Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano has been practicing for hours when I arrive midmorning at the rink. I hear him before I see him. W-o-o-o-s-h. His skates push him skyward for his signature triple lutz, and I turn just in time to see him land impossibly, but perfectly, on a sheet of ice.
The biggest star of 1988’s Winter Olympics skates over, flashes a huge smile and reaches to shake my hand, mittens still on. He knows I’m here to learn the secrets of an amazing career, but I’m a bit confused:
“Brian,” I say, “Where’s Richard?”
Richard Dwyer ’74 estimates he skated more than 14,000 performances during his career—more than anyone else on earth. The Guinness Book of World Records made it official last October: “The longest career as a professional ice skater is 62 years and was achieved by Richard Dwyer (USA), a.k.a ‘Mr. Debonair,’ who began his professional career in 1950 aged 14 years, and continues to perform at the age of 76.”
“He’s a legend in the skating world,” Boitano says. “I don’t know if I ever told him, but I used to watch him in the ice shows for years and years and years. I always wanted to be in those ice shows. I wanted to be Richard Dwyer.”
An Olympic champion wanted to be Richard Dwyer? Who is this champion skater, who inspired future gold medal winners, who befriended some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, who made it into a Peanuts cartoon strip (twice), this world record holder who was inducted into both the U.S. and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, who valued a USF college degree so much he worked on it for more than two decades?
Photo courtesy of Ice Follies
Dwyer grew up in sunny Los Angeles, an unlikely place to produce a star on ice. But the kid had talent, and the local ice rink became a second home. Soon, he was winning major competitions: U.S. Novice Ice Skating Champion (1948) and Junior U.S. Ice Skating Champion (1949).
But it was expensive to compete, and back then competitors paid their own way. “We just couldn’t afford to stay in,” Dwyer says, so when talent scouts urged him to go pro, he was ready. But torn. Should he jump at the chance or continue school?
Dwyer thanks a Jesuit for the answer: “Do both,” said the principal at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. That advice changed Dwyer’s life, and he hit the road, beginning a 60-year career with the Ice Follies and Ice Capades. He was only 14 years old.
‘The Young Debonair’
The first thing you notice about Dwyer is that he’s always smiling, which you might expect from a professional performer. But soon, you realize, it’s not for show. His eyes smile too. In fact, they positively sparkle, brimming with excitement and energy like I’ve never seen.
And that’s what you saw at every performance: pure charisma, as Dwyer showed off his double jumps and leaps and, of course, his famous “spread eagle.” But it was his signature act, “The Young Debonair,” with the Ice Follies that made him a star. It was the act of a lifetime, and Dwyer performed it for more than 60 years.
Wearing a top hat and tails, he was accompanied by six glamorous “Dwyer’s Girls” (think Vegas showgirls on ice skates). They towered above the 14-year-old, but he grew into the part. Around age 28, his professional title changed to “The Debonair,” and again, years later, to “Mr. Debonair.” Fan clubs sprang up across the country.
At the end of the number, he handed out red roses to someone in the audience, always a “grandmotherly type.” Everyone wanted a rose. Dwyer still receives letters from families describing how they found that faded flower or a picture taken with him, decades later, after their mother or grandmother passed away. These women, from all across the country, treasured the memento until the day they died.
Hollywood Loves Dwyer
Joan Crawford liked Dwyer’s skating so much she sent him flowers after the show: three times. “There would be a thousand of them!” he says. “Well, there weren’t that many, but it looked like it.” Enough for the crew to make dozens of boutonnieres and pass them around backstage. The Academy Award-winning actress even insisted that Dwyer take her daughter on her first date. Yes, daughter Christina, author of the scathing memoir “Mommie Dearest,” Hollywood’s first big tell-all expose. “Terrible book,” Dwyer says. “Can’t believe that.”
Boitano is cooling down at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center and sees a picture of Crawford and Dwyer together. He’s mesmerized and starts flipping through the pictures I asked Dwyer to bring.
