Thirty years ago Richard Dwyer was given a black cane—a peculiar gift for a spry 14-year-old. But he knew what to do. He put on a top hat, white tie and tails, nonchalantly twirled the walking stick, and became the longest-running figure-skating act in history. Dwyer is the Fred Astaire of American ice shows—or Mr. Debonair, as he has been billed by his employer, the Ice Follies, for three decades. Besides that solo act he waltzes, spins and soars with sequined partners, and at every performance he stops the show to present an armful of roses and a dazzling smile to some astonished lady at rinkside. He figures he's given away 12,000 bouquets, and the last one is scheduled for May 26 in Portland, Oreg. After all these years, Richard Dwyer is retiring.
He'll take along the cane, which he inherited from one of the Follies' founders, Roy Shipstad, as a memento. But he doesn't need it any more now than he did at 14. He has outlasted 11 partners and five changes in Follies' ownership (Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey is the current proprietor). "I'm not sure I'm ready to leave," he says, "but at some point the body just can't do what it once did." He'll turn 45 in November.
For a star, Dwyer is remarkably affable to cast members and audiences alike. He never refuses to sign an autograph, and it sometimes takes him half an hour to clear his dressing room of fans after a show. Over the years many of the women in the chorus line have nursed crushes on him. Friends have clamored to fix him up with dates. But he remains an implacable bachelor, though in his time he has squired the daughters of celebrities, like Bob Hope's Linda and William Randolph Hearst's granddaughter Millicent.
Dwyer started skating as an 8-year-old in Burbank, where his father was head of the sheet-metal department at Warner Bros, studio. By the age of 10 Richard was winning West Coast figure-skating titles, and at 12 he took the national novice championship. Two years later he was America's third-ranked senior, right behind Olympic-bound Dick Button and Hayes Alan Jenkins, who would also win a gold medal one day. "I was 14 then, and Shipstad and Johnson offered me a chance to turn pro with the Follies. Shipstad had developed the Mr. Debonair role, played it himself, and needed a replacement." Richard and his parents discussed the offer with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson (Ricky and David were two of his skating chums). Entertainment had treated the Nelsons very well, Richard decided, "and playing the young Debonair seemed exciting, so I did it." Dwyer signed for $15,000 a year (he now makes "more than $75,000").
Until Richard was 18, his mother accompanied him on tour. Getting through school was a challenge, but Dwyer was allowed to attend the local Catholic high school wherever the Follies took him. "I went to 18 schools that first year," he remembers, "but we generally played the same towns year after year, so I finally got to know the kids pretty well. By the time I finished in 1953 I had good friends all over the country." College was an even longer haul, but after 22 years of summer courses between tours, he got his sheepskin in English in 1975 from the University of San Francisco.
Dwyer's career has had its hazards, but he notes, "God has been good to any athlete who's performed as long as I have." He falls three or four times a year, has been spiked by partners several times, and once almost lost two teeth when a partner slipped and jammed her elbow into his mouth. He was rushed to an oral surgeon who wired the teeth back into place. Now Dwyer hopes to find a job in broadcasting or public relations. He thinks he has one great advantage: "I wouldn't mind living in any town. I've been at home in almost all of them."
'I want to quit,' says Dwyer, 44, 'while I'm still good'