Canada's Muriel Donnellan started three years ago with $75 and a harp ... Now she's practically indispensable to a Hollywood emotional crisis
HOLLYWOOD—Muriel Donnellan had $75 in her pocket, and, as excess baggage, one harp, when she set foot in Hollywood from Canada less than three years ago. She didn’t know there were already 75 professional harpists registered with the casting offices and the radio studios, and that union rules would prohibit her from air or picture appearances for six months to a year after her arrival.
Today she is one of the busiest artists in the movie metropolis. Ten to one when you watch the heroine’s emotional crises in pictures, or sigh with the hearts and flowers interludes on radio programs originating from Hollywood, this Canadian harpist is somewhere in the studio orchestra, helping to stimulate your tear ducts. But between her departure from Toronto and her musical contribution in such pictures as “Madame Curie,” “A Guy Named Joe,” “Going My Way,” and on the air with Frank Sinatra, Burns and Allen, Paul Whiteman, Harry James, Dinah Shore and such, lies a long and hard, but never dull, trail. It was a trail taken by a woman who has supported herself since she was 13, and spent less than $200 on all the music lessons she has ever had.
I first saw Muriel Donnellan, one morning at seven o’clock, at a national network radio studio in the heart of Hollywood. She was playing in the three-piece orchestra that accompanied the day-to-day emotional upheavals of a well-known radio serial. This was a particularly sudsy episode, and the music was soft and moving. In the ultramodern, deeply draped studio the organ murmured petulantly, the violin quavered, the heroine whispered huskily into the mike.
The scene was typical Hollywood. And in the midst of it, her strong sensitive fingers sweeping up and down the big golden instrument, sat Muriel Donnellan. She was medium height, h$r untouched fair hair brushed back from her forehead was'getting a little grey , and her grey-blue
eyes and pleasant Canadian face were sweet and kind. In that suave world of make-believe she looked comfortable and unspectacular. She looked, in fact, exactly as though she would push back the harp when she was finished, stand up, trimly straightening her nice, fresh printed frock, and feel around in her market basket for a jar of her mother’s choice raspberry conserve for one of the cast.
After the broadcast we walked across Vine Street to the Hollywood Plaza for breakfast. George Burns came out of the coffee shop as we entered, and Edgar Bergen poked his head in to look for someone. Probably McCarthy. And we sat there talking about her first day in Hollywood, over two years ago.
She had pulled up stakes then for the third time in her life and for the third time she had gone to seek her fortune in a new place. When she arrived in Hollywood she had a brilliant career as a concert and symphonic harpist behind her. She was known from coast to coast in Canada on the concert platform and by radio. But Hollywood was as unaware of her as of the newest little extra girl peering longingly through the studio gates. The determination that made her break the barriers of Hollywood, and find an important place for herself there, was so definitely a part of her childhood and her musical beginnings that we’d best go back to her birthplace in Leamington, Ont., and start the story from there.
orannie Was Inspiration
GRANNIE,” who loved to pain china and listen to the harp exerted a strong influence on the little girl. As far back as she caí remember there were pictures o earthly and ethereal harpist pinned over her crib. Grannie' desire to have one of her owr children become a harpist hadn’i had any measurable success, al though her daughter played the piano, and had married a piant salesman. But Muriel was already tinkering at the piano before sht could walk properly. When hei father died (she was four) the family moved to London and there, at the age of six, she heard her first harpist. From then on if was easy for Grannie to have hei way.
From her first sight and sound of a real golden harp, Muriel’s one dream was to become a great player. She realized that it would be important to learn piano first, and, with a few lessons from a Continued on page 33
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nearby teacher, she absorbed scales and exercises as most children absorb languages. Before she was eight her mother had married again, and the family moved to Wingham, Ont. From then on the child taught music herself, and by the time she was nine was playing accompaniments at local concerts and recitals. When she was 13 she started earning $10 a Sunday playing the Anglican Church organ in Wingham, and was saving toward her real musical education. At 16, with $125 in the bank and her high school course completed, she decided to make the plunge. She went to Toronto.
Always definite about what she wants and how she intends going after it, she decided she would take lessons from Ernest Seitz, and paid $60 for her first course at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Board and room in advance cost another $60, so she had only $5 of her savings left to live on. She had few clothes and went almost nowhere.
While she worked for her A.T.C.M. she earned money enough to keep going by doing “occasional” teaching as a substitute on Toronto public school staffs, and has always been glad that her qualifications weren’t too carefully questioned. There was a teacher shortage, and somehow her grade 12 standing was considered sufficient. She broke records at the Academy, in both time and quality of achievement, and after receiving her A.T.C.M. degree began studying the harp.
Twenty lessons were all she ever had, and from there on she turned teacher. Her career was established, and for a number of years she was resident piano and harp teacher at St. Margaret’s School for Girls.
She paused as we came to this point in her story. “Did you ever want a harp of your own so terribly that you had to have it—and then wonder where you were going to get the money for it?” she asked. The cheapest type of instrument she could find cost $330. That was obviously an unattainable sum, unless some special, spectacular effort was put forward.
