Articles

Jane Gray: RADIO’S FIRST LADY

EVA-LIS WUORIO April 1 1951
Articles

Jane Gray: RADIO’S FIRST LADY

EVA-LIS WUORIO April 1 1951

Jane Gray: RADIO’S FIRST LADY

Articles

When Canada ’s first woman broadcaster goes on the air with up-to-the-minute heartaches and back-fence gossip, few listeners can resist her appeals to help the homeless, fight a food or buy an unwanted goat. Jane Gray, who was once told she was too old for modern radio, is still raising a rich cash crop of old-fashioned corn

EVA-LIS WUORIO

GOOD MORNING, good human beings everywhere . . .”

The stout, blue-eyed, grey-haired woman perches on the edge of her chair, plump elbows inch deep in a chaos of scrap paper, stenographers’ notebooks, magazines and mail —opened and unopened. She lisps her cheery greeting in a soft English accent. She appears vaguely baffled as to what she’ll do next. A lushly plumed bird bobs on her giddy hat as though it is alive. A red-haired young man beseeches the radio-control room, with frantic gestures, for background organ music. Jane Gray is on the air again for her hour of trivia, poetry, homely wisdom, unfinished sentences, quixotic gestures and casual advertising.

Jane Gray has been at broadcasting from the time studios looked like funeral parlors, dim and dusty and draped with dark-colored velours, and people who shouted at the clumsy, squeaky mikes were considered a little queer. First woman in Canada to broadcast, she was also the first to put on the air a play, a soap serial and a Sunday school. She has scorned accepted broadcasting practices, along with scripts, and ad libbed her way through programs ranging from etiquette and neighborly

advice to advertising—with numerology and horoscopes -a laxative with an Indian name.

She started in radio 26 years ago and now at 54 she maintains a crisp pace of two hour-long broadcasts a day over Hamilton station CHML, gets paid $12,000 a year, stands high in popularity rating (44% on the Elliott Haynes list; the Happy Gang is 45%), receives from 75 to 150 letters a day from listeners and will sponsor any cause that touches her soft heart.

She has a tremendous audience appeal. Many radio people insist nobody in his right mind would hire her, but the boss of CHML, Ken Soble, wouldn’t think of sacking her. She is a complete anachronism in a field she helped to develop but which grew beyond her. Much of the story of Canadian radio itself lies in her own roustabout, pioneering career which spices her every program.

Recently she turned up at her cluttered tiny office 90 seconds before she was to go on the air. There was a phone message waiting for her. While her announcer, harassed young George Wilson, pleaded with her—-“Come on, Jane, we’re on the air, come now”—she answered the call. A faithful listener was reporting that a family had

been burned out of its home. Jane immediately put in a call to the destitute people.

As she shot in questions she reached into a bulging wastebasket for a torn envelope, scribbled a few words on it, then picked up a stack of unopened letters, notebooks describing her sponsors’ products, a parcel she had received by mail, a book of poetry, cigarettes and a broken pair of glasses (she’d sat on them) and made the studio in time to come in neatly and unflustered on top of George’s station and program identification.

“Good human beings —-friends — everywhere,” said Jane. “I’m going to make an urgent appeal. I was up at 4 a.m. this morning -I was facing a busy day so I wanted an early start -and that’s how I happened to hear the fire sirens. So now, friends, listen very carefully, take out your pads and pencils, friends. I came in by bus from my Shangri-la in Burlington, and right on the highway at Aldershot I saw this smoking ruin with only a charred bed left standing. Now, friends, I find that in this little family of four the two little children were left with nothing but their sleepers. This little family, friends, has nothing left but one another and their faith in God . . .”

Her eyes filled as she went on to give closer description of the disaster. The scratches on the torn envelope turned out to be clothing sizes for the family, and the phone number of the house where they had found temporary shelter. Her 10 sponsors got scant mention that broadcast. If they were listening they knew they were expected to help too.

Before the Jane Gray Show was over 10 calls had come in to the station switchboard, and the destitute family had received another 10. In two days the family was living in a rent-free house. Jane Gray listeners had turned up with supplies including soap and linen, canned goods, furniture, and clothing, a high chair for the baby and overalls for the father. Nobody at the station was surprised. A fellow worker said: “If Jane asked the women of Hamilton to jump into the Bay I think they would.”

