My perilous plunge into the big time
The hateful years of violin study were over, and Gisele was on the brink of a concert career. To the dismay of her parents and teachers, she chose pop singing. Then, after testing her talents in Canadian radio, she staked everything on an offer from the Bob Crosby show
GISELE MACKENZIE TELLS HER STORY
Any way I look back on it, my final year in the graduating school of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music was an extended trauma. Behind were almost five years of study and hard work, as many years of instruction and understanding by some of the best teachers in Canada, and as many years of sacrifice by my parents in Winnipeg, whose dream it had always been that some day I’d be one of the world’s great violinists. But, meanwhile, and in almost ridiculous contrast, there was gnawing away at me this strong
desire to play piano and sing popular songs.
It was 1946 and I’d already accumulated enough polish and experience to have been given a radio show of my own over the CBC. It was called Meet Gisele, a simple, fifteenminute thing in which I played piano and chatted about the numbers I was going to sing. Before long, I was doing three a week. They were heard over the Trans-Canada network and so my parents knew about it, and were furious. So were the heads of the conservatory.
One day I was called to the office of Dr. Arnold Walter, head of the music school. It was about a month after I’d been on the air.
“Vot iss diss I heah about you shneaking around blaying dot jazz moozick on de radio?” he demanded. He had a wonderful accent.
“I’m not sneaking around. Dr. Walter,” I told him. “I’m on a coast-to-coast network. You can tune in anytime.”
“I don’t like itt,” he said. “Diss whole zing iss not good for your brains, and you haffn’t got too many for a shtart!”
Kathleen Parlow, my chief teacher, put it down to frivolity. “I have to make it an order that my other pupils go out to have some fun and relax,” she said, “but you I have to keep reining in. If it keeps up you’ll never be a violinist. It takes a fine brain to be a violinist and I’m beginning to think you haven’t got it.”
She also didn’t like me going out with boys. “I can see it all now,” she said to me during my final year, “you’ll be walking up the aisle within a year.”
My parents never nagged or scolded me in the same way but actually their silent treatment bothered me more. I knew, in a way, I was doing wrong, and so I was on the defensive and the fact that they ignored the issue only made it worse for me. Mother never mentioned the radio program in letters or when I phoned but I knew she was hearing it because my older sister, Hugette, told me she was. And apparently when friends and relatives mentioned hearing me, it made her all the more furious.
Now, as an adult of thirty-three, I can understand how she felt. After twelve years of planning and sacrifice, to say nothing of the dreams she and my father must have had about seeing me play in Carnegie Hall some day — that sort of thing — here I was frittering it all away on what they thought of as trash.
But at the same time I can justify my own feelings and actions. For almost five years, since the age of fourteen, I had been on my own, making my own decisions in a city far from home, without even a second cousin I could turn to. Because of the very pattern my parents had forced on me, I had developed a will and way of my own, an independence. I was old enough to know what
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“Several people around the CBC resented the money I was making”
went on inside myself and feel certain, in my heart, of what was right and wrong.
Then, of course, there was the material side of it. For four years I'd been hungry a great deal of the time, partly for substance but mostly for variety in food. My parents had been scrimping and saving to buy me a three-thousand-dollar violin, and the allowance they could afford didn’t provide for any extras. As for clothes, I'd had to be content with skirts, sweaters and bobby sox. Then, after a year on radio, I was making fortyfive dollars a show, three times a week. Then it went up to fifty dollars a show. Frankly, I went right off my nut. I bought all kinds of shoes and clothes — crazy clothes.
Lately, I have eased off some on the quantity of the clothes 1 buy, but I still love to indulge myself, qualitatively. And I'm still going through a reaction to those hungry days. Whenever I’m at home in my kitchen in California, I’m always trying weird recipes and lacing everything in sight with butter.
When I look back now on that graduation year, it doesn’t look any less hectic than it seemed at the time. There was the exhilaration of being on radio, with the money it brought; there was the enjoyment derived from visiting service camps as an entertainer; there was the night when comic Billy DeWolfe headlined a Variety Club benefit show on which I appeared and told me 1 would surely make a lot of money if ever I went to the United States. Then, mixed with all of this, was the exhausting pressure of my study schedule — the conservatory in the daytime and high school at night.
As a result, I became quite ill for a time from what the doctor described as “exhaustion from overwork.” But the root of it all, I know very well now, was the emotional turmoil, the knowledge that at the end of the term I was going to have to tell my parents that I had no intention of pursuing a career as a concert violinist.
