Learning, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life So Far #8 – Live Theatre

The next few years are something of a blur in terms of media.  There was a lot going on in my personal life – marrying in 1969 and moving to New York City, where my husband was a student at the General Theological Seminary, one of those for the Episcopal Church, and later to Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Live theatre has always been part of media and this was my chance to participate. Just after my first son was born in 1961, I landed lead roles in the seminary’s productions of Our Town and in the following year, the title role in Iolanthe. The seminary had a tradition of presenting dramas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in alternate years.

Clergy in training were natural hams and many were excellent singers, while some had also been on stage in both amateur and summer stock productions before entering the seminary. It’s important to note that this gave me an opportunity to work with two professional directors of note.  Cynthia Belgrave was taking a break from her role as Adelaide Bobo in the first New York production of Genet’s The Blacks and Dorothy Raedler was the director of the American Savoyards who did the seminary a favour of directing its G&S productions because she liked working with the students.

Our Town coverWhen I went to the audition for Our Town, I had the peculiar experience of knowing that I was going to get the lead role of Emily. The competitors in the waiting room were wives of students or tutors so the field was limited, and I was the only one who could possibly pass as 12 years old in the first act. I knew the play well after acting as prompter for my high school production. As well as that knowledge, I had the advantage of being a new mother.  In act three of the play, the character has died in childbirth and her entry into another world gives her some perspective on the real one.

Ms Belgrave was an intense director and I remember her as a very angry black woman. At the time I thought she didn’t like me, but in retrospect she was just working desperately to help me express a greater emotional range.  I didn’t know until recently that she was the first black woman ever to clerk in a downtown Boston department store, so her anger in 1961 was probably well justified. She also acted in the plays of James Baldwin and Wole Soyinka as well as that of Genet; she did note that spending some time with Thornton Wilder was a good respite from the intensity of The Blacks. In later life she played many roles in TV series including a librarian in Law and Order.

She was rough on me but fair, and I grew in the process.  In the final act of Our Town, where Emily has an amazing soliloquy of praise for the miracle of life, the audience stopped the show with applause on the last night. I remember thinking, “She did that right” as though the applause was for the character and not for me – or perhaps for the director.  Cynthia was there for that final performance and gave me a hug with the words, “You finally came through”.

IolantheThe G&S productions nearly always imported the leads, who got a chance to try out the roles before appearing on the professional stage. One of the contraltos actually got a better professional part and everyone moved up one step. So I emerged from the trio to the larger title role. These productions were performed for three consecutive nights and with no proscenium stage available they were presented in the round.  That was a good preparation for multimedia though the word had yet to enter anyone’s vocabulary.

As a director Dorothy Raedler was, in contrast, all joviality and approval. She had started her own theatre company in 1939; it became the American Savoyards  in 1952 and was a highly regarded fixture in the New York musical world through the late 1960’s.  In our amateur production we had to learn simple dance routines as well as acting and singing.  The men’s chorus was up to the challenge but Miss Raedler’s experiments with the women’s chorus generally had to scale back.

One of the things about experiences like these was to learn the number of players who are necessary to the production above and beyond the performers. Many roles were duplicated or done capably by volunteers – costumers, stage crew, publicists, marketers, front of house. The music director also served as vocal coach and rehearsal pianist.Compared to modern TV or moving production the numbers were miniscule. When visiting LA some years ago and attending a movie, I noticed that no one left before the credits. Everyone knows someone who plays a part.

Learning, Reflection

My Media Life So Far #7 – Back to the Classroom

As an English major I assumed I was either going to be a secondary school teacher or work for a publisher for a pittance. It wasn’t hard to get a teaching job in those days. Fifteen hundred of us went through ten weeks of preliminary training in the summer of 1959 while an equal number went through the winter course.  One had to have a job in order to get into the summer program and the principal of the school who hired me actually cooked the advertisement to say that the applicant had to have an honours degree in English and also sponsor the school yearbook. As new grads, we all thought we were pretty smart to get jobs so easily.  The truth was that anybody with a pulse could be hired.  A significant number of baby boomers had just turned fourteen and were flooding the school system.

