A gentleman called the house last week asking to speak to me. Since I was out, my husband began chatting with the caller, and once again, as has so many times before, something magic happened related to my books.
This man had discovered “River of January: Figure Eight,” through a series of clicks on social media, and found enough information to phone our home. He had hoped to gather more about the professional Ice Shows at Center Theater during the war in New York. The reason he asked was that his aunt had skated in the productions, (created by Sonja Henie, and choreographed by ballet mistress, Catherine Littlefield) and that his aunt was still living!
On Sunday night, following my own conversation with the nephew, I had the honor of speaking to Gertrude, “Trudy” Schneider, now a young 93 years old. This grand lady, residing in Canada, apologized that she had only known Helen Thompson, my central character in the memoir, from the theater dressing room. Though Trudy skated evenings with Helen, she attended school during the day, as she was only sixteen years old. That made sense since Helen was close to thirty when she began the show, and a mother by that time.
Trudy further detailed her life story, adding that she and her family, with relatives already in America, came to the country from Vienna in 1939. Under Nazi occupation, Austria was not a safe place for Jews any longer, and so she, her parents, and one brother made their way to the US. A skater since childhood, she had been ‘discovered’ skating at Madison Square Garden, and promptly signed by the Center Theater front office. Her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter working, but according to her nephew, Trudy earned $45.00 a week, making her income vital.
I also found out that one of my favorite character’s in “Figure Eight,” Vera Hruba, a Czech skater, advised Trudy to always remember her false eyelashes. According to Hruba that was all a girl needed.
As our conversation progressed she seemed to recall more details about her experience at the theater, including how a typical rehearsal transpired. Catherine Littlefield, the choreographer mentioned above, would climb to the top tier of the fourth balcony and critique the final run-through from her lofty perch. Trudy implied an aura of imperial omnipotence in Miss Littlefield’s seating choice, judging the performance from on high.
Conversing with Trudy felt like time travel; that I had reached back and touched 1943 New York. When I find this book business overwhelming–when I wonder why I bothered to take on the project, a “Trudy” moment presents itself.
Then I remember.
Helen Thompson (Chumbley) first girl on right, Trudy Schneider, second girl from right.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.