Joseph Späh was a physical comedian and acrobat who performed in American vaudeville under the stage name Ben Dova. An accomplished contortionist, he was known as “The King of the Kinkers.”
Späh was born of a French mother and a German father in Alsace-Lorraine in 1905. As a teenager living in Germany, Späh was a member of a gymnasium called a Turnverein. A slender man who stood 5’6″, Späh was the “top” in a two-man gymnastics act and his partner, Bernt, a larger man, was the “under.” Bernt held Späh in the air with one arm, while Späh performed his contortionist routine.
In 1922, at the age of seventeen, Späh came to the United States. In his best-remembered vaudeville routine – a masterpiece of timing and the intricate art of pantomime – Joe Späh staggered on stage in the role of “The Convivial Inebriate,” a drunken man dressed in rumpled top hat and tails, comically searching his pockets for a cigarette that has been dangling between his lips the entire time. He then shinnied up the streetlamp to light his cigarette from the gas flame, balancing precariously on the swaying streetlamp – holding on with only one arm – his legs and other arm pawing the air.
In 1933, this routine, “Fun on a Lamp Post,” which Späh had performed on the vaudeville circuit since 1927, was filmed on top of the fifty-six-story Chanin Building in New York City, 680-feet above the sidewalk. The film can be found on YouTube.
Späh made a tour of Europe in 1937. His wife Evelyn and their three children had already sailed back to New York two months earlier, from Southampton and he missed them terribly. After completing his European tour at Berlin’s Wintergarden in May 1937, Späh was ticketed to sail back to New York City on the Queen Mary. But he arrived late and literally missed the boat.
He was scheduled to play a thirty-day booking at Radio City Music Hall in New York. He learned that there was a zeppelin airship out of Frankfurt scheduled to leave on May 3 that would make it to Manhattan in time to start rehearsals. But when tried to make a reservation, they were completely booked. He phoned them repeatedly, and later found they had a cancellation, so he purchased a ticket on the Hindenburg.
Späh was traveling with his award-winning Alsatian dog, Ulla, whom he had trained to perform in his stage act. She’d appeared with him throughout his European tour, and he was now bringing her home as a pet for his children. Ulla traveled in a kennel among the airbags stored off the framework of the airship.
Clouds obscured the view for much of the journey across the Atlantic. No dogs were permitted in the gondola with the passengers. So Späh would periodically stroll back to where Ulla was kenneled, to check on her.
At 804 feet long, the Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever built – more than three times the length of a Boeing 747. The Hindenburg’s voyage, its first Atlantic crossing of the year, passed uneventfully. Two and a half days after boarding, on Thursday evening, May 6, 1937, the airship reached New York just as a storm was approaching,
Späh’s wife Evelyn, and their three children were awaiting his arrival at the airfield in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Their youngest child, Dick, was only two. His sister Marylin was three. The oldest, Gilbert, was five. The children looked up, amazed, as the enormous hydrogen-filled blimp came into view.
For several hours, thunderstorms and strong headwinds had delayed the zeppelin from docking, creating feelings of agitation and impatience among flight crew members.
At 6:15 pm, Späh was standing at the bow of the vessel, near the forward-most window of the port side dining car, with two other passengers, taking movies of his wife and children on the ground with his 16 mm camera. (That film is also on YouTube.)
The three men noticed that the hangers started reflecting a strange orange glow, which Späh mistook to be welcoming fireworks. The dirigible was about seventy-five feet above the tarmac. The rear end of the airship shifted downward forty-five degrees knocking the three men off their feet. They clung to a rail while many of the passengers and crew slid twenty feet downhill toward the tail of the craft.
The Hindenburg was in flames. Späh’s children were confused by the hysteria that overcame the adults. Everyone on the tarmac was quickly herded into a nearby airplane hangar.