Every week there are causes to sponsor. When an English war bride, suffering from cancer, wrote that all she wanted was to get home to die, Jane’s broadcast sparked a movement which took the woman and her three children back to England, loaded with gifts. Her ultimate death was duly reported to the helpful listeners.

An Italian fruit farmer, living near Hamilton, wrote that he was very lonely and couldn’t find his brother who had come to Canada 10 years earlier. Jane broadcast his problem, her l:stc".ers

turned detective, tracked down the farmer’s relatives and a week later he was on the air with Jane, gratefully reporting: “Last week I was all alone. Today I have a large family.”

One day Jane told her listeners: “Little old lady called me today; she’s got cancer and she is very lonely, friends, and she hasn’t got a winter coat. . .” So the little old lady found herself with a fine coat, cakes, chickens, cash and dozens of greeting cards.

A small girl, Margaret Green, was suffering from rheumatic fever and had lost interest in everything. Jane not only spoke of the child on the air but she and announcer George Wilson visited her. When little Margaret’s doctor reported that she appeared more alert after that visit, Jane and George became regular callers, and the house filled with “get-well” cards from Jane’s listeners.

A colored charwoman from Brantford was dying in the Hamilton cancer clinic when Jane heard of her. She paid her a visit and found a lonely, friendless woman. Her one wish was to take her last mass at her own familiar chapel in Brantford. Jane Gray reported this to her audience. Transportation was arranged and 25 bouquets of flowers and 150 cards came from Jane’s “friends” to brighten the elderly woman’s last days.

This mass participation in everyday tragedies is lightened by Jane’s rather breathless recitals of her own joys and troubles. One day on the air she told her announcer that on the bus that

morning an open match folder in her purse had burst into flames.

“What did you do, Jane?” George gasped.

“I put the fire out,” Jane said, “—with my cheese sandwich.” She turned to the mike as though it was one of her listening housewives and said apologetically: “I just happened to have a cheese sandwich with me for a snack when I got tired.”

She’ll also tell her radio audience of lost watches, identification bracelets, cocker spaniel pups (“I’m always very sad, friends, when I have to speak of a poor little puppy lost, for I know of the heartache behind this”) and rooms to rent. She tries to sell a man’s tuxedo, an apartment-sized piano, medium-sized Quebec heater or two goats. She’ll report that a nice woman is looking for a position as a lady’s companion, and that three coats extra came in for a coatless blind lady (“Are there three more blind ladies needing winter coats?”). This is an impromptu, free service her listeners use constantly.

She’ll report on the meeting of the Hamilton Roller Canary Club, hold a “Help Your Neighbor Day,” introduce over the air anyone who happens to pop into the studio, including messenger girls, and recite, or make George Wilson recite, poetry.

She doesn’t hesitate to take an active part in the various projects she sponsors. After calling her listeners’ attention

Continued on page 47

Radio's First Lady

Continued from page 11

to the plight of families whose homes were flooded last fall in a Hamilton suburb called Van Wagner’s Beach, she was right on the spot, serving coffee, filling sandbags and broadcasting appeals for clothing for the wet, cold flood-fighting men.

Besides every imaginable article of clothing and food in one year she gave away 450 dogs, one of them worth $500, and expects her sponsors to come up with birthday cakes and flowers when one of her proteges or a longtime listener has a birthday. They do.

In the year and a half she has conducted her two current programs, sponsors have waited in line to have her mention their products. Once accepted, they have to measure up to the standards Jane expects in serving the public. One man presented her with a couple of chickens as a sample of his plucked, ready-to-cook fowl. Jane liked and advertised them. Her listeners obediently patronized the merchant, found the quality lacking, and complained. Jane’s sponsor said: “I can’t help if a few feathers are left on. Women are getting too lazy.”

“That’s not the way you talked when you wanted to get on the air,” Jane snapped. “I’m not fooling my friends.” And he went off the air. Sometimes she convinces merchants or firms of the error of their ways and after a motherly scolding keeps them on.

In 26 years in radio Jane has produced plays, brought Sunday school to the air and delivered talks on beauty, cooking, etiquette and family problems. She told horoscopes once in return for a bottle top from a laxative called Mus-Kee-Kee.

She started her career in 1925 in London, Ont., as Elsie Gray, an English war bride with three children ! (Buddy, Dorothy and Ken) and an invalid husband. She had performed I in English music halls and entertained World War I troops before coming to Canada. Faced with the necessity of earning her family’s living she marched up to the London Free Press building where a young couple named Scott were struggling with an experimental station in a roof-top room. Elsie Gray went on the air reading poetry.

