TELLS HER STORY
There’s never been a show-business story like that of the fat little girl who left Winnipeg clutching her violin and went on to play duets with Jack Benny, headline at the Waldorf and play fabled Las Vegas at $15,000 a week
As told to Stan Helleur
WHEN I APPEARED on a TV show with Jimmy Durante last fall, his famous closing line to the mysterious Mrs. Calabash reminded me of a similar tribute I could use. It would go: "Goodnight, Mr. Hubicki — wherever you are!"
It's been years since I’ve seen this fine violinist and teacher and I’m not sure where he’s living today, except that I do know he has left Winnipeg, my home town. But I've never forgotten him, because without his help I might never have had the career I’ve enjoyed for the past tw'elvc years, a lot of which has been rough but none of which I would really want to give back.
I was about nine when Taras Hubicki came into my life. My mother, born to be a chief-of-staff ordering vast armies into strategic positions, had bulldozed him into accepting me as a pupil. She had already charted my life. She was determined that some day I’d be the one — no one else — who’d scare the liver out of Heifetz. She’d made up her mind, that far back, that I was never going to get married, that I was going to have the big concert career, and that was that.
Consequently, in our neighborhood of Winnipeg around the general hospital, 1 became the tradiCONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
To young Gisele LaFleche (the MacKenzie came later) childhood was a happy time shadowed only by her hated violin
GISEUE MACKENZIE tells her story
tional caricature of the fat girl musician in pigtails, the oddball who never went anywhere without her violin case. While the other kids were outside playing, I w'âs inside practicing. When the other girls at Sacred Heart School were enjoying fun classes like cooking, sew'ing and gym, I was stuffed away in the music room, practicing. Two and three hours a day were nothing.
And so. for release, whenever I could, I'd sit at the family piano and play popular music and sing. At first, mother permitted it as a reward for having practiced well. But inevitably the day came when she decided 1 was too fond of the diversion — foolish jazz, she called it — and banged down the piano lid. From then on, nothing but the fiddle. 1 was desolate. One day I mentioned it to Hubicki, not expecting him to do anything about it. really. But the next time my mother spoke to him he brought up the subject. It became a little soap opera scene.
"Mrs. LaFleche.” I can still hear him saying. "I wouldn't cut your daughter off from playing popular music on the piano. You'd be making a big mistake. She loves it and she's got the talent to play and sing. Let her do it. It won't hurt her violin. I think you'd be doing her more harm than good by forbidding her."
I know it sounds like the plot from a Mary Pickford movie, but I also know' it affected the whole course of my life. If Hubicki hadn't convinced my mother that day. I have a pretty good idea what I’d be doing for a career right now'. I’d be sitting in the string section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Maybe, if I'd gotten real lucky, I'd be
silting in the second chair.
My background as a scholarship violin student at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto (then the Toronto Conservatory of Music) has been revived quite often since the fiddle bits I did with Jack Benny on television and in theatres and clubs. But the truth is that I'd rather not play the instrument, or even think about playing it. It represents too much unhappiness, loneliness, frustration, even bitterness toward my parents, all of it related to my childhood in Winnipeg and teenage days in Toronto.
But before I get into that. I'd like to develop the Jack Benny association because, looking back, it's had so much bearing on my career. I'd actually been working wfith Jack for a couple of weeks, rehearsing the first stage show' I did with him in San Francisco, in 1953, before he found out I played the violin. He had asked me to join him primarily on the basis of some singing and comedy bits he had seen me do with Bob Crosby in Las Vegas. It was Bob Shuttleworth, my manager and now my husband, who thought it would be a good idea to tell him about the violin. Jack was immediately interested. "Play something.” he said.