Joseph Späh was an aviation enthusiast who owned a World War One surplus Curtiss JN4D – a “Jenny” bi-plane. He was an accomplished amateur pilot who’d developed the depth-perception required to land an aircraft. Once you get the average person three stories up in the air, they don’t know whether they’re thirty feet or one-hundred feet from the ground. But an experienced pilot knows.
Späh tried to escape through the gondola window, but it was locked shut. Using his camera as a bludgeon he shattered the glass. He tossed his movie camera out the window and he and the two other men climbed outside the gondola car and clung to the windowsill. Looking down, Späh realized that they were still one-hundred feet above the ground.
Späh was an athlete accustomed hanging by one arm in his vaudeville act. In the photos of the Hindenburg disaster, you can actually see him dangling from the exterior of the zeppelin. As the dirigible leveled out, at about ninety feet above the ground, the man clinging to the windowsill next to him exhausted his strength and dropped to his death.
When the airship was about seventy-five feet above the tarmac, the other man dangling next to him began to lose his grip. With his free hand, Späh grabbed the man’s sleeve. The frightened man took a hold of the lapel of Späh’s dinner jacket. The seam ripped and the lapel tore off in the man’s hand as he fell to the pavement far below. Späh watched the desperate fellow kicking his legs all the way down. He regretted this for many years afterwards, often saying that, if only he could’ve held the man a little longer, he might have saved his life.
As the fire roared through the cabin, the windowsill was becoming too hot to hold. Späh realized he was still forty feet above the ground – the height of a four-story building. It was now a question of hanging on and be burned alive – or letting go and likely get killed in the fall.
Remembering his athletic training, he tried to keep his feet together when he jumped, luckily landing on wet sand, in an acrobatic roll, in an effort to break the fall, but sprained his ankle in the process. Directly above him, sections of the flaming dirigible were falling to the ground.
Späh’s hands were burned. He didn’t know if he could walk. He was trying to crawl away when suddenly, a big sailor on the ground crew spotted him in the dense smoke, and slung him over his shoulder, and carried him one hundred yards, before depositing him safely out of harm’s way. Then the courageous sailor returned to get other injured passengers before they were trapped under the falling, flaming debris.
Späh’s beloved dog, Ulla, died in the fire.
Joe Späh was a jocular and genial fellow and a naturalized German citizen. He was the last passenger to board the dirigible and he’d made frequent trips to visit Ulla in the baggage compartment during the flight. He realized that he might well be a suspect in the inquiry into the disaster.
The captain of the Hindenburg, Max Pruss, went to his grave believing that Späh was part of the conspiracy that brought the dirigible to the ground. But the FBI ultimately cleared him of all charges. The basic outline of the disaster was straightforward: airships at the time were made of metal frames covered with treated cotton and inflated with hydrogen, a gas that is highly flammable when mixed with oxygen from the air.
Official protocol called for the ship to descend to a low altitude before dropping the mooring ropes. Instead, the impatient crew attempted a “high landing,” lowering the ropes from a high altitude so that the ground crew could winch them securely. These conditions created a greater risk of sparks from static electricity, which ignited the hydrogen filled zeppelin – ostensibly a flying bomb.
“I was literally blown into the United States,” Späh joked with the Brooklyn New York Times Union newspaper the following day. “I never entered this country so fast. I didn’t even need a passport.”
In an industry as unforgiving as show business, one might think this incident would have killed Joseph Späh’s career. Ironically, being a suspect in the widely publicized Hindenburg disaster helped make him a star – he was The Man Who Leapt from the Burning Hindenburg and Lived to Tell the Tale.
Soon, Sunday drivers were rubbernecking as they drove by Joseph and Evelyn Späh’s home at 240-16 Alameda Avenue in Douglaston, on the north shore of Long Island, New York, pointing and gawking at the residence of the man who’d survived the most famous catastrophe of their time. Cars literally went around the block on weekends in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Späh adopted a new dog. He’d take her on walks to the neighborhood candy store, where he’d purchase a cigar to smoke on the way home. One afternoon, there were two small children in the candy store who seemed to think that they recognized him. One anxiously said to the other, “You ask him.”
