ANNA HAD TO BE A CLOWN
Claudia Anna Russell-Brown tried hard to scale the concert stage but sooner or later the audience started to laugh. So she became just Anna Russell and made her flair for the hilarious pay off at the box office
BOTH THE folly and the futility of resisting manifest destiny are clearly exemplified in the bizarre career of Anna Bussell, the Canadian concert comedienne.
Today there is substantial evidence that millions on both sides of the international boundary consider her one of the funniest women in the world. She is a star of stage, television and recordings, and will appear on Broadway this fall in her own intimate revue. Her devastating take-offs of such species as the shrieking Wagnerian soprano and the morose cabaret chanteuse are enjoyed alike by the sophisticated and the naïve.
Yet the ironic truth is that she herself endeavored for years to become exactly the kind of dead-serious artiste whom she now lampoons with such hilarious results. Fortunately her irrepressible flair for the ludicrous was forever sabotaging her own classical performances, so she finally quit trying to be serious. Now her audiences laugh with her instead of at her.
Her entire life has been a pattern of goodhumored revolt against her environment. An incorrigible tomboy and chatterbox in her formative years in England, when she was Claudia Anna Russell-Brown, the first girl in three generations of stiff professional soldiers, she was educated to l>e a refined gentlewoman, perhaps eventually a governess. Her parents’ plans, however, were rudely jolted when she was expelled from a school in Sussex after handing the frosfy headmistress an apologia consisting of various exalted sentiments written in tidy Gothic script on a scroll of toilet paper fifty yards long.
She later became a London debutante. But if, like the other girls in her set, she was hoping to catch a rich husband, she was quickly disappointed. She was too tall (“damned near six feet on my high heels”), too massive (“I weighed 180 in those days and was strong as a Percheron mare”), and too boisterous to enchant the young bluebloods of her generation. Even when she was presented at court in Buckingham Palace, one June evening in 1934, an incongruously farcical incident sullied the dignity of the occasion. One of the wind players in the orchestra, spurred by a dare from another musician who knew the young lady, blew a coarse “razzberry” just as she was in the act of curtseying before George V and Queen Mary. She giggled and almost fell over.
At London’s Royal College of Music the ob-
streperous Anna studied voice, piano, and composition for five years. She became a competent pianist and developed into a soprano good enough to sing regularly over the BBC and to present a respectable solo recital in Wigmore Hall. All the while, though, she had difficulty in keeping a straight face, and so did her audiences. Even when she tried her utmost to be completely serious, something was always happening to involve her in buffoonery.
Once, as Santuzza, the despondent peasant lass in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, she tripped and crashed heavily into a prop church in a Birmingham production of the opera, bringing the scenery down in ruins across the footlights. At a Coronation Day concert in 1937, she stepped forward to sing an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and looked so much bigger and fiercer than the pint-sized conductor and the trumpet soloist who were standing near her that the audience spontaneously burst into laughter. They kept on snickering all during the aria. Probably never before in the history of the oratorio had Let the Bright Seraphim been presented as a comedy number.
Something Fabulous Would Happen
“I’m afraid I just don’t sell any kind of earnestness,” Anna remarked recently in explaining how and why she became a musical cartoonist who has been widely acclaimed as one of the most amusing entertainers now before the public. Apart from her singing satires she also lampoons piano styles and does a very funny skit on How to Play the French Horn.
“Any time I even thought of giving a performance that was meant to be taken solemnly something fabulous would happen.” Frequent use of italics and capitals is necessary to reproduce Anna’s intense conversation. “Somehow I just knew it was going to turn out absurdly; I could feel it coming on; amd I would give the show away. I couldn’t fool the audience for ten seconds. They’d be on to me in a flash and laughing their heads off, and of course the conductor and my colleagues would be dying a thousand deaths and wishing they’d never been BORN Î It was most unfair to the poor dears, really, and I would always hate myself in the morning.”
The turning point in her career came in 1939.
Her first marriage, to a rather sobersided musician who played the French horn in the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham, wasn’t working out very well. Her father, Col. Claude Russell-Brown, DSO, a retired army officer, had just died in England. Her mother, the former Beatrice Magdalen Tandy, of Kingston, Ont., had returned to her native Canada. Anna followed her across the Atlantic for what she thought would be a temporary visit, and never went back.
