Judy Sladky (LITE) - Champion Ice Dancer, Snoopy, & Alice Snuffleupagus

Episode Description: Host Abigail Wright sits down with Judy Sladky, world ice dancing champion and actress hand-picked by Charles Schulz to play Snoopy in real life. They discuss competing during the Cold War, seeing the world through the eyes of a dog, ignoring the negativity of others, and more.

To hear what Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, was like, how Judy as Snoopy flew in zero-gravity and on a trapeze (among other feats) with no peripheral vision and paws for hands, working with Billie Jean King on Title IX, and more, visit us at www.patreon.com/peaceofpersistence, where you can subscribe to our podcasts for ad-free episodes with double the content. 

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Intro: Judy Sladky is an American actress and former competitive ice dancer from Indianapolis, Indiana. With her skating partner, Jim Sladky, she became a four-time World medalist and five-time U.S. national champion. Handpicked by Charles Schulz, she debuted as Snoopy in the TV special Snoopy’s Musical on Ice and has been playing Snoopy, on the ice and off, ever since. This includes, among countless events and appearances: doing trapeze, backflips on trampolines, flying in zero gravity, and acting in the 1996 comedy film Jingle All the Way starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. On Sesame Street, she was the performer of little Alice Snuffleupagus since the Muppet's debut in 1986, operating the mouth within the suit, and also providing the voice, while another puppeteer controls the eyes via remote control. Judy currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, Blake Norton.

Show Summary: When did you know you wanted to be an ice skater? Judy started skating at 3 years old. Her sister had started taking classes in the Keane Cutters in Indianapolis. Since back in the 1950's, her grandfather wanted them to get involved in athletics, and little girls commonly swam, did gymnastics, and ice skated, her sister started ice skating. As a 3 year old, Judy pleaded with her mother for her own skates.

What was that like for you, growing up and becoming a competitive ice dancer? She didn't go the normal route. Loving dancing and wanting to share the experience with a partner, she didn't have to wake up to skate early like the competitive figure skaters because the dancers practiced later in the day. It also didn't come with the same financial promises, because it wasn't as popular at the time in the U.S. She went to school full time and was a cheerleader, a majorette, in the theatre club and in the girls club. She didn't have to miss out on the things other figure skaters missed.

Do you have any favorite stories from that time? The most interesting part about competition at the time was being introduced to the Eastern block countries during the Cold War.

What did you experience over there at that time? She found herself at some parties where, as a westerner, she was instructed to hide. At 16, she had no idea why, but she quickly became aware that some people use competition as a means to leave their country, make some money, and to meet people to see what was outside of the "Iron Curtain."

My neighbor, Inessa is a lovely young ice skater who is competitive and wants to go to the nationals soon. Do you have any advice for young ice skaters who want to compete? Judy says she never felt as though she competed against anyone. She never worried about which judge to impress or how many points she needed to get to the next rank, but she just enjoyed skating and figuring out the mechanics of it and how to improve.

It sounds like you were able to let go of a lot of the insecurities many experience with competitiveness or interacting with others. Judy was aware of her height difference, as a 4'10" figure skater. Most skaters were taller. Otherwise, she just wanted to meet people and learn about their cultures and countries. She loved to ponder the differences, such as why the west wore brighter colors, while countries like Russia and East Germany wore mostly black, brown, and grey.

Judy says she thinks she always comes from more of a place of curiosity, loves to learn, and loves to think things through on more than just the surface level.

Was it hard to transition into being a professional? In figure skating back then, once you took any money at all for figure skating, you were a professional. Judy says the major difference was that as a professional, you were no longer judged by anyone but the audience. Even if she fell, she could look back and laugh with them. She said she felt she had to let them know she knew she'd fallen so they could move forward and laugh at it together. We talk about acknowledging a fall and moving on.