“No!” said the other defiantly, “You ask him!”
The first boy finally screwed up his courage and asked quizzically, “Isn’t you the fella’ what jumped out of the Hindenburg?”
Späh realized he had become a celebrity.
A reporter for radio station WLS in Chicago, Herbert Oglevee Morrison, had been sent to New Jersey to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg. His dramatic reporting on the disaster and catastrophic fire that destroyed the zeppelin and killed eleven passengers and twenty-two members of the crew was memorable. His now iconic exclamation, “Oh, the humanity…” has become part of twentieth century popular culture.
Herb Morrison and Joseph Späh were the same age. Month after month they were both invited to appear on so many radio talk-shows together, to discuss the Hindenburg disaster, the two men ultimately became close friends.
For the rest of his life, Späh would be asked to recount the story of his harrowing escape from the Hindenburg, a thousand times. A professional showman, he embraced this situation, expertly retelling this harrowing tale – always holding his listeners spellbound.
To strengthen his injured ankle, the family doctor, Joseph Mooney of Jackson Heights, recommended that he take up ice-skating. He loved spending time with his four children and frequently took them with him when he went to the ice rink to work out. The kids grew up to be talented ice skaters, like their father.
After seven months of postponement, Späh opened at Radio City Music Hall. He soon incorporated ice-skating into his “convivial inebriate” routine and the act was part of the Holiday on Ice show for many years.
As a father, Späh emphasized the importance of staying physically fit and taking pride in your body. When he was a child in Germany, he’d always wanted a big swimming pool. When he decided to install one in the back yard of their Long Island family home, he didn’t hire a building contractor.
At the end of the school year, on the first day of summer vacation, Späh informed his sons, Gil and Dick, that they were going to build a swimming pool together. With only shovels, wheelbarrows, and picks, the boys and their dad began a summer of intense hard labor, working every day, week after week.
Gil was a good diver, so they made the deep end ten feet deep. The pool was twenty-three feet long.
“There’s no better exercise than digging,” Dick remembered seventy years later. “It took the whole summer. We were in very good shape by September.”
Joseph Späh’s best friend was a professional juggler from Cleveland named Bobby May. They’d met on the vaudeville circuit. One of Bobby May’s acts involved juggling while ice-skating and the use of clubs, hats, cigarettes, and three to five balls. May was also known for playing the harmonica, singing, and dancing.
Dick’s older brother Gilbert idolized Bobby May. May gave the boys a set of heavy lacrosse balls for juggling and soon Dick and Gil were practicing in their bedroom. As the weeks of practice went by, the number of balls they were juggling increased. Gil Dova got hooked on juggling and enjoyed a long career as a professional juggler and even gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth.
But Dick was three years younger than Gil. His hands were smaller, and his hand-eye coordination was not as well developed. Dick found the juggling too challenging and gave it up. He was still a preschooler when he began ice skating with his father. While still in grade school, he could already do a standing backflip.
* * *
From the time he was eight years old, Joseph Späh’s eldest son, Gilbert, traveled with his father by rail, on the one-night-stand vaudeville circuit, serving as stagehand, traveling companion, sound effects man, and property manager for his father’s show. When Gilbert was eleven years old, he “retired” from vaudeville and his little brother Dick took his place as his father’s touring companion.
Dick Dova was born in 1935. As a kid, every Saturday he went to the movies. But Dick’s world was the world of vaudeville – his father’s world of one-night stands, all across the continent.
“It was a different kind of childhood,” he remembered, “a different kind of life,” one of hotel rooms, railroad cars, restaurants, and backstage dressing rooms.
Dick and his father would arrive in town in the afternoon and locate the theater where they were performing that night. They’d put the lamppost together, make sure they had all of the props for the act, and then rehearse the music with the local musicians. If there was time, they’d catch a short nap before an early dinner.
