April 20, 1949 – Toller Cranston:
To be a genuine individualist requires a great deal of strength and courage. It is never easy to chart new territory, to cross new frontiers, or to introduce subtle shadings to an established color.
Toller Cranston was a gay man of the old school closeted style of Ed Koch, Raymond Burr or Liberace. Uncomfortable with gay liberation, Cranston preferred to position himself as a creative outsider rather than as queer. Cranston was just one more élite skater who was decidedly not straight.
Cranston, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist and six-time Canadian champion never discussed any sexual orientation in interviews. However, in his memoir, Zero Tollerance (1997) he shares that he has a romantic involvement with a male South American ambassador in Paris. In a second memoir When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates? (2000), he mentions his brief liason with Slovakian skater Ondrej Nepelathere in 1973 that left Nepelathere unaffected, but shook Cranston. Cranston, who had been celibate while training for the world championship, was unable to regain his focus after their encounter. He finished fifth, no competitive threat to repeat winner Nepelalethere.
Cranston also describes a “once-in-a-lifetime idyll” with a German actor for whom he had a rare crush. Cranston writes of feeling regretful as he tells how he cut short their time together.
Cranston mostly writes about himself as having lived without forming strong romantic or emotional attachments. He shared accounts of trysts with men and at least one woman, but regarding his love life and sexual adventures, Cranston’s main point is that he has not had much of either:
“I have been an emotional iceberg for my entire life.”
Regardless of his gayness or lack thereof, Cranston lead a life that was matter-of-factly inclusive of all types, and rather woke about queer communities for his era. He devotes an entire chapter to discussing a friend and artistic mentor, an Emmy Award-winning hair and makeup person who is male-to-female transgender.
Cranston’s one meeting with Liberace was just three months before the great entertainer died of AIDS-related illness. Cranston said of him:
“His greatest fear, I read in a magazine, had not been death, but that his fans would think he was gay. Was there anyone who could have thought otherwise?“
Same for Cranston. Could anyone have guessed that he was not gay? Too many gay guys first understood who they truly were while watching his iconoclastic skating, just as we understood that he was bringing new artistry to the sport.
Born Toller Shalitoe Montague Cranston in Hamilton, Ontario, the skater was the Canadian senior men’s champion from 1971 to 1976. He won the free-skate segment of the world championship four times and won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Innsbruck.
He was best-known for his creative free-skating style, which inspired future generations of champion skaters, and he was one of the most sought-after choreographers in professional skating.
Cranston was a clockwise spinner and jumper. He gained a reputation as the most innovative and exciting artistic skater of his time, one of the first to emphasize use of the whole body to express the music as well as to execute skating moves in best form, to lie down while sliding down the ice and to wear elaborate costumes. He was particularly known for the quality and inventiveness of his spins, which were widely copied by other skaters. The quality of his precision landings and inventive choreography was topped by his combination jumps that included triple revolution jumps.
Reports from competitions of this period began to mention younger skaters who had become “Tollerized” by attempting to copy Cranston’s style, which was characterized by contrasting very stretched positions with a high free leg with more angular, bent-leg positions, and the incorporation of elements such as running toe steps and high kicks in step sequences. Many of his original spins included many changes of positions that seemed to defy gravity. His Russian split jump was “over split” which brought his skates up to shoulder height instead of waist height.
Off the ice, Cranston was known for his humor, enigmatic manner and wide social circle. He was known to be absolutely outrageous in private. The dinner parties he threw were legendary. There was a great sense of drama to him and he just made such a mark on his friends and colleagues. That drama, however, did not always translate well into skating.
In 1976, he was punished at the Olympic Games for his over-emotional, flamboyant performance. The bronze medal Cranston won would be his highest ever finish at the international level, a frustrating result that underscored what he said was the judges’ refusal to accept change. Cranston:
The judging world is an eternal Jurassic Park. There are always the same dinosaurs out there. They’re immune to the aging process. They simply refused to die.
Yet, Cranston’s style influenced the great male skaters of the 1980s and 1990s; Brian Orser, Kurt Browning and Brian Boitano all learned to skate with Cranston’s dynamism. But, as the new generation took to the ice, Cranston retreated. He retired from competitive skating, following up on an earlier-stated goal of developing ”theatre on ice”. Cranston performed in his own show with former elite competitors and headlined European skating shows.
But by 1992, he retreated again. After battling depression for nearly two years, he auctioned nearly all his possessions, sold his home in Canada and moved to San Miguel, Mexico, to pursue his passion for painting. Cranston:
“I’ll never be taken seriously as an artist, at least in this country, but I am absolutely convinced I am one.“
Cranston was a talented and disciplined painter. He would get up at 5 a.m. daily to paint, but his art was underappreciated. Skating overshadowed a lot of what he did. Cranston painted more than 70,000 pieces, compared to Vincent Van Gough‘s 2,500, he claimed, and selling one for $40,000. He had over 250 museum and gallery shows.
He drew often upon his skating experience, saying the two activities came from the same creative reservoir. He never really skated again after the move. And when he did, it was with ill-fitting old boots that had shrunk and were painful to put on. Cranston:
I realized I could never skate again because I couldn’t stand the pain.
Cranston died alone at his house in Mexico from an apparent heart attack in January 2015. He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1976, the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, and Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2003. He was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2004.