Tell me about meeting Charles Schulz. What had you been doing at the time? In 1969, she was the national ice dancing champion with her partner, Jim Sladky. At that time, the ice rink in Charles Schulz' town, in Santa Rosa, had burned down. He and his kids (from Minnesota) loved to skate. He and his wife at the time, Joyce, decided to build a new rink, inviting all of the national champions from the U.S. to skate at the opening. She attended, and during that time, they became good friends. At the time, although she knew what Charles Schulz did, she grew up without having Peanuts in the Indianapolis Star paper and wasn't familiar with the strip at all, or the characters. They would talk, and he often would say that she was just like Snoopy. After she'd met him, she went into the Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies, where Jim Henson had brought the Muppets. After Judy initiated the conversation that she wanted to skate as a Muppet, "Sparky" Charles Schulz called and said, "Will you be my dog?" She's been "the beagle" ever since.

How hard was it to get used to wearing the suit at first? You've done some really active stuff in it! Judy still likes to believe it isn't really a suit and says that if she can believe that, then anybody can. Snoopy decides what to do and can (and does!) do anything, like backflips.

She only talks about the suit for people who don't believe. When she first started working with characters, Judy found out that she was claustrophobic.

Is his widow ok, and what happened with all of his memorabilia? The Charles M. Schulz museum was fine, about 3 blocks from the fire. Thankfully, his widow, Jean, had put together this museum years ago, and over 95% of his work has been saved. At the museum, they did fundraisers for the fire victims, and Snoopy now has a new first responders hat. Because you can't originate a new look for Snoopy, they had to make sure the hat was represented in the original strips. They found a strip from 1969 where Lucy had thrown Schroeder's piano into the tree. Linus screams for help, and Snoopy comes in with his rescue hat. She says she designed the hat, and her talented husband Blake made it.

What's your favorite part about playing Snoopy? Meeting people. Listening. Snoopy does a lot of work with the army, and the sad stories make Judy feel almost as good as the happy ones. When they were over in Germany, she and Snoopy were doing a holiday show with the USO, and she met a man who was in shock, recently back after being deployed for a time. When he saw Snoopy, he realized he was home.

Judy says nothing beats the love she's able to give when she holds someone who's just lost their father, or just graduated from high school, or anything. Snoopy doesn't talk back or give advice, he just holds them and loves them. She believes listening is the best thing you can do in this world.

We discuss the gift she has of being able to receive pure love from strangers as Snoopy, something reserved usually for dogs and babies, and she loves that Snoopy really listens to people without judgment. She believes in Snoopy more than anyone else.

And you played Alice Snuffleupagus for nearly a decade... What was it like working on Sesame Street? Judy says the best thing about Sesame Street is that's how she met her husband, Blake, who worked in sound on the show. She says Alice Snuffleupagus was very difficult, with a falsetto voice and a heavy head, neck stretched and on all fours - hands and feet (not knees). She says it was fun and although she didn't experience it as as much fun as Snoopy, because there wasn't as much immediate interaction with people. She said it was amazing though, to meet people like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson.

What does happiness mean for you? Not letting others' negativity get to her. She's very aware of when people say things to stop her. Not letting the people who are afraid of failure make her think that she can't. She talks about the importance of holding onto happiness and helping others around you to do the same. Sometimes, she holds onto it by determination. Sometimes, she reminds herself of something like the little child telling Snoopy she loves him when she's feeling scared or down. Snoopy's always happy, so she'll use him too.

Do you have any other advice for us? Keep learning. Learn everything you can, because you never know when it'll come in handy. In his first musical on ice, Snoopy played the piano from Casablanca. So Judy learned the fingering for "As Time Goes by." She recommends really thinking about what you want to do, not just going on autopilot.

Thank you for joining us today on The Peace of Persistence. If you're listening in real-time, it's just a few days before the new year, and I'm wishing all of you a very happy and successful 2018! It's been an amazing season so far since we started back up in September, and I'm so grateful to everyone who has tuned in, shared us, supported us, and told us how much you love the show. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I'm so excited to keep going into the new year with some great interviews, including a voice-over artist, an incredible actor and coach, a prolific wedding photographer, a personal trainer, actor, and writer, and the founder of the world's first virtual sexual health clinic! It's going to be an exciting time. Don't forget, if you know anyone you think would be a good fit for the show, point them to www.peaceofpersistence.com to learn more, or email us at peaceofpersistence@gmail.com. Thanks as always, and we'll see you in 2018!