On March 6, 1952, an enthusiastic crowd of 7,000 jammed Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory to attend the opening of Sonja Henie's "1952 Ice Revue."
The three-time Olympic gold medalist figure skater and movie star, whose graceful style led the press to call her "Pavola on Ice," had brought her show to the city for a week's engagement.
As spectators arrived, the sound of pounding hammers could be heard as workmen raced to erect a temporary bleacher section.
At 8: 25 p.m., five minutes before the show, a loud crack was heard throughout the building as a section of the temporary seating some 15 feet above the floor gave way.
"There was a warning crack; then, a split-second later a rumble which gradually increased in volume. Simultaneously, the rear stands at the east end of the armory tottered, and, with increasing speed, went down," reported The Sun.
"For five minutes the section was a screaming pandemonium. Women pinned beneath heavy planks and timbers shrieked in pain. Men tearing at the tangled mass of beams and light wooden chairs shouted in frustrated desperation," said the newspaper.
Eleanor Merryman Roszel Rogers, who attended the show with a grandmother and aunt who were hurt in the collapse, recalled the scene in a 1977 article in The Sunday Sun Magazine:
"It didn't sound that loud to me at first. I thought musicians in the orchestra had begun the 'squeak, squawk' ritual they go through as they warmed up. My first realization that something was terribly wrong was when I looked to my right. A section of people who been sitting there a moment before had disappeared. Their bleachers had dropped away beneath them.
"I heard other noises then, the splintering wood, the crash of falling timbers, screaming people. Some of the bleacher sections seemed to sway and settle gently as in a slow-motion movie sequence. Our section, like some of the others, just dropped."
Rogers, an ice skater herself and a fan of Henie's, recalled in an interview the other day from her home in Bolton Hill that she had an opportunity to go back and see the show and meet the star.
"Several days later, I went to the show and met Sonja Henie and I told her she did her edges well. Can you imagine me telling that to the world's figure skating champion?" she said, laughing.
Others who saw the collapse likened it to the sound of an avalanche, earthquake or train wreck.
May Warfield, who had been seated in the rear row, told The Sun, "There was a loud crack before it gave way. Then it began to go. Down. Down. Down."
It took National Guardsmen, police and firefighters more than 30 minutes to extract the injured. Of the 600 spectators sitting in the section, 300 were injured, 30 seriously.
But not everyone remembered having any warning.
Edna McCready, of the 4100 block Frankford Avenue, told The Sun: "I didn't see anything happen. All I know is I found myself at the bottom of the pile."
As spectators buried under tons of lumber attempted to dig themselves out, "parents pawed desperately for their children, men for their wives and dates," said the newspaper.
"Within a few minutes, the first shrieks of fright and sudden pain gave way to moans and low pleas for aid. Here a woman knelt in audible prayer. There a woman fingered her rosary," said The Sun.
Fifteen ambulances raced to the scene, while hospital emergency rooms prepared to receive the injured.
Drawn from her dressing room by what she described as a the sound of a "train going under the building," Henie raced from her dressing room wringing her hands.
As she parted the curtain, she watched the hysterical crowd and rescuers.
"What ought I to do?" she repeated to anyone who approached her. "Should we cancel the show, or what?" she asked.
"If you go on, everybody's going to be nervous," advised Ken Stevens, her stage manager.
'I'm not responsible'
"But I'm not responsible," said Henie. "I contracted with a man to have these bleachers set up. He's been doing it for over twenty years. I certainly thought he knew what he was doing."
Stevens made an announcement to the audience, some of whom wondered why the show wasn't going on as scheduled.
"I am speaking in behalf of Miss Henie. She feels terrible about this. Due to the condition we will not give a performance tonight."
As Henie stood looking at the wreckage, she said, "Well, I'm going to have tests done here tomorrow morning. I'm not going to run the risk of anything like this happening again."
One lucky couple that night was John Duplaise and his girlfriend. He was late picking her up. They argued about his being tardy and then had trouble finding a parking space near the armory.
Holding tickets for section M, one of those that had collapsed,they entered the armory and found not only was there no show but their seats were gone. " 'I'm so sorry I was so nasty,' she kept telling Duplaise," reported The Sun.
Suits asking more than $5 million were filed by injured spectators in city courts. A jury later absolved Henie and her Ice Revue Corp. of any legal responsibility, while finding Coronati Amusements Inc., responsible for the inadequately constructed bleachers. By 1955, all the claims -- more than 300 -- were settled.
Henie, who ended the ice shows the next year, never again performed in Baltimore.
She died in 1970 and is buried in her native Norway.
Pub Date: 2/15/98