1 did well in the graduating class, which made the decision all the more difficult to convey. I debated for the longest time as to whether I should write or phone and finally decided to phone. It was the crusher I'd thought it would be. Broke them right up. They cried. My dad carried on as if I'd stabbed him right through the heart. But, even though I was shaking in my shoes, I held firm. 1 thanked them for the wonderful education they’d given me and tried to assure them that it wouldn't all be lost (as a matter of fact it wasn't, because I got to play violin duets with Jack Benny and not many violinists can say that).
"1 just don't want it,” I remember saying. “1 play well, sure, but only because I’ve worked my head off. But being a concert violinist is not what I want."
My father forgave me after a while but it took years for my mother to come around. She was terribly upset and said a lot of things she didn't mean. For her, it was also something of a blow to family pride to have me go from classical to popular music. She felt this was the beginning of the decline for me, both as a person and as a performer, or artist. I don't think she ever really accepted the decision as final until I came to the States and was successful.
In particular she blamed Bob Shuttle-
worth, who was and is my manager and two years ago became my husband. They’re friends now but I have a feeling she still resents him to some extent for his part in my career at that time.
And at the risk of sounding deliberately "wifey,” I want to register a special tribute to Bob. For without him as my manager, without all the wise and often arbitrary decisions he has made for me over the years, I know I wouldn't be where I am today. This may well sound platitudinous and corny but it’s also very true. I’ve been around enough to know of many talented and promising people who have never made it only because of bad judgment and exploitation. Show business is the jungle you read about. You just can’t make it on your own. And secondrate guidance just isn’t good enough. Some have the impression that once an artist has been signed by one of the major talent agencies, his or her worries are
over. The truth is that without a good manager, an artist could be more hindered than helped by a major talent agency.
If I had any advice to give a young performer. I'd tell her to make sure she doesn't sign any long-term contracts with the first agency or manager who approaches her. If and when she does find a manager whose judgment she respects and in whom she has confidence, she then should stick by what he says and never be swayed by all the blandishments she’s sure to get from all sides, particularly if she has real talent. I’ve been with Music Corporation of America, biggest of the agencies, for the last few years but never on a long-term basis. And they’ve never done much of my planning. It’s Bob on whom I depend. He does all the sifting, thinking ahead and planning. He has all the worries.
It was Bob who “discovered” me. It began very casually one evening in 1945 when I was visiting the officers’ mess of HMCS York, the Royal Canadian Navy barracks in Toronto. I was asked to play and sing and after a while one of the officers, Lt. Shuttlcworth. came over and asked if I was doing any radio work. I told him no.
“You should be,” he said, and wandered away.
Months later, having decided I wasn’t going home to Winnipeg for the summer, that I would rather get work and earn some pocket money for my final year at the I phoned Frank Leslie,
a Toronto stockbroker who owned the Glenmount Hotel in Muskoka, north of Toronto. I told him I was looking for work, that I played piano and violin and could sing — a regular musical backfield.
“My orchestra is already set,” he said, “and ordinarily I don’t hire girls for the band. But you sound kind of interesting so I’d suggest you get in touch with my orchestra leader. If he wants you. it’ll be okay with me.”
When I phoned the leader, he turned out to be the former Lt. Shuttleworth.
“What’s the name again?” he asked.
"Gisele,” 1 told him. Well . . . how many people do you ever know by that name? He asked, “Are you that girl I heard, about a year ago, at HMCS York?”
I said I was.
‘Til hire you,” he said.
And so he gave me my first job, at local scale, which was pretty low in Huntsville — thirty-five dollars a week. And he was mean to me besides. I found out the main reason he hired me was to play violin and then fill in for him on piano whenever he had to return to Toronto for dances at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, where he also had a oand.
I didn't do any singing with the band but on Sundays they held informal little sessions around the hotel, during which I’d play and sing. Bob liked my work and at the end of the summer told me he was thinking of starting a talent agency and wondered if I’d like to be his first client. (Later he added folksinger Ed McCurdy and Tony the Troubador [Stecheson]). He felt sure he could do something for me around the CBC. He was right, because that fall he got me an audition with Harry Boyle, who was head of the TransCanada network. Boyle and Jackie Rae. who was one of the producers, sat in. They both seemed to like me but it was Harry who was particularly enthusiastic and I have a lot for which to thank this man. Bob and I have never lost our regard for him as one of the best and most imaginative radio men we’ve met, anywhere.
