This Dorothy's Ruby Ice Skates Take Her Far From Kansas
I've always loved being at an ice rink on the night of a performance. As the lights dim in the frigid building, a hush falls on the audience.
A solo skater glides out into the center of the ice and makes a slow curtsy in the pool of light. Then the music begins. The skater jumps and spins and flows, her shimmering dress flaring out and clinging as she moves.
I get entranced. How glamorous and romantic to be out there on the ice with everyone watching.
But did you ever wonder what happens to that dancer when the lights go up and everyone heads home?
Jeri Campbell, who plays Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz on Ice," is just such a skater. And the one thing she can't do after a performance is go home to her own bed at night. Almost every week she's in a different city, performing in front of thousands of new people day after day. So for most of the year, her home is two suitcases and a hotel room.
All the other performers in the show - the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, the tin woodman, the wicked witch of the west, even the wizard of Oz himself - live in the same hotel, so "the cast becomes like family," Jeri tells me, shortly before her performance at a rink in Providence, R.I.
Jeri loves the traveling, meeting new people, and seeing new cities, even if "sometimes you just want to have a closet, your own home, your own kitchen," she says. But that's part of show life. "If you're going to do a tour," she says, "you know what you're signing up for."
So what's it really like behind the scenes of a big show?
Jeri's workday starts about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. That's when she goes to the rink to warm up for 45 minutes and run through her jumps, spins, lay backs - all her show moves. This is not a practice session, though. "Once a show is on the road," she says, "there really isn't a lot of extra time to expand your skating." This is just to make sure the body is warm.
Then she starts the long preparation process. Her understudy braids Jeri's hair to make her look like Dorothy. Jeri applies her stage makeup and last of all puts on her costume, a blue gingham dress and white blouse. Then she goes to pet the dog that will be playing Toto that night, to get him accustomed to her. Finally, half an hour before the show, she puts on her skates, stretches some more and makes her entrance on the ice, where she will be for almost the whole two hours of the show.
One of the characters that she spends a good deal of time with off the ice is her faithful dog, Toto.
The audience only sees one dog, but there are actually four or five canines being rotated for the part. And Jeri has to have "bonding time" with each one so they will follow her around on the ice.
"Sometimes they'll come to my room. They'll get used to my scent. Maybe I'll play with them or feed them. They need to get used to one person giving them affection and love."
But not every dog is cut out for the part. "In the last two months we've probably had five different dogs," Jeri says. "You'll find one dog that will work great, but he'll be so afraid of the lights he won't do the show. And then you'll find one dog that's very calm and it doesn't seem like he's going to be a very good show dog, and then all of a sudden - lights, camera, action - he's great."
The almost 50-strong cast of "The Wizard of Oz on Ice" came together last July and in six weeks, working eight hours a day, learned all the dialogue and choreography for the show.
"It's a short amount of time, and everything is thrown together really fast," Jeri explains. "So the first couple of weeks on the road are still kind of like rehearsing for the real show."
Jeri has done ice shows before, but this is the hardest one, she says, because it is the most demanding physically and the first one with acting and dialogue.
Unlike an ice-skating show, where the lead skater does a few solos, a few group numbers, and a finale, and is rarely on the ice more than half an hour, "This is like doing a two-hour live movie every day," Jeri says.
Each night she performs the same part, speaking the words in sync with the pre-recorded Dorothy voice, which comes out of the loud speakers. And the more shows she does, the more she finds her rhythm.
So what's it like doing the same routine every day, sometimes twice a day, if there's a matinee performance?
Not boring, Jeri says, but physically tiring. "I find myself getting tired a lot because Dorothy is on the ice for so long. That is my biggest concern, making sure I have enough rest.
"Some days do get monotonous, though," she concedes. "But you have to remember, different people are coming to each show you do, and for them it's their first time.... And the smiling faces of the kids - that's probably the best part of the show, watching the little kids jump up and down and have such a good time."
Jeri was just a little kid herself when she started skating. She tried out her first skates at age 5 on an ice-hockey rink her brothers created in their backyard. She was competing at 8. "I spent a lot more time in the rink than I did at school." In ninth grade she stopped going to school and studied at home - but not enough, she says regretfully. "It is very easy to get lazy when you do home study."
But skating is like any sport, Jeri adds, "It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. And there are very few that really make it to become the Oksana Baiuls or Kristi Yamaguchis."
And then, of course, there's the less glamorous side to it all. "Whenever you're in a cold ice rink, your nose has a tendency to run," she confides. "So skaters have a problem with runny noses all the time. Even though you look pretty and you're doing all this glamorous stuff out there on the ice, you're worrying about 'Is my nose running? Do I look alright? I'm all sweaty.' "
So what happens when the ice show ends in April? Jeri will probably continue with the show for a second national tour, which starts in September. In the meantime, she may go back to teaching and doing choreography, something she likes to do in her spare time.
"It's much more relaxing teaching," Jeri confides. "You're watching someone else do what I'd be doing now. I enjoy being on that other side, too."
"The Wizard of Oz on Ice" is in Anaheim, Calif., until March 24. Then it goes to Long Beach, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, Nev.