Touché!

Patricia A. Etter, MLS

The recent death of the actor, Tony Curtis, stirred up old memories for Pat. She recalls how she and her husband, both competitive fencers, were called upon to help train Tony for his role in the Great Race.

Maitre d’armes Joseph Vince, Hungarian coach extraordinaire, trained fencers out of his Salle D’Armes Vince on Beverly Boulevard, Beverly Hills, way back in the 60s and 70s. Fencing is one of the oldest sports, both for competition and for fun. It is said that it is like playing chess at a hundred miles an hour, needing agility, fitness, and the ability to think fast on one’s feet. Well, Joseph Vince saw that his fencers did just that. Janice Lee Romary was his most famous student having represented the United States in six Olympic Games, and who carried the flag for the United States in the Mexico City Games. My husband Paul, a Pacific Coast Sabre champion was an avid student. And rather than become a “fencing widow”, I joined in the fray ultimately to share a third place medal on the U.S. National Women’s team.

Since we couldn’t afford both fencing and a baby sitter, we brought our daughter, Janet, along and as soon as she could walk, she began taking lessons wearing a special little white skirt and balancing a regular sized mask on her little head. Sometimes she sucked her thumb under her mask. Maestro Vince was specially gentle, but didn’t let her get away with any kid stuff. All the fencers adored her and she never lacked partners since they “played” fencing with her. It wasn’t long before she got serious about the sport and found herself on the Junior Olympic team and ultimately at Ohio State University on a fencing scholarship.

In those days women fenced only foil, the modern version of the court sword. The target is the upper torso, and touches are made only with the point of the weapon (as can be expected, the women now compete in all three weapons). My husband preferred the sabre, the modern version of the slashing and cutting cavalry sword. Any place on the upper body was a good target and touches could be made with the tip of the weapon or with a “cut” using the side of the weapon. Then there was the épée, a modern descendant of the dueling sword. The target could be anywhere on the body including the head or feet and touches are made only with the tip of the blade.

Fencers competed on a strip or piste 45 feet long and four to five feet wide, and had to stay within that space. French is the official language of the sport, with strict rules of etiquette. At the beginning of a “bout” the director or judge calls en guard, the fencers salute each other with their weapons before donning their masks. The director calls, “fence”, and the competitors don their masks and go at it. The first person to make five points wins the match; it is de rigueur to salute your opponent after removing your mask and then shake hands. Technically, no fits of temper are allowed, though after the heat of battle it was often hard for the loser to control his/her temper. Ah yes, women were not much different. There were numerous fencing clubs in California and throughout the U.S. with regular competitions among groups.

In the 1960s, we began fencing foil electronically. I wore a metallic jacket over my white fencing uniform that outlined the target area. We threaded the electric cord down our right or left arm and plugged it into our weapon. The other end of the cord exited our back at the waist level and was plugged into a reel allowing us to move back and forth and when we made a “touch”, a button at the tip of the foil was depressed and lit up another button in the scoring box. Eventually armorers were able to find a way to “electrify” the sabre, and those who fence in competition wear a full metallic jacket that delineates the target from the waist up.

Tony Curtis and Joseph Vince, Publicity photograph, 1965

The recent death of actor, Tony Curtis, brought forth a rush of fencing memories. In 1965, Maestro Vince called Paul and me in on Saturday afternoons for a number of weeks. It seems that Tony Curtis and side-kick Ross Martin were required to have some lively duels with sabres in the Warner Brothers’ comedy The Great Race. Maestro gave them lessons at the request of the studio. Our charge was to fence with them following their lessons so they could use what they had learned. Well of course, my husband was a most aggressive sabre fencer and gave Tony his money’s worth. I’ll not forget the day when he laid one across Tony’s chest—you could hear the thump and the echo. At that same moment, Tony’s Jewish mom walked in, saw and heard the sound as Tony recoiled backward, unhurt because of his protective undervest. But she did not know that as she ran forward in consternation, “Oh my son! What have YOU done to him?” When my turn came I just attacked and attacked till I had him against the wall and lunged with a great shout, “touché!” Fortunately his mom was not there that day.

The two men were great sports and lots of fun. We enjoyed our Saturday afternoons while they got a good “feel” for the sport. Of course, they played fencing with now eight-year-old Janet and sent her roses when she had her tonsils out. As it turns out, there was not a whole lot of fencing in the movie except for a sequence between Curtis and Martin during a Prisoner of Zenda sequence near the end of the film.

USA National Championships program, 1967

Now, no one ever goes to a fencing competition willingly, and I’m willing to say that mostly parents and other fencers attend the competitions. The sword play is too fast and often a touch is called before a spectator has had a chance to actually see what happened. In 1967, my husband and I were elected to run the Southern California Division of the Amateur Fencers League of America (the name was changed to United States Fencing Association in 1981), and at the same time inherited the job of sponsoring and running the USA National Fencing Championships. As mentioned, fencing is not a great spectator sport, but we decided to do something about it, and cooked up the grandiose idea of presenting the finals of the women’s foil and men’s sabre in Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and selling tickets to the public. The stadium manager was sympathetic with our idea of making fencing a spectator sport since he had been working with the same idea for figure skating. Well, we all know what happened with figure skating!

So, having reserved the stadium we gathered together fencers (who happen to be creative in numerous fields) and our friends and non-friends and put them to work. Somehow we managed to talk the Santa Monica newspaper into a special insert edition about the competition and then went about selling tickets to everyone we knew. They say you never get anywhere if you don’t take risks. Hard to believe—we broke even. So we got that far.

Our best idea was to create the scene on stage at the Civic Auditorium. A red velvet curtain provided the backdrop that would highlight the fencers in their whitest whites. Next, we instructed the four judges and director to appear in black tuxedoes. They thought that was great fun. The reason all this worked is because the fencers wanted as much as we did to draw an audience to their beloved sport. Oh, do I wish we had photographs, but the scene from the audience was just as we imagined it would be. And the fencers loved it. We even arranged for the local florist to supply a bouquet of roses and I trotted on stage to hand one to each of the finalists--they never got even a dandelion prior to this. But that was the last attempt at making fencing a spectator sport—except for the movies!

One of the illustrations included with this is article is the red, white, and blue cover of our program, which was designed and donated by a friend, Rick Runyon and Associates, a major design firm in Los Angeles. However, Rick neglected to copyright his art. I’m sure that most readers will recognize that major sports organizations later adopted that format. Shown here is the original version that ultimately won a number of awards. And as we know today, unless an American makes the fencing finals in the Olympics, fencing will continue to be relegated to the back page. There are too many nuances in the game. So that was our attempt at the “great fencing experiment”.

Now if this article has created curiosity, readers might want to check out ASUs Salle Diablo and see what our team is up to these days. You can even stroll by to watch practice or check it out at www.asu.edu/clubs/sallediablo.

© Patricia Etter

Patricia Etter MLS

Pat is a retired Director of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center, an American Indian research library at ASU. She is an expert on historic Southern trails to California, and has announced publication of her third book, California Odyssey: An Overland Journey on Southern Trails, 1849 (Arthur H. Clark Company, Imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). Pat writes a regular column, “Southwestern Vignettes”, for the Overland Journal, published by the Oregon California Trails Association, and serves on the Board of Directors for that organization. She also serves on the Editorial Board of the Western Historical Quarterly.