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For decades, singer Juliette Cavazzi was a familiar face in homes across Canada

Obituary

Singer Juliette Cavazzi was an early star of Canadian television

The glamorous vocalist with a girl-next-door appeal became one of the country's highest-paid performers

Juliette Cavazzi appeared on a live eponymous broadcast every Saturday following Hockey Night in Canada, an enviable time slot, but one requiring significant flexibility and improvisation.

A warm voice and wholesome presence made Juliette one of Canada's earliest television stars, a household figure known throughout the land by only her first name.

She appeared on a live eponymous broadcast every Saturday following Hockey Night in Canada, an enviable time slot but one that came with an uncertain start time and a script needing improvisation on the fly.

As a harp was lightly strummed, off-camera announcer Gil Christie intoned, "And, now, here's your pet, Joo-oo-liette!" Onto the small, black-and-white screen strolled a singer with a stylish, blonde bouffant, a confident smile on her face, her form adorned in an elegant dress, the colour of which she was careful to describe to viewers. The singer, who has died in Vancouver at the age of 91, was flirty but never ribald. Despite the glamour, she performed without pretension, a girl-next-door sharing her talent for an adoring public with whom she had a relaxed rapport. She had her detractors, to be sure, and when one or two of the 50 letters she received weekly criticized her, she made a point of writing back.

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Juliette's repertoire included standards and show tunes, so by the mid-1960s, she seemed an anachronism to the entertainment brass at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The Juliette Show, still high in the ratings, was abruptly cancelled, although the singer continued to perform on variety-show specials for many years afterward. She also hosted an afternoon television talk show called Juliette and Friends.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would probably prefer to be a group singer in the background of a show where you don't have to be front and centre all the time," she told the CBC's Bob McLean in 1980. "Because when you are no longer front and centre, it hurts."

She was invariably described as "our pet Juliette," a moniker she came to resent for its patronizing quality. She was not one to allow male directors to run roughshod. Known in her heyday for being a problematic and troublesome figure on set, she is more properly regarded as a performer who insisted on taking charge of her career.

To be Juliette was to play a role, one that she relinquished only on death. She never appeared in public without hair coiffed and makeup on. Even in retirement, she possessed a room-stopping star quality on entering a classy restaurant. A daughter of Polish-Ukrainian immigrants and from a working-class family, she succeeded in spending her adult years as a diva.

Juliette Augustina Sysak (pronounced SIZE-ack) was born on Aug. 27, 1926, at St. Vital, which has since been amalgamated into Winnipeg. (Some sources give a birthdate making her 364 days younger, an error she was in no rush to correct, according to her friend Lynne Triffon.) Juliette was the second daughter born to Anna (née Kolbuck), who was born in Poland, and Fred Sysak, who emigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Mr. Sysak worked as a cook for Canadian Pacific Railway.

If I had to do it all over again, I would probably prefer to be a group singer in the background of a show where you don’t have to be front and centre all the time. Because when you are no longer front and centre, it hurts

Juliette Cavazzi, in a 1980 interview with the CBC’s Bob McLean

As a girl, Juliette was a tomboy who repeated songs she heard on the radio, impressing her mother with her ability to remember lyrics. "I was a show-off from the time I could speak," she said in a 2002 biographical documentary. She won a neighbourhood contest by singing the popular Depression tune Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? while dressed as a boy urchin.

The family moved to Vancouver when Juliette was seven. Her older sister desired a singing career and the parents encouraged both daughters in pursuing their dream. By 13, Juliette was performing patriotic songs at the Kitsilano Showboat, an outdoor venue at a Vancouver beach.

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One who caught her act was Ivan Ackery, manager of the downtown Orpheum Theatre. When he soon after hired band leader Dal Richards, the King of Swing, to perform music between screenings, he suggested he hire the undiscovered singer. Not wanting to be a nursemaid, Mr. Richards balked. Mr. Ackery insisted. The band leader changed his mind after witnessing her bring down the house with a rendition of There'll Always Be an England. He then added her as a vocalist for his band's performances at the glamorous Rooftop Panorama at the nearby Hotel Vancouver, suggesting, according to his 2009 memoir, that she drop her Slavic surname, leaving only the romantic appellation by which she would forever after be known.

The girl vocalist cycled to late afternoon practices, the uniformed doorman parking her bicycle. For evening performances, a band member picked her up by car and then delivered her home. A correspondent for Downbeat magazine caught her act, noting "she's got more natural-born charm than most chirpers twice her age." By the following winter, she was making more money than her father and wearing a fur coat to classes.

After two years, she was replaced by another singer, whom Mr. Richards would marry. ("I'm the only singer Dal had that he didn't marry," she later quipped. " Au contraire," he responded. He only married two of a dozen.)

