Scott Hamilton: Batteries Not Included
The 5 ft., 3-1/2 in. dynamo performs with boundless energy on skating tours, in competition, and soon a new TV special
BOSTON — If anybody in sports can keep pace with the Energizer Bunny, figure skater Scott Hamilton probably can. Every time you turn around he's skating somewhere with irrepressible energy and enthusiasm and a winsome smile that reaches to the cheap seats.
On the day the Monitor caught up with skating's preeminent showman, (he's listed in "Who's Who in Entertainment"), Hamilton had finished a Saturday afternoon practice session for a Boston pro-am event at Northeastern University's Matthews Arena.
Before heading off to his hotel, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him, he sat down in shortsleeves to let his engine cool and grab a quick "lunch" - an oversize chocolate-chip cookie picked off a forlorn buffet table.
As he nibbles, his candor spills out. "Actually, I don't know why I'm here at this event," he says, confessing that he badly overbooks himself. His schedule calls for him to be on the go constantly, with no days off in 1997 until March. "If I'm not doing a show, I'm traveling." He has 20 tour dates this month.
Upon further reflection, the Denver resident says there are reasons for his Boston appearance: It's a way to show his support of people and groups he's close to in skating, to visit relatives, and, yes, to collect a nice paycheck. Hamilton finished third in the "Ultimate Four" competition, which paid winner Todd Eldredge $75,000, and Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning,and Hamilton lesser amounts.
Ice rinks to TV specials
Among his numerous projects, the one that seems to excite the ubiquitous athlete/entertainer the most is a Disney TV special ("Disney's Scott Hamilton ... Upside Down") shot last fall. It will air March 8 on CBS. The highlight, for Hamilton, is a Charlie Chaplain number.
The 5 ft., 3-1/2 in. dynamo says he was a little overwhelmed when producer John Brunton suggested the segment, which was taped in black and white to look like the old silent movies.
"I only wanted to do it if I could do it right," he says. As a result, he studied two Chaplain movie classics, "City Lights" and "Modern Times," and assumed the comedian's appearance with fake wig and mustache. The piece was shot outdoors at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla., using an ice surface that resembles a street.
"We stayed as absolutely true to the original as we could; we didn't try to throw in a lot of whistles and bells and special effects," Hamilton says.
"The final two minutes is one shot, since that's the way Chaplin probably would have done it. No edits, let the music, the emotion, and the movement come together for something that makes sense."
The segment may owe part of its inspiration to Kurt Browning, whose 1994 skating rendition of Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" Hamilton calls "amazing."
Figure skating's soaring popularity with audiences finds Hamilton and other stars pushing out the presentation parameters of the sport. Given the state of rapid artistic development and surging TV exposure, it's hard to know what the best format may be. "In many respects I don't know if people really know what they want to see yet, because they haven't seen it," Hamilton says.
A skating pioneer
Nevertheless, he's been a pioneer in his own right. In 1989, he received critical acclaim for his work in "Broadway On Ice," a touring show in which he combined skating, acting, singing, and dancing.
He has skated at the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and produced major theatrical proscenium ice shows for Sea World in San Diego, one of which drew 3 million people in three months.
Upon winning an Olympic gold medal in 1984, Hamilton went the conventional ice-show route, signing on with Ice Capades for two years. From there he's explored other showcases for his abundant showmanship, including his fancy footwork and trademark back flip.
Since 1986 he has performed in his own Scott Hamilton's America Tour, sometimes with symphony orchestras, and he currently serves as co-producer of Discover Stars on Ice, a tour he began 11 years ago and continues to star in.
A record-setting 60-city schedule began Dec. 28 in Greensboro, N.C., and concludes March 29 in Portland, Maine.
A try at serious drama
Whether skating on tour or in a professional competition such as the Battle of the Sexes or the Rock 'n' Roll Skating Championships, Hamilton says he tries to make it fun for himself and his legion of fans. That makes his latest attempt at serious drama something of an experiment.
On tour he skates to "I Who Have Nothing," from "Smokey Joe's Cafe."
He's unsure about performing it for live audiences, though, because they often expect levity from him.
"I've been used to being the goofball for a long time, " he says, "so when I do something serious the audience doesn't know how to take it. They're waiting for my pants to fall down."
Part of what accounts for his universal popularity, Hamilton concludes, is his inclusive attitude. "I never do a program that's strictly for me," he says.
"I try to include the people watching by creating programs that one feels, not just witnesses. Hey, we're all in this together."
In a sense, Hamilton remains the cheery poster boy for an entire sport, a talent whose love of skating was kindled during desperate times.
The adopted child of Bowling Green State University professors in Ohio, he stopped growing for a time, a situation misdiagnosed as a terminal illness. His condition improved after a change in diet and exercise.
Thereupon he took up skating and a full recovery followed.
After a fifth-place finish at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, he went on to win 16 consecutive events leading up to the '84 Sarajevo Winter Games, where he triumphed despite not skating his best in the final.
Asked how his career, which now includes work as a CBS skating analyst, would be different without that gold medal, he replies, "I wouldn't have had nearly the credibility or the opportunity I've had, and I've taken advantage of it in about every way I possibly could. I haven't missed a whole lot. I've tried to be really responsible to the sport and tried to do the right things."
Scott Hamilton speaks out on ...
... his aversion to fancy costumes:
'You don't need a suit of lights to sell yourself. If I notice what someone is wearing, that means I'm looking where I'm not supposed to be looking.
'What [Russian pair] Gordeeva and Grinkov wore at the 1994 Olympics was very simple. It didn't distract from what they wanted to present, which was their great skating.'
... bringing together the key elements of a performance:
'There should be a marriage of music to movement to the overall look and feel of the performance, and if one thing stands out there is something wrong. It should all blend together flawlessly. That's why if you look back at some of the classic routines of all time, Torville and Dean's 'Bolero,' for example, you don't notice the difficulty. It's so flawless from start to finish.
... the importance of individuality in performance:
'I think ... events can be formatted and adjusted to make the event better, but I think the sport itself is driven by personalities and the participants involved. In the past a Dorothy Hamill has come along, or a ... Brian Boitano or an Elvis Stojko, somebody who captures the public's imagination or attention. They're the ones who sell the sport.'
... the push to present new looks:
'I'm going to do 21 different routines this year on television. When I was competing [as an amateur], I did three, including exhibition skating.'
... different kinds of audiences:
'[In] Canada it took me a while to get used to a couple cities because of screamers. You'll get two feet from the side of the ice and someone will scream at you. You say, 'OK, I know it's coming up.' Other audiences are so quiet that you've got to get used to that as well."