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You're An Old Smoothie

For nearly 40 years Frank J. Zamboni's funny-looking invention has been refinishing ice surfaces all over the world

Frank J. Zamboni lived in paramount, Calif., before it was Paramount. He was there 65 years ago—long before the Artesia Freeway and the Long Beach Freeway and all the other freeways made this place just another extension of the Los Angeles sprawl. He was there when it was dairy country, with some Dutch farmers and some Portuguese farmers and a lot of cows and more bales of hay per square mile than any place in America.

Zamboni says, "It was just land. I don't think anybody owned a lot of it then. It was land, just sitting there."

He is 86 years old now, and no unoccupied land is left to be seen. One light industry seems to blend into the next, one shopping mall into another. "I still live two blocks from my factory," he Says. "I still live two blocks from my ice rink. I came here in 1922 and I never left."

One day he was a mechanical guy trying to figure out a commonsense answer to a mechanical problem. The next day—or so it seems to him—his solution was famous and his name was famous and his company was sending out herds of funny-looking boxy monsters to clean the ice of the world. Yes, he is that Zamboni.

Can there be anyone who doesn't know what a Zamboni is? If you have ever watched a hockey game, if you have watched a big-arena ice spectacular, if you have gone to a small-arena public skating session, if you have had any introduction to any indoor ice sport, you have seen a Zamboni churning around the rink, scraping off old ice and spewing water to make new ice. There are Zambonis in a majority of arenas in North America. There are Zambonis behind the Iron Curtain, Zambonis near China's Great Wall, in Australia, Korea, South Africa. Geography doesn't matter; politics matter even less. Ice is ice.

The operation began humbly enough—with a single icehouse in Paramount. Zamboni made ice there and sold it to the local farmers. "With all the dairy farms, there was a great need for ice to keep the milk cold in the twenties and thirties," says Frank's son, Richard, 54, who is now president of the company. "My dad had been raised in Idaho. Never went past ninth grade. He came out here when he was 21 to join an older brother, who was in the electrical business. Ice making was a sideline for them, and it was doing pretty well. Then widespread use of the home refrigerator came along...."

What do you do if you own a large ice plant and suddenly the sales of home-delivered ice begin melting before your eyes? In the late 1930s the Zamboni brothers found an answer. "Dad and his brother decided to build a skating rink—Iceland—across the street from the icehouse," Richard says. "They ran the ammonia pipes right under the street to the rink. The first idea was to have an outdoor rink, but that didn't work very well in the California heat, so they put a building over it. It's a giant rink, 200 feet by 100. It was built that size only because those are nice round numbers. What did my dad and his brother know about ice rinks?"

Enough to know that they must be cleaned regularly. At most rinks in those days, making a new sheet of ice was a three-or four-man, 1½-hour job. Usually a tractor dragged a plane across the old ice. Workers then cleaned away the snow and scrapings, after which a hose spread water over the rink to make a new surface. (Between periods at hockey games, half a dozen men scraped the ice, which was then sprayed with hot water. The entire process took about 20 minutes.)

To save time and money, in 1942 Zamboni began experimenting with a new method. He had a Jeep behind his ice rink, and he used to tinker with it the way other young California guys tinkered with their cars. "It probably helped that he was out here, away from a lot of other ice rinks," Richard says. "There weren't as many people to tell him what he couldn't do."

Still, the solution didn't come easily. Seven years passed before a finished product of sorts was ready. It had huge wooden sides and a conveyor-belt system to remove the snow. It looked as though it had been built in a fraternity basement as part of some college-humor contest, but it worked. Whirr, whizz, bing, bang, and presto! The ice at Iceland was clean, which was all Zamboni had ever wanted. Then Sonja Henie arrived at his door. The Sonja Henie.

"She lived in Hollywood, and she and her troupe came to the rink to practice for her tour," Richard says. "She saw the machine, liked it, and said she had to have one of her own."

Zamboni assembled Henie's machine behind Iceland. Then he took it apart, put the pieces into a trailer and hitched the trailer to the back of the same Jeep that would serve as the chassis. He began driving the Jeep east from Paramount.

"He was supposed to meet Henie in St. Louis, but by the time he got there, her tour had moved along to Chicago," Richard says. "He followed her there. I flew in and met him. We assembled the machine for her in Chicago Stadium, made sure it worked, then flew home together."

The invention didn't need a salesman. Henie took the machine on the road with her, which meant that arena managers throughout the country saw it. First, the Ice Capades ordered an ice cleaner. Then, rinks in Lynn, Mass., Dallas, Philadelphia and Asbury Park, N.J., wanted them, too.

The first 16 machines sold were Frank J. Zamboni originals. Each one was made by hand and each was different. Zamboni continued to experiment. One model had seven levers an operator had to shift to drive the machine and resurface the rink. The next one had four. The step up to big business came in 1954, when 10 orders were received. Piece-by-piece construction had evolved into quasi-assembly-line production. Zamboni incorporated and tried to register his company as the Paramount Engineering Co. The name was already in use. His second choice was a name he knew he could use. His own.

And what a name it is. Here comes the Zamboni! What? The Zamboni! The name is its own punch line. Why should the name of a machine that resurfaces ice make a person smile any more than a machine that presses pants or collects exact change? It shouldn't, but it does. Zamboni. Zamboni. Zamboni!

"I'll be in some strange city on business," says Richard, "and I'll have a few minutes to kill, so I'll just flip through the phone book to see if there are any Zambonis. There aren't a lot. There are pockets of Zambonis around the country, but it isn't a common name. I don't know what would have happened if a man named Smith had invented this thing."

The Paramount plant employs 35 people, and each year it turns out from 50 to 80 machines. There is a second plant in Canada and a distributor in Europe. All told, by the end of 1986, the company had sold 4,187 Zambonis. The name is so well known throughout the world that it has become a generic term for all ice-resurfacing machines.

