Frozen In Time

A long-lost film of her husband skating sends chills down the spine of Eileen von Birgelen.

April 06, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Eileen von Birgelen has no trouble summoning visions of the man once known as "the world's skate jumping champion."

She can still see him leaping over a card table, legs and arms jackknifed in front of him in a style that was his alone. She can envision him bursting through the paper inside a hoop (sometimes two hoops) or spraying a delighted crowd in what was called "the fastest stop" on ice.

How could Eileen not remember? She had watched Georg von Birgelen perform for decades. The two had toured across the country and abroad for more than 30 years, first in "Holiday on Ice" and then in "Symphony on Ice." No one was more intimate with her husband's skating than Eileen, and no one marveled more.

But, after his death in 1990 at age 75, it was the images of Georg that Eileen had never seen that preoccupied her.

Before they met in 1949 -- she as a young, new addition to "Holiday," he as its established star -- Georg appeared in a movie short about winter sports in the Catskills. Eileen never got to see the film, and after Georg's death, she found that she very much wanted to.

But how she would ever find Winter Capers, as it was titled, let alone see it, she had no idea.

For the longest time, it didn't matter much. Eileen could see him everyday. They performed in hotels and in shopping malls, often toting their own mobile rink. Eileen was a figure skater from Massachusetts. A Swiss native some years her senior, Georg was a champion speed skater and jumper. Instead of leaping over barrels -- hardly a novelty anymore -- he chose to sail over people lying like logs on the ice.

He was a powerful skater who achieved breathtaking speeds but could stop instantly in a splash of ice chips. He also had a routine on 2-foot-tall stilts, performing stunts that would be beyond most skaters in normal skates.

Skating took Eileen and Georg all over North and South America. They thought about having kids, but never seemed to have the time. Other than each other, skating was their around-the-clock preoccupation, and it introduced them not only to skating superstars like Dorothy Hamill, but also to big-time entertainers, including Arthur Godfrey, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley.

In the late 1950s, the pair settled in Baltimore to manage the Memorial Stadium ice rink. Later, they became fixtures as instructors and coaches at Northwest Ice Rink. Georg also ran a skate shop there, Von's.

While sitting on a bench one day sipping a coffee at Northwest, Georg collapsed. The skate jumping champion was dead.

Eileen continued to teach skating at Northwest and took over operation of the shop. With Georg gone, she found herself wondering about the films he had been in, Winter Capers and also a second Catskills short, Flying Skates. She mentioned to a few friends how she longed to see those movies.

It was idle talk -- or so Eileen believed -- but her friends did not think it out of the question that they could track the films down. On her behalf, they began looking and eventually, in 1996, found Rebecca Jessop, the director of special projects at the Senator Theatre. Jessop, in turn, handed the assignment to Bill Hewitt, the theater's long-time general manager, whose specialty is obtaining copies of the old films the Senator periodically shows. Jessop knew Hewitt had the tenacity and patience for this project.

She was right. At first, Hewitt made quick progress. He learned from a catalog of film copyrights that both shorts had been produced by Columbia Pictures, now a division of Sony. Hewitt contacted Columbia, but he was told the studio had donated its old films to the Library of Congress.

That was only partially true. The Library of Congress informed Hewitt that Columbia had donated its films produced before 1950. That meant the library had Winter Capers but not Flying Skates, which had been made in 1952.

After six months, the library informed Hewitt that it had found Winter Capers in its film repository near Dayton, Ohio. The film was, however, only in the form of a negative, and the lab would have to make a positive print. That could take some time.

The library transforms 1 million feet of nitrate film to safety stock each year to preserve old films. A nine-minute short of no broad interest was not going to receive high priority. "It was a short of absolutely no commercial value," said Hewitt. "They said they'd make a print when they could get around to it."

Seven years later, they did.

Around Thanksgiving, Hewitt received a call from his contact at the library. "He asked if I was sitting down," Hewitt said. "He said, `I got permission to print this thing. It should be three weeks.'"

Meanwhile, Hewitt said, Columbia informed him that it could not locate Flying Skates. Though disappointed, Eileen had seen that film in Santiago, Chile, when she and Georg were performing there in the early 1950s.

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