It was 1918, just at the close of the war, and people were welcoming home the returning men. Muriel Donnellan decided to write a song. A patriotic song. And she would write it about the
men she knew in Bruce County. So she wrote “Here’s to the Boys of the Hundred and Sixtieth.”
Next came the problem of getting it published. She planned to sell it back home in Bruce County, but Toronto would have to give it body and substance. A music publishing company courteously but firmly explained that it would be quite impossible to publish 1,000 copies of her song on the chance that she would be able to sell them and pay the publishers later. But the girl who had learned piano well enough to teach at eight and was a church organist at 13 didn’t seem to understand. After some hours of “discussion” she admits that the two exhausted and perspiring gentlemen who were unwillingly considering the matter appar: ently decided that if they were to get home for dinner, or the night, they might as well capitulate. She promised to sell 1,000 copies and they promised to publish them.
A short time later she carted home the piles of sheet music and began | mapping out her campaign. Ina whirl j of action, Muriel gathered up another j girl who could play the piano, and i together they went to Walkerton and ! persuaded a store manager to set up | two pianos and leave the doors open. All day they played “Here’sto the I Boys, etc., etc.,” and by five o’clock ! policemen were shepherding the traffic j into lines. By day’s end the fingerI aching maestro had $50. The next day ' was May 24 and there was a big picnic | 25 miles away. Muriel had a piano | hauled to the edge of the picnic grounds and began to play. The songs were sold and the harp was hers.
Played Theatre Organ
It was while teaching music at ; St. Margaret’s that Muriel married. ! Her two sons were born in the first two . years, and in addition to her household ; duties she played the organ a great deal j of the time at one of Toronto’s largest theatres. Eventually she was playing | the harp in the Toronto symphony, j The boys were growing older and her ! husband’s business began to go well. Then the family moved to Vancouver, ; and until 1929 she was happy homej making, teaching and doing concert and symphony work. Then the stock ! market swept away her husband’s j business and before long his health had | failed. It was essential for Muriel to j become again the sole breadwinner.
She listened one night to a network
program from Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, and decided suddenly that the one thing lacking to make Rex Battle’s concert orchestra really complete was a harp. All that was needed, she thought, was to present herself, as she had to the music publishers, and persuade Mr. Battle of his need. She sold her last sizeable possession—her piano—put the boys in a nursery school and took the train East.
She hadn’t much more than carfare when she reached the Union Station and Mr. Battle didn’t immediately appreciate his good fortune. He was not even available for an interview. But Muriel dug up old musical friends, got some “ins” with the orchestra, and surprised Mr. Battle by appearing, complete with harp, at his next luncheon concert. What passed through his mind during that program is not recorded. But by its finish he was sold on Muriel, and for seven years she played with his orchestra.
During her years in that orchestra and the Toronto Symphony and on the concert stage, her sons grew up, attended University of Toronto Schools and just before she left for Hollywood graduated, each at 16, as honor students. Today, one is taking a pilot’s course in the RCAF, while the other is a chief radio officer with the U. S. Merchant Marine.
Alone In Hollywood
The third time Muriel Donnellan plunged into new worlds was when she decided she was ready for Hollywood. A friend gave her a lift to Vancouver and from there she entrained to the movie capital. Again she was alone. The boys (then too young for the services) remained in Canada.
The discovery that she couldn’t work in pictures or radio for six months was a momentary shock. But as soon as she had parked her bag and harp in a boardinghouse Muriel Donnellan was tramping the streets looking for a job. She haunted churches and funeral parlors, and it was in the latter that she found her first chores. Hollywood is a dramatic spot, in life or death, and what more fitting than that those colorful figures who had worked and
acted to the soft liquid strains of the harp should depart this sphere with similarly appropriate incidental music?
Only once did Muriel question this happy fount of manna in the wilderness of a sparse existence. It was on the occasion when a particularly inspired mortician tilted her precariously behind some shrubbery high on a hill above the scene of the final rites. At an appropriate moment soft music was to drift downward from above. It was a splendid and inspiring thought, but just as the cue was given the clump of soft earth into which she had embedded her harp gave way; Muriel and the instrument began to slide slowly downward. Until stability was restored there was a slight pause for station identification.
It took quite a few funerals (at $15 each) to gather enough money to send for her sons. But by resorting to sparse rations and watching the Hollywood crowds as her only entertainment, she managed.
As soon as Muriel had established the six months’ residence required by the union her reputation as a brilliant harpist stood her in good stead. She had never failed to keep contact with the casting offices, and before long was on call for as many hours as she could work.
Today she enjoys her work and her contacts with the movie great and near great with the same zest she felt for her first country fairs. She gets tremendous enjoyment out of such Hollywood fantasies as being dressed and coiffured tip to toe, with minute attention to every detail, for a fleeting scene of an orchestra in which only the highest edge of her harp appears.
She likes the work, the hours of leisure in the California sun between assignments (union rules preclude overcrowding of jobs). Her small house and garden tucked happily in the heart of Hollywood among palms and orange trees and flowering Japanese quince seem like a dream come true. She’s looking forward to the return of her boys from war. Meanwhile nothing ruffles the inner calm and small-town serenity that she has held to through years of struggle and slow uphill advancement.
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