Night after night, from the age of eight to the age of fifteen, Dick Dova would stand in the wings of the theater during the show, doing all the sound effects for his father’s act because the local drummers couldn’t learn all the tricky cues with so little rehearsal. Then they’d sleep on the train, or in a hotel room, in a different city every night, from 1943-1950, through the waning years of American vaudeville.
What’s done cannot be undone. Dick Dova would spend the rest of his life in show business.
* * *
On a knoll above the sleepy town of Liberty, New York, stands the ruins of a formerly renowned hilltop hotel – you can see the derelict buildings for miles. Once upon a time, Grossinger’s Catskills Resort was a world-class destination – a place where wealthy businessmen, celebrities, and gangsters mingled with (mostly) Jewish tourists. Their slogan was, “Grossinger’s has Everything for the Kind of Person who Likes to Come to Grossinger’s.” It was one of a string of hotels that comprised what was then colloquially referred to as “The Borscht Belt.”
In its heyday, Grossinger’s drew 150,000 guests a year. Every leisure sport had its own arena: handball courts, tennis courts, ski slopes, an ice-skating rink, barrel jumping, and tobogganing, a championship golf course, and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools. In 1952, Grossinger’s became the first ski resort to use artificial snow. They were famous for the fabulous food that came out of their strictly kosher kitchen. The place had day spas, beauty salons, and palatial ballrooms, earning it the moniker “The Waldorf of the Catskills.”
The Borscht Belt launched the careers of countless singers and comedians, providing them with both an audience and a venue where they could develop and refine their acts, getting ready for the big time. Joseph Späh’s youngest son, Dick Dova, and his partner Bill Wall were seeking just such an opportunity for their ice-skating act. The duo had sent 8 x 10″ black and white publicity photos to all the agents who handled talent that worked on the ice – it was a very small industry. At that time, there were only three ice skating entertainment franchises: Ice Follies, Ice Capades, and Holiday on Ice.
“You have to work out all the kinks in a good touring act, and to do so, you need to perfect it in front of a live audience,” Dick Dova told me, sixty-five years later. So, every weekend, Dick Dova and his partner Bill Wall did their act at on the ice at Grossinger’s. One of Dick’s ice-skating students caught Wall and Dova’s comical ice-skating routine at Grossinger’s, and mentioned it to Oscar Johnson, one of the founders of Ice Follies. In 1957, Johnson invited Wall and Dova to Syracuse, New York, for an audition.
Dova majored in psychology at Hoftsra University in Hempstead, New York. Before partnering with Bill Wall, he’d toured with Holiday on Ice. As an ice skater, Dick Dova was third in the world’s barrel jumping championship. Dova, who was twenty-two-years-old, would learn a lot from Bill Wall, who was six years older and more experienced.
Wall and Dova took their act to Europe in the summer of 1957. When they returned that fall, they joined Shipstads & Johnson’s Ice Follies. The Ice Follies company – forty young women athletes and fifteen young men – was on the road for a grueling forty-six weeks a year, working in twenty-two cities. These performers didn’t get paid very much. Because of the gender imbalance, Dick Dova remembers never having trouble getting a date.
* * *
Jill Suzanne Kirkwood was born in 1937, in Superior, Douglas County, Wisconsin. Her father, John William Kirkwood, was a mechanic. He worked as a laborer on the survey crew and later for the WPA Project. Jill’s parents owned a restaurant where her mon worked as a waitress. The family lived at 2608 Oakes Avenue in Superior.
Jill was skating at a professional level in junior high. One weekend, Jill and her mom rode the train 150 miles to Minneapolis for the Ice Follies auditions – which she aced. Jill began performing in the Ice Follies in 1954, while she was still a sophomore in high school – the only young woman in the troupe who wasn’t from Minneapolis.
