By Steve Starr
Bathing in mink and enormous diamonds, the tiny blonde queen of ice and celluloid, who was the highest paid woman in film, always demanded to be treated as a star, which she was.
Sonja Henie was born the daughter of a furrier, Wilhelm, and his wife Selma, April 8, 1912, in Kristiania, now Oslo, Norway. She learned to dance at four, and began ice-skating at five. At eleven, Sonja won the Figure Skating Championship of Norway, while wearing a flowing skirt designed by her mother, which at the time was considered risque. At thirteen, Sonja earned second place in the World Championships, and at fourteen she won the World Title, which she held on to for ten consecutive years.
Henie studied ballet and became known as the “Pavlova of the Ice” while she introduced new styles of dress, showmanship and dance that are today considered standard. Her elegant costumes, all designed by Selma Henie, and envied and copied by her peers and competitors around the world, got shorter and shorter. With her constant winning smile, her glamorous attire, and little white skating boots that later became a classic, Henie executed leaps on the ice previously performed only by men, and popularized a sport that was at one time considered boring and mundane.
Henie broke records and won gold medals in the Olympic Games of 1928, 1932, and 1936. During the 1936 Games, she raised her arm to Germany’s Fuhrer, shouting “Heil Hitler,” and a friendship between them ensued. That same year, while criticized for frolicking with Nazis, Henie was still loved and admired by her fans.
Deciding to turn professional, tiny, five-foot-three, blonde Henie made her way to Hollywood where she undertook exhaustive beauty treatments to make her more appealing as the movie star she intended to be. Studio executives wanted to see the famed skater in movies, but they felt her asking price was outrageous. Sonja demanded that she be paid $75,000 to appear in a film, a fortune at that time, and insisted it be written specifically for her talents.
The studio balked at first. To prove her worth to them, Henie rented an ice rink and produced and starred in her own Hollywood Ice Revue, an enormously successful show, selling out to standing-room-only crowds, which with the backing of financier, director, producer, and owner of the Chicago Stadium Arthur Wirtz, continued to produce every year through 1950.
Soon, Henie made the first of her eleven films for 20th Century Fox, One In A Million (1937), alongside stars Don Ameche and Adolph Menjou. The successful movie led to her starring with Tyrone Power in Thin Ice that same year. Her films all capitalized on her marvelous and spectacular skating talent, and the stories usually took place at winter lodges with countless handsome men chasing her between elaborately staged skating numbers. Henie’s movie ice rinks were covered with a special type of freezable paint in order to hide refrigerator pipes. In Sun Valley Serenade (1941), the climax was a musical ballet number performed by Henieand a huge ensemble upon a stage of ice dyed vivid black.
On the very last day of filming, Henie fell and was covered in black dye. Instead of re-shooting the sequence, the director decided on a sudden, ludicrous cut to Henie happily skiing down a Sun Valley slope with costar John Payne.
Sonja Henie’s beautiful beaded, velvet, satin, feathered and fur-trimmed costumes became more fantastic each year, and she was one of the biggest box-office draws in America. One of Henie’s’s dramatic entrances to the ice in her Ice Follies show in Chicago had her in a nine-foot jeweled-collar cape covered in a hundred huge, real foxtails ranging from white to pale blue to purple.
With keen business sense, Henie demanded revisions in her contract, and became the highest-paid star in the movie capital. However, her novelty began wearing off. After her film Wintertime (1941), and the advent of World War II, Fox dropped her contract. Published photos of Henie’s 1936 embrace with Hitler did not help her film popularity. After a few unsuccessful movies with other studios, Henie concentrated on skating in her scintillating ice revues, bringing even more costumed glamour to her audiences. She made a fortune.
Henie’s other films include Happy Landing (1939), My Lucky Star (1939), Second Fiddle (1941), Everything Happens At Night (1941), and Iceland (1943).
In 1969, costumes and set pieces used in Henie’s shows, including original programs and photos which were stored in an Arthur Wirtz warehouse in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, went on sale to the public, and it seemed as if everyone was walking around in costumes and beads.
I personally remember seeing actress Hermione Gingold on the arm of Chicago’s society bandleader Stanley Paul as they walked and seemed to reminisce through the large maze of bygone glamour which embraced hand-tailored red velvet skating suits trimmed in mink, jeweled headpieces, feather hats, silver skating boots, sequined vests, beaded gloves, and Henie’s spectacular foxtail cape which hung as a display piece at Christmas in the window of Steve Starr Studios.
Later that year, when she died of leukemia October 12, 1969, on a plane from Paris to her native Oslo, Sonja Henie was one of the ten wealthiest women in the world.
THE GREAT MOVIE STARS by David Shipman
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GLAMOROUS MUSICALS by Ronald Bergan
THEY HAD FACES THEN by John Springer and Jack D. Hamilton
SONJA HENIE Websites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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