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Arts & Culture

70 Years Of The Zamboni

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you've spent any time around ice arenas, you know this signature sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAMBONI WHIRRING)

SIMON: It's a Zamboni. Even the name sounds magical - Zamboni. Zamboni, circling the rink, replacing the bad, old ice with a new surface that's immaculate and smooth. As the philosopher Charlie Brown once observed in that seminal work, "She's A Good Skate, Charlie Brown"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE'S A GOOD SKATE, CHARLIE BROWN")

ARRIN SKELLEY: (As Charlie Brown) There are three things in life that people like to stare at - a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.

SIMON: This year marks the 70th year they've been able to do that, thanks to Frank Zamboni, a Californian with an ice rink and a problem.

PAULA COONY: It took a significant amount of time and labor to resurface the ice.

SIMON: That's Paula Coony, spokesperson for the Zamboni Company.

COONY: It took four or five people with planer and some squeegees and some hoses close to an hour and a half to do the resurfacing.

SIMON: That's an hour and a half when people could be paying to skate. So Frank Zamboni took some war surplus parts, including a Jeep chassis, and almost a decade. By 1949, he had concocted a machine to make quick work of that rough, old ice.

COONY: It took that hour and a half down to about a 10- or 15-minute resurfacing.

SIMON: Ten to 15 minutes. Now, this machine was supposed to be a miracle Frank Zamboni used only at his skating rink, but know who came to that rink one day?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now, Chris Linden (ph), our petite star to entertain you with an exhibition of free skating.

SIMON: Norway's three-time Olympic gold champion figure skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie. She was in Paramount, Calif., with her traveling ice revue and needed a place to practice. Frank Zamboni was ready to impress.

COONY: He brought this machine out on the ice. She lovingly later referred to it as the monstrosity. And she said, I'll take two.

SIMON: Sonja Henie loved how quickly it made the ice glassy and clean, like a Nordic pond - not that I've ever seen one. She got her own Zambonis and took them on tour. Other ice rink owners didn't want to miss out on the ice-shaving revolution. And before long, Frank Zamboni was building the company and supplying Zambonis all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAMBONI WHIRRING)

SIMON: Today, the company estimates there are nearly 12,000 Zambonis in use. There are other brands of ice resurfacers - Olympia, the Okay Elektra. And FYI, it is not polite to call them all Zambonis. It's like calling every cola a Coke.

But what's it like to actually drive a Zamboni? Ask the Iceman.

JIMMY MACNEIL: Everybody looks at you and thinks that this is such an easy job.

SIMON: Jimmy - Iceman - MacNeil of Brantford, Ontario. He was the Zamboni Driver of the Year in 1999. Can you name any of them? The Iceman says...

MACNEIL: Driving the Zamboni is a little bit of science. It's an art. You have levers. You have buttons.

SIMON: And a lot to worry about if you want to hold onto that trophy. There's an ice-cutting blade and two water tanks, a spinning brush to clear the snow from the sides of the rink as the Zamboni drives by at the breakneck speed of 5 miles an hour. And even though he's been driving Zambonis for four decades, Jimmy - Iceman - MacNeil still watches his back.

MACNEIL: I can almost guarantee there isn't one driver that hasn't come off the ice and had some hockey fan or figure skating fan say, you missed a spot.

SIMON: Yeah, pal - your mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZAMBONI")

GEAR DADDIES: (Singing) Hey, I want to drive the Zamboni. Hey, I want to drive the Zamboni. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.