THE CHARM OF CHATTER TELEVISION'S TALKING DOLLS

Peter N. Allison December 15 1962

THE CHARM OF CHATTER TELEVISION'S TALKING DOLLS

Peter N. Allison December 15 1962

OF THE MANY thousands (probably) of good-looking women in Canada who are also pleasant to listen to, about a dozen earn more or less good livings as the talking dolls of television. They arc the girls who smile and chatter from the picture tube, giving forth a seemingly endless supply of bubbling good humor and unprofound but palatable things to say, forecasting weather, introducing entertainment, interviewing celebrities and generally just being their entrancing selves. They add an occasional touch of glamour to such programs as the CBC’s interview show Close-Up. They are the very essence of others like CTV’s lighthearted late-evening potpourri, Network. No panel show can survive without at least one of them, and they have been a prime ingredient in the current ebullience of midnight talk programs, headed by the Pierre Berton Hour.

This is all right. For some reason it is also uniquely Canadian. U. S. television, which is what Canada's must inevitably be compared with, seems to have divided itself into two categories. Most of it is sheer pap: westerns, saccharin music and undramatic drama—where there is no room for anyone but the pitchmen to talk. What’s left is so selfconsciously serious that anyone without horn-rimmed glasses and a mustache is out of work. But in Canada — good old staid Canada with its good old staid CBC (and of course its not-so-good, not-soold, not-so-staid CTV) — neither the supply nor the demand for talking dolls seems yet to have approached its limit. The six whose pictures accompany this report are perhaps the most conspicuous at the moment (there is room for argument here), but they are closely followed by at least six others. And for every one who steps down, as the elegant Toby Robins did this season, there seem to be at least six more willing and able to move in. “These girls aren't really very smart,” says the Toronto entertainment commentator and TV panelist Gordon Sinclair. “They haven't very much to tell us. But it's obvious that the public wants them.”

Why? What are the differences between this elite of professionals, who can earn upwards of fifteen thousand dollars a year just by being themselves, and the thousands (probably) of amateurs who can’t? Aside from their beauty, what do the talking dolls have?

The man who knows more about the answers to those questions than any other Canadian is Ross McLean. McLean is now in commercial television, where one of the things he does is produce the Berton show. Before that he was a bold and controversial producer for the CBC, where one of the things he did was introduce talking dolls into television.

Elaine Bedard, who was the most successful model in Montreal at 22, has since had a fling at a whole hatful of other careers. As singer, actress, journalist and owner of a modeling school, she’s had varying success. This fall she took a course in meteorology and added an oola-Ia charm to the nightly weather news on eastern 'TV. Now 25, she is a fairly regular guest on the Pierre Berton Hour. Its producer says he thinks she’s “wholesome.”

Denyse Angé has $7,000 worth of clothes. She earned the money by singing in French, English and Spanish from the Gaza Strip to the Arctic. In I960 she took up acting (in English). Now she is hostess of a nightly CTV program called Network. on which she sings infrequently, clowns and talks. On her weekly CBC show, called Going Shopping, she just talks.

TALKING DOLLS "Not much to tell us, but the public likes them"

“The most important quality for someone who wants to talk for the camera,” he says, “is total naturalness, a commodity that is much scarcer than you might think. The slightest attempt to affect a manner, assume a charm, create an air (no kidding; McLean really talks like this) will be picked up by the camera and will be disastrous. It is a very rare person who can resist trying to do these things.”

McLean introduced his — and Canada’s — first talking doll in 1953. She was Elaine Grand, then a fashion illustrator and a friend of the producer's. “What first attracted me to her was her charm and ability as a hostess,” he says, “and I thought it was a shame that Elaine should be confined to just one living room.” He put her into several thousand others via Tabloid, a news and interview program he was then building in eastern Canada, and she turned out to have, as well as the rare quality of naturalness McLean was seeking,

a great gift for drawing other people out of themselves on camera. When Miss Grand left for England in 1956, she had made the talking doll so much a part of Tabloid (which is still on the air, under the name 701), that McLean set out immediately to find a replacement. His first choice, a girl called Paisley Maxwell, left after six months to have a baby, but his second, Joyce Davidson, a chocolate-box blonde beauty with a serene manner and a quick mind, went on to become, for a while, the most successful talking doll in history. When Miss Davidson retired from TV this year, after trying unsuccessfully to repeat her Canadian success in the U. S., she left behind her a record that will be hard to top: earnings from television of close to fifty thousand dollars a year—without ever being able to sing, dance, act or yodel.

This tradition of apparent talentlessness in the talking doll business,

however, did not last long. Anna Cameron, who came close on the heels of Miss Davidson and Miss Grand (and was. indeed, a contender for the Tabloid job in '56), was an actress doll before she became a talking doll. So were Toby Robins and Toby Tarnow, who now plays left wing on the CBC's panel show To Tell the Truth. Elaine Bedard, our cover girl and "one of the family” of the Berton Hour, was a model doll; Denvsc Ange, hostess of the CTV show Network, w'as a singing one. Perhaps the only girl now' working as a talking doll who did not display a specific talent for something else first is Joan McCormick, a former journalism student, publicist, instructor of models and fashion commentator, w'ho now produces a daily CTV women's show called Here's Looking at You, and appears on it as a sort of spear-carrier for the host. "I just gradually got to know the right people.” Miss McCormick said recently, "and I appeared on some panel shows. 1 got a real break when 1 was asked to work as hostess on Better Late." Better Late was a midnight talk program that used to appear on Toronto’s commercial station CFTO. before the days of the Pierre Berton Hour, and after her week there Miss McCormick began to get more appearances—on the Berton show, among others.