Newscasters and sportscasters routinely use the name without explanation. Cartoonists have adopted it. "In case you're interested, there's a Zamboni headed your way," Charlie Brown has shouted from his pitcher's mound to Lucy in the outfield. Students at Michigan Tech University once formed a Zamboni Fan Club and held a Zamboni Day. A thoroughbred named Zamboni, offspring of Sweeping Beauty and Icecapade, won races in New York in the early '80s. Charity drives have been held to raise money to buy Zambonis, and parades to welcome the machine's arrival at local rinks.

Zambonis have been used to clean parking lots after snowstorms. Zambonis have been driven home for lunch. Zambonis have provided the background for between-periods interviews. Zambonis have changed the results of hockey games.

"We're playing Clarkson University at home, and it's about 10 degrees in the rink," Harvard coach Bill Cleary recalls. "The band starts playing that 'Noxzema' song about the stripper. Some kid starts taking off his clothes. He throws his shirt on the ice. The shirt gets stuck in the Zamboni. The Zamboni stops dead. Forty-five minutes later, everything is fixed, but we're frozen to death. Clarkson scores three or four goals, and it's all over for us."

Merely driving the machine confers a certain celebrity. The local newspaper will likely do a story on the town's Zamboni chauffeur. The local PM Magazine show will call. What other operator of a machine receives an ovation when he has finished his work?

"You'll see little kids waving at you," says Bruce Tharaldson, the Zamboni driver at the Met Center in Blooming-ton, Minn. "I try to make them feel good by waving back, but the first couple of times around the rink it's hard. You're doing a lot of things. You're regulating the flow of water, you're controlling the level of the blade as well as the speed of the machine, all with your right hand. It's tricky. Don't do it right and you'll have a swamp. Or you'll dig in the surface and you'll have the officials down on their hands and knees trying to fix a hole. That's a Zamboni driver's nightmare."

A new standard-sized Zamboni costs about $36,000. A small, tractor-pulled model can be bought for $5,000. A giant machine, a third larger than the normal Zamboni—and almost a third more expensive—is being readied to handle the speed skating oval at the 1988 Olympics. Specialty machines have been developed to remove water from artificial turf. Used Zambonis are also in demand. Because they never go faster than nine miles per hour and never travel more than a few very careful miles a day, Zambonis can last a long time.

"The oldest one still in working order is No. 11 at the University of Denver, built in 1952 or '53," says Richard. "We do our best to keep these old machines going. Our biggest problem isn't finding parts for the machines; it's finding parts for the Jeeps that were used for the chassis and engine on the early models."

An Ice Capades company brought the first Zamboni to the Soviet Union in 1961. When the show left Moscow, the Zamboni stayed behind. Since 1968, 20 have been exported to the U.S.S.R. "We're doing very well in China, too," says Richard. "We have 11 machines there now and have orders for more. We have three machines in Hong Kong and 196 in Japan."

What other maintenance machine has its own line of novelties? You can buy one of two Zamboni hats to go with one of three Zamboni shirts. You can get two Zamboni buttons to be worn next to two Zamboni pins, which are not to be confused with the embroidered Zamboni patch. Your car keys can dangle from a Zamboni key chain, and your rear license plate can be framed with the words MY OTHER CAR IS A ZAMBONI. The sides and top of the machine are routinely sold for advertising space, producing as much as $25,000 a year for an arena operator.

No other U.S. manufacturer competes with the Zamboni family, but two companies in Canada and five in Europe do. Are these people making Zambonis, or are they merely making ice-resurfacing machines? "Ice-resurfacing machines," Richard says crisply. "I once heard a man say that his company made a better zamboni than Zamboni. I said, 'Sir, only Zamboni can make a Zamboni.' We think the word always should be capitalized, and we think it should be an adjective, not a noun—a Zamboni machine."

The chassis from the first Zamboni sits in the back of the Iceland rink, still no more than 20 feet from the spot where Zamboni found all the answers. The metal is dark and rusted and looks as if it were left over from a scene in The Road Warrior. A sign describes the exhibit as THE WORLD'S FIRST ICE RESURFACER, and a chain keeps the curious at bay.

New machines are brought to the rink for inspection fresh from the production line. They are driven for several blocks on fat, studded tires down the streets of Paramount, and then they lumber onto the oversized ice surface. They make a few trips around old Iceland, after which they are ready for shipping.

Zamboni père is not much involved with the company these days, but he stops by the rink and the plant at least once a week. "There used to be two tiny towns here," he says, standing in the middle of the newest shopping center, which is across the street from Iceland. "They were called Hynes and Clearwater. I was president of the Kiwanis, and I led a fight to have the two towns consolidated. We chose the name Paramount because of Paramount Boulevard, which went through the middle of the two towns."

He is asked, "Why didn't you call it Zamboni, California? You could have had your name on everything. Man. Machine. Company. Town."

He laughs and says, "Look, we had enough trouble getting everybody to accept Paramount."



A brand-new Zamboni tours the streets of Paramount, the contraption's birthplace.



At Washington Cap games, you'll find John Millsback making his rounds on the ice.



Richard Zamboni (left) and a worker check things out at the home plant in Paramount.











Frank Zamboni got sales help from Henie (1967 photo).


Early Zambonis weren't beauties, but come to think of it, current models aren't either.


A blade (A) scrapes the surface of the ice.

Clean hot water is spread on the ice by a towel (G) behind the conditioner.

After a horizontal screw (B) gathers the shavings, a vertical screw (C) propels them into a snow tank (D).

Water is fed from a wash-water tank (E) to a squeegeelike "conditioner" (F), which smooths the ice. Dirty water is vacuumed, filtered and returned to the tank.