That broadcast cost her a dollar. The first 50 cents went in the nickels she fed into a pay telephone asking friends to listen to her; the second 50 cents calling them back hopeful of praise. Most had forgotten to listen. But the bug had bitten Elsie Gray.

First thing she did was change her name. Elsie Gray, a numerologist told her, was an unlucky combination. Jane Gray counted up to luck. So Jane Gray she became.

Radio in Toronto offered more opportunity and Jane badgered sportscaster Foster Hewitt, then the goldenhaired young manager of the Toronto Star station CFCA, into letting her

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produce half-hour mystery plays — without pay. That was the birth of Canada’s first radio theatre, the Jane Gray Players.

In 1928 Ernest Bushnell, now director-general of programs for CBC, asked her to move to his station, CKNC, at $40 a week. From her backlog of 10 amateur actors (including Donald Gordon, then a banker, now president of the CNR; salesman William Strange, now a commander and Director of Naval Information for the RCN; plus assorted businessmen and housewives) she used about four each program. They didn’t get paid. However, when little Bobby Breen who later went to success in Hollywood, took children’s parts he got 50 cents for candy.

The list of her announcers reads like a roster out of a radio Who’s Who. Besides Bushnell there were Rupert Lucas, now a producer and master of ceremonies; Andrew Allan, supervisor of drama on CBC and regarded by many as the top producer of radio drama in North America; Win Barron, the voice of Paramount News in Canada; Alan Savage, on the staff of the Cockfield Brown advertising firm and the director and producer of the Ford Theatre; Stan Francis, Canada’s No. 1 quizmaster, and the late Jim Hunter, who is said to have had the largest audience of any Canadian newscaster.

Princess for a Medicine Man

To get sponsors Jane would tackle shopkeepers, beauty shop operators and restaurant owners. Later she’d try to make them pay up. For one $5 from a hairdressing establishment she had to go back 11 times. One of her best sponsors was a roadhouse ¡ keeper. But police clamped down on his gambling business. “Lost a good sponsor,” Jane recalls.

For a while she did well enough to buy her own time ($10 an hour) and in one three-month period she had 30 shows. “It was a lot of hustling but you made a lot of money,” Jane says.

In addition, on Saturday mornings she would hold a drama school in a rented hotel dining room.

Jane often would hang around the studio after her drama program, hoping for bit parts. One afternoon Maurice Rapkin, then program director at CKCL, turned to her. “Write me a 15-minute play, Jane,” he said. “I need it for 7 p.m.” She did—for | nothing.

She stayed to watch it put on and, coming out of the studio, ran into a bulky gruff-voiced man. “You wrote that play?” the man demanded. She nodded. “How’d you like to write plays for me? I’m George Lifton.”

Lifton, according to his story, had acquired a secret Cree Indian recipe for a laxative. He was anxious to let the public know about it. He decked ! Jane out as an Indian Princess MusKee-Kee (name of the medicine) and she began to promote the product with a Dorothy Dix-ish radio program. You could get the solution to marital problems, mother-in-law troubles or love triangles b>' sending Jane a Mus-Kee-Kee bottle top.

Lifton insisted on the constant masquerade. Traveling across Canada and broadcasting in each city, Jane was expected to get into her make-up and wig even before hotel maids turned up to make her bed. Broadcasting three times a day she averaged 1,000 letters a day for three months. Once in a Detroit drugstore where she was to appear the crowd tore beads off her costume and she suffered a b/oken rib in the crush.

In Fort William in 1932 she came

down with rheumatic fever from wearing only a thin buckskin smock in the wintry Great Lakes cold. George Lifton was not of the Samaritan tribe. No program, no money, he said. There were the three kids, cared for by a friend in Toronto, Mrs. David Stanley, to look after. (Jane is separated from her husband.) For 12 weeks Jane broadcast from a hospital bed with a nurse holding letters for her.

Jane was fed up with Mus-kee-kee and her boss by the time she left the hospital. She resigned, made personal appearances in Fort William and Port

Arthur to pay her hospital bills, and went to Winnipeg. She went on the air as plain Jane Gray again, broadcasting other people’s troubles. She also collected verses and sayings and sold a pamphlet-sized book plus a horoscope for a dollar, until she had enough for her fare back to Toronto.

