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The Original Queen of Ice

 (Modified from the original article published in BLADES On ICE magazine, circa 1990.)

Can you name the first skating star? If you answered Sonje Henie, as most people would, you are wrong. More than 20 years before Sonja ever set her white-booted foot before the cameras or in an ice revue, Charlotte was the name that lit up the marquees.

“A golden-haired vision in white whose skating is a marvel,” reported The New York Times. Other papers called her “the Pavlova of the ice” and recognized “a new craze, dancing on skates.”

Born Charlotte Oelschlagel in 1898 in Berlin, she was the daughter of a wealthy furniture manufacturer. At age seven, she appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic playing harp, lute, and mandolin and was proclaimed a child prodigy, a “wunderkind.”

However, not long after, she suffered a stress-induced nervous breakdown that ruined her health. After numerous unsuccessful medical treatments, she was finally told to get outdoor exercise. Since it was winter, her mother took her skating, which was the beginning of her recovery. She found she could blend the grace of skating with her musical skills.

Charlotte (pronounced Shar LOT) progressed rapidly under the tutelage of Paul Munder, the crown price’s skating coach. After overcoming her family’s objections against becoming a “show girl,” she made her first professional appearance at the Admiral Eispalast at the age of 10. She was an instant success.

From 1910 to 1914 she appeared there in pantomimes written for her and travelled to Vienna to appear at the Royal Hochburg. She then saw the great Anna Pavlova dance and realized the importance of ballet that led to the development of her own classical style.

Charles Dillingham, the Broadway impresario, saw Charlotte in Germany and signed her to a contract for $5,000 a week (in 1915) to appear in New York. Along with 20 other skaters, she set sail for New York and opened in Hip Hip Hooray at the 6,000 seat Hippodrome. The show ran for over eight months and was seen by more than two million people.

She became the toast of New York, entertained by Enrico Caruso and wooed by the rich and famous. Her interpretation of The Dying Swan was so popular that at one time Pavlova coached her and then appeared on the same stage with her, dancing the number as Charlotte skated. Special ice favorites were The Merry Doll, The Red Shoes, The Moth, Scheherazade, and there was even a Charlotte Waltz composed in her honor.

She set off a skating fever that overtook New York. New rinks were built, there were high society skating parties and benefits. The Hippodrome even offered public skating in the morning for people to skate on the same ice as the fabulous star.

So great was the demand for Charlotte and skating that a suede-bound book was printed in 1916 by the Hippodrome Skating Club with illustrated lessons in the art of figure skating as exemplified by Charlotte.

In 1916, Charlotte starred in the first skating film, The Frozen Warning made by Commonwealth Pictures, a six-part silent serial with a slim plot. When foreign agents plan to steal her boyfriend’s high tech gun, Charlotte discovers the plot. During a skating exhibition she writes the letters “spies” in the ice and points out the villains with a stag jump or two.

The spies are captured, she saves the gun and her beau, and is a heroine in the grand tradition. The film is not a benchmark in cinema history, but it is considered the first skating film starring the belle of the day.

In a letter, Charlotte said of the film, “I made a good film actress, but I would not stay (in films) as I wanted to go ahead in skating where I created a lot of new figures which are not seen today. Skaters say they are too difficult.”

Following the New York show, she toured the U.S., Mexico and Cuba as well as parts of Europe. Many false rumors came out of Germany during WWI that she had died in various places, to the extent that an Elsa Schmidt of Switzerland took her name and tried to pass herself off as Charlotte. In truth, Charlotte spent most of that period in England and Switzerland, and then spent an extended period in Chicago.

In 1921, she returned to the Hippodrome in Get TogetherThe Morning Telegraph in a headline of its review probably first coined the phrase of her royalty, “Charlotte, Queen of Ice.”

In 1922, she married the producer and conductor of Get Together, Dr, Abselm Gotzel, but he died unexpectedly eight months later during a tour in Spain. A broken leg and mourning had diminished her appearances. She then found a skating partner in Curt Newmann, a childhood friend of her brother.

Her death again was reported in 1923 and once more officially in Zits Theatrical Newspaper in March 1925. But she returned to New York and appeared on the ice at the opening of the Madison Square Garden in December, 1925.

She and Newmann were married in 1926. In Hungary in 1928, the two of them invented the back outside death spiral held with one hand. It became a trademark move of the duo and is a basic element in pair skating today.

Charlotte continued to skate and tour for a number of years bringing ice ballet to new corners of the world, even India. Then in 1939, she returned to Berlin because of her mother’s terminal illness and eventual death. While attempting to settle the estate, the outbreak of WWII trapped her and her husband. She attempted to leave Germany to fulfill contracts but was denied exit. She refused to skate for Hitler, despite have a small ice ballet company in Berlin, so she was prohibited from performing or traveling and she and her husband were declared “citizens under supervision.”

She lost a house and several million dollars in a bank in Potsdam, later seized by the Russians. Eventually she fled from the Russian zone to West Berlin before the city was divided. After the war, failing health put aside ideas of a return to the stage and she openly resented Sonja Henie’s claims to her title as Queen of Ice.

Charlotte made a meager living teaching skating at public rinks. Her husband died in 1971 and she lived in a small government retirement apartment until her death in 1984. Among her possessions was a photograph of Pavlova inscribed “to the greatest ballet dancer on ice.” The autobiography that she claims in a 1968 letter to have begun was never found.

Charlotte was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1985.