Four years ago, Anthony Thompson of Bladensburg applied for a job as a guard at a College Park ice skating rink. But Thompson, then 18, didn't know how to skate.
The rink manager told him he would need a lot of practice on the ice before he could scoop up fallen skaters and control the crowds. Thompson needed the job, so he borrowed a pair of skates and, on his own, began to practice . . . and practice . . . and practice.
"I started getting better and better," he recalls. Within three months he was skating well enough to get the guard's position.
These days he rarely has time to don skates at the Prince George's rink. Since December, Thompson has been keeping company with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Pinocchio as a chorus skater in the national traveling troupe, "Disney on Ice," run by Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Nobody in the cast has glided into success as quickly as Thompson.
A 1977 graduate of Bladensburg Senior High School, he called his upbringing "sheltered." Until he was 16, he lived with his family on a North Carolina tobacco farm and spent most of his spare time working in the fields.
"I hadn't even heard of ice skating then. I was naive about many things when I moved to the city Bladensburg ," said Thompson. "That was my whole life as a kid, picking tobacco."
After alternating years between living with his grandparents in North Carolina and his mother, Daizie, in Washington, Thompson and his sister, Lajuanna, 21, moved to Bladensburg in 1973.
His father, Robert, works as a conductor with the B & O railroad in Baltimore. His mother and sister are postal employes.
After Thompson began working as a skating rink guard, the rink manager encouraged him to take lessons. The rink professionals soon spotted his natural abilities, too.
"He's exceptionally strong and really reached a level of confidence at a very fast pace," said Greg Bell, who has taught Thompson for the past 1 1/2 years. "He has a great body for skating."
Thompson, who is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds, talked about his early days as a skater, saying: "I didn't find it hard. It came kind of natural after a while, I suppose."
In February 1979, he arrived nervously at the D.C. Armory for his first audition for a spot in a professional ice show. His rejection from "Holiday on Ice" was the first of four he received during the next two years. Each time he was told he was good, but not good enough, and Thompson immediately returned to the rink for more practice. His determination paid off late in 1981 when "Disney on Ice" told him he was hired and had two weeks to join the cast in Philadelphia.
"I feel like a professional now. I have pride in my skating," he said. However, acquiring confidence wasn't easy "when you're rejected as many times as I was. . . . I just really didn't think I had it."
In the basement of his family's carefully decorated, split-level home, Thompson's three skating medals are displayed on the bookshelf. (He won every local contest he entered.) They rest near his awards for sharpshooting, disco dancing, drum playing and achievement in high school student government.
Skating in as many as 13 shows a week for 49 weeks a year has forced Thompson to postpone his return to college. He studied for two years at the University of Maryland, but quit school when it became too difficult to work full time and attend classes.
Thompson said he refused to accept money from his parents to pay for college because he wanted to cover the costs himself. Among other positions, he worked in a bank, at Bolling Air Force Base and as a letter carrier. Even now, during an unusual 2 1/2-month vacation while changes are being made in the show, Thompson does office work in a Prince George's law firm.
"I've worked three jobs at a time for most of my life. If I didn't work I'd have so much time, I wouldn't know what to do with it. This vacation is killing me. It's too long," he said.
Russell Shipley, a Landover attorney, met Thompson when he was a guard who would show the three Shipley children maneuvers at the local rink. The attorney eventually invited Thompson to work at his law office. By last fall, Thompson was working full time for Shipley, who offered to pay the bill for a paralegal course.
"He's a bright person," Shipley said, and could probably get into law school if he finishes college. But when the "Disney on Ice" offer came through, Shipley said he did not hesitate to offer Thompson the following advice: "For God's sake, follow your heart and not your mind. When you're young you should do what you want to do.
"If he wants to he could probably have a career with "Disney on Ice" for a good 10 years," Shipley added.
Thompson hopes to remain with the show for five years, and is especially excited about traveling to Australia and Japan next year when the production goes on an international tour. The skater said he enjoys traveling, but said it can get lonely when "you get stuck out in the middle of nowhere . . . like Pittsburgh."
During his first season with the show, Thompson earned $265 a week. This year he gets a raise to $305 a week. There was a trace of annoyance in his voice when he spoke of the penalty system "Disney on Ice" officials set up to maintain order among cast members. Performers are charged up to $65 for chewing gum, arriving late or acting unprofessionally during a performance.
He added that there is one other rule for every skater: "Make sure you keep your smile on your face."