STARLETS THE TV STAKES
Beautiful young hopefuls are shouting Shakespeare, crooning commercials, stamping the stage, always with a bright eye on a television future. Typical is Edmonton’s Dianne Foster who expertly mixes soap and high art
IN 18 MONTHS Dianne Foster, a dark, spectacularly good-looking girl of 20, has made the long trip from amateur theatricals and part-time radio work in Edmonton to the inner circle of Canadians based in Toronto who make their living out of their acting.
She is a living refutation of the notion that the entrance to stage and radio work in Canada is a door that yields only to pull. When Dianne came to Toronto in August 1948 with $200 she didn’t know a soul in the city.
For the last nine months she’s been averaging $150 a week out of hamming in soap operas, spouting commercials, and putting her art into serious roles.
On Broadway or around Leicester Square Dianne’s earnings would seem like canary seed. But in Canada, where only a handful of men and women can eat by acting alone, it is tops. This winter Dianne bought her first fur coat.
The Toronto group which Dianne has joined, made up of polished established veterans and eager newcomers like herself, came into being largely under the influence of Andrew Allan, bland, smooth CBC producer of the middle-brow Sunday night “Stage 50” series, and Dora Mavor Moore, middleaged queen bee of the New Play Society, which, with Les Compagnons of Montreal, is the nearest approximation in this country to the classic repertory theatres of Great Britain and the U. S.
Because Toronto is the headquarters of the nation’s radio advertising business and the hub of. the CBC’s operations, it naturally attracts young Canadians who want to earn a Living acting. Today Dianne is one of the five best-paid actresses in the country. The other four, Ruth Springford, Alice Hill, Mona O’Heame and Beth Lockerbie, are perhaps better-known to listeners to radio drama because they have been playing leads longer.
Among the other promising newcomers in the Toronto group are Pegi Brown, Toby Robins and Gwendolyn Dainty. All these young actresses are getting as much stage experience as possible with an eye to the baleful capricious eye of the television camera before which they will one day stand or fall as professionals.
Most Canadian actors and actresses get their bread-and-butter money by doing soap operas and commercials. The work they get from “Stage 50,” “Ford Theatre,” “Buckingham Theatre,” “CBC Wednesday Night” and the New Play Society productions on the cramped stage of the Museum Theatre they are inclined to regard as gravy. The caviar will probably come, for those who make the grade, when TV flashes its bright pictures across the nation.
Meanwhile it’s Sheridan and Goldsmith for art’s sake and soap blurbs for the sake of food and shelter.
Dianne Foster is no exception. In “Brave
Voyage,” a 15-minute tear-stained smile which plugs Rinso every day on CBC network, she opens the emotional sea-cocks in the leading character of “Helen Manning” who, according to the “teaser,” is a “young Canadian woman, trying, despite heavy responsibilities and bitter disappointments, to live a rich, meaningful life." (Deep brown music . . .)
From such work she will step on “Stage 50” into the title part of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” a princess who has “little white doves for feet,” whose hands “flutter like white butterflies,” and whose face is “like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” (A little Debussy, please . . .)
Or she will plunge lustily into the role of a sullen Spanish trollop in Hemingway’s “Fifth Column,” bringing the dated behind-the-lines atmosphere of alcohol, lechery and disillusion to a close by purring as she slinks through a doorway into the bedroom of a counterespionage agent, “Eeet u-wahs a lohvlee bahth.” (The brass Mr. Agostini, the brass . . .)
Accents are one of Dianne’s specialties. Whenever she hears a curious accent on a streetcar she makes mental notes. At home she has a book on how to speak English in 100 different ways.
While this sort of thing is calculated to improve her radio acting technique there is always the thought, too, that the lessons thus learned may prove useful when television comes.
To the young actresses video presents itself as a godsend or a menace. Even the truly great authors usually call for a lovely lead. Some of the plainer actresses who’ve done splendidly in juvenile leads over the blind radio are beginning to pull character faces at themselves in mirrors.
Dianne has no problem here. She is 5 ft. 5 in., and weighs 112 lb. She has long thin legs, a slender waist, a piquant bust and a disturbing glance smoldering under .heavy lashes.
Her offstage presence is mercurial and fluctuating as if dozens of stage characters were struggling to inhabit her real self. But its central motif is gay cynicism glittering out of big brown eyes, wrinkling in the tip of a retroussé nose, and falling musically, in bitter-sweet laughter, from a generous red mouth.
