The Original Queen of Ice
from the original article published in BLADES On ICE magazine, circa
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
“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
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
The 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 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
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
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.