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Duluth woman fondly recalls skating for Ice Follies

In 1946, Barbara Brown was a senior in high school when she decided to go to Minneapolis for an audition.

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Barbara Brown, accompanied by her son, Mark, receives roses from former Olympian, Canadian and world champion figure skater Kurt Browning, during the "Stars on Ice" show at Amsoil Arena on Dec. 19, 2021. Brown learned to skate at the original Duluth Curling Club and toured with the Ice Follies for two years in the 1940s. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH -- In 1946, 18-year-old Barbara “Bardie” Pokorney Brown embarked on an adventure of a lifetime when she jumped on a train to San Francisco to become an ice dancer in the “Ice Follies.”

It was "quite the experience" for a young woman, she said.

Brown grew up within walking distance of the original Duluth Curling Club.

“I came from a family of skaters. My brothers played hockey and my sister skated,” Brown said. “The curling club was almost like our babysitter and that’s where we spent all our time.”

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The Western Union telegraph asking Barbara Pokorney Brown to join the Ice Follies in San Francisco. Contributed / Barbara Brown

Brown decided to try out to be an Ice Follies skater because her oldest sister was one and traveled all over the country.

“I thought that sounded pretty fun,” Brown said.

Brown was a senior in high school when she decided to go to Minneapolis and audition. As soon as she graduated, Brown got her instructions in a telegram to join the show, so she hopped on a train from Duluth to Minneapolis and met up with several other young skaters. From there, they all traveled by train to San Francisco.

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Barbara Brown stands behind the train the Ice Follies used while touring the U.S. and Canada. Contributed / Barbara Brown

They spent three months in San Francisco practicing and rehearsing for the new show, which would start in September. There were about 150 people in the production and Brown said they had their own private train when they started to travel for shows.

“There were chaperones and the boys and the girls had separate sleeping quarters,” Brown said.

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The show traveled all over the United States and Canada. The grand opening of the 1946 show was in Los Angeles. From there, they went to Portland, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Toronto and more. It ended in Minneapolis.

“That was my life for two years and it was just a fun, wonderful time and I never regret it,” Brown said. “To this day, I still remember all the faces. I met so many wonderful people.”

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Barbara Brown in the Ice Follies during the late 1940s. Contributed / Barbara Brown

Brown and the rest of the Ice Follies skaters from those late 1940s shows would hold reunions every so often, and at age 93, she believes she’s the only one still alive. Her best friend from those days, also named Barbara, died a few years ago. The last reunion was in 2006.

Brown’s son, Mark Brown, recently noticed on social media that the “Star on Ice” show was coming to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, so as a birthday present, he decided to buy tickets. He said he knew his mother was a professional figure skater when he was young, so he thought it would be great if he could get her into the dressing room to meet the stars.

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Barbara “Bardie” Pokorney Brown in March 1944, three years before joining the Ice Follies. Contributed / Barbara Brown

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“I remembered my friend, Sue Ellen Moore, worked there … so after I bought my tickets, they transferred me to Sue Ellen and I told her my mother’s story,” He said.

He said he was put in contact with Lucie Amundsen, communications director at the DECC, and it snowballed from there.

On Dec. 19, Barbara Brown and her whole family were given the Champions Lodge at Amsoil Arena for "Stars on Ice." She was honored at the show and figure skating star Kurt Browning skated up to her on one knee with a bouquet of roses and a hug. She said she was in awe.

“Some of those jumps you see today were unheard of or not even invented when I was skating,” Barbara Brown said. “We did a lot of fancy footwork, I guess is what you would call it. There was only one big jump back then, which was a single axle.”

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Barbara Brown, second from left, watches the “Stars on Ice” show from Amsoil Arena’s Champions Lodge with her sister, Mary Lou Crain, daughter, Nanette Brown, and nearly 30 other members of her extended family Dec. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Barbara Brown made sure to teach her children and grandchildren how to skate because “that’s just what you do around here in the winter.” She said there’s just nothing like skating outside in Minnesota.

Mark Brown said he remembers his mother dropping them off at Lester Park Elementary when he was a kid. Once they were inside, she would put on her custom skates from the Ice Follies and skate on the rink outside the school all by herself.

“We could look out the school window and see her doing her spins and it was really a charming childhood memory,” Mark Brown said. “She was like this ice ballerina out there spinning around on the rink all by herself after she dropped us off at school.”

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Skaters in the “Stars on Ice” show signed a card to Barbara Brown on Dec. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Barbara said she unfortunately no longer has the skates. They met an unfortunate end in the trunk of her car when some batteries exploded from the cold, burning the leather and damaging the blades.

She'll always remember her days with the Ice Follies, and now, after hearing all of her stories, her family will remember, too, Mark Brown said.

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Kurt Browning brings flowers to Barbara Brown during the “Stars on Ice” show at Amsoil Arena on Dec. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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