I hadn't touched the instrument in a very long time but I borrowed a fiddle from one of the band musicians and played — I forget what — but it w'as pretty showcase)' stuff. Jack was obviously surprised and pleased and right away began figuring out something we could do together. Finally he worked out a little thing in which I held his violin while he went through the motions of teaching me how to play. At CONTINUED ON PAGE 46
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Gisele Mackenzie tells her story continued from page 14
“I would never play the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand show
not at any price”
the end of his instructions I’d say: "Oh, you mean like this?" — and rip ofF a wild cadenza, hand him back his fiddle and walk oil. leaving him with that wonderful egg-on-the-face look. It always got a big laugh. After that show we went to Dallas
and by then had worked out an actual duet.
There’s no doubt that without the violin my career might not have been nearly so successful. There's no questioning the fact that Jack was tremendously im-
pressed by my ability to play the instrument well, in addition to playing piano, singing and handling comedy material. I know this is what made him go out of his way to promote me for the Hit Parade TV show, which, in four seasons, made
me a showbusiness "personality.” Bob and I knew I was being considered for the program and Jack had found out because he had the same cigarette sponsor. One night he said to us:
“You know, I might be able to do something pre-tty good for you. If I put Gisele on my last show of the season, which is just about hiring time for the Hit Parade, and let them see all the things she can do, it just might help her get a contract.”
It was wonderful of him because he could easily have hired a big name. But instead he put me. a nobody, in a veritable showcase, just as a favor. I sang, did a duet with Bob Crosby, had some lines with Jack, played piano, sang, played the fiddle—everything. Two days later I was hired for the Hit Parade.
As a result of this close association with Jack I’ve often been asked if he has a financial interest in my career. The answer is no. In a sense, this might have been true last year because it was Jack’s television company that produced the Gisele Mackenzie Show. But. unhappily, the show wasn’t renewed and that ended whatever financial tie-up we had.
Jack is wonderful to work with. On the job he’s sort of busy and inwardly nervous, thinking all the time, but always pleasant. He’ll accept the advice of his director, but in the final analysis he’s his own boss. He likes the same group around him. likes familiar things. Some of his writers have been with him for years — Sam Perrin, for instance, for twenty-five. Things are always easy on Jack’s show— no tension, everyone relaxed. And he doesn't rehearse you too much.
The last show I did with him was a supper-club engagement in the Fontainebleau in Miami last February and I haven’t seen him very often since then. He wanted me to appear with him last summer in the open-air Greek Theatre in l.os Angeles but I didn’t want to do it because it's too big a place, and a singer, particularly, would be lost. This is why I’d never play the Canadian National Exhibition. Not at any price.
I'm sure many people thought when I lost my own TV show in the spring of 1958. that my career was on the rocks. For a while I thought so, too. But for just a little while, since I’m a fatalist. I was disappointed but the reversal didn't break me up completely. I would have liked the show to go back on, naturally, and the public certainly liked it. We got thousands of letters when it was cancelled. Screamers, many of them. "I’ll never buy those products again" sort of thing. But the ratings weren't what the sponsors wanted.
I honestly think a lot of this was because of the time slot. I was following two hours of singing. Perry Como was on for sixty minutes and after him, for thirty, came Dean Martin's Club Oasis, followed by Polly Bergen's half hour. Then me. Also, the writing was a bit erratic while they fished around to find the right format. It took a long time. People have to know you to write for you. But as time goes by I feel less hurt about it because I know we did some good shows.
What rankled more than anything, actually, was the unfair way in which the story of the cancellation was handled. The program had gotten into a real mess near the end because Charlie Isaacs, our
producer and chief writer, agitated about what he thought was sponsor interference. He sounded off against everybody—the NBC network, my agency, (Music Corporation of America), and the advertising ajency. Even the New York Times reported his big tirade. But instead of just getting mad at Charlie, everybody concerned got mad at the whole show. As a result we were double-crossed on the way the announcement was made. The understanding had been that ire would b-eak the news; that I was retiring from the show in order to do The King and I ir San Francisco and Los Angeles. We were assured that this is the way it would be.
