Talking toads are real to children who hear Mary Grannan’s radio tales, for they’re real to Mary, too
At 1.15 on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 24, 1939, Canadians who had their radios tuned to a CBC Trans-Canada Network station heard a 15-minute story about David, who wanted to be a cowboy, and a lamb that wanted to be a pony. They heard how the two of them used a little Irish imagination and magic and got their wishes.
Children listening to the story were entranced. Parents, who were pretty fed up with the children s radio fare of blood and thunder chillers, were overjoyed to hear a children’s story told with such charm, humor and that quality that can best, be described as sparkle.
I he Cowboy and the Pony” began a CBC series of Just Mary stories which have been heard at the same time for 42 Sundays a year ever since. During that time Mary Evelyn Grannan has beguiled "very young listeners and others, too,” with some 330 original stories "written and told by herself.” And Just Mary has never repeated a story.
Besides, as the CBC’s director of children’s broadcasts, Mary Grannan manages to keep at least one other regular weekly series on the go, such aH The Children's Scrapbook, The Land of Just Supposin’ or The Adventures of Maggie Muggins. These she writes, directs and frequently acts in. She also tells an original story every evening for three weeks at Easter and Christmas. She is the author of five best-selling collect ions of children’s stories.
In her spare time she lectures on radio acting and writing throughout the country.
Like most radio personalities, Mary Grannan doesn’t look like her voice sounds. She is a plump, rather tall woman in her late thirties, who dresses almost always in black and has a weakness for oversized metal earrings and bracelets and for extravagant hate which she has designed. She has a rather sharp nose, a broad forehead, thick rather frizzy dark hair which she brushes back, and blue eyes.
Adults Listen, Too
UST MARY averages about 500 fan letters a week from all parte of Canada and many points in the U. S.
Most of the letters come from small fry who like Just Mary and her stories and want to tell her about it. Like this one from John Davis of Ottawa: "Dear Just Mary,
You have a lovely voice and you tell swell stories. Please send me your picture.”
Mary received so many of these requests for pictures and personal information that she wrote and illustrated a brief brochure about herself. In less than two years the CBC sent out over 50,000 in answer to requests.
Many parents know it is hard to get children to do anything else when Just Mary is on the air. A Sunday-school superintendent in Amherst, N.S., wrote to say children stayed home to listen to the stories until a radio was installed in the Sunday-school room. Then attendance doubled.
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Talking toads are real to children who hear Mary Grannan’s radio tales, for they’re real to Mary, too
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But not all Mary’s fans are children. From the beginning the stories have had tt large audience of adults, particularly servicemen far from home. During a visit to Toronto a lieutenant stationed at Prince Rupert called Mary on the phone and said: “You don’t know me, but the fellows back at camp asked me to phone you and ask how Gloria Hen is.”
Mary Grannan comes by her storytelling ability honestly. Her mother sp>ent many hours in the white cottage on Brunswick Street in Fredericton, where Mary lived as a girl, telling Mary and her two sisters wonderful stories about the pixies, fairies and goblins.
R. C. in Baptist’s Group
Many of the incidents, moods and characters that today find their way into Mary’s stories are straight out of her own childhood. Mary knows exactly how a 10-year-old feels when her sisters have curly hair but hers is straight and has to be put up in braids. “I used to go down to the big vacant house on the corner and braid the grass in the lawn because it looked so neglected and sad,” Mary confesses.
She enjoyed school, especially dramatics and art. What she really wanted to do was develop her art but her parents couldn’t afford to send her to art school. So she did display work for stores and some political cartoons for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and left it at that.
Mary gave readings at just about every church social that came along. She is proud that she is an honorary member of the Baptist Young People’s Union. “I bet I’m the only Roman Catholic that is,” she says.
Like so may other people who can’t do what they really want to, Mary Grannan attended the provincial normal school and became a teacher.
Mary was teaching in the Devon Superior School in Fredericton when her storytelling career really began. “I had always hated starting the day with arithmetic when I was a child,” she says, “so I decided to read my class a story each morning.”
But then, as now, good children’s stories were hard to come by and so Mary began making up her own, peopling them with the interesting plant, insect and animal life the children knew. That was where she learned what really interests children in a story.
In 1935 she was requested to serve on a committee to prepare a show for New Brunswick’s Education Week. So Mary wrote her first radio script, a dialogue between herself and another primary teacher.
J. Stewart Neill, manager of Fredericton’s CFNB, heard the script, sent for Mary, told her she had a natural talent for writing radio scripts. Mary took his word for it and immediately began writing. Her first series on the Fredericton station was called “Aggravating Agatha.” It ran twice a week for two and a half years and from its sponsor Mary received three dollars a week for writing and acting it. For another weekly 15-minute show called “Musical Scrapbook,” she received two dollars.
In 1937 Mary Grannan was given an audition by the CBC and met Gladstone Murray, then the corporation’s head man. Murray said, “You were born to the circus. Do you want a job?”
An Immediate Hit
But Mary didn’t take the job immediately, and when she did go to the CBC, in July, 1939, she obtained a year’s leave of absence from her teaching job, just in case. She has never gone back.
