There are many places in the Chicago area where a child can learn to ice skate today: ice arenas, the park district, even backyard rinks.
But a few decades ago, ice skating was reserved for the most privileged of people who could afford to pay for ice time at clubs and private lessons.
In the 1950s, Kirby, a Canadian national champion ice skater and member of the touring Ice Follies group, was lured to the Windy City by Sonja Henie, his well-known skating partner, and Arthur Wirtz, who owned the Chicago Stadium, where Henie's ice shows were a local favorite. After working with some of the world's best ice skaters, Kirby decided it was time to give average people a chance.
"He just wanted to make it available to everybody," said Tricia Shafer, Kirby's daughter.
He opened his first ice skating studio in River Forest, in a former garage near Lake Street and Harlem Avenue. At the time, there were fewer than 100 artificially refrigerated ice rinks across the country -- but that was about to change.
In the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., the Americans won the gold medal in hockey and Carol Heiss won the gold in women's freestyle figure skating, and all of it was televised for the first time. Soon, children across the country were begging their parents for hockey and skating lessons.
"It was kind of like you hit the trifecta there," said Peter Martell, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute in Plano, Texas. "There was a huge explosion in interest in winter sports."
Kirby's skating schools happily accepted the interest, and within several years, there were bustling ice studios operating in Park Ridge, at 79th Street and Loomis Avenue in Chicago, in downtown Chicago, Carpentersville, Dolton and Westmont in addition to River Forest.
Many skaters who went on to compete nationally got their start at Kirby's Chicago-area skating studios, Martell said.
By the early 1970s, Kirby and his wife, Norah -- also a Canadian ice skating champion -- had eight children, the oldest of whom worked alongside them teaching skating. Then he got an offer from Ice Capades, a company that both produced ice skating shows and developed ice skating centers. Leaders wanted to hire him to bring ice rinks like his Chicago-area studios to cities across the country.
While he loved the Chicago area, Kirby couldn't turn down the opportunity.
"It was kind of bittersweet because he really was looking forward to being able to do what he did in Chicago with Ice Capades," Shafer said.
Kirby left Chicago about 1972, and went on to help Ice Capades build as many as 40 rinks around the world, including one in Saudi Arabia.
Kirby was also instrumental in starting the Ice Skating Institute, which offers guidance to ice rink operators across the globe. He was the organization's first president. Today, there are an estimated 1,900 artificially refrigerated ice rinks across the country, Martell said.
Though most of Kirby's ice studios closed by 1975, there were other outlets -- from ice rinks to park district programs -- where children and adults could learn to glide across the ice, thanks to his pioneering.
Kirby retired at age 65 and spent the last decade of his life sailing and traveling with his wife. He died in 2002, and family members said he always held dear his contribution to Chicago's ice skating past.
"I think he always felt just very proud of what he started," Shafer said. "It became this huge, big thing, and it just started in a tiny studio rink in River Forest."
"What Ever Happened To ..." runs Fridays in the West Chicagoland Extra. If you have a fond memory from the area that you would like reported and updated, send it to Vikki Ortiz Healy at email@example.com. Read past columns at chicagotribune.com/vikki.
What ever happened to Michael J.R. Kirby?
Chicago-area rinkmaster made ice skating available to all
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