But my signature on the release papers was hardly dry before the newspapers had a story that I'd been fired. It was put in just about the worst way it could have been put. A big deal was made of it in TV Guide, with pictures, the works. Everybody knew the show was going off the air but it didn’t have to look as it was made to look. I felt a little bit as if the world had fallen in at that point, but I kept telling myself, You can’t stop w aat’s going to happen.
On the plus side, I had all the experiercc the show had given me. It was a full-scale commercial enterprise. We had taken over a building in Hollywood, across the street from the Paramount lot. ard had something going in every corner of it. Bob and I had executive offices, the writers and agency men had their own offices, there were rehearsal studios, dressing rooms, everything.
"I still get the Noms’ ”
I loved every minute of it. I gained a lot of confidence and experience working with people on the show, being a hostess and taking the whole responsibility for the program once it was on the air. And so today, if anyone came to me and said they'd like me to do a spectacular I wouldn't llinch. I'd say, sure, just so long as I can pick certain people and have the right staff around me. I'd tell them I'd want to do the show in Hollywood, that I'd want Ray Charles to write some material for me, that I'd want Jack Regas as choreographer, and so on. I wouldn't be scared to death and panic, as I might have done before.
Actually I'm implying a lot of confidence I really don't possess. In spite of the many things I've done since leaving Canada in 1951, I still verge on the "voms” before every performance. My stomach acts up particularly when I'm doing a supper-club engagement. I accept only certain club dates and for special reasons. I'll play the Flamingo in Las Vegas for the money, as much as fifteen thousand dollars a week. But I'll play New York only for the prestige and for what the engagement might mean to my career. This was the only reason we agreed to open the 1959 fall season in the Empire Room of the Waldorf. 1 could have earned three times the money in Las Vegas, but the Empire Room is a real showcase. And I'm glad I accepted the month because the reviews were good and the room did good business. But every night before I went on, as I took that last gulp of water in the wings, I felt like running the other way, escaping.
Ordinarily, though, I love working to live audiences. When I played The King and I, in San Francisco and Los Angeles two summers ago. for example, I could hardly wait to go on. But nightclub audiences are very different. The drunks, for example, I don't particularly enjoy, or the people who are very blasé and have that
go-ahead-and-entertain-me attitude. No matter how much it galls me. though. I'll do it if I think it's worthwhile. It amounts to self-discipline, which is one thing, above all others. I've learned since childhood.
About my childhood. There's something I want to clear up once and for all: I was not born in St. Boniface, Man. People have always presumed this—I suppose because I'm French Canadian. But the certified fact is that I was born across the river in Winnipeg, on William Avenue, in an apartment house. My
father, who delivered the whole family, said I was a very "alive baby.” My eyes, apparently, were open right from the start. I was the second eldest, next to my sister. Hugette. Another sister, Jeannine, came after me. then my two brothers, Georges and Jacques.
We moved into a house farther along William when I was still an infant and when I was seven we moved again, this time into a house on Bannantyne, still near the general hospital, the area where my father had his practice. Not long ago, our property was expropriated to make
room for a new hospital wing, and Mother and Dad. house and all. were moved to a new location, on Sherbrooke.
It's a very humble little house in a humble district. If they could afford it, my parents would have a nicer home, and 1 feel guilty about my wonderful new place in Encino. Calif. But my father is a proud man and I'd never suggest they move anywhere else. I’ve read stories in which he’s been described as “a well-todo Winnipeg doctor.” Which is not true, of course. We never wanted for anything at home, but my father has never had any
pretentions to be anything more than he has always been at heart, a good general practitioner who has always handled his practice like an old-fashioned, down-toearth country doctor. He’s not well now. He has circulatory trouble in his legs and has had to cut down his practice. As a result he maintains his office at home. It doesn’t crowd things, however, because Jacques, who is attending university in St. Boniface, is the only one left. Hugette has been married for twelve years, Jeannine got married a couple of years ago and Georges just recently.
