Mabel Fairbanks in the California Eagle, Nov. 8, 1945.
Knockout African American ice skater Mabel Fairbanks wowed audiences from the 1940s through the 1960s. A true natural, she exuded joy and happiness twirling and gliding upon the ice. While extremely talented, Fairbanks was never able to develop her talents to the fullest because of prejudices of the period that prevented her from belonging to skating clubs, trying out for the United States Olympics team, or performing in major ice shows.
Fairbanks was born November 14, 1923, (per Social Security Records) in Jacksonville Florida, to a large family that struggled. By the age of eight, she was an orphan, losing her African American father and her Native American mother. Fairbanks endured racism and poverty in Florida before following an older sister to New York City in 1939 and taking a business course.
Fairbanks fell in love with ice skating after watching Sonja Henie skim across the ice in a movie, later telling the Detroit Tribune in 1944 that it inspired her to want to “skate more than anything else in the world.” She spent time watching skaters in Central Park before purchasing a pair of used skates for $1.25, teaching herself the sport on a small frozen pond in Harlem. Lewis Clark, friendly manager at the Gay Blades Ice Rink allowed Fairbanks to skate the last 30 minutes of the night after seeing her patient, smiling face, and she spent her time practicing spirals, spins, and jumps.
Catching the eye of nine-time United States Champion Maribel Vinson Owen with her athleticism and grace, Fairbanks received free tips and suggestions from the veteran skater on improving her skills. Unable to compete or participate in major ice shows because of her race, Fairbanks created her own show at the suggestion of Owen.
A few years after learning to ice skate, Fairbanks and her uncle, with the help of the manager of the Gay Blades Ice Rink, organized an all-Black ice show called School Days in Ice on March 15, 1942. The 60-member team gave three performances on a special rink at Broadway and 52nd Street at midnight. Mabel gained the services of Wally Hunter as manager and coach, while also receiving such nicknames as “Wonder Girl of the Ice,” “Harlem’s Wonder Girl,” and “Sepia Sonja Henie.” Most of the cast quit not long after since there was no opportunity for African Americans to tour or perform on ice.
Fairbanks created special shows over the next few years, performing in places like New York’s Apollo Theatre, supper clubs, and Harlem venues, gaining fame for her amazing talents but unable at the time to join all-white shows.
By 1944, Fairbanks began touring the country skimming across the ice, wowing audiences wherever she went. The talented, charming skater graced covers of magazines like Dance Magazine and NEWSPIC as well as sports sections in newspapers. NEWSPIC reported, “On ice, Mabel makes an exciting picture. She’s gracious, graceful above all, original. She dances as she feels the mood. A born skater, she seldom ever goes by a fixed pattern of steps. She will even make up new ones as she goes along.”
Newspapers would note Fairbanks created such skills as Elevator Spin, Jump Camel Combination, Swanee Spiral, Flying Waltz Jump, Camel Combination, and Ace Dust Stop as she improvised routines. She told a reporter, “There’s something so free about skating. I never skated by any rigid pattern. As soon as my feet feel the ice, something goes on inside me and I make up all kinds of steps.”
During the 1940s, Fairbanks would go on to skate in such productions as an all-Black ice show in New York in 1945 and 1946, combination dance/skate shows like “Ice Academy” and “Icee Cafe.” She came to Hollywood in the late 1940s to appear in productions here and possibly film productions as well. While in Hollywood, Fairbanks would establish a school in 1950 to teach skating to children, including children of such celebrities as Nat “King” Cole, Otto Preminger, Dean Martin, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Fairbanks continued performing as well, touring the country and Cuba with the show Rhapsody on Ice with performers like Belita in a show produced by LeRoy and Edward Prinz, dance choreographers from Warner Bros. She also performed in an extended stay at Palm Springs with Rhythm on Ice, skated at a Festival of Stars with Harry Belafonte at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens in 1953, took part in a NAACP musical festival at the Shrine Auditorium in 1954, and in 1957 she also performed with the world’s only ice and stage show. During the same time she appeared on such television shows as KTLA’s Frosty Frolics.
Mabel Fairbanks’ marker at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, courtesy of Find a Grave.
By 1960, Fairbanks devoted herself to coaching and teaching skating at rinks in Culver City and North Hollywood. She focused not only on teaching skills but helping students develop life and character building skills. Fairbanks particularly established a fund to assist people of color take part in the sport and afford training and supplies.
Over the next several decades, many talented students worked or mentored with her, including Atoy Wilson, the first African American junior champion in 1963, Peggy Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Tiffany Chin, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Debbi Thomas.
In 1997, Fairbanks became the first African American inducted into the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame. She was posthumously inducted into the Women’s Sports Federation Hall of Fame in October 2001, after passing away in Burbank on September 29, 2001. She is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery with the epitaph, “Skatingly Yours.”
Although Fairbanks was never able to fully compete on the world’s stage or take part in major ice shows for much of her career, she left a living legacy in the many champion skaters she influenced and taught over the decades.