The Just Mary stories were an immediate hit and their popularity has steadily increased. Many people consider them the best-written and besttold children’s stories they have ever heard. This past March Mary was given a Beaver Award for her outstanding contribution to Canadian radio in the field of children’s entertainment. The CBC has had offers from sponsors but has turned them down.
“We look upon Mary as something pretty special, sort of a good - will agent,” one official said.
Mary gets her ideas for her stories from what she sees about her. For instance she was recently walking with a friend along Dundas Street in Toronto when she noticed a church steeple without a top.
“I wonder where the weathercock went off that steeple,” the friend remarked.
“I’ll tell you next Sunday,” Mary assured her. And she did in “The Strange Adventures of Lucy Littlemouse,” which featured a mouse with a new bonnet who wanted to be of some use in the world and who climbed up on the church steeple, gnawed the golden weathercock loose, and took his place with disastrous results.
On her late mother’s 80th birthday Mary told a story called “Kate Haney’s Halloween.” Kate Haney was her mother’s maiden name. The location of the story was Poorhouse Hill in Fredericton, near where Mary grew up, and all the names used in the stories were those of people who had played with her mother as children.
She Believes Them
Once she has the theme firmly fixed in her mind, writing the story takes about three hours.
Mary writes her stories in the language of children, coining new words where she needs them and paying not too much attention to grammar and literary style. This tendency sometimes offends the purists.
“My stuff isn’t literature,” she confesses.
However, her stories are popular with educationalists generally and have been used on many U. S. educational broadcasts. Mary herself has accepted many invitations to broadcast over U. S. networks.
Mary likes the stories as much as her listeners do. She believes in pixies and fairies and talking worms, just as any good Irishman should. “People
sometimes ask me how I keep from laughing when I’m telling a story,” she says, “but I don’t laugh because, of course, I take them seriously.”
Mary doesn’t start with a moral in mind, but if a good story happens to point a moral that is all right. She is, however, extremely careful. She never tells about children who lie or cheat or steal. “If a mouse steals in a story, I’m careful to point out that that’s because he’s just a mouse and doesn’t know any better.” She is also careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings. There are no “little black Sambos” in Mary’s stories. She believes, also, that a story should have a happy ending.
In a story Mary plays all the parts herself, jumping from one characterization to another with a facility that is amazing and sometimes, to adults at least, a bit confusing. In her time Mary has talked in the voices of fish, worms, mice, chickens, horses, dragons, the wind, the man in the moon, a railway locomotive and a brass monkey.
The effect is sometimes weird, but although some of her critics accuse her of “hamming it up” too much, children seem to love it. She rehearses a story at least four times before going on the air, which is more rehearsal than most half-hour shows get.
But the best part of Mary Grannan’s storytelling, most people believe, is not her imitations, but the warm, intimate, take-you-by-the-hand quality of her radio voice. There is a breathless urgency about her narration that keeps the children on the edge of their chairs.
In 1941, thinking that some parents might «like to have Just Mary stories to read to their children, the CBC printed a book of them and sold them at cost. They called the book “Just Mary” and cautiously printed only
5.000 copies. These were sold in less than a month. The next year another book, “Just Mary Again,” sold even faster than the first. Then the two books combined into one big book called “Just Mary Stories,” sold 100,000 copies in a few months—a record for a children’s book published in Canada.
From the sale of these books Mary Grannan received no royalties. The CBC got the books for five cents less than the market price which just about covered the cost of handling and mailing. Mary estimates that she lost about $10,000 in royalties through the deal.
However, she has published two other books under what she considers a more satisfactory arrangement. They are “Maggie Muggins,” which sold
10.000 copies in its first printing, and “New Just Mary Stories” published in October, 1946. This last book sold
23.000 copies during its first six weeks, a record for juvenile books anywhere, and is still selling.
Happy With CBC
The woman who has one of the world’s largest family of listening children lives by herself in a three-room bachelor apartment on Breadalbane Street in the shadow of the provincial parliament buildings in Toronto.
There is a kitchen in the apartment but except for the odd snack it’s rarely used. Mary dislikes cooking and eats most of her meals in the CBC cafeteria.
Although she has affection for children, in her social life she prefers the company of adults. She often amuses her friends with stories that have nothing to do with children.
Every week she writes a 500-word children’s story for the Winnipeg publication, the Country Guide. She doesn’t particularly need the five dollars they pay her per story and writing them is often a bigger headache than doing a whole program. But the Country Guide bought her first story, and as long as they want them they’ll get original Just Mary stories.
Some people mistake her easy-going, unaffected manner for an inferiority complex and point out that she could be making three or four times the salary the CBC can afford to pay her if she would just branch out. But Mary is perfectly happy with the CBC. She is doing what she wants to do tell stories to children.
She knows that every Sunday thousands of children wait for the sprightly tune, “In a Clock Shop,” that introduces Just Mary. And she knows that they’ll be completely lost to everything except the story until it is over and Mary says, “Just Mary says good-by, and until next Sunday — happy playtime.”
That knowledge means a lot to Mary Grannan.
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