Swiss Ice Skating Virtuosos
Some of the most talented performers in history—artists, athletes, and musicians, for example—fail to get the sort of acclaim they might deserve because the nature their acts is lighthearted or funny. Such was the case with the Swiss ice skaters stage-named Frick and Frack. These men were among the most skillful skating duos of the 20th century, and their names have become an idiom for two close or inseparable friends—and yet many people have no idea who they were.
Hans Mauch and Werner Groebli were from the town of Basel, in Switzerland. Best friends, the boys grew up skating, even sharing a pair of skates at one time. The lads were amazing, showing innate talent and putting in long hours to perfect their abilities. As teenagers, the two friends' skills stunned neighbours and locals at fairs and ice rinks, and they were encouraged to take their act on the road. They became a featured attraction of Shipstads and Johnson's Ice Follies in 1939.
The two young men (Groebli was oldest, only 21 when they joined the Follies) wanted catchy stage names, they also wanted a touch of anonymity—"circus performer" was not on either family's wish list for their lad's careers. They initially called themselves Zig and Zag, but changed it soon thereafter. Mr. Groebli took the name Frick—from a town near where the pair grew up. Frack was a slang term for a frock coat, and the names went together as well as the young friends' madcap ice skating antics.
Frick and Frack skated into the world scene at the perfect time—skaters like Sonja Henie had captured the imagination of people everywhere and a wave of ice skating mania was going around. Their acclaim grew as motion pictures (and later television) allowed audiences worldwide to delight in the comical and breathtaking feats of the young men.
Dubbed "the Clown Kings of the ice", by Life magazine, they were stunningly talented acrobats, performing demanding and daring stunts—several of which have scarcely ever been replicated. Their act combined a tremendous level of innate talent with exhaustive rehearsal. Mr. Groebli said that he always felt that Mr. Mauch was the more naturally talented skater, so he compensated with constant training. Countless skaters number Frick and Frack as a major influence, and they have frequently been cited as two of the best skaters in history.
They were also great showmen, choreographing and performing hilarious routines and cunning stunts with Buster Keaton-like precision. They danced, clowned, capered, and spoofed ballet and traditional ice skating forms (to the slight annoyance of some purists). The duo wore traditional alpine outfits as their stage costumes, an eccentric and memorable touch. Many of their tricks seemed to defy physics—Frick would skate, nearly lying down on the ice, as he sped along, he would pantomime pulling himself up by an invisible hook, hand over hand until he was in a standing position. Another stunner was Frack's so-called 'Rubber Legs' routine, where he would bend and flex his wide spread legs crazily, giving an uncanny impression of a skater made of rubber.
The duo had a long run, but Frack retired in 1953, after contracting a degenerative disease. Frick kept on skating for quite a few years, and the two remained close for the rest of their lives. Their names have come down to us as an idiom for two close friends, like a somewhat less classical version of Damon and Pythias. The idiom can also mean "a couple of fools"—which seems appropriate for the clown kings of the ice.
Many people who have heard the expression "Frick and Frack" probably don't know who these men were or realize the mark they made in the history of ice skating. But for a couple of small town boys who never had any formal training, Frick and Frack made quite a name for themselves.
"The Virtuoso Skater who was Half of Frick and Frack" The Week, Obituaries, May 9, 2008.
Bernstein, Adam, "Werner Groebli, 92; Skated In 'Frick and Frack' Duo" The Washington Post, April 23, 2008.