Under her photo in the Superior Cathedral High School yearbook it says, “Mischief is her middle name, if she keeps on, she’ll bring it fame.” After graduating from her Catholic high school in June of 1955, Jill went on the national Ice Follies 1955 tour, opening at the Pan Pacific in Los Angeles on September 16, 1955.
The schedule was a bear: Denver, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Hershey, New Haven, then four days off for Christmas (count ’em – four), then on to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Providence, Buffalo, Syracuse, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Spokane, Vancouver, and Seattle.
That’s why they call it “work.”
They were only in a city for a few days or weeks. The intense performance and travel schedule was a serious impediment to making lasting friendships outside of the cast. Jill became friends with a petite blonde skater from Toronto named Linda Lennox, who was in the Ice Follies chorus.
The Ice Follies company had their annual vacation from May 23 – June 21, 1956, and Jill went home to see her folks. Six weeks later, she boarded the westbound train in Duluth, Minnesota, bound for Oakland, California. The Ice Follies opened at Winterland, at Post and Steiner streets in San Francisco, on June 22, 1956, and played there for three months.
“A lot of the girls dated the local stagehands who worked at Winterland,” Dick Dova remembered. “It was easier to make friends during the three months in San Francisco. That was the longest we stayed in one city during the whole year’s tour – the closest thing we had to a normal life.”
Bill Wall and Dick Dova joined the Ice Follies in 1957. Soon Jill’s friend, Linda Lennox was dating Dick Dova. Dick Dova told me the following story:
The stage door at Winterland was on Post Street, in the middle of the block. After the show, you’d find a bunch of stage-door-johnny’s hanging out – often including members of the Ice Follies stage crew – waiting to meet these attractive young female athletes as they exited the building. And among the stage-door-johnnies was a young fellow named William Edward Maley, who had his eyes on Linda’s friend, Jill Kirkwood.
As a local 16 apprentice, Bill Maley was already working backstage at Winterland when Ice Follies opened there in June of 1956. At this time, Bill Maley lived at 467 Stapes Avenue, one city block from San Francisco City College, where he’d been a student. Jill Kirkwood lived at 1615 Gough Street, in the Polk Gulch neighborhood – just a short eight-block walk or cab ride from Winterland, where she was performing that summer.
On Monday, August 6, 1956 – just six weeks after arriving in San Francisco – Jill Kirkwood married Bill Maley. He was twenty-six and she was nineteen. A month later, the Ice Follies opened in Los Angeles, at the Pan Pacific. Bill and Jill’s first child, Michael, was born in May of 1957.
* * *
In the autumn of 1963, when the Ice Follies was playing in Chicago, Dick Dova and Linda Lennox got married. They’d known each other for six years. Dick’s partner, Bill Wall, and Linda’s roommate, Linda Cochran, and Judge Hall, attended the ceremony.
They’ve been married for nearly sixty years.
Dick Dova wanted his children to have the normal, pedestrian childhood that he never had. Family was very important to him. In February of 1964, Linda Dova, who was five months pregnant, left the Ice Follies. She gave birth to their first child, Richard, whom his parents called “Spoofer,” in June of 1964. At that time, they were living at 430 Canal Street, in a dockside apartment on the San Rafael canal.
The prospect of catching trains and checking in and out of hotel rooms with an infant was a daunting proposition. “Think of us traveling with all that baby equipment,” Dick Dova told a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner, the week after his son was born. “After our San Francisco stay, our longest stop anywhere is three weeks. But we’re here until September so we can live like normal people for a while.”
Two years later, in March 1966, the Hubbard, Ohio, News-Reporter covered the Ice Follies performance at the Cleveland Arena:
Dick Dova and Bill Wall form one of the funniest, cleverest teams in ice skating history, but if Dova had listened to his father it never would have happened… ‘Listen carefully,’ Dova’s father said to the children gathered around him. ‘Don’t ever go into show business. Stay out of show business. Leave it alone.’
