WERNER GROEBLI, Ice Skating’s Frick, Dies at 92
By Dennis Hevesi for the New York Times
Published: April 23, 2008
Werner Groebli, who as Frick of the famous ice-skating comedy team of Frick & Frack, cracked up and wowed audiences for nearly 30 years with tricks like skating in circles while bent backward at the knees so that his body hovered almost parallel to the ice, died April 14 in Zurich. He was 92.
David Thomas, one of Mr. Groebli’s skating partners after the original Frack, Hansruedi Mauch, retired in 1953, announced his death. The cause was complications after breaking a leg at a nursing home outside of Zurich.
Soon after they first met and started acting silly together at a local rink in Basel, Switzerland, in 1936, Frick & Frack became famous, captivating crowds with 8- to 10-minute routines. A British producer caught their act in St. Moritz and signed them for a show in London; soon Hollywood called, and big American ice shows. After Mr. Mauch retired, the act became known as just Mr. Frick, with a series of partners playing second fiddle.
Frick and Frack were both virtuoso skaters, but the usual smooth flow around the rink was not for them. Mr. Groebli, in particular, reveled in square, stiff, clockwork-like moves, particularly evident in his toy soldier routine. Or Frack would toss Frick an invisible rope and, seemingly without moving a muscle, Frick would slowly glide forward as though being pulled, the propulsion coming from pressure on the outer edge of his skates. Or the two would skate by each other, missing a handshake, hook their legs, recoil and turn back face to face.
“Frick & Frack do not depend on costumes, grimaces or falls to get their laughs,” a Time magazine article said of the pair in December 1939. “With the pantomime of Charlie Chaplin and the rubber legs of Leon Errol, they take the elements of figure skating and distort them into crazy positions to create some of the most astonishing feats ever performed on skates.” (Leon Errol was a comic who often played a wobbly drunk.)
Mr. Groebli’s trademark move was that spread-eagle cantilever, bent backwards inches above the ice, from which he would rise by attaching his bamboo cane to an invisible hook in the air to hoist himself up, hand over hand.
Frick & Frack were particularly popular in the 1930s and 40s, when the Olympic champion figure skater Sonja Henie became a Hollywood star. Their lasting fame had something to do with the act’s name, which has entered the language as a synonym for two inseparable friends.
But they were almost Zig and Zag. Those were the first monikers they used when trying out clown routines as teenagers in Basel, their hometown. They used fictitious names because their parents did not approve of their carnival-like careers.
“I was to follow a career in architecture, and Frack’s parents wanted him to be a banker,” Mr. Groebli said in an interview in March 1999.
Why Frick and Frack? No particular reason, Mr. Groebli said. Frick, he added, is a small town near Basel; Frack means frock coat in the region’s patois.
Frick & Frack performed in London in the 1930s and came to the United States in 1938 as part of the St. Moritz Express ice revue, which performed in the open-air Tropical Ice Gardens in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, and on the road. They were paid $200 a week and given the opportunity to improve their English as well as the hope that they might break into movies. In 1939, they were hired by the original Ice Follies, which they stayed with for 11,000 performances.
The pair and their slapstick routines, with mock collisions and blade-close misses, reached the height of their popularity in the 1940s, when Frick & Frick appeared in two films, “Silver Skates” (1943) and “Lady, Let’s Dance” (1944).
Werner Fritz Groebli was born in Basel on April 21, 1915. He is survived by a sister, Gertrud Zuberbuhler of Basel. His wife, the former Yvonne Baumgartner, died in 2002.
Mr. Groebli continued to perform with the Ice Follies until an accident forced him to retire in 1980, when he was 65. Mr. Mauch died in 1979. (The Ice Follies merged with Holiday on Ice in 1979.)
After his retirement, Mr. Groebli was named to the United States Figure Skating Association’s international hall of fame in Colorado Springs, Colo. Mr. Thomas, who was Mr. Groebli’s ice partner from 1973 to 1978, said he brought a quirky spontaneity to his performances, especially when something went awry.
“If the spotlight was off the mark, he would do a silly little dance to find it,” Mr. Thomas said. “If he fell, he would jump up and look around to see who tripped him.
“Or, if the orchestra was off beat — it was on a platform by the ice — he would go over, lift the drape, march into the orchestra and start using his bamboo cane like a baton.”
Mr. Groebli also liked to know exactly how long the crowd applauded.
“I used to count it for him,” Mr. Thomas said. “I’d go out there and say, ‘Frick, it’s 39 seconds.’ ”
Nick Ravo contributed reporting for this article.
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