Ours has always been a fun-loving family. There’s always music in our home. Mother plays piano quite well and Dad scratches away at the violin about as proficiently as Jack Benny. Both Hugette and Jeannine play piano. Jeannine has played and sung, as I did, on the CBC. Georges, who, like me, was born with perfect pitch, plays cello and piano and sings very well and Jacques plays the flute quite beautifully. But, aside from me, Georges is the only one using his talent at the moment. In the daytime he works as an announcer on the Frenchlanguage radio station in Winnipeg and at night does some singing on radio and TV in both languages.
Mother was the disciplinarian in our house. We called her "the sergeantmajor.” In a way, I can’t blame her too much because *my dad, being a doctor, was busy day and night. And so it fell to Mother to be the tough one. Dad always wanted at least one of his children to play the violin well but it was Mother who decided it would be me. I wanted to take piano and singing lessons, and it’s ironic, now, that although I’ve never had any formal training in either, this is how I’ve always made my living.
I was only seven when it started, all the studying, practicing and slogging. And mother always patrolled my practicing, no matter how many things she had to do around the house. She didn’t miss a thing. I remember one day I decided I’d had enough practicing and picked out a simple little exercise I could repeat over and over while reading a book. And so I sawed away, stopping only long enough to turn a page. But Mother soon detected something wrong and caught me. From then on it was Gestapo. She'd frisk me from head to toe before each practice session, making sure I didn’t have any literature stashed away.
A friend of my mother’s, Yvette Sala, was my first teacher. She taught me the basic preliminary stuff. After a while I was sent to Taras Hubicki, as I've already mentioned, and progressed with him to the point where I began doing concerts. Next, when I was going on thirteen, Mother sent me to Flora Matheson Goulden, who now lives in Ottawa, and 1 made great progress with her. She was a natural teacher, a great one. Not only that — she was a wonderful woman. She gave me an awful lot of understanding which I needed badly at that time because I wasn’t having much fun. By nature, I love to have a ball. I'd play all day and never do a lick of work if I didn’t have to. But as a child 1 never had the time to play with other kids. Hugette, Jeannine and the boys never had to go through what I did. Musically, I was the chosen one. The fact that I’d been born with perfect pitch had something to do with it, I suppose, although it's a gift anybody can get along perfectly well without. It doesn’t automatically make you a good musician, as many people seem to think. Then, too, I did show signs of having a talent. And so my life became a dedicated one, whether I wanted it that way or not.
In spite of everything, I still recall my
childhood as being essentially a happy one. Ours was a typical French-Canadian family life; very close, quite strict yet with a great deal of affection and love, one for the other, and all the children were treated in the same way. Almost, I should say, because it’s never been any secret that my father has always been a little more partial to me. He’d deny it when mother and the others would kid him about it but I’ve often heard them say, "Why don’t you admit, Dad? Whenever Gisele comes into the room she’s all you see.”
Having had all this security, having been sheltered for as long as I could remember, I just couldn’t understand it when my parents decided to send me to Toronto to study at the conservatory. I was only fourteen. Until then, I’d never been away from home even for a weekend. Just thinking about what was ahead scared the daylights out of me. I became hysterical, finally, when we were about ready for my mother to take me on the train to Toronto. I screamed and kicked and carried on. I didn’t want to play the violin. I didn't want to be away from home. I didn’t want any part of it. My parents didn't seem to realize you can’t suddenly uproot a child from a milieu of love and affection and abruptly drop her into a strange city, hundreds of miles away. But my mother said: "You’re going and that's it!” And that was it.
When I look back on it now, of course, I realize it was the best thing that could have happened to me. But at the time it was a shattering experience. To this day I remember mother leaving me at Rosary Hall, a residence for Catholic girls, on midtown Bloor Street near Jarvis, where I was to board for the next five years. I was so miserable, lost and scared I thought of committing suicide.