There are dozens thrown into a photo album haphazardly, some falling out—a virtual who’s who of a bygone era in Hollywood: Clark Gable and Jack Lemmon together, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, Natalie Wood, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Dinah Shore, Nancy Sinatra, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and on and on.
“So, who was the most beautiful movie star that you ever met?” Boitano asks, “That you met and you were like ‘Oh my gosh, she’s gorgeous!’” Dwyer answers immediately: “I was excited about Natalie Wood. She was pretty neat.”
Boitano and Dwyer escape into the photo album. The thing is, I asked Dwyer to bring pictures of his skating. He never said a word about who was in the pictures with him.
Most Amazing Act
“The first 18 years I was with the show, it was all train. Six Pullman cars,” Dwyer says. And for the first three years, his mother was his chaperone, and she was determined he would get a formal education.
So, Dwyer went to school on the road, in whatever city they were in, for the two, three, or four weeks they were there.
“I went to 26 high schools,” he says. “I went to the Jesuit high schools, and where there wasn’t one in a particular city, I went to the Christian Brothers school.”
He went to class all day and skated at night. He received his high school diploma, but the real show-stopper was earning his college degree.
One year, still skating 10 shows a week, Dwyer managed to squeeze in two classes at USF. It was the summer, and the Ice Follies always had an extended stay in San Francisco. “There were times I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this worth it?’ I was up at 6:30 a.m. going for an 8:00 class.” Then it was off to practice for a performance that night.
But that’s how he did it. Two classes. Every summer. For 22 years. (Except for two, when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve.)
“The San Francisco press was very good to us, but they all kind of made fun of me.” Dwyer laughs at some stories that were published. “He’s back in school again, he must be slow, ’cause he’s not getting too far along!”
What kept him going? He was convinced the skating career wouldn’t last, and he considered two alternatives: trial lawyer, like his brother, or host of a local TV show. He admits it was also partly because it pleased his mother.
Just shy of 40, and more than two decades after he started working on his degree, Dwyer finally walked across the stage at St. Ignatius Church to accept his bachelor's degree in English. His mother, Mary, watched from the audience, more proud than she had ever been watching him skate.
The World’s a Stage
Spend just a little time with Dwyer, and you soon learn that he always has another fascinating act.
Like when he became friends with Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schulz and ended up managing the ice rink Schulz built in Santa Rosa for five years, even as he continued to perform. He was featured in Peanuts twice. Turns out, even Snoopy wants to be “Mr. Debonair.”
Or when Dwyer ran Donald Trump’s ice rink in Central Park and taught Trump's children to skate.
Or appearing on Johnny Carson. “They called me in the morning and said the ice was melting, and we’re going to have to roller skate. But it was funny. I got a pair of roller skates from a friend. I practiced, and we just had a good time.”
The Show Must Go On
There were plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. Once, a partner's elbow wacked him in the mouth, and a dentist had to wire four teeth so they wouldn’t fall out. There were many stitches, like the time a performer's skate gouged him in the leg. And hospitalizations. “I had shoulder surgery from lifting the girls, so there are a few times I had to go through a challenge,” he says. “But I came back as fast as I could. Got back out there.”
The pay wasn't great either, nothing like the millions made by younger skating superstars like Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Brian Boitano, not even toward the end of his career. “I picked myself up to two grand a week,” he says. “I made a couple of good investments in property. Not huge, but they’ve helped me.”
For Dwyer, it wasn't about money, “All those years, to bring happiness into people’s lives. To see them smile back at you and forget all their problems. I was earning my living making other people’s lives enjoyable and happy. I think I got the right career. I thank God every day.”
“The longevity that he has, it’s amazing,” says Boitano, as he packs away his stuff. “He’s my inspiration.”
Outside, the line is growing for the public skate, and it’s time to go. As they leave, I ask Dwyer if he ever offered Boitano any advice.
“I told him, ‘Don’t stop.’ You have to keep skating,” Dwyer says simply. “You have to carry on. If you ever stop, it’s hard to go back.”
And that’s Dwyer’s secret to success, so straightforward, so practical, like all good lessons in life: Never stop. Just keep putting one skate in front of the other.