Within a year she had an apartment in Toronto and was doing a bit of singing around town, most of it conventional in style. Tenor William Morton, now teaching in Vancouver, remembers however that there was always something “a little off-base and screwball” about her public behavior, although she was obviously a well-trained singer with a strong and flexible voice. Morton tells of the time Anna was singing the title role of Carmen in a series of scenes from the Bizet opera at Harbord Collegiate Institute. In Act 3 she spreads out a pack of cards, foresees in them an early and violent death for her lover and herself, and then sings the slow and ominous Card Song, one of the highlights of the opera. The full-bosomed Miss Russell, Morton relates, couldn’t find her cards at first and groped around for them inside her low-cut blouse while the audience and the other singers in the wings slowly went into hysterics. The flustered Carmen finally discovered enough cards to go ahead with her aria but didn’t get the rest out until the scene was over.
Not long after this, Anna was doing occasional comedy bits over the radio, egged on by Canadian friends who told her she was a panic when she made fun of chirping coloraturas and other familiar cultural phenomena.
Her mother, who now lives at Unionville, Ont., had become an energetic war-worker for the IODE. “She was more or less the Leather Waistcoat Queen of the IODE, and was given the MBE for it when the war was over,” says Anna proudly. Anna used to wrap a lot of parcels herself and gradually fell into the habit of entertaining the patriotic workers with impromptu gags and take-offs based on her years of study in classical music.
“One day in 1942,” she recalls, “one of the sweet old souls came up to me, all smiles and chuckles, and said, ‘Look, dear, why don’t you put on a little show for us to raise funds? Just some of the cute things you’ve been doing Continued on page 72
Anna Had To Be A Clown
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 14
at our meetings. You are so funny, ha ha ha ha!’ Well, I thought she meant a few skits in somebody’s private residence, with tea-and-cookies and a nice silver collection, so I grinned and said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Next thing I knew—my gawd! They had hired Eaton Auditorium and were expecting fifteen hundred people!”
By this time, however, she felt that the whole project was so ridiculous that even an utter fiasco might serve the purpose. So she speedily wrote and memorized both the words and music for half a dozen numbers caricaturing the more pretentious activities of shrill operatic sopranos, frail French chanson specialists, beefy Slavic balladeers, and j other vulnerable fowl. Supplying her j own piano accompaniments, she barged j out in front of a near-capacity crowd j and proceeded to half-kill them with laughter for a couple of hours, improvising new material as she went along.
rI’his clinched the deal for comedy as a career. Soon she had her own radio program over Toronto’s CJBC (‘‘a daily mishmash of nothing at all”) and was doing her stuff in shows for the armed forces.
At six o’clock in the morning of i Christmas Day 1944, more than six years after she had walked out on him, her horn - blowing husband suddenly turned up in Toronto and knocked on j her door. He was on leave from the i British Army and had come to patch up their union. They had never been divorced or even legally separated.
Says Anna thoughtfully, ‘‘He was a very nice fellow in his way, but we were just the wrong personalities for each other. We chatted uneasily for a while about generalities; then I mentioned I had a radio show to do,
I Christmas or no Christmas, and I got j ready to leave for the studio. At that he began frowning and said, ‘Look : here, you’re my wife and I don’t like j this. You cahn’t go traipsing off j somewhere when I haven’t had my j lunch.’ Well! So then of course I j blew up and yelled at him, ‘Listen, j Buster! In this country, when the ! madam is working, you get your own : damned lunch!’ And he did, too!” The indignant Briton soon gave up trying to win her hack and returned, wifeless, across the Atlantic. In 1947 I he got an uncontested divorce on the j grounds of desertion. Soon afterward, both of them entered new marriages.
; Miss Russell and her second husband,
; Charles Gold hamer, the noted CanI adian painter and art teacher, reside contentedly in a rambling country ! house at Cooksville, about fifteen j miles west of Toronto. She has had Í no children from either marriage.
