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Ethel Seymour went from obscurity to vaudeville stardom – and back again

She found fame on stage, so perhaps it's fitting that Ethel Seymour's century-long life fell neatly into three very different acts. First, she was a wife and mother and seamstress living a respectable if quiet life in the east end of Toronto.

Then, improbably, she became Renée Marquette, ballroom dancer and ace puppeteer, moving from spotlight to spotlight in the vaudeville houses and television studios of North America.

Finally, after the death of her husband and stage partner, she lived the quiet life of a near-recluse, Ethel Seymour once more.

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It was the middle act that was the most glamorous and unlikely, even to Ms. Seymour herself. When pressed to tell her friends at her retirement home about dancing across the stage of Toronto's Royal York hotel, or operating her puppets on the very first broadcast of CBC television, she would shake her head: "They'll never believe it. They'll just think I'm making it up."

But the yellowing scrapbooks she left behind tell a different story. They're filled with names and places that will be familiar to Canadians of a certain generation: there is Sir Ernest MacMillan, the conductor who led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra through Sibelius while Ms. Seymour and her husband Hal danced and operated their marionettes; the Howdy Doody show, on which they were puppeteers for several years; the Casino burlesque house in Toronto, where the couple performed, and where their young son Chris was banished to the back before the dancing girls came out.

An ad for Toronto's King Edward Hotel from the late 1940s shows Hal, dapper in a Clark Gable mustache, with a gowned Ethel in his arms: "Unusual floor show," it promises. "A delightful combination of exquisite dancing and charming marionettes."

First, she was just Ethel White, born in 1912 in east end Toronto, the youngest of four children. The daughter of a plasterer, she had a talent for making clothes and entered the design program at Danforth Tech high school. It was there that she met an outgoing, handsome boy called Hal who loved animals and dancing, and who planned to do something with his life.

One of them was shy, and one of them was definitely not. It was a combination that would serve them well for the next six decades.

After high school, Hal Seymour found work dancing in Quebec nightclubs and speakeasies run by gangsters; Ethel was a wardrobe assistant sewing the dancers' clothes. One night in 1934, between the early and late show, Hal and Ethel were married, with a club bouncer acting as best man.

Their daughter Marilyn was born in 1936, and the couple settled into a quiet life in Toronto. Or at least Ethel did. When the Second World War began, Hal enlisted as a member of the Tin Hats, the soldier-entertainers who brought song and dance to troops at the front.

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The Tin Hats were not just pretend warriors, as their literature warned: "The man in khaki whose nimble fingers bring rich chorded music can also play a tune on the Bren – a chattering, bucking tune of death."

Now a sergeant, Hal presided over a group of entertainers including the future comedy stars Frank Shuster and Johnny Wayne ("They were ungovernable," he liked to say).

While entertaining troops during the brutal Italian campaign in Ortona and Monte Cassino, Sgt. Seymour also managed to see a marionette show, and the germ of an idea was planted. He sent home two puppets to Ethel in Toronto, who was looking after Marilyn and Chris, who arrived in 1943: She did not know that would be the beginning of her new life, and a new identity.

When he was discharged, Hal proposed his plan to his wife: She would no longer be Ethel – there was no glamour in the name Ethel – and instead they would be Hal and Renée Marquette and their Imaginettes. He would teach her to dance, and together they would build and operate a troupe of marionettes.

Ethel, as you might imagine, was taken aback. "He had to do a lot of talking," says Marilyn. "But she did it. She never said, 'Oh, I was so scared,' even though she must have been. She had a home and two children and suddenly she was on a stage." It is a testament to Ethel's love for her husband that she trusted him to pull it off.

First they needed to learn about building and operating puppets. They began making the marionettes in the basement, tricky articulated dolls that required 14 separate parts. Ethel designed and sewed their clothes and taught herself the intricate art of stringing the puppets, figuring out by trial and error the system of weights and counterbalances. She made their miniature eyelashes from bits of surgical suture.

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Hal and Renée Marquette and their Imaginettes were soon a success, performing in nightclubs across Canada. For the first part of the show, Hal and Ethel would dance in formal wear, and then they would bring out the marionettes on a small stage. There was a stripper puppet that looked remarkably like Mae West, wiggling and shedding her tiny costume, a skeleton that fell apart in a graveyard and an ostrich that laid an egg – from which emerged an even tinier ostrich puppet.

As one newspaper noted, "The skill of the team in handling the many threads guiding the motions of their Imaginettes drew round after round of applause from the audience."

When they weren't performing at nightclubs, the Marquettes brought the Imaginettes to fall fairs, and found a sideline in making safety films: There's one in which a puppet loses his head in an industrial accident.

The Shell Oil company hired them to travel the continent in a truck, opening new gas stations. At each stop they'd put on their regular show, then switched to a "commercial": Puppets they'd made specially for the company, wearing oil cans and shells on their heads, extolled the virtue of filling your car at Shell.

The new medium of television was hungry for novelty. The Marquettes and their Imaginettes appeared on the first national English-language CBC broadcast on Sept. 8, 1952. The family didn't even own a TV; watching on a borrowed set, Chris ran out into the street yelling, "My parents are on television!"

These were the boom years. Chris Seymour remembers a house filled with celebrities and parties: At one, he pestered the radio actor who played the Shadow to say his famous line: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

The highlight of the Marquettes' careers came during the several years they worked as puppeteers on the Canadian version of the popular kids' show Howdy Doody. Ethel operated the mournful puppet Dilