Polar Palace

A brief history of lost California ice rinks

Polar Palace's huge ice surface c. 1960

Polar Palace exterior

Polar Palace began its life in 1928 as Glacier Palace, a huge barn of a wooden structure at at 613 N. Van Ness Avenue between Melrose Avenue and Clinton Street. The first story about the proposed rink appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 24, 1925, and announced a 100' x 220' foot rink would be built on land leased by L. H. Freeman, C. E. Hopkins and W. H. Lee. A small studio rink adjoining was also planned, to be 25' x 40', for lessons and club use. The proposed building was to be called Glacier Palace. The building was to be 160' by 275', would hold 6500 spectators without any posts or obstructions [since there definitely were posts, it would seem this configuration was unworkable], and it was to be run by the man responsible for the Palais de Glace, C.E. Hopkins. It would also create a venue for professional ice hockey. Since the Palais rink had only opened in February, it does seem that another rink only a few miles away would have been an unusual, if not foolhardy, venture but so it was.

The rink would be renamed the Winter Garden some years later.

On September 23, 1934, it reopened as the Polar Palace, and was promised to be "the finest ice rink ever to be offered fans in this section," said Jim Tuthill, president of the Inter-City Ice Hockey League, which would play at the arena. The hockey teams had been without proper ice since a fire early in the month, which destroyed the Palais de Glace at Melrose and Vermont. The Los Angeles Junior College hockey team would also play at Polar Palace. The Tropical Ice Gardens in Westwood, a vast outdoor arena, built in 1938 (burned during demolition in 1950) had ice shows, public skating and, since it adjoined UCLA, was home to Bruin hockey.

The Ice Follies (a "gigantic figure skating carnival") used the rink for its traveling show for the first time beginning May 14, 1938, for a two-week engagement. General manager for the show at the time was Edward Mahlke. The show had a cast of 50 and featured "Sweetheart of the Ice" Bess Ehrhardt and Roy Shipstad ("The Human Top"). Other featured performers included "Mack" McGowan, Idl Papez and Karl Zwack, European pair champions, Harris Legg and Ruby and Bobby Maxon.

Soon after, Ice Follies (home base: Winterland, San Francisco) and Ice Capades (home base: Atlantic City until corporate headquarters was established on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood) moved their shows from Polar to the much larger Pan Pacific Auditorium, through the 1961 season. At that time, the shows both moved to the new Los Angeles Sports Arena downtown.

Polar hosted numerous championships over the years, including the Los Angeles Figure Skating Championships, Southwest Pacific championships, the Pacific Coast championships and "Nationals," the U.S. championships. It also hosted an event no longer on the schedule, the North American championships--held between the U.S. and Canada.

It was remodeled in 1960. The forest murals at each end were plastered over and the old hanging lights were replaced by fluorescents (see photo at top). Other than occasional repair of the interlocking rubber matting, little was done to the rink after that. At the time, there were only three full sized southern California ice rinks: Polar, Pasadena Winter Garden and Paramount Iceland. Only the last one is still in operation.

THE FIRE -- MAY 16, 1963

In a tragic end which befell most of the wooden ice rinks in the country, Polar Palace caught fire on May 16, 1963 and burned to the ground. The fire started in old wiring in the coffee shop at about 3 a.m., and spread quickly. One of the guards who lived across the street called many of the regular skaters, who rushed to watch her burn. The Pacific Coast Regional Championships were to have been held at Polar Palace in the winter of that year. After the fire, there was no ice rink in Southern California that had enough seating to be used for large competitions, and they were subsequently held at arenas in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The Los Angeles Times reported on May 17, 1963:

Polar Palace, Landmark of L.A. Ice Shows, Burns

Fireman Hurt Battling Early Morning Blaze at Rink Where Champions Started

Fire roared through the old Polar Palace shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday, leaving the 35-year-old Hollywood landmark, the schooling rink of many skating champions, in ruins.

The three-alarm fire raged for an hour and a half before it was brought under control. Nearby buildings were threatened, and blazes flared up briefly at Producers Studio, west of the Palace.

Fireman Robert Cullen, 40, of 14013 Gillmore St., Van Nuys, was treated for smoke inhalation. Ninety fireman from 15 companies fought the blaze.

Source of Blaze: The fire started in the coffee shop, said Forrest Murray, one of the trustees of the Clune Memorial Trust, owner of the half-million dollar property at 613 N. Van Ness Ave.

Hundreds of nearby residents, clad in nightclothes and bathrobes, watched the spectacular fire while others sprayed hoses over roofs to prevent its spread.

The Palace, a 300-by-400-ft. wood structure, was built in 1928. In 1938, the Ice Follies was staged in Los Angeles for the first time there.

SONJA HENIE SHOWS--It was at the Polar Palace that Sonja Henie first staged ice shows. Both Cathy Machado, star of Ice Capades, and Richard Dwyer, Ice Follies star, got their starts in the Palace.

Murray said extensive remodeling work had been recently completed.

Pacific skating championships were to have been held there at the end of this year.

Murray said he would discuss with other trustees whether to rebuild the rink.

The roof collapses
The roof collapses as the fire department begins pouring water on the structure

ONLY RUINS REMAIN--Entrance and box office of Hollywood
Polar Palace are still burning after walls cave in on each side
of the Hollywood landmark since 1920s. The ice rink was a total loss.

The box office is nearly gone as the structure collapses on itself.

The property was owned by the Clune Memorial Trust, part of a parcel of 40 acres bought in 1915 by motion picture pioneer William H. Clune. Clune was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1862. He came to Los Angeles in 1887 and began with a pushcart on Main Street. He eventually built one of the first Los Angeles nickelodeons. His success and faith in director D.W. Griffith got him involved in Birth of a Nation, which held its world premiere at his Clune's Auditorium (later the Philharmonic Auditorium on Olive and 5th Street, home for years of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra and the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera). Clune also had motion picture palaces on Broadway between 5th and 6th, in Pasadena, Santa Ana and San Diego.

Clune built one of the first soundstages in Los Angeles and produced a film of the play about California, Ramona, and it was the first motion picture to bear the legend, "Made in Los Angeles." The forty-acre property was later occupied by United Artists, followed by Columbia Pictures, Inspiration Pictures, Lillian & Dorothy Gish Productions, among others, as well as, of course, Polar Palace.

There were rumors around the rink in the 1950s that Polar's ice surface was built for Sonja Henie, and was originally part of the adjoining motion picture lot, but it wasn't true. Fox built Sonja her own rink on its home lot on Pico Boulevard.

William Clune died in his apartment at the Los Angeles Athletic Club on October 21, 1927 at the age of 65. The Los Angeles Times reported that Clune left his considerable fortune to his son J. W. Clune. He was also survived by a sister, Mary. Presumably, this fortune formed the basis of the Clune Memorial Trust, which still owned the land when Polar Palace burned in 1963. Because of permafrost, which extended 40 feet into the ground (Polar Palace never melted down its ice in the summer, as the Palais de Glace and most eastern rinks did), the site was unbuildable for many years and held Walter Allen Plant Rentals, a greens service for the Hollywood studios. It now houses Raleigh Studios.

See Joe Nix's site of Bygone Rinks of Southern California for a wide selection of skaters' personal memories of this wonderful ice rink. See a history of Hollywood Professional School, where many of the Polar Palace skaters went to classes.

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