Many people forget she is, after all, a youngster. To one man who offered her a cocktail in a restaurant she said with mock gravity: “Beware!
You could be prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor!” Actually she takes the odd drink. She also prefers the company of men older than herself.
She is photogenic but this does not necessarily mean the video camera will look with favor on her. In any event she will face stiff competition from the girls of the New Play Society.
The NPS is a professional repertory group which grew out of Dora Mavor Moore’s amateur Village Players in 1946 and has been hailed as “one of Canada’s most significant theatrical developments.” The purpose of the society is “to establish a living theatre in Canada on a professional but nonprofit basis.” From the last half of this credo it will be seen that NPS is idealistic. Without any malice, but out of sheer admiration, Robert Christie, one of the society’s best males, described it recently as “a madhouse.”
Dora Mavor Moore is a zealot. Her slogan is, “There are no small parts; only small actors.” Her lips quiver with pride when she talks about her NPS.
This season she is producing five plays and a revue by Canadian authors. Her programs always boost new Canadian novels. She carries a torch staunchly for all aspects of Canadian culture. The NPS has staged everything from Sophocles to musical comedy. No stuffed-shirt setup, it took the Royal Alexandra Theatre for Christmas and presented an English pantomime for children between the ages Continued on page 53
Continued on page 53
Starlets ín the TV Stakes
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of 5 and 75, entitled “Mother Goose.’’ The principal boy in this potpourri of fairy tale, opera, ballet and knockabout comedy (by tradition “he” must be a girl) was 23-year-old Pegi Brown.
Mrs. Moore thinks Pegi Brown is a better actress than Dianne Foster. Pegi has had much more stage experience. Many regular theatregoers think Pegi is the best actress in Canada.
She’s played leads ranging from the darkest melodrama to the lightest comedy in her home town, Saint John, N.B., and in Vancouver and Winnipeg, before coming to Toronto. Among her well-remembered roles are Darling Dora (the floozie) in Shaw’s “Fanny’s First Play,” “Lady Macbeth,” Regina in “The Little Foxes,” and Kate in “She Stoops to Conquer.”
But every day, just like Dianne, Pegi plays in the soapy “Brave Voyage.” She takes the part of Dianne Foster’s faithful and loveless girl friend with a stupid baby-voice which is a masterpiece of mimicry. Dianne and Pegi are great rivals, and good friends.
Pegi is 5 ft. 6 ins., brown-haired, grey-blue-eyed, and full of intelligent quips and chuckles. She is popular because she is big-hearted and shows no side or temperament. She’s a B.A. from the University of Toronto and has studied drama at a school in the U. S.
Another actress who might challenge Dianne is Gwendolyn Dainty, a gener-
ously built but well - proportioned blonde. She’s just returned from three years in England. Her father was the late Ernest Dainty, a Toronto composer, and her mother is the shrewd business manager of the NPS.
During the war, Gwendolyn, who is in her early 20’s, toured Canadian troops in Europe with a concert party, returning to England afterward to study at the Central School of Dramatic Art in the Albert Hall where Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were trained. Later she did BBC parts, open-air Shakespeare in Regent’s Park, intellectual stuff with the Players’ Theatre, and understudied several minor West End stars.
She hung around with Bloomsbury, Chelsea and Hampstead dilettantes and has brought home with her a hint of their ideas in the art of dressing with bizarre but becoming negligence.
“There is nowhere in the world like London,” she sighs, sitting with her legs apart and her arms falling between them into the voluminous folds of a black skirt. “It is soo . . . soo . . . relaxed.”
But she came back to Toronto because she heard the talent was lining up for the TV stakes.
One of the outstanding actresses among the youngsters is 18-year-old Toby Robins, a beautiful girl with short black hair, straight nose, and lustrous Jeanne D’Arc eyes.
Since she was 5 Toby has been singing, dancing and acting. Now she’s just beginning to attack adult roles with certainty and fire.
While on the payroll of the NPS she is also taking her B.A. at the U. of T. and doing photographic modeling to supplement her income. Her main background is a series of elfin roles like Flute in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Miranda in “The Tempest,” “Peter Pan,” and Beauty in “Every-
Toby studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, and North Western University, Chicago. She’s appeared in the “Stage” series and “Buckingham Theatre,” but never scorns a commercial in spite of her academic past. Now she’s getting into high gear. Observers of the Canadian theatre see her as Dianne Foster’s most formidable rival.