Rae's name comes up more than Harry Boyle's in stories about my start in show business, which I imagine is the result of Jackie telling everybody he discovered me and Harry keeping quiet. Jackie was my first producer and although he tried to exert an influence over me he never quite made it. He tried to teach me how to sing, how to talk and this and that to the point where Bob, after arguing with him for a long time, unsuccessfully, finally went to Harry Boyle and asked him to take Jackie off the show. “Maybe he doesn’t mean to ruin her as a performer,” he said, “but he’s doing it and it isn’t right.” Soon after that Rae was replaced, and he’s never forgiven Bob.
There have been stories that I was badly treated as a performer in Canada, that this was the main reason I went to the United States. This is only partly true and applies only to the treatment I got from one man, Ernie Bushnell, who was then the big wheel around the CBC in Toronto.
1 had had three great years with the CBC. My Meet Gisele program was being heard three times a week on both TransCanada and Dominion networks, for which I was now getting a hundred dollars a show, or three hundred a week. I was doing a weekly show called London
by Lamplight with Ted HockericVge, the wonderful baritone who’s now in England, and I was getting frequent guest shots on other shows. Besides this I was doing a fair number of banquet and club dates at pretty good fees. The money, in other words, was rolling in. My annual income in 1948 and 1949 was about $17,500 to $20,000.
Suddenly everything stopped. Meet Gisele was cancelled and producers of other shows started looking the other way and it was well known that Mr. Bushnell had cut me off. He had decided that the public was sick of me and that was that. I frankly think that a lot of the resentment shown by Bushnell and a couple of others around the CBC was due to the fact that I was making so much more money than they were. Anyway, Bushnell, for some reason, had never liked me personally or as a performer. He had humiliated me several times in public. Once, in particular, in the Variety Club, where so many show people gather, he told me in a loud voice that I had no talent and would never go anywhere. He did his best to make that one stick — in my last year in Canada I got exactly one show on the CBC and one cheque for seventyfive dollars.
However, by then I didn’t need Bushnell or the CBC because I was doing very well financially with a syndicated, five-aweek series over private radio stations. It was called Let’s Start an Argument, and it paid me five hundred dollars a week. Added to this was another two hundred dollars and expenses for a sponsored show called Morgantime, once a week out of Montreal. Meanwhile, Rupert Kaplan, a CBC producer in Montreal, had arranged a break for me in New York with the agency handling the big Coca-Cola radio show and I made one appearance with Percy Faith in New York and later the same people asked me to appear with Edgar Bergen in Atlantic City.
And so I don’t look back with any feeling of bitterness towards Canada, or, for that matter, the CBC. In the first place, so many good things have happened since then that I forget about those days. But even so I don't feel bitterness towards the organization itself so much as I still resent the theory or scheme of things which enables a comparatively small group of men to control the careers of so many people. What they did to me they could do to others who also wouldn't deserve it.
Another unfortunate truth is that Canadian performers must depend on the CBC for their livelihoods. In the U. S. there are so many lush side roads, but in Canada if you're dead around the CBC, you’re dead, period. If the CBC decides they’re tired of listening to you — even though the public might still want you badly — you have to go. But where?
Anyway, 1 was getting along very nicely without the CBC when Bob got a call from Wis McQuillin of the Cockfield, Brown ad agency, asking if I’d be available to go out of town. At first Bob thought he meant Ottawa or Montreal. Where else could Toronto performers go? So he said no. But McQuillin insisted they should talk it over because it was a pretty important offer.
"If it’s that important," Bob said, “tell us exactly what it is."
“I can’t over the phone,” McQuillin replied.
“Well," Bob said, "if you can't tell us what it is now, forget it because she can't go to Montreal anyway because she’s doing the Morgantime show there and it’s an exclusive.”
“Oh, it isn't Montreal,” McQuillin said.
and finally he broke down and told Bob in confidence that the interested party was the Campbell Soup Company. “The Andrews Sisters are leaving Bob Crosby’s Club 15 radio show and they want a replacement, to alternate with Jo Stafford, and Gisele’s name has been suggested.”
Later we learned that some of the company's U. S. executives, driving from the airport to their plant in Toronto, had heard my radio show and put my name on their list of possibles.
Later, too, we learned how I was finally selected for Club 15, which derived its name from the fact that it was a fifteenminute show of pop songs and comedy patter, heard daily from coast to coast. The company had solicited recordings from a great number of singers, some very well known; others, like myself, completely unknown. They then assembled a group of workers from the plant, gave them slips of paper and asked them to vote, by number, in relation to the different, numbered recordings they heard. They weren’t given any names at all. And I won the vote. It was that simple.