By 1948 the long-hair comedienne I had already made several brief invaI sions into the big-money iie^j. of the United States. Her rec;tais, ever growing in scope and versatility, finally attracted the attention of a I minor-league impresario, who paved I the way for her first appearance in j New York’s Town Hall, a shrir-e normally held sacrosanct from entertainers who spoof Great Music and its practitioners. The small audience laughed heartily and the press notices were encouraging. But Anna’s manager didn’t have the elaborate connections needed to follow up such an entry.
I Nothing more was heard of her in Manhattan until three years later, by j which time she had been noticed and signed up by the Columbia Lecture Bureau, a branch of the far-flung
Columbia Artists Management. Her second Town Hall recital, one November evening in 1951, received such rapturous reviews and word-of-mouth hosannas that a return engagement in the same auditorium in mid-January was a sellout.
The New York Times man thanked her for “an evening of musical satire of the highest quality”; Variety hailed her as a “smash”; and the JournalAmerican, in a sweeping tribute which included another famed Canadian, said: “What Beatrice Lillie is to the stage, Anna Russell is to concert audiences.” One of the most influential of all the critics, Irving Kolodin of the Saturday Review, agreed—and went a step further:
In her highly artful way. Miss Russell suggests the comic impulse of Beatrice Lillie matched with the musical sophistication of Alec Templeton, a truly formidable combination . . . She has a wonderful exuberance to offer, a kind of caustic irreverence, a large capacity to induce laughter This is solid currency in any market, and especially in the inflated one of musical values.
The memory of her overnight fame in Gotham still fetches her, amiably whooping and bellowing, from her easy chair and into one of her impromptu acts, her bright blue eyes flashing, her wide humorous mouth twisted down in bogus consternation, her thick blond hair tossing in a Russell-created storm.
“Oops, m’deah, such draft ma! Within two weeks after that Town Hall thing I’d been given a centre color spread in the New York Sunday Mirror and a write-up in Newsweek. The Steinway people insisted on giving me a complimentary piano for my apartment, and I fought dreadful battle with myself for fui y two seconds before giving them mv consent. Somebody else, a veddy posh dress shop, donated formal gov/ns fbr my concerts. Authors and composers came flocking to see me, each one of them having written just the number I needed. Agents kept phoning me all day—the same agents who used to keep me waiting for hours in their outer offices.”
She was also besieged by the lorgnette crowd and the celebrity-hunters, of whom New York has countless thousands.
“Society! The great and the grand and the uppity! As soon as you start to percolate and hit the headlines they all come piling forth and inviting you to their soirées. You know, the International Stifled Yawn Set, people without a thing in the world except money. Woe betide any honest performer who gets sucked in by them! They can kill you if you’re not careful, and of course they’re ready to drop you flot the moment make a wrong move
or cease to -trophy they can show
off to theingéj|?tous ‘friends.’ Well, they’re not arming to kill old Russell. I’m a Sixth Avenue kid, and I’m damned well geling to stay th>,t way!” Miss Russell’s; New York manager, a handsome dynauno with tie appropriate name of Hastr.kian Booner, helps her to ward off advEtsers wh> want to streamline all the fresh mess aid uniqueness out of her routingPersonally, as well as professionally, she and Boomer are warm besides being partners in the B. R. Music Publishing Co., a firm Resigned to exploit the commercial p-I&sibilities of her song travesties. Her Columbia LP recording, entitled Anna Russell Sings?, is one of the biggest “classical” sellers in record shops. Disc jockeys like to play it in the middle of the night.
La Russell’s work bears only a surface resemblance to that of the average nightclub or television “impressionist” who pokes fun at the clas-
sics without thoroughly understanding them. Her own voice and musicianship are quite good enough to have given her a career as a serious professional singer if she had so desired, although she doubts she could have ever been a first-rater.
“1 can sing almost anything fairly well, up to a point,” she says with a grin, “and my range is actually rather enormous, in a faulty sort of way. But let’s face it frankly: there are scads
of people practically starving to death who can sing rings around me, so why should I bother when this stuff I am
doing is so much easier, and brings in such lovely lovely lowly little cheques?” In ten years her fee for a single concert has gone up from the seventy-five dollars she was paid by the Women’s Canadian Club of London, Ont., to a minimum of eight hundred dollars in the United States. Recently she earned sixteen hundred for an appearance at the University of Texas.