Dianne herself was born in Edmonton in 1928. Neither of her parents had theatrical connections. Her father is an accountant. As a toddler she delighted visitors with her recitations.
At high school when she was 13 she played in J. M. Barrie’s “What Every Woman Knows.” In one scene she was sitting on a chesterfield with the male lead. “Look at me! Look at me!” she had to say. “What do you see?” Before the actor could reply a piercing wolf whistle went up from the back of the hall.
After that Dianne knew she had more than talent.
Eva Howard, her drama teacher, introduced her to local radio players and she got parts saying “Yessir” and banging a door. She volunteered to scream for a temperamental actress who refused to vent one in case she hurt her throat. Dianne’s scream was so horrific it brought the other players out in a cold sweat. The producer said she showed a deep sense of drama and rewarded her with a more difficult part in which she said “Oui; Monsieur” before closing the door.
At 15 Dianne got herself appointed publicity director of the local teen club. When the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to sponsor a teen club program on the radio it was, naturally, Dianne who conducted the negotia -
Every night after that there was a
half-hour show written by Dianne Foster, produced by Dianne Foster, and the leading part was always taken by none other than Dianne Foster, The teen club slipped into obscurity but its publicity manager was washed with bright rosy light.
Scenting a prodigy, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent her to Banff to run a teen fashion show. A year later she was organizing fashion shows for grownups. Hudson’s Bay in Edmonton made her fashion co-ordinator. She chose all the dresses and all the models for weekly parades.
In the evenings she played small radio parts for $5 and $6 a time. As an amateur she played leads with the Community Theatre. By the time she was 18 her Hudson’s Bay salary and her sporadic radio earnings' amounted to around $45 a week. She felt she was in the big time and she headed east.
To begin with, she says, “it was pretty tough sledding.” But Toronto fascinated her. “So much going on,” she still says in wonderment, “drama, painting, music. I’ll never go back West, never. Culturally, Edmonton is
When she first came to Toronto she lived in the YWCA on Elm Street in a room for which she paid $8 a week. Recently she moved into a one-room apartment in a new building on Bathurst Street.
It wasn’t hard to see people. All the producers she called gave her an interview. But the competition was solid. Finally Bob Campbell, of J. Walter Thompson Advertising, gave her a break speaking the commercial for the Canadian “cut-in” on Lux Theatre.
When Dianne was making about $40 a week she joined the Association of Canadian Radio Artists, a union which has made minimum fees stick, and took a single room on Spadina Avenue. When a long-delayed CBC audition came through she was already established on sponsored programs. But she took the test.
It consisted of speaking a passage from any part she liked into a mike and being overheard by a Committee of producers hidden behind a screen. Then she had to speak a part handed to her out of the blue. She got 80 marks out of 100.
When she got a call from Andrew Allan, then doing “Stage 49,” she says: “I thought it was the ultimate end. I died a thousand deaths.”
In a “Stage 49” play, an adaptation of Hugh McLennan’s best selling “The Precipice,” she was so nervous in the opening scene that she took the announcer’s cue and set the action rolling before the explanatory lines had been given.
Quick-thinking Allan, in his little glass box, conducting orchestra, sound, players and narrator, did lightning adjustments, threw the spiel in later, and nobody noticed the difference.
“Stage 50” is the actor’s best shop window and since appearing several times Dianne’s engagement book has always been full. This is a typical entry in her daily diary:
10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Rehearsal, Ford Theatre.
1.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. Runs-through and show, “Brave Voyage.”
4.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. Commercial recordings, RCA Victor.
7.30 p.m. Tom Blackwood, New York photographer, visited me
at home and offered me magazine cover work in the States. Thought about it. Turned it down.
10 p.m. Studied part of Salome in bed.
Her critics say Dianne has been lucky. Some attribute her success to her friendship with Andrew Allan. Neither of them confesses to anything serious in this.
Dianne often dines with other men. She admits frankly she often chooses escorts because of their influence in radio. She doesn’t worry about gossip which, she says, would attach itself to any girl who’s done so well in so short a time. She believes the quality of her acting justifies her success.
Dianne has thought of following the example of Bernie Braden and his wife, two other Canadian artists who went to London some months ago and have done well. Braden is playing with Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
But Dianne is afraid of risking her CBC connections. “Television,” she says significantly, “is icumen in.” if