The collegiate in the west end of Toronto had a principal who had been an athlete and now was also a radio sports commentator.  We could hardly recognize the semi-celebrity as the same person who sounded so solemn on the school announcements. Most classes I taught were pretty kind to the fledgling pedagogue but one class gave me a hard time. The principal came in to check me out, and after telling me about their previous capers and court appearances asked, “What makes you think you can control them when no one else ever has?”  The class and I  did come to a kind of peaceful coexistence and when I left, they insisted on presenting their class picture at the closing assembly.

10E cropped

Reflection, remembering

My media life so far #6 – College

Trinity Review 1957 cropped


I was now part of this print media world.  It allowed me as a freshman to be accepted as a member of  the board of the Review, my college’s literary magazine at the University of Toronto. This was primarily a literary publication that specialized to a large extent in the arrogant pomposity of the young, many of whom were on the board – but a quick view of some past issues shows some interesting undergrads who later became writers, actors, dancers – Austin Clarke, Adrienne Poy, (who would later in life become Canada’s Governor General), Elizabeth Binks, James Mainprize, James Cunningham. I found a sonnet of my own which borrows heavily from both Blake and Wordsworth as well as two much better poems by my husband to be, David Bolton.  The summer issues summarize life at the college. Most issues also devoted several pages to the births, deaths and marriages of the college alumni.

The pictures of the board again show an interesting mix of people – including an alumni representative, who we thought was pretty cool, because even though he was a business man he had hair reaching his shoulders. We didn’t recognize that Lyman Henderson’s business produced cheques for all the major financial institutions in the country. He continued to move with the times and was happily blogging at the end of his life.

dittoThere was another publication produced known as Salterrae by a less effete group of undergrads  (The college yell began with the words, “We are the salt of the earth”) – though there was a small amount of crossover in the writers.  It was produced late Sunday night for distribution first thing Monday via a copier system known as Ditto. Invented in 1923 and still used into the 1950s this spirit duplicator had alcohol solvents that enhanced  the alcohol contents of the writers; and anyone near to the ditto presses will remember both the odour and the terrible purple print it produced. But Ditto was cheap and worked well for the limited number of copies that were eagerly grabbed on Monday morning. At least here the general pomposity was attacked with enthusiasm.

Creating, Learning, media, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life So Far #5 – High School

A new awakening dawned in the middle of High School with the arrival of John Smallbridge as a English teacher at Kitchener Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. Within weeks he became the sponsor of a brand new school newspaper, named Veritas Vincat, after the school motto.  It attracted all the media and artsy types – several from the drama club, always keen for opportunities for self-expression.  The staff included three students who had their own local weekly radio shows. John also identified some of the more thoughtful and introverted students as potential sources of poetry entries. Photographers came out of the woodwork. This was exciting. Many of them went on to be Canada’s journalists, television producers, and authors – Sam Levene and John Robert Columbo among them –  from this one local secondary school.

KCII was a minor player but it did land me the editorship of the Centennial Year Book in 1954-55. Because of the anniversary year, we had a bigger budget and a velvet cover – a bad choice because the over-hanging edges immediately became bent.  These were exciting times to edit.  One had to read copy prepared by the Commercial Department typing classes, send them back for correction, send the galley proofs to the printer, have them returned for correction, send back the second proofs, ensure that the right photos and bios were arranged for the 200 grads in a school of over 1800 students, the class pictures, the clubs and teams – not to mention a host of local advertisers. It was a real education for the 31 student editors, 28 advertising staff, the 8 clerical staff who typed copy connected with every photo, and the 2 students who handled circulation.  And two teachers stayed late most nights after school with extra help from nine of their colleagues to help us coordinate all this.

media, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life so far #4

215px-On_the_Town_poster (2)But this was the era of movies and radio. Parents cheerfully sent their kids on their own to double bills at the Lyric, the Capitol or the Fox every Saturday afternoon. Only the newsreels in advance of the shows gave us any indication that there was a war on. We did buy war saving stamps at school, but ration books concerned only our mothers, and there was never any sense of being deprived.  The featured films at first were frequently westerns for those afternoon matinees, but later they became musicals and my greatest fantasy was to dance with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