I cried almost continually for two weeks and didn’t unpack my trunks for two months. The city looked so strange. I kept getting lost. I had to walk all the time, to and from the conservatory, which was a good mile and a half from Rosary Hall, and I made the trip four times a day. They had a cafeteria at the conservatory but I couldn't afford to eat lunch there. I had to return to Rosary Hall and go back for afternoon classes.
I often had to walk the route at night— and this is the bit that bothers me now— a young kid, fourteen and fifteen, walking alone along those dark streets. I had to walk because I didn’t have the money to take streetcars. My parents weren't depriving me deliberately, it was just that they could afford to give me only the barest allowance.
One of the things I remember most about that period w-as being hungry most of the time, particularly after I first arrived. What they gave us to eat didn’t match what I'd been used to at home. And I couldn't supplement my diet from my allowance because it just wasn't sufficient. I remember, once watching one of the girls eating an orange and asking her for the peelings. When she asked why, I was ashamed. I told her I just like to crush and keep them because they smelled so nice and would perfume my room. I put the peelings in an envelope and at night, in the dark, I ate them, hungrily. Now, whenever I’m with a group of actors who start reminiscing about how tough things once were, 1 know what they’re talking about.
“I’m in a coffin!”
It may have been largely a circumstantial thing but I thought Rosary Hall was about as depressing a place as I could have been in. I remember waking up the first morning in the room I shared with another girl and looking up at the ceiling, painted a horrible sort of yellowy, cream color, with the whole edge framed in black. And I thought: "Dear God, I’m in a coffin!” I hated the place. As the youngest girl there I was ignored by most of the others. Fortunately, living there were a few student teachers, who were about eighteen — terribly old in my estimation — and a couple of them took me under their wing. They still made fun of me, of course, and treated me like a real kid, but they kept me straight, screening everything I did.
I didn’t go out with a boy for a year, until I was fifteen. I’d never dated in Winnipeg, because neither my mother or father would permit it. My mother was determined I would remain single, which,
now, is pretty funny, because a couple of years ago she was dying for me to get married. Even had the man all picked out. Pretty nice fellow, too, but you just don't arrange things that way. But when I was fifteen, it was a different matter. And I grew up a little, then, for the first time. I said to myself: "Here I am, fifteen years old, away from home, making all my decisions—right or wrong, I’m making them — and I’m not having any fun. This is it. Not only am I going to wear lipstick, I'm going to go out with boys! So there!”
When I wrote home to this effect, my mother was terrified. And this to me illustrates a characteristic of French-Canadian families: parents want to maintain a grip on their children all their lives. I can remember my father telling how my grandfather once hit one of my uncles across the face, simply because he didn’t agree with him — and my uncle was thirty-five at the time.
It’s a real old French-Canadian thing, wanting to control the children, even from miles away. And so you have to break these chains. As they’ve gotten older, Mother and Dad have changed but at the time they were so French, that when they finally accepted the fact that I’d go out with boys whether they wanted me to or not, they forbade me to go out with anyone but French Canadians. Frankly, the only French boys I met were not much. I started going out with a really nice boy, who was an Irish Catholic. Now that was pretty good, I thought. But mother, all the way from Winnipeg, forbade me. I wrote her in protest.
“He’s a Catholic," I said. “That should please you. He’s Irish, and that isn’t bad. I chum around with some Irish girls at school and love them.” But she wrote back and said again that I wasn't to go out with him. I wept for a couple of days but I kept going out with him. I grew up a little more at this point. But this sort of thing made life very difficult. The young man was anxious to meet my parents and I couldn’t let him. Eventually, and because of this, the romance ended. And I was crazy about him.
I’m sure that a certain amount of this parental discipline influenced me, ultimately, to do what I’m doing today; it forced me into it out of. rebellion. There were just too many demands made on me. Not only was I studying music all day; I had to finish high school at night.