My thirteen-week gamble
The day we signed the contract was a memorable one. It was a civic holiday and as no offices were open we met in a downtown Toronto restaurant, a dreary little place; nobody there except Bob and me, McQuillin and an ad-agency man from New York. I was scared and kept wondering if we were doing the right thing. We were taking such a chance, giving up an established career in Canada for a thirteen-week gamble in the States. It was a gamble because although the sponsor would have me tied up for seven years, I had only the prospect of successive, optional (for the sponsor) thirteenweek contracts. In other words I could have been dropped at the end of the first thirteen weeks, or at the end of any other thirteen weeks. I think that if it had been left to me I might well have turned it down. But Bob was confident that it was the right thing and so I signed.
The move had its psychological effects, too, because it represented another widening of the gap between myself and my parents. Today, everything is pretty much as it used to be, the same closeness, sentiment and love that I knew as a child and which is typical of a French-Canadian family. But at the time of my move to Hollywood the situation was very strained. It seemed that for the last three or four years I had done nothing but rebel against my parents.
The last big rift had come when I moved into my own home. After leaving the conservatory I had lived for a while with another girl and her mother, in an attic apartment not far from Rosary Hall. But I got fed up with living in unattractive surroundings, I was making enough to afford a nice place of my own and so I rented a bed-sitting room suite in the Glenview Terrace, an apartment hotel in north Toronto, complete with restaurant and swimming pool.
Today, I’m sure Mother and Dad are able to understand what this meant to me at that time. I was able to buy furniture of my own, to make up for the drab surroundings in which I’d lived all the time I'd been in Toronto; I had a kitchen of my own in which to prepare the kind of food I w'anted, when I wanted it; and it was a place in which I could have the pets I'd longed for, budgies first and eventually, defying building regulations, a dachshund — one of the two I have today.
From my parents’ point of view, being
on my own this way in Toronto had been bad enough, but the thought of me, their \oung Catholic daughter, working and living alone in California absolutely appalled them. Because, let's face it, there's an awful lot more than geography separating Sunset Strip in Hollywood from Sherbrooke Street in Winnipeg.
Another psychological factor involved my family's name. LaFleche. Neither the sponsor nor the agency liked it. “It makes \ou sound like a stripper," the agency man said, thinking phonetically — La Flesh. My mother’s family name. Monceau. they said, would be too difficult for Americans to pronounce, and I agreed.
I could hear the master of ceremonies: "Here she is — Gizzell Monk-o! Give her a big hand!”
They also turned down the single name. Ciisele, because it sounded too French. They wanted to de-emphasize this aspect. It became a typical Madison Avenue crisis. All sorts of names were suggested until I finally mentioned that my grandmother's family name, on my father's side, was Mackenzie. Everybody was ecstatic. It was a Scottish name. So was the sponsor’s. And so, unofficially and for billing, I became Gisele Mackenzie.
I couldn’t blame my family for feeling a bit hurt by this commercial betrayal; I didn’t like it myself, particularly, but I could also see the sponsor’s point and was able to rationalize the thing in relation to what it meant to my career.
Two years ago, on a delayed honeymoon trip to Europe, through August, September and part of October ( Bob and 1 had been married in February. 1958) we explored the family tree in northern Scotland, in a coastal village called Dornie, which contains the ruins of a fortress called Mackenzie Castle. For the occasion, I’d bought a Mackenzie outfit in London—the kilt, sporran, tarn, skirt and coat. And Bob wore a Mackenzie lie. But it wasn’t until we got there and talked to the old fellow who tended the ruins that we learned the area was populated entirely by MacRaes. The MacRaes were a clan which fought alongside the Mackenzies, and this particular castle had been something like a “branch office" for the latter, who actually lived in a castle in Inverness. This one they left for the MacRaes to defend.
The old man offered to take us to the top of the castle where, he said, we would see a portrait of the MacRae who had actually received the castle from the Mackenzies two centuries ago. It sounds incredible. 1 know, but when we entered the room we found a painting of Gordon MacRae, the singer with whom I’ve worked so many times. It couldn’t have looked more like Gordon if he’d posed for it — the same part in the hair and the same smile and sassy look. Gordon could be that Scottish soldier come back.
Back in California, we told Gordon about our discovery, and now he’s planning a visit to see for himself.
Throughout my first six months in Hollywood I often had reason to doubt we’d made the right move, mainly because Bob Crosby made it quite plain that he resented me. He wouldn't even speak to me. He liked Bob and spoke to him but he ignored me completely, which was pretty hard for a green kid to take. For a while I tried making conversation with him but only wound up being embarrassed. It wasn't hard to figure out the reason for his attitude: he was mad as a hatter because instead of a “name" to replace the Andrews Sisters, he'd been burdened with a complete unknown — and from Canada, of all places. He was thinking only of what this would do to his ratings.