At 15, she made her national network debut on CBC Radio, then spent two war years performing in Toronto. The summer the war ended, she was the star singer backed by Doug Raymond and his orchestra at the Happyland Ballroom on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition. It was there she met her future husband, Tony Cavazzi, a musician born in Kamloops, B.C., and the son of an immigrant Italian labourer. They married on July 7, 1948, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, a venue selected for having the longest aisle for her bridal procession.

A longstanding gig at the Palomar Supper Club, where patrons purchased ice and mix to be topped up with brown-bagged liquor, and regular appearances on CBC Radio made her a hometown star with a devoted following.

Once again in Toronto, she launched her television career. She was a guest on Holiday Ranch and a featured singer on The Billy O'Connor Show, which aired following Hockey Night in Canada. She proved such a success, despite tensions with the host, that she took over the time slot within a year.

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‘Our Pet’, Juliette was the Queen of Canadian television in the 1950s and 60s. But beneath the glamour was a tough-minded trailblazer who became a nightclub singer at the tender age of 13.

The set was made to look like a living room. Music was provided by the trumpeter Bobby Gimby and, later, the Bill Isbister Orchestra. Her backup vocal groups included the Romeos, an all-male quartet, and the all-female Four Mice. Guests included singers such as Robert Goulet, baton twirlers, ventriloquists, Ukrainian dancers, Hawaiian orchestras, the impersonator Rich Little and the comic duo Wayne and Shuster.

By the early 1960s, she was earning $50,000 a year, making her one of Canada's highest-paid performers. Her husband handled the finances, but she managed her own career.

Rehearsing even as the hockey game was being aired, she completed a streak of 173 consecutive performances before an attack of pleurisy sent her to a sick bed. In the summer, she toured the land, performing at such venues as the Rancho Don Carlos in Winnipeg, billed as "Canada's most lavish theatre restaurant."

Not surprisingly, the same homespun qualities that earned Juliette her large fan base also alienated more sophisticated critics. Variety magazine thought her music insipid enough to describe her as the Florence Welk of Canada, while Toronto Star critic Dennis Braithwaite bristled at what he considered a lazy, inoffensive show. "A healthy girl who can sing," he wrote in 1959, "Juliette personifies the wholesome sex-appeal that us corn-fed Canadians are supposed to go for." Chatelaine magazine published an article headlined, Everyone hates Juliette but her fans.

After a decade, she was an institution, but soon after the end of the 1965-66 hockey season, the CBC announced it was cancelling the show. Her fans were promised the star would soon return with special programs, although these would be fewer than expected.

In 1968, Juliette served as host of the hour-long variety program Show of the Week, a CBC response to such American musical pop variety programs as Shindig! and Hullabaloo. She was joined by the Good Company, a troupe of singers and dancers dressed in lime-green suits (men) and burnt orange dresses (women). The set design and pacing borrowed from Laugh-In without the laughs. On one show, the host's introduction went: "Guess what? From my hometown, Winnipeg, my special guests, the Guess Who. Oh, that's no joke. That's their name." The lame effort to give Juliette a hipper vibe was not a success.

Her holiday album that year, Juliette's Christmas Special, was a seasonal blockbuster for RCA Victor in Canada.

Meanwhile, she continued to barnstorm the country, appearing on an Arctic tour with the Guess Who and in her birthplace with Bob Hope. In 1970, Juliette sang the national anthem at the inaugural NHL game for the Vancouver Canucks at the Pacific Coliseum. (Her performance inspired an opera singer named Richard Loney to try out for the job, which he would hold for four decades.)

She found a niche audience as host of the daytime television talk shows After Noon and Juliette and Friends, while also hosting the occasional 60-minute variety special. Even as television work dried up, she continued to perform for favourite charities.

Her husband died in 1988 of Alzheimer's. She later enjoyed a romance with Raymond Smith, a widower and retired president of forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel, who had once been a member of Mr. Richards's orchestra. Mr. Smith died in 2005.

Juliette died on Oct. 26 at a Vancouver rehabilitation centre, where she was staying after suffering injuries from a fall. No cause of death was announced. She was predeceased by her sister, Suzanne Maya Elsyveta Price, who died in 1994.

The singer was named to the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame as a founding inductee in 1994. Her sister, a vocalist who also was known professionally by her first name, is also a member of the hall, whose members are honoured with a Star Walk along the sidewalk on Granville Street in Vancouver. Juliette was also added to Canada's Walk of Fame, in Toronto. She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1975.

The folksy manner which won her show legions of fans included urging her backup singers with an enthusiastic, "C'mon, fellas." She'd offer a "Hi, honey" to a guest vocalist. Her best known catchphrase came at the end of each episode, when she'd look into the camera to offer a heartfelt signoff: "Goodnight, Mom."


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