It was now 1935. Jobs were scarce. Jane looked around for grocery money. For a time she set up in Ottawa as a numerologist. Members of parliament, cabinet ministers, even dignified, silverhaired ex-premier Arthur Meighen came to consult her.

That summer she opened a teashop on the highway between North *Bay and Callander. Her children and Mrs. Stanley came from Toronto to help. The day they were to open they stacked the ice box with steaks, chickens and Lake Nipissing whitefish. Not a single customer turned up. The family feasted for a week, went broke in two, and had to close up.

In Toronto there was a letter waiting from R. M. Blair, an American promoter who had caught Jane’s MusKee-Kee programs in Windsor. He had an Indian cure called Kick-a-poo.

Would she go to Panama as Princess Kick-a-poo, to advertise it. Jane accepted, but arrangements took nearly a year to complete. While waiting she invented a face cream and toothpaste recipes which she advertised and sold for 10 cents on self-bought radio time. She toured Canada again with her horoscopes, sending notices to newspapers before her arrival: “Jane Gray is coming.”

Finally in 1938 the trip to Panama materialized. Her contract was for six months but nine weeks after her arrival! she found in her stack of fan

mail a letter from a physician in Calgary: “Come home immediately. Your son Buddy is dying of cancer.” Jane signed on as a stewardess on a Norwegian fruit boat from Panama to Vancouver, and got home in time to watch her 19-year-old son die. Behind her, made during the frantic days she waited for a boat, were 75 transcriptions of the broadcasts which completed her contract.

The day after Buddy’s funeral, her other son, 17-year-old Ken (now studying art at the Ontario College of Art), joined the Navy for six years.

Radio was growing up. Jane Gray’s breathless, homey, ad libbing manner sounded corny beside the new sophistication. Broadcasting was beginning to have its own unwritten rules of how things should be done. The contradiction seems to be that those who break them, who do sound corny, stubbornly continue to get strong audience support.

Jane wrote her name on innumerable waiting lists for bit parts at CBC, program spots at other stations. Radio people no longer hustled for sponsors, no longer took pies, permanents, shoes or fish for a payment. 'The business

had got dignified. She tried out for the Army Shows and discovered that while she’d been busy at her vigorous life age had crept up.

“You’re too old,” a young producer told her bluntly. “Perhaps, one of these days—bit parts, Cockney roles— we’ll let you know.”

And then one day in Montreal she and her friend Mrs. Stanley were passing a swanky show window. The entire display consisted of a man’s rich evening coat, silver-knobbed cane, a silk hat. Jane stared at the window. “What that design needs is a mournful Scottie,” she said. She’d sewn her children’s toys for yearn.

They spent the remainder of their cash on black material, stuffing, needles and thread. In a couple of hours Jane was back at the shop with a ready Scottie and her suggestion. The manager looked at the mournful pooch, stroked his chin and allowed he’d like three gross.

'Those were war years and materials were scarce. Jane had a gruesome memory of the rich velours undertakers use on coffins. She went to the nearest funeral parlor and stated her business. “Have you any bits and pieces of materials?” she asked. “Madame,” said the frock-coated gentleman, “Do you know what place this is?” Jane explained and completed her purchase.

There Are Always Dimes

The two women sat up all night sewing Scotties. The next day they sold the entire lot and found new orders waiting from a department store.

What with sorties into toymaking and occasional radio roles the war years rolled by. Daughter Dorothy, married (now divorced) to a Calgary lad in the Canadian Army Dental Corps, presented Jane with a grandson, Christopher. Ken got back from the Navy. And one day a vigorous, earnest young man, Ken Soble, making a name for himself as the owner of an up-andcoming private broadcasting station in Hamilton, sought Jane out.

“Remember me?” he asked. “I used to be with the Jane Gray Players.” He hired her. Since then she hasn’t looked back.

“Radio’s my life,” Jane says. “Radio is my love. It was like coming home to come back to two programs a day, listening to people’s troubles and joys, sharing them. I’m as excited as a child at Christmas every morning these days. You never know what’s going to happen.”

But the ups and downs, rags to riches—did these never frighten her?

“Why no,” Jane said recently. “There are always dimes. I brought up three kids on dimes. And there are always Scotties you can make. And if you have a really difficult situation to meet, an important sponsor to see, why all you do is go out and buy a new green hat and you’re set for anything.” ★

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