Nancy Drew

We liked receiving mail at the door. Jack and Jill arrived monthly; and hard copy series like, The Bobbsey TwinsNancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and the novels of L. M. Montgomery were later eclipsed by movie magazines featuring the latest clothes and romances of those unattainable beauties who always ended up with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

Radio croppedOn weekend evenings we dutifully sat by the radio to listen to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly – all whom our parents thought were hilarious – though our sensibilities, refined by the movies, were already rejecting these buffoons as lame.  Personal technologies started with gifts of brownie cameras and we shot photos of parents, siblings and pets with much delight.

Television brought a new world of black and white talking heads into our homes.  Mothers watched soaps and eventually we joined our parents for Jack Benny, who had moved to television or Perry Como or the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts.   Our awakening interest in the opposite sex (and perhaps the same sex, though at that time no one would have dared to reveal it) competed.

Learning, Reflection

My media life so far #3 – Early Childhood

Writing book - CopyThere were books always – first to be read to and eventually to read by one’s self.  School also added writing – first in script and later in cursive. Penmanship was a subject.  Letters to Santa and diaries became part of the experience. My father had become manager of a local insurance company as its thirteenth employee – lucky for him in fact because later he became its president and chairman of a company that is now one of Canada’s larger property and casualty ones. He had befriended the local printing shop and provided a set of letterhead for six year olds who attended the local school entitled, The Suddaby Girls – designating myself as president, and classmates in traditional offices. We are naïve to think that we are not programmed for our future very early in life.

photo(5)The rest of grade school is something of a blur. Even then though, one’s life was subject to social media; and the 1943 newspaper published the names of all children who had passed to the next grade in school. It shows how small the reach of the media world was, when a local paper could devote a couple of  full pages to the results of every grade school classroom in a twin city market of about 60,000 people.  What it may say is that local newspapers really were social media then.  To this day I can put a face to about 90% of the names on this class list.  It helps to have retained the earlier kindergarten picture where my father helpfully wrote the names on the kids on the back of it.  I also ran into 9 of those same kids at the 125th reunion of my high school 37 years later.

Reflection, remembering, Technology

My Media History 2 – Earliest Years

Royal VisitFlashback to my first clear memory.  I am a toddler held high in a crowd to see a long train arrive in the local station in Kitchener Ontario.  It is 1939.  On the back of the train are a couple, a lady in a pink dress standing beside a man whose attire is of much less interest.  Both are waving and everyone in the crowd is waving back. It’s exciting and it will be covered in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, the local newspaper as the visit of their majesties, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. We were lucky to see them.

Colours in the DarkFlash ahead to the 1970’s when my 10 year old son appears in the National Arts Centre Ottawa production of Colours in the Dark, a kind of Canadian equivalent to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, when dramatist, James Reaney, covers the same event in Stratford Ontario – long before its famous drama festival. In the sequence – “When the Queen came to Stratford”, a similar crowd gathered but the train forgot to stop and roared right through.  Reaney probably enjoyed finding that event recorded in the Stratford newspaper too.

The year before school I spent a lot of time dancing to 78 rpm recordings that my mother had to change every three minutes or so.  Bizet’s L’Arlessiene Suite #1 figured heavily along with other traditional ballet music, though I am sure that the motivation on my mother’s part was appreciation of classical music, rather than dance. She had studied singing in New York City and started to prepare for a career in classical music. It was delayed when her sister had a second baby and she came to their home in Parry Sound to help. In limited free time, she took the lead in the local Gilbert and Sullivan production, The Sorcerer, where my father was singing the baritone lead. So I exist partly because of the influence of a British Victorian Operetta. Both parents continued to sing and my mother was an amazing piano player, who could play jigs and reels by herself without the benefit of guitars, fiddles and mandolins accompanying her. She honed this talent earlier by playing for exercise classes at Queen’s University in Kingston – because of course there were no record players.