flanked by Moira North (left), founder of Ice Theatre of New York, and Debra Lee "Debbie" Gordon, recipient of INTY's Ice Angel Award. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/29/2012) - Ask colleagues about Richard "Mr. Debonair" Dwyer, and all marvel at the same trait: They have never met anyone who takes so much joy in entertaining an audience.

That has kept him on the ice for a 62-year professional career, the longest on record, and it is what skating luminaries at Ice Theatre of New York's Annual Benefit Gala and Performance, held Oct. 22 at New York's Chelsea Piers, talked about most.

"He is completely joyful, completely energetic, thoughtful and elegant in his demeanor, and gentle and caring," said Doug Webster, ITNY's creative director.

"Just one of those fantastic people," Ryan Bradley said. "He's so happy; everything is always great. He is always positive, and it's infectious to be on the ice with him."

"He is so generous, he gives so much of himself, he's been in skating so long," said Judy Blumberg, a five-time U.S. ice dance champion (with Michael Seibert) who was partnered by Dwyer during an Alaskan tour in the 1990s. "He is an inspiration to all of us, because he's just a great man."

Webster tapped into Dwyer's joy and timeless elegance with the show's finale, a series of vignettes inspired by the music of the Oscar-winning 2011 film The Artist.

The ensemble, a modern recreation of the Jazz Age days of flappers and foxtrots, featured Bradley, the 2010 U.S. champion, performing as a "Young Debonair" opposite his longtime girlfriend, former U.S. competitor Erin Reed. They were joined by Sinead Kerr and John Kerr; Brent Bommentre and Kim Navarro; and the ITNY company, as well as the Skyliners junior synchronized skating team, which sported vintage Helen Rose skating costumes.

Wearing his signature top hat and tails, Dwyer -- who at age 76 still hits an Axel jump -- took to the ice accompanied by four celebrity "Dwyer Girls": 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill; 1980 Olympic silver medalist Linda Fratianne; 1979 world pairs champion (with Randy Gardner) Tai Babilonia; and three-time U.S. pairs champion (with Ken Shelley) JoJo Starbuck.

True to form, Dwyer presented one lucky rink-side lady with a bouquet of red roses, as he did for decades after his performances in Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies.

Skating luminaries in attendance included two-time Olympic champion Dick Button; two-time world champion Aja Zanova-Steindler; impresarios Tom Collins and Steve Disson; 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen; and 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, who hosted the show with YouTube celebrity and skating enthusiast Michael Buckley.

After the performance, Dwyer accepted accolades in a filmed retrospective of his career, tracing it from its start as a U.S. novice and junior champion; to his final amateur performance in 1950, when he placed third in the U.S. behind Button and Hayes Alan Jenkins; to his 30 years with Ice Follies and four years with Ice Capades. Dwyer also did stints in rink management and coaching, and remains a popular performer today.

"This [film] makes me feel how fortunate I am and what a great life I've had, and thank you everybody who was on that screen," he said. "That is what has made my career: the wonderful people who have kept my career going."

Moira North, who founded ITNY in 1984, gave special credit to Dwyer.

"If it hadn't been for you auditioning me and hiring me for Ice Follies many years ago, ITNY would probably not be here," she said.

One of Dwyer's longtime friends, 1956 Olympic champion Tenley Albright, thinks she knows why Dwyer has entranced audiences for so many decades.

"Every time he ever performs, he gets very nervous ahead of time," Albright said. "You would think after 60-some years he would not get nervous -- he would just go out and skate -- but I think that's why he's so good. Every single time is important and it means everything to him, so he gets all nervous."

Dwyer has an even simpler explanation.

"I had gorgeous ladies and roses," he said. "How could I miss?"

More from ITNY: ITNY presented longtime board member Debbie Gordon with its 2012 Ice Angel Award. "Debbie lent her talents to the production of our first brochure, and catered our first benefit dinner, at the old Skyrink skater's lounge," North said. "Her passion for artistic skating is boundless." ... Webster plans to continue his modern recreations of entertainment's golden age in an ice show he calls The New Yorker. "I have a couple of producers on, as well as ITNY involvement. It's my passion and joy to bring back skating in a theatrical setting, the way it used to be done: dinner and a hotel skating show, then the Stork Club or El Morocco. I want to see that next." ... When it comes to fruition, sign up Bradley, who gave an inspired solo to Frank Sinatra's "Best Is Yet to Come" in addition to starring in The Artist ensemble. "I would love to see it go forward, love to go places with it. There has got to be a market, because it gives you a reason to watch; it's not just big [skating] names -- it's a story." ... Nicole Bobek, along with ITNY principals Elisa Angeli and Joel Dear, enthralled the crowd with "Molecular," entwining via hoops six feet above the ice: "I started doing this about a year and a half ago. I learned it off the ice because I belong to Florida's Circus School of Miami; I'm training and doing gigs with them. Doug [Webster] told me about Joel and Alissa, and it was a great opportunity to bring something different to the plate." Bobek will next perform in "Scott Hamilton and Friends," the annual benefit for Hamilton's CARES (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education, and Survivorship) Initiative, and Disson Skating's "Pandora Unforgettable Moments of Love on Ice," set for Jan. 11 in Kent, Wash.