When DeVos Hall Freezes Over

November 5, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — For only the second time in its 25 years of hosting stage shows and musical events, DeVos Performance Hall will freeze over this week.

And for the second time in its 17-year history, the Broadway Theatre Guild is again responsible for the congealing cold.

The guild has booked the national touring company of “Broadway on Ice” in the newly refurbished hall for eight performances that run Tuesday through Sunday. The show stars Davis Gaines, who sang the title role in the “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, and Dorothy Hamill, who skated away with the 1976 Olympic Gold Medal and a 1984 Emmy for her performance in “Romeo and Juliet on Ice.”

Willy Bietak produces the skating and singing spectacular, which features a slew of memorable Broadway hits. The former Austrian skating champion is also in charge of quickly turning the theater’s wooden stage into a glassy indoor rink.

Work on the transformation got started Sunday night with the laying of aluminum plates across the stage. The plates, which contain coolant and run 20 feet long, two-and-a-half-feet wide and two inches high, are connected and laid over a specially-formulated sheet that protects the stage from any unforeseen spillage or overflow.

“The coolant is then circulated to a refrigeration machine that is parked outside the theater and the aluminum plates are hooked up by a collection of pipes and hoses to that machine. That takes care of the freezing,” said Bietak, who trucked the plates, pipes and hoses here from San Bernardino, Calif.

When the temperature of the plates falls below freezing, thin layers of mist are applied. The mist freezes on contact and the spraying continues until all the plates are covered and all the cracks between the plates are sealed with ice.

“Then we lay heavier layers of water,” said Bietak.

The conversion takes about 17 hours — four or five hours to lay the plates, then another dozen or so to freeze the surface. The equipment in the refrigeration truck will keep the ice frozen on the 40-by-60-foot rink through Sunday’s final matinee. An electrically powered, mini ice re-surfacer will scrape the ice and add water to it during intermission.

“There are a lot of people on that ice and we do need a resurfacing process during intermission. We do it right in front of the audience and they’ll see it,” said Bietak, who added that the ice won’t make the hall significantly colder for patrons.

Bietak has been credited with being one of the very first to bring ice skaters into small theaters. He has worked with Hamill in the past and with other renowned skaters such as Peggy Fleming, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton.

Bietak also produced “Festival on Ice,” the show that marked the very first time the DeVos Hall stage was covered with ice. That was back in 1987, the guild’s first season when the group brought the ice show here.

“There is something to watching ice skating in a theater. I feel it really has a very special place because it’s in an intimate environment,” said Bietak. “You see people close up and their facial expressions. You can almost feel the edge of the blade cutting the ice. It’s unique.”    

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