For most East Side children, ice skating — like going to the movies — is an occasional pleasure, reserved for those winter weekends when it isn’t too cold outside and there isn’t too much homework and there isn’t anything good on television. Not so for Christina and Diana Emmet, of Park Avenue and 71st Street.
The Emmet sisters are serious about their skating — serious enough to have made it the major focus of their lives — and, after years of practice, they are good enough to think and hope that someday they might make it to the Olympics, or the Ice Capades, or perhaps both. Who knows? Already, Christina (Tina), 15, and Diana, 12, have won numerous medals in their respective junior and novice competitive divisions. They intend to win more.
Of course figure skating medals, like military ribbons, are earned the hard way. Thus, every weekday morning, while the neighborhood children are ambling off to school, the Emmet girls are instead to be found with a half-dozen slightly groggy comrades doing their figure-eights at the Sky Rink ice arena on the sixteenth floor of the Lehman Building, all the way down on 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue. By 8 a.m., Sky Rink’s somnolent public address system has been brought to life, and so have the girls.
“Arch your back!” bellows their coach, Sonia Kupfor, as Tina glissades across the ice. “Okay, Diana, let’s see a double-spin!” Little Diana obediently turns into a whirling dervish. “Come on!” cries coach Kupfor, herself a former American women’s champion. “Explode!”
It is a delightful paean to beauty and grace, but aren’t the girls being deprived of an education, not to mention classroom camaraderie? No, not in the least, for the Emmet sisters, along with 236 other more or less star-struck children, are enrolled in the Professional Children’s School, on West Sixtieth Street. “PCS,” as it is affectionately known, seems perfectly geared to the dynamic duo’s educational needs. The school has a thorough college preparatory program with a special emphasis on the arts, a “correspondence system” which allows them to keep up with studies when they are away for skating competitions, an understanding faculty, and supportive, equally ambitious peers — including six other skaters.
The Emmets have been enrolled at PCS ever since their father, Henri Emmet, who represents Banque Nationale de Paris, was transferred from Paris to New York in 1975. Tina is now in the tenth grade, Diana, in the seventh, and from the looks of the girls’ report cards, their studies are progressing almost as quickly as their Westminster waltzes and double-spins. In short, the girls are having their cake and eating it, too.
To be sure, skating has been something of a leitmotif in the recent annals of the Emmet family. Tina and Diana’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Santry, are known to have contributed, sub rosa, to the training and education of several promising but disadvantaged young skaters during the ’40s and ’50s. The girls’ mother, Louise, was herself an aspiring skater as a child; unfortunately, she never was able to fully satisfy her frosty ambitions, which helps to explain the time and energy she readily invests in her daughters’ careers, as well as the alternately hopeful, anxious, and irritated expressions on her face as she watches Miss Kupfor (who also coached Dorothy Hamill) put the girls through their increasingly demanding, graceful paces.
Henri Emmet is usually too busy to watch the girls train and compete (except during the summer, when the family spends several months at Sun Valley), but as an ice hockey fanatic and he is equally supportive of the girls’ athletic devotion. “It took me a while to come around, perhaps partially because of the enormous expense involved,” he says. “However, now I’m just as enthusiastic as Louise. I very much like the fact that the girls have such a demanding short-term goal at their ages. It keeps them off the streets, you know.”
Off the streets, and the ice, the girls exist in a unique world, with its own set of traditions, procedures, and a very special atmosphere. Walking into the PCS building, in the shadow of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, is a bit like stumbling into a children’s movie by Fellini. Ballerinas practice in the halls and violinists tune up in the staircase. In the latest Oscars or Obies, while at the “ice skaters’ table” the talk is of the most recent U.S. Figure Skating Association competition.
Then a bell sounds and everyone moves off set. Most of the children run off for class. Others head for thratre rehearsals or modeling sessions or, as the Emmets sometimes do, to exercise class. Although it appears to be by fits and starts, they all get an education.
Since 1914, this extraordinary school has taught the “three Rs” to some of New York’s most exceptional — and ambitious — children. Indeed, a list of PCS alumni reads like a multimedia cast of thousands: Milton Berle, Ruby Keeler, Beverly Sills, Gelsey Kirkland, Eliott Gould, Leslie Uggams, Dustin Hoffman, and — say the Emmet girls — “Don’t forget (world champion skater) Carol Heiss!”
PCS began as the brainchild of one Mrs. Franklin Greer Robinson, president of a rooming house for actors called the Rehearsal Club and daughter of the Episcopal bishop of New York. One evening, so the story goes, Mrs. Robinson walked backstage of the hit musical Daddy Long Legs and found six of her young tenants — all child actors — blithely playing poker. Upon further investigation, Mrs. Robinson was scandalized to discover that, because of the demands of rehearsing and performing, none of the children had been to school recently, and a few could barely even read or write. PCS was born.
At first, most PCS students were vaudevillians and dancers who often had to go on the road, keeping up with their studies with the aid of the same complex assignment sheets that the school still dispenses. (Milton Berle was probably the school’s most famous trouper and champion absentee: “On the road,” his report cards from the 1920s read over and over.
Today, with ballet so popular an so many of the nation’s top ballet schools clustered nearby, most of Tina and Diana’s classmates are dancers who can often be seen running back and forth between the school and Lincoln Center. Other professions are also represented, however. In addition to seventy-eight ballet students, the current high school roster lists twenty classical musicians, four theatre and television actors, thirteen singers and “modern dancers,” four models, one horseback rider, one lighting and sound man, and the skaters, eight “children or siblings of professionals,” and thirteen nonprofessionals.
The Lower School, grades one to eight, has only a few working professionals among its eighty-seven students. Of these, however, 50 are “preprofessional” performers who also sometimes miss class and go “on correspondence.”
The remaining Lower School children are basically bright children whose parents are attracted to PCS’ arts-oriented curriculum (what other New York school offers “ballet breakfasts” and “movie nights”?), as well as its relatively low tuition.
Henri Emmet, who is a member of the PCS board of trustees, also feels that nonprofessional children can benefit from their performing classmates’ strong self-discipline. “The motivation is just tremendous,” he says. “These kids know what they want. They’re not lost.”
To be sure, many of the professional students are refugees from less tolerant schools. “In other schools I was always talked about behind my back,” says Kira Nidzl, a stunning fifteen-year-old model and a tenth-grader at PCS. “Here I can be myself. There’s no competition, even among the different professions. Everyone is competing with himself.”
Meanwhile, all the students are earning the grades they need to get into good colleges, just in case their blossoming careers don’t work out. For those who do persevere, there is ample inspiration in the school’s first-floor “Hall of Fame,” where the walls are lined with photographs of numerous alumni showstoppers. One display features a small snapshot of composer Marvin Hamlisch, in crewcut and polo shirt, playing the piano in a 1961 student show. Next to it is a much larger photo, taken thirteen years later, showing a tuxedoed Hamlisch accepting the 1974 Academy Award for his movie score for The Sting.
And, sure enough, just across the hall is a book jacket from Carol Heiss’ autobiography “Angel on Ice.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do without this funny school,” says Tina Emmet during lunch hour.
“Probably have to quit skating,” says Diana.
“No!” they quickly cry in unison. “We couldn’t do that!”