I first attended Jarvis Collegiate and then switched to Harbord. I also had to take English lessons when I first arrived in Toronto because, although at Sacred Heart School in Winnipeg we were taught bilingually, French predominated. Furthermore there was no English spoken in our home. To this day, we must speak French, except when we have Englishspeaking visitors.
Eventually I was accepted by the other girls at Rosary Hall, but not for my violin. It was the custom, after dinner, for everyone to gather either in the Gold Room or Red Room, both of them singularly uninviting. (To this day, whenever I see a certain shade of red I can’t help shuddering because it reminds me of that Red Room). One night, I sat at the piano and started to play and sing. The reaction was amazing. Suddenly everyone came to life. Before long I was the most popular gal in the place simply because I could play piano and sing.
I also became friendly with a boy named Gerhard Kander, who was the top violinist in my class. We had a lot in common, naturally, and I admired and respected him so much because he was so much better an artist than I knew I’d ever be. He was twenty, a glamorous refugee from Europe about whom
everybody was talking. His parents had died in a concentration camp and he'd been in a camp himself. All the girls thought he was pretty wonderful. I was, shall we say, generously endowed by nature but I wasn't attractive. His attention did a lot for my self-confidence because out of all the girls in the class he chose to go out with me. We attended concerts, went to movies and just generally had fun, without any serious romance. His attention did a lot for my morale.
And I needed all the bolstering anyone could give me. While the atmosphere at the conservatory was pleasant enough, the work was hard and the discipline terrific. I was practicing about four hours a day. mostly at home, and at school I had a great deal of book work — such things as harmony, counterpoint and history of music. I was also doing a great deal of quartet and symphony work, all of which required a lot of practice. And in place of mother as the sergeant-major I now had Kathleen Parlow, a wonderful teacher but a real toughie. I'll never forget her, with the little hair bun at the back and her spectacles down on the nose. She scared the living daylights out of me by just looking at me. All the same, I was one of her favorite pupils,
musically, and she liked me personally.
At one point she tried to help me earn some extra money, "doing what you do best, dear,” and arranged for me to take over a violin class in Pickering on Saturday mornings. A music teacher had died and his class of twelve was up for grabs, at $1.50 a lesson. And so I started getting up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays, catching the 7 a.m. bus for Pickering and teaching all day in the former teacher's living room which his widow allowed me to use. It wasn't long before I realized I wasn't cut out to be a teacher. I love kids and have endless patience with them as a performer. But you need a special kind of patience to be a teacher and I found out then that I didn't have it. Most of the kids in the class had no inclination to learn. After six months I asked Miss Parlow to give the job to somebody else.
One person who helped me a lot at the conservatory was Godfrey Ridout, my harmony teacher. He was a wonderful young man, kind and full of sympathy. I can remember going in for a harmony or counterpoint lesson and being so lonely and scared of Miss Parlow that I'd dissolve into tears. When this happened, Godrey would say, “Let’s forget about harmony today. I think it’s more impor-
tant right now that we talk. You won’t learn much in your present state of mind.” And so we’d sit and talk. He was making up for what Miss Parlow was doing to me with her harsh discipline. I’d be an ingrate if I didn’t appreciate all that she tried to do for me but at the same time I think she made me hate the violin, made me finally give it up. In which case, I suppose I have all the more to thank her for.
Also working on me at the time, subconsciously, was the growing pleasure I got out of playing piano and singing. It was wartime and I was able to compare the two, in terms of selfgratification as a performer, because I was going out with entertainment groups to military camps. One week I’d be with a symphony troupe, the next with a variety show. It was then I began to realize that as a violinist, I was mechanical. Nothing came from within. Sitting at a piano and singing for those service audiences, however, was something else. This was the real me performing. Down deep I knew this. But how could I ever say it to my parents who’d sacrificed so much? if
This is the first part of Gisele MacKenzie’s story. Part II will appear in the next issue.