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No. 119
A Leading Man of the Theatre;
A Leading Lady of Radio and Television;
A Painter- Producer-Author of Grand Tableaux

by Andrée Lavoie, Manuscript Division

In passing from hand to hand and traveling from pillar to post there were some technical difficulties with this article in the last issue of the magazine. To correct the errors that were created and pay due homage to these three giants of the cultural scene in Quebec, we are reprinting this piece.

The National Archives of Canada recently had the good fortune to acquire the archives of Gratien Gélinas, Michelle Tisseyre and Pierre Gauvreau. Their work within la francophonie has undeniably been etched into the cultural history of our society. These pioneers of theatre, radio and television have had an exceptionally long period of activity lasting more than 40 years.

Gratien Gélinas, born in 1909 in Saint-Tite-de-Champlain, Quebec, showed an interest in theatre during his classical studies. In 1931, along with some friends, he founded La troupe des anciens du Collège de Montréal, yet he had already been playing for a few years with the Montreal Repertory Theatre, as well as on radio, where he had his real professional début in 1934 at radio station CKAC. In 1937, he created the character “Fridolin” for a series originally called Le Carrousel de la gaieté, that became Le Train de plaisir during the following two years. Fridolin, the most popular character on radio and an integral part of French Canadian culture, came back in 1938 with the Fridolinons review and was presented at the Monument National Theatre until 1946. He returnedten years later at the Orphéum Theatre in Montreal in Fridolinades ‘56. Because of its huge success, the National Film Board produced the film Fridolinons ‘45.

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Gratien Gélinas, ca 1980. Photo by André Le Coz.
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In December 1945, Gratien Gélinas shared the limelight with Miriam Hopkins in St. Lazare’s Pharmacy presented first at His Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal and then for several months in Chicago. In 1948, he created the character Tit-Coq, a sort of Fridolin-turned-soldier. The play of the same name, which has often been called the first true piece of French Canadian drama, was an overwhelming success. It was the first play to be presented in French and in English in Canada and the United States and played 542 times in 1951 alone, an all-time record. Gratien Gélinas adapted the play to the screen in 1952, and the following year it obtained the prize for the Best Canadian Film at the Canadian Film Awards. This wasn’t Gélinas’ first try at movie-making. In 1942 he wrote and directed La Dame aux camélias, la vraie, a parody on Dumas’ work, in which he played the lead role, the character Fridolin. This medium-length film would be the first talking, colour film shot in Canada. His passion for cinema never diminished throughout his career. He became president of the Canadian Cinema Industry Development Corporation (later Telefilm Canada) from 1969 to 1978, and went on to act in Bonheur d’occasion, Agnes of God and Les Tisserands du pouvoir.

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Gratien Gélinas as Fridolin at the Collège de Montréal, May 21, 1942. Photo by Henri Paul.
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In 1954, Gratien Gélinas worked in television at Radio-Canada as a writer and starred in the series Les Quat’fers en l’air. In 1956, he spent the season with the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. To encourage the production of Canadian works, he founded la Comédie Canadienne in 1957 and was its director for more than ten years. The company ceased to exist in 1971, and was bought by the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in 1972.

Bousille et les justes, (Bousille and the Just), the second play written by Gratien Gélinas in 1959, played more than 300 times, in English and in French. It was adapted in several languages for performances in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, and Finland (where Tit-Coq had also played). It was also presented on English, Scottish and Irish television by the BBC. In 1962, after a long tour of Canada, the play was broadcast in English and in French by the CBC and Radio-Canada, and it played eight times during Canada Week at the World Exposition in Seattle, U.S.A.

In 1964, Gratien Gélinas presented Le Diable à quatre, the eleventh review of current events in the series. His third play, Hier, les enfants dansaient, was brought to the stage in 1966 and presented in English as Yesterday, the Children Were Dancing at the Charlottetown Festival the following year. The play was also presented on all of the member stations of the public broadcasting network in the United States in 1971.

In 1986, Gratien Gélinas ended his writing career with a fourth play, La passion de Narcisse Mondoux, in which he played alongside actress Huguette Oligny in more than 500 performances in French and English. The last presentation was in Toronto in 1991.

His protean career as an actor, author, theatre director and cultural administrator earned him honourary degrees from eleven Canadian universities. In 1949, the Université de Montréal presented Gélinas with the first honourary doctorate granted to a person from the theatre in Canada. He was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Pléiade de l’Assemblée internationale des parlementaires de langue française, section du Québec in 1991 and section de Paris in 1994, in recognition of his immense contribution to la francophonie.

Gratien Gélinas died in March 1999, at the age of 89.

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