So – Dick has been a comedian all his life, and sister Marilyn is in an ice show. Dick’s youngest sister, Evelyn, was with the Ice Follies. Gil, a brother, is a juggler in Paris, and – Dad is still in the business, too. He started out as a contortionist – that’s why he calls himself Ben Dova. [The reporter neglected to mention that Dick Dova’s mother, Evelyn, had been a professional dancer in her youth.]
Wall and Dova have been with the Ice Follies for nine years and Dova says of his partner, ‘Bill Wall has the best legs in the business.’ What Dova means is that Bill is the best rubber-legged skater there is – lurching and weaving across the ice in a particularly unstable manner.
“We believe skating comedians should skate in funny ways, not just use prop tricks,’ Dova says.
Dick Dova, whose wife, Linda, skates in the Follies precision chorus, is rated an outstanding barrel jumper, but he has jumped very few barrels lately. He is regarded as too valuable a comedian to risk his neck jumping barrels.
* * *
While performing at Winterland, Dick became friends with the Ice Follies lighting director, Perrie Reynolds Dodson.
Dodson was born in San Francisco in 1918. An only child, his father,was a carpenter. His mother, Inez Rodriguez, born in San Francisco, in 1896, was a registered Roosevelt Democrat and the best seamstress at the San Francisco Opera House.
“Inez Dodson was assigned to dressing room number one,” Dick Dova remembered. “That was the diva’s dressing room. She was that good.”
In 1928, when Perrie was ten, Inez divorced Perrie’s father, citing “extreme cruelty.”
Inez Rodriguez and her son lived with her father, Joseph S. Rodriguez, a retired tinsmith and former wholesale grocery salesclerk, at 2019 Fifteenth Street, near the intersection of Market and Church Streets in San Francisco.
After completing the eleventh grade, young Perrie worked part-time as a shipfitter’s helper in the shipyards of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was drafted into U.S. Army, serving from 1942-1946.
After the war, Dodson joined local 16, working for years as the stage manager of the Curran Theater on Geary Street, between Mason and Taylor Streets in San Francisco. In 1951, Dodson became the lighting director at Bimbo’s nightclub at 1025 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The August 29, 1953, issue of the Oakland Tribune reviewed a show at Bimbo’s stating, “There is more than a touch of genius in his [Dodson’s] handling of the South Seas idol presentation in which the girls emerge from a cloud of smoke – spectacular!”
In June of 1955, after four years at Bimbos, Dodson became the lighting director for the Ice Follies, which opened at Winterland, the following week.
Dodson lived ten blocks from the Pacific Ocean, at 2510 39th Avenue in San Francisco’s foggy Sunset district. He was already twice divorced and forty-five years old. While touring with the Ice Follies, Dodson fell in love with a twenty-four-year-old skater in the cast named Judith Kay Boner. They married in 1965 and were divorced five years later.
“Perrie was a classy guy and a sharp dresser,” Jon Guterres remembered. “He came to the San Francisco Opera House after being on the road with the Ice Follies. I had been a local 16 apprentice for a few years and thought I knew a lot. One day I saw Perrie working in the prop department, and I didn’t know who he was. I tried to offer him some helpful advice about not wearing such nice clothes and dress shoes on this dirty stage. He looked at me and said, ‘Who in the fuck are you?’
“I sheepishly said, ‘Jon.’ Then I found out all about him – he was top man. He started in the 1940s as a local 16 member. I really liked him. He ended up working in the local 16 office for years.”
Dick Dova knew Perrie Dodson from The Ice Follies, when Perrie worked backstage, and the two men became friends. In 1966, Perrie helped Dick get a job as a local 16 apprentice at the San Francisco Opera House. He would become one of Dick’s mentors.
During his final season as a professional skater, Dick worked as a stagehand at the Opera House by day and as an Ice Follies performer at Winterland at night.
At long last, he was finally off the road.