1949 California junior pair champion with Joyce Lockwood
1950 California senior pair champion with Joyce Lockwood
Before he went on to matinee idol success under his screen name of Tab Hunter, Art Gelien was a competitive figure skater. It is evident from his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, written with Eddie Muller, that Hunter loves skating and will always be a skater. His involvement in the sport was serious and, more than that, he thinks like a skater.
After a major success in his film career, for example, he writes, "It was time to celebrate. That meant ice-skating" (Hunter, p. 101).
In another part of his book, he describes how his skating background informed his acting background: "To understand why that night was special, I need to compare acting to ice-skating. You skate alone. Drop your shoulder too much on a landing, and you're flat on your ass. To avoid such embarrassment, a skater has only himself to rely on. I'd approached acting the same way -- in isolation" (Hunter, p. 81). Someone only peripherally part of the skating world wouldn't think to explain acting by comparing it to a technical detail about landing a jump; this one passage shows that skating got into Hunter's blood in a way that his movie star career never did.
As a young man, Hunter trained in California at the Polar Palace in Van Ness near Melrose, alongside such familiar skating names as Ice Capades choreographer Bob Turk, Bobby Specht, Catherine Machado, Richard Dwyer, and 1956 Olympic silver medalist Ronnie Robertson.
At the same time that Hunter was becoming a successful movie star, he says, "I was involved in a relationship with one of the best young figure skaters in the world, Ronnie Robertson. The way teenage girls were infatuated with me, I was infatuated with Ronnie.... If some people made snide comments behind our backs, it didn't even register on us. It didn't concern me what people, even Ronnie's family, might have been thinking. It's not like we had to deny anything -- in 1953 homosexuality was pretty much denied by the culture at large. To most folks, Ronnie and I were good buddies, sharing the ice. Few people considered what else we were sharing. Those who did wouldn't have dreamed of making comments publicly. Such things simply weren't talked about" (Hunter, pp. 76-77).
Nonetheless, the two men were able to live out a true relationship that supported Robertson's career, not only emotionally but financially: with the money that Hunter made as an idol who appealed to teenage girls, he was able to serve as Robertson's training sponsor. Financial sponsors are an indispensable part of what makes a skating champion, and for that reason if no other, the love between Hunter and Robertson deserves to be a visible and credited chapter in skating history.
In 1953, during a break in Hunter's film career, the two men drove cross-country to Lake Placid, New York so Robertson could begin training with the famed Gustave Lussi. While there, they made friends with Evelyn Muller, now Evelyn Kramer, known these days as the "Spin Doctor" for being able to pass on Lussi's spin techniques to today's students. Hunter and Robertson stayed at Mirror Lake Inn, lived together, and trained together. Hunter attended the 1955 World Championships in Vienna, where Robertson won a silver medal, and then accompanied Robertson on the post-Worlds skating tour. That was the last time the two men spent significant time together; Robertson went pro after the 1956 Olympics.
Robertson's family was kind to Hunter, he recalls, especially during a traumatic time when Hunter's mother was hospitalized for mental illness. Hunter's family wasn't as supportive; he recounts a time that his mother's best friend blackmailed him about "you and your ice-skater friend." But for skating fans, the most sadly familiar but funny detail comes when Hunter reports, "Years later, Evelyn Kramer told me there were plenty of whispers behind our backs about me and Ronnie. She maintains that a well-connected person in the U.S. Figure Skating Association said, 'Ronnie Robertson didn't have a chance at the Worlds as long as he was with Tab Hunter'" (p. 109). Fifty years can come and go in the outside world, but apparently times change much more slowly in skating.
Of course, that isn't all bad. A nearly 50-year-old photo in the book shows Hunter with Dick Button doing stag jumps in a publicity still for the film of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. Fast-forward to 2005, and Hunter thanks his "skating colleagues" before any others in his acknowledgments, including such names as Frank Carroll and Tenley Albright.
Art Gelien, aka Tab Hunter, will have us know right off the bat that he hates labels. He's not crazy about declaring himself to be a gay actor, a gay skater, or what have you. But as he said: "Better to get it from the horse's mouth, I decided, and not from some horse's ass" (Hunter, p. 353). Rainbow Ice most humbly and cheerfully thanks him for his stories, his love of the sport, and perhaps most of all, for that immortal line.
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