Anna says she’s not much good without an audience to work on, and doesn’t care for studio radio work for that reason. “Comedy,” she says, “is rather like playing tennis. If there’s
nobody on the other side of the net, no ball comes back.”
Unlike most of the cabaret lampoonists, she is obviously sincere when she says that she loves Great Music and doesn’t want to destroy anybody else’s appetite for it. Furthermore, she never mentions or burlesques specific individuals. Instead, her targets are always fairly universal types — the sombre folk - singer, the tone - deaf contralto who specializes in suicidal dirges, the ultra-chaste English choralsociety mezzo. Not music itself, but musical pretensy and quackery, is her
laughing-stock in trade. The in pact of her satire on a knowledgeable audience is sharpened by the fact that she rarely descends to outright slapstick, preferring to keep her grotesqueries “as close to what actually goes on as 1 possibly can.”
Tall and stately in a white Grecian gown she looks almost like any other successful and conventional diva when she first appears from the wings and begins one of her jocose recitals.
“Today’s performance,” she remarks in well-bred tones in one typical session, profitably tape-recorded by Columbia
Masterworks, “is intended to help and advise those who wish to make a career of The Voice. I feel 1 am very well qualified in this respect, as I was for many years a favorite pupil of the great Viennese maestro, Schächelstrassholzer. He taught me everything 1 know —including singing. In fact, many of the world’s greatest voice teachers have at one time or another ruined my voice, so 1 now feel that I am in a position to do the same for you.”
She then launches inio a coloratura aria which comes, she says, from the opera La Cantatrice Squelante,
by Michelangelo Occhipinti. Blandly taking it for granted that her hearers will know that the opera’s title means, approximately, the Squealing Songstress, the parodist devotes herself to a precise hatchet-job on all the stratospheric trill-jills who try to sound like piccolos or canaries. Yielding to an impulse that must have sorely tempted many a serious soprano, she decides not to bother tackling the final top D in her cadenza. Instead she mutters, “Aw, to heck with it!” and sings the note two comfortable octaves below the anticipated climax.
Reminding her listeners that “the only people who really appreciate coloratura sopranos properly are coloratura sopranos,” Anna points out that the market for such a commodity is a limited one. To make a living, therefore, some of the girls have to “go to the absolute other end of the scale, as it were.” She demonstrates with a lachrymose torch song, You Make Me Miserabubble. This hoarse hymn to the sorrows of love will be available soon for the juke boxes, coupled with a hillbilly threnody, also composed and sung by Miss Russell, called As He Lay There, All Dripping With Gore.
A moment later the artiste’s worldweary mask is replaced by one of virginal tranquillity. She is preparing to sing The Spring, ascribing its authorship to Henry Curate, a plausiblesounding hut quite fictitious genius who is, of course, another of La Russell’s own dream children. This charming number, she remarks, represents a mode of singing which is peculiarly British. She calls it the Clear White or Nymphs - and - Shepherds Style, of which the main characteristic is its Utter Purity. Both the song itself and her performance of it uncannily resemble the real McCoy as heard every year in a thousand local music festivals from Victoria to Bristol.
With Spear and Tresses
At thirty-nine, she also does a persuasive impression of an angelic English choirboy of about nine, visibly dreaming of jam tarts and truancy while caroling a sweet Handelian ode.
For singers with “tremendous artistry but no voice” she offers a poignant German lied, Schlump!'Ist Mein Gesitzenbaum, which mean; roughly “My sitting tree has ‘had’ it.” The same group usually included a breathless, not - quite - exquisite XIallic chanson entitled Je n’ai pas la plume de ma tante, which neither gets nor needs any translation from Anna Russell.
A few years ago, when she was organizing and testing her basic repertoire, she used to make rapid costume changes between skits. She soon discovered, though, that she could maintain closer communion with her audience if she stayed onstage continuously until intermission. (“Once I get my beady eye on them it’s not wise to let them escape.”) Now she carries with her, and casually places On the piano, a few small hats and other props which she puts on from time to time in transforming herself into one or other of her victims.
