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In Kids & Family

Ice Chalet brought poetry in motion to Mayfair Mall


Thirty years ago, the Mayfair Ice Chalet was considered the Rockefeller Center of Wauwatosa. It had charm. It had grace. It made Mayfair Mall more than just a shopping center.

For nearly 13 years, the Mayfair Ice Chalet was, literally, the center of attention -- a tranquil diversion of pure poetry in motion amid the suburban hustle and bustle. Shoppers and skaters, alike, could pause for a moment and enjoy the splendor of artful - or not so smooth, in some cases -- movement on ice.

Adopted from a similar concept in Houston, Texas, Mayfair Mall Manager Bill Burns visualized an ice rink as an added attraction - particularly in the Milwaukee area where skating was popular. In September 1973, the Ice Chalet opened to the delight of Burns and quickly became the rage of the Midwest.

The 100-sq. ft. Ice Chalet had spectator observation areas to its north and south above the center rink. In addition, a deck was built along side the rink, again adding to the viewing pleasure of spectators.

The rink sunk below the floor-level about nine or 10 feet. Unique to the concept was that the temperature in the mall was not affected by the coldness of the ice. The air temperature around the rink was a comfortable 55 degrees. A staircase adjacent to the deck led to locker room facilities for participants to store personal belongings. Also on the lower level was the Skate Shop where apparel and equipment were sold, and novices could rent skates and sign up for instruction.

Meticulously maintained, the rink was open year-round and records showed that more than 125,000 people took advantage of the ice time, including more than 18,000 who came for lessons.

The underlying explanation for the Ice Chalet's success was its staff, headed by Dennis Ervin. Though Ervin was an administrator, he understood his workers genuine appreciate of such a fine indoor facility. Some older instructors had once performed for the Ice Follies, the Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice while many of the younger ones trained for National, World and Olympic competition.

"The ice chalet was classy. It was color. It was movement. It was laughter," says Ervin, the facilities only director of operations. "It was father's holding hands with their daughters. It was mother's holding hands with their sons. It was so positive."

But the true purpose for the rink was to draw shoppers and to their experience satisfying. That it did.

"It was visualized as a grand baby sitting service," Ervin says. "Young parents could bring children in, let them skate, listen to the music while they shopped. That's exactly what it became. And it worked."

As the mall evolved, so did the rink, taking on a life of its own. Soon, competitive skaters tried to maximize ice time.

"Remember there weren't too many indoor facilities like this in the area," Ervin points out. "Back in those days, competitive skaters were doing what was known as school figures, compulsory figures, tracings on the ice. That was a precursor to freestyle skating which is popular today. They are very flamboyant moves.

"Compulsory figures are like being in the library, very precise, very dull, following the tracings in the ice to make perfect circles. Initially when kids competed that would separate the division a little bit before they got to the freestyle."

Though beautiful to watch, the interest to shoppers was slowly being consumed by the action on the ice. That made mall business owners nervous.

In 1986, a new psychology surfaced. A number of studies were conducted by different organizations. Those particular to Mayfair Mall were conducted by the International Counsel of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

One of the studies showed that the average time for a shopper in a mall was decreasing. Years ago, shoppers leisurely spend most of a day at malls. According to the study, that wasn't happening anymore. People were now spending less than an hour shopping. The new Mayfair brain trust saw the Ice Chalet as competition.

Business owners and mall personnel were convinced that people were spending too much time observing the activity on the ice instead of spending money in the stores.

Furthermore, the studies suggested that clustering stores would make shopping more efficient. Merchants and mall officials spent big dollars in order to bunch, for example, women's apparel stores together. This meant moving store owners all around.

The mindset was, if the mall was going to reorganize to make shopping more efficient, why have an ice rink in the center of the facility taking up precision time from its patrons.

Others, like Ervin, argued that the rink brought people to the mall, perhaps not necessarily to only shop, but like a candy store, once in the mall, many would eventually do just that.

"There are times when shopping malls are just not busy," Ervin says. "We would have parents bringing four-and-five-year olds, who weren't in school, for lessons while the parents would shop. We also had lessons during the dinner hour. We had adult sessions on Tuesday evenings and Wednesday mornings. These were considered off-peak times and yet, we purposely scheduled these events during these times to encourage people to come to the mall."

Moreover, the Ice Chalet had sponsored skating shows usually around the holiday season to attract shoppers. It would have professional skaters performing special exhibitions during off-times to get people in the mall. There even was a time when the Variety Club charity tell-a-thon was held around the ice. That created a steady stream of traffic, too. All these maneuvers were meant to help stimulate shopping at the mall.

To no avail, the rink lost the battle and was removed in March 1986, making way for a glass elevator, open spaces and vending kiosks.

"Rinks in malls still exist in the United States," Ervin says. "The psychology still exists: Where there is a will, there is a way."

Apparently, if one travels just south of the Wisconsin border, a will has seen fit to find a way.

"Yes, that's right, there's an indoor rink at Gurnee Mills Mall," Ervin smiles. "What does Gurnee Mills know that Mayfair didn't. I guess, somebody down there had a great idea a couple of years back.

"Perhaps, if they ever decide to build a parking ramp north of Marshall Fields, for example, an ice rink could be built atop the structure. Anything is possible."

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