Icy proposition

Jon Johnson

Photo by Larry Dalton

Sacramento already has a thriving music scene, poetry readings, several nationally competitive sports teams, playhouses and art galleries. Introducing an entirely new art form into the Capital City is a challenge, but Del Paso resident Jon Johnson has met it. Johnson toured the world as a professional performance skater before returning to his hometown to create Sacramento Ice Theatre, a group that performs revues and full-length musicals on skates. Though less than a year old, Sacramento Ice Theatre is already playing to standing room only crowds at Iceland Ice Rink. Recently, Johnson took a break from his skating schedule to discuss the merits of show skating and the trouble with bears on ice.

When did you learn to skate?

I started in 1968 after I watched the Olympics and I saw Peggy Flemming win. I thought it would be cool. I went to the rink where I teach skating now, and I just started doing it. Went once a week and slammed into walls. Then I started taking group lessons. I was already a junior in high school, so it was too late for me to compete. I just did it for fun.

You’ve skated all over the world?

On a dare from some friends, I applied to Holiday on Ice in Europe. I never thought anything would come of it. Then Memorial Day weekend of that year, I got a contract. I left a month later and went to Europe for seven years. I skated in Europe, South America and Asia. It was phenomenal. Then I came home and started doing shows here.

Is it common to stage full-length plays on ice?

No, that’s just something I’d always wanted to try. I just started this year with Jesus Christ Superstar. Before that, the shows were always revue-style shows with an opening number and then a blackout, then a totally different number, then a blackout. People kept suggesting I create something new, so I decided to do Jesus Christ Superstar because I love it. Everyone went, “Uh … OK?”

Putting Jesus on ice skates raised some eyebrows?

Yes. It’s like, “This does not compute.” But I did it and it was incredible. We have bleachers on the ice and we parted them for a ramp that Jesus walked up. So we had Jesus dying right in the audience. People were crying.

I don’t know anybody else who does this kind of thing. We’re not really doing a play. We don’t sing. I use music, like for Jesus I used the film soundtrack because I really like the orchestrations in it. We interpret the story through skating. It’s a totally unique thing. The skaters love it because they get to act the mood of the story from beginning to end.

In August, we did West Side Story on ice. People went nuts for it. Of course, it was another tragedy ending—but the rumbles and the fighting and the murder and the love story! It was great!

What are the challenges of theater in an ice rink?

What aren’t the challenges! Finding skaters that can do it.

Do you have a troupe or do you hold auditions?

I have a group of kids who have been skating with me, some of them for almost 20 years. They’re really good. They can do the choreography I create. I sometimes have friends come from out of town. I have a really good group and I’m always bringing new ones in.

My big dream is to have a nightclub with an ice floor in it. Do shows every night and during the day, have a show skating school where people can learn to be a show skater and go out in the world to do that. When they get good enough from there, they can go into the shows at night. So it’s a self-sustaining idea geared toward performance skating.

Why only performance skating?

That’s what I love—show skating. I’m not into the competitive skating because how many kids are going to go to the Olympics? It’s a great dream to have, but I like to tell kids there’s another option. When I was a show skater for Holiday on Ice, I went to 29 countries around the world and I got paid to do it. There’s nothing like standing on the ice and having the lights come up. So I like to be able to give that idea to the kids now.

So what you see on the Olympics isn’t all there is?

To me, figure skating is an art. To many people, it’s a sport. Right now, it’s really big to see how many times a skater can jump in the air and twirl, but what about all the stuff in between? I don’t buy into that, though. I call those tricks. When I skated with Holiday on Ice, they had bears on skates and the bears did tricks. And they shit orangey shit all over the ice. It was repulsive. I’ve skated with bears, dogs, chimps and donkeys.

I had no idea those animals could skate.

Well, the donkeys weren’t on skates. Everything else was.

What’s next for Sacramento Ice Theatre?

We’re going to revive Jesus Christ Superstar in March on Easter weekend. Next August, we’re doing a salute to America. We’re going to have Native American numbers and Japanese-American numbers and traditional, patriotic music and swing music and a rock ‘n’ roll history number. I really want to do Evita, but that will have to be the next year. Then it’ll be whatever draws my fancy.