A Brief History of the Ice Chalet
Generations of Knoxvillians have fond memories of the Ice Chalet as their after-school playground, a place to learn skating and hockey, and a Friday night social center. The familiar refrains of Tijuana Brass and "The Candy Man" still seem to linger in the air, but it's a trick of the mind. The Friday night "couple skate" sessions were a crowd favorite, and the flashing mirror ball itself is still in place. New generations of students continue to find a second home in this comfortable setting.The Ice Chalet was built in 1962 by a corporation known as "Chalet Ice Rinks, Inc." The primary investors were Chambliss Pierce, Harkness Construction Co., Pilot Oil Corp., and Brownlee Kesterson Construction Co.. It was one of the first two skating rinks in the South with regularly scheduled hours for public skating.
In 1963, a professional ice skater and star of "Holiday On Ice" named Robert Unger moved to Knoxville and established the Robert Unger School of Ice Skating here as well as in Huntsville, Alabama.
Note: The skating school's logo is an artistic rendition of Robert Unger's trademark fedora. It was designed c. 1996 by Patty Googe, whose family skated as a part of the school for several years. And just in case you hadn't figured it out for yourself, the German phrase "Schule für Eiskunstlaufen" literally means "School for Ice Skating."
The Icettes, an early Ice Chalet precision team, c. 1967
The first few years of operation were a struggle financially. However, in 1964, Unger became the General Manager and Vice President of Chalet Ice Rinks, Inc., and over the next ten years he was instrumental in developing the skating rink into a highly successful enterprise. In 1969, the Ice Chalet hosted one of the first skating competitions endorsed by the Ice Skating Institute of America (ISIA, now ISI), known as the Mississippi Valley District Invitational Team Competition (MVDC).
Larry LaBorde and pairs partner during the 1970s
A 1970s era precision team from the Ice Chalet
The MVDC has been held annually ever since, regularly attracting teams from all over the eastern United States, and it is the oldest continually running competition of this kind in the world.. In 1977, the MVDC became the first international ISIA (now ISI) figure skating competition. The name of the competition was changed to the Robert Unger ISI Competition shortly after Mr. Unger's passing.
Precision (now "synchronized") teams have had a long and distinguished history at the Ice Chalet
Students in the Robert Unger School of Ice Skating participate in a parade on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville
In 1971, the Robert Unger team participated for the first time in the Mid-Atlantic District Competition in Lake Placid, New York, and they won first place. They repeated the victory in 1972 and again in 1973. The expense of out-of-town competitions led to the creation of Robert Unger Moms and PopS (RUMPS) in 1985. RUMPS is an organization of skaters and parents that helps raise travel and costume funds for the skaters. RUMPS' founder is Pat Kington.
Beverly Horner is in focus while a large group of skaters practice their freestyle moves for an upcoming competition.
The fireplace in the lobby, depicted here during the '70s,
has always been a popular gathering place.
Starting sometime in the mid-1960s, the instructors at the Ice Chalet introduced ice skating and hockey into the curriculum of The University of Tennessee. UT was the only university in the South offering skating classes at that time.
In 1983, another landmark event in recreational figure skating was achieved by a Knoxville skater. Jon Robinson, a student of the Robert Unger School, became the first male skater in the world to compete at the Ice Skating Institute's highest level, Freestyle 10.
The Ice Chalet had presented special shows every
year since the skating school began, including Swan Lake and other musical
productions. In 1987, students in the Robert Unger School first performed
Nutcracker On Ice, and it has played to enthusiastic audiences each Christmas
ever since. Many skaters have grown from one role to another, year after year,
as they progressed in the skating school.
In 2016, the name of the school was changed to The Robert Unger and Larry LaBorde School of Ice Skating.
The Facility & Equipment
Kennedy with student Paige Greer
- Larry LaBorde, who began helping out at the Ice Chalet at age 11 in 1967 and eventually became the Manager and Vice President,
- Laurie (Davis) Valiga, skating school director for many years,
- Faye Rankin, Mr. Unger's first secretary and a skating student,
- Laura (Bennett) Kennedy, longtime instructor,
- Martha Freer, another longtime instructor,
- Dan Baird, who took over for Chambliss Pierce when he retired.
- ... and many more!