You would have expected him to blame the sponsor or agency, not me. But he cut me colder than a mackerel and never said a word to me other than the dialogue written for us. After a while I'd only look at the bottom part of his face during the duets we sang and the lines we exchanged. They were real chummy lines, too. which made it all the more difficult.
Jo Stafford alternated with me on the show (she did three and I did two) and so we didn't see that much of each other. It was left to the Modernaires. the vocal quartet, to lift my sagging spirits and we
became very close friends. They tried to reason with Crosby about his attitude and so did a lot of other people but nothing happened. Even that first Christmas, he didn't break down. I wished season's greetings to everyone else on the show and even though, by now. I was utterly embarrassed and shy around the man. I approached him, intending to wish him a Merry Christmas. But he simply turned on his heel and walked away.
Suddenly, after about six months, he decided to recognize me officially; although my husband says he'd been build-
ing up to it for weeks, as it gradually dawned on him that I wasn't such a drag after all. They had cut the show from five to three a week, had dropped Jo Stafford and kept me. And instead of Club 15 ratings going down they kept going up and I was getting a lot of fan mail. What’s more. I had also become a regular on the weekly Coca-Cola Hour with Mario Lanza, at Lanza's special request. Originally the intention had been to have a different girl every week but after I worked the first show with Mario, he asked that I be hired permanently. After
using different singers the second and third weeks, they complied and 1 finished
out the season.
By now, Crosby and I had developed a kind of ballet of avoidance so as not to say hello around the studio. On Reconciliation Day I arrived for rehearsal as usual, saying hello to everyone as I came in. I could see Crosby, without looking straight at him, of course. Usually the pattern of our little dance called for him either to turn his back as I got to within a certain distance, or walk away altogether. This time he stayed put. I got panicky. The studio was a theatre, actually, and he was standing in an aisle, facing me and I’d have to walk by him. No escape. But I thought to myself: "Don’t worry, he'll turn his back at the last minute.’’ But he stood there, actually looking at me. When I got within three feet of him my legs went rubbery. And then—and 1 could hardly believe my ears —he said, "Hello, Gisèle.”
I was so flustered I don’t remember what 1 answered. 1 reacted like a highschool kid. felt faint and had to retire to the ladies’ room for psychological repairs. The show that day was one big blur.
To this day we’ve never discussed the situation; Boh seems to want to pretend it never happened. He prefers to review it as the period during which he made me a star, which is all right with me. We remain good friends. I remember that
when v,.ub 15 went off the air, after two and a half years, he wanted me for the TV show he was putting together and was furious when I signed a contract for the Hit Parade instead.
Although the protracted Crosby episode was upsetting and although my husband and I were quite lonely for Toronto and our friends there, the professional aspects of my new career in Hollywood were extremely gratifying. Our show was on the Columbia network and I soon began to appreciate the atmosphere and working conditions for a performer here as compared to what I had known around the CBC. The star system, for example. Whereas the CBC doesn't want anybody to become a star, the whole aim here seems to be to make you one. They have everything — publicity department, promotion men — going for you. I became Miss Peanut — honest — also Miss Idaho Potato and a few other equally undistinguished things. But it always got my name and picture in the papers and this is what they stress, the repetitive aspect of the build-up. They figure that if people keep seeing your name and picture in print it will advance you as much as talent.
A big, practical difference between Canada and the United States, for a performer, is the element of competition. By comparison there is no competition around the CBC, not in the same sense.
There’s so much more of everything in Hollywood or New York, the competition is that much tougher, making everyone work that much harder — performers, writers, directors — everyone. What impressed me most in those early days was how much harder people worked around CBS than I’d known people to do around the CBC. None of that civil service security here, nobody sitting around complacently. They either did the job or — out they went.
But, as for my career at that point. I had no real idea where I was going. After living for a while in The Garden of Allah, a sor* of motor hotel made famous by the late F. Scott Fitzgerald and other "lost generation’’ writers, I found a pleasant apartment and Bob got himself a nice little house. I was earning fifteen hundred dollars a week for the Club 15 show and another five hundred for the weekly show with Lanza. I had lots of clothes and a convertible in which, quite often. I’d pull up at a stoplight, alongside someone like Clark Gable. I’ll admit, being in Hollywood, the thought of breaking into motion pictures crossed my mind but I didn't fret over it. Always the fatalist, I was just going to let things happen, -fc
This is the second part of (Usele MacKenzie's story. Part III will appear in the next issue.