Only before doing her quasi-Wagnerian aria, Schreechenrauf, does she vanish briefly into the wings. Then, cutting loose with a,jJv rh note that closely resembles the se . . I of a factory whistle, she charges ¿ swir.andishing a huge speaf and wearing'er'eagle-plume helmet and yellow rope’'braids that dangle «own to her thighs.
Her accompanist, on whom she relies heavily for split-second and almost clairvoyant supporte in her zany flights, is John íoveart, a twenty-eight-yearold teacDr of p:^ano at the Toronto Conservaory of Music when he’s not touring vith A nna.
When he fjoshes high-society mannerisms, ?is° , Russell does so from an inherited ' outage point. She was born in England^n Dec. 27, 1913, the only child of a cSreer soldier who changed his name from plain Brown to RussellBrown to please a rich aunt named Russell. When he fell in love in Canada and married a “colonial,” however, the old lady cut him off without a cent.
Claudia Anna Russell-Brown was the daughter’s full name. The British Broadcasting Corporation, finding this much too long for insertion in the
printed radio schedules, peremptorily shortened it to “Anna Russell” after she had hoaxed the BBC into accepting her as an authority on folk ballads. She says they even began sending her ancient manuscripts for verification, and in four years of regular programs they never did find out that Miss Russell and a waggish old musicologist, the late Sir Percy Buck, had been solemnly pulling their corporate leg. Every week Sir Percy would teach Anna two or three more folk-songs and every week the BBC was newly impressed by her repertoire.
At home in Cooksville, Miss Russell is a live-wire member of the board of directors of Toronto’s New Play Society and last month she made her first appearance in its annual Spring Thaw show. This year she even turned down a special invitation to perform in San Francisco with that city’s famous symphony orchestra and guest conductor Bruno Walter, because it would have conflicted with her home-town commitments. She also has appeared twice with the Toronto Symphony on occasions when conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan has been in jocular fettle, and she is a vociferous booster for such Canadian adventures as this year’s Shakespeare Festival at Stratford.
In her private-life role as Mrs. Charles Goldhamer the fabulous Anna doesn’t pretend to be totally domesticated but says she and her artist husband have “a very jolly arrangement.” She doesn’t know a thing about painting, and he is so unmusical he couldn’t sing God Save the Queen to save his life. Friends who have known them for years say each of them is genuinely proud of the other’s solid abilities. Goldhamer’s mother lives with them, and most of the time all three of them get the meals ready together, poking around the kitchen and getting in one another’s way but never having any trouble.
Anna keeps an apartment all year round in New York’s West Fifties and makes it her headquarters when on tour. Once in a while when she is away Goldhamer decides lie wants some excitement, flies down to New York and runs around for a few nights with Anna and her mad pals, then goes home and sleeps for a week.
Miss Russell, markedly different in this respect from most professional humorists, seems to think practically everybody else in the business is uproariously amusing. Bea Lillie, for instance, “absolutely fractures” her. She gets a big kick out of the work of Abe Burrows, Victor Borge (star of the GNEjthis yiÿur), and dance-parodist Iva Kitchell, «nd as a reader she is devoted to Ltmcoyk, Benchley and Stephen Potter. (“I’m thinking of
applying toi for an appointment
to the Cbn£ in his Oneup-
ntanship follegeiM âbe'Vhild me.) Anna Siso a¿m¡res and enjo.?'*»Al«c Templeton. who was the star seruÖr pupil when shewa8 an obscure'junior the Royal of Music. They Udh studied co)fipoeitioii willi England’s great sym PWiiat, Ralph Vaughan Wjika.msJ
Afi -far as she knows, Anna Kcissell Vas rió enemies, alt hough once or tw ic'e a senmtive singer has been Been "w a licit tg oui on one of her caustic medals.
tally, she says, people-don’t recognize themselves4inf caricature“, even when the resemhlantei ¡«1 overpowering to their neighbors. Not long ago Anrta1 #aa;approached by an American musicdob-'president WhcW*'»banner was a' dead ringer foF’f&e Mfcdam President .Vhom the comedienne had just been lampooning. “You Were wonderful,” théOman told héP/^whing. “I especially enjoyed*yóur «Madam President’ act. It was earoci/.y lÜe the president wo had last year.’ ★