But if their backgrounds are different. the talking dolls have a few qualities in common, as 1 learned in a recent and enjoyable series of interviews. One quality is that they arc, as Ross McLean had implied, very much the same off camera as they are on it—something that is not true of all actors or comedians, for instance. Another is that they are all thoroughly professional, and, perhaps because of that, thoroughly and refreshingly honest about themselves. Toby Tarnow. for instance, an experienced and businesslike actress w'ho readily admits that much of the w'ork she takes on is simply for the money, says: “I know I'm no wit. I'd look silly trying to make clever remarks on To Tell the Truth. But I'm reasonably bright and fairly knowledgeable about a few subjects. I just play the game and enjoy it and hope

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‘Tm happiest when we talk of things I know a little about — like men” — Elaine Bédard

that my enjoyment comes through.” Joan McCormick says: “It’s vital that you know exactly what your abilities are, and exploit them.” Anna Cameron: “I haven't got good features, but ever since 1 was a child I've been taught to dress well and to be feminine. I have a natural curiosity about people, and I suppose that makes me a good interviewer, but I can't fence with people and if they are too clever, like Peter Ustinov was in an interview I did this fall, I look bad. There may be some parts of myself that 1 hold back from the camera, but I certainly don't try to add anything.” Denyse Angé: “I am a doer, not a thinker. I can't stand inefficiency around me. I work hard at what 1 do and I expect others to do the same. For instance, I have a clipping service that I pay four dollars a month for, and sometimes they miss the most obvious things. I was on the cover of the Star Weekly and they didn't even send me that. Sometimes 1 have to phone them three and four times to get them to do something.” (If this statement makes Miss Angé sound either hardened or conceited, let me quickly add that she is neither. She is in person as she appears on television: an unmannered, straightforward and completely nice girl. But, having fought her way up from Quebec City’s Lower Town, singing in some fairly rugged night clubs on the way, and overcoming an automobile accident that should have killed her and did keep her in and out of hospital for a year, she is, at twenty-five, a veteran trouper.) Elaine Bédard says: “I’m happiest on a conversation show when we’re talking about something I know a little about, like fashion, or charm, or men. When I was in Toronto to do the first Pierre Berton show a man came up to me afterward, he had a master’s degree in psychology or something, and he said: ‘Why do you think you can say anything about love?’ I said you do not need a degree to talk about love, even a marriage degree, do you not think so? I am interested in the human side of things, and why should I try to be anyone but myself?”

Why indeed, if you are Elaine Bédard? Miss Bédard, at twenty-five, has now become Canada's first answer to the Brigitte Bardot-Marilyn MonroeZsa Zsa Gabors of other nations. Unlike the other talking dolls, she is not very introspective, and she is not a deep thinker, but what the hell, she is a bomb. She buys her underwear in Paris, has two poodles, likes good food (but cannot cook), is writing a book on modeling, which will be published this winter and tries to improve her English, which may be a mistake, since her accent is part of her charm. Once she said: “To me, English is an enema,” but she has since learned the word is pronounced enigma and says it that way—Elaine insists that she is what she appears to be: a beautiful girl who enjoys life, and if she never says anything worth knowing on the television set, few viewers, males at

any rate, will worry. Ross McLean, who has brought her onto the Pierre Berton Hour, thinks her charm is that “in spite of the wild hairdo and the pouting looks, she comes across as a refreshingly wholesome girl.”

It is fairly certain that there will not be another Bédard along for a while, but there are a number of talking dolls who have not yet been mentioned in this piece and deserve to be.

► Betty Kennedy, who has replaced Toby Robins on the CBC panel show Front Page Challenge, is a journalist turned radio-commentator—the critic Alex Barris has said she has the most beautiful voice in Canada — turned talking doll. She may be off the show briefly when you read this, since she is expecting her fourth child as I write it. but she will be back there and undoubtedly elsewhere on TV.

► Donnalu Wigmore is a farmer's daughter from Oxbow, Sask., who was

chosen from her job as a “research drudge” to appear as a talking doll on the CBC’s Flashback. She enjoyed the most meteoric rise to fame in the Toronto press since Eric Nesterenko scored three goals in his first game as Maple Leaf, but after six weeks of the program, she was dropped. Nesterenko, however, was dropped from the big time shortly after his debut, and he has made it back. Most television people are convinced Donnalu will too. She has already had a few appearances on 701 and — this makes it almost a sure thing — Ross McLean is interested in her as a talking doll for the Berton show.

► Pam Hyatt is a charmingly kooky actress doll who works in revues, and as a publicist, and tours for the troops and is just getting started as a talking doll, but she is pretty and funny and is one to watch.

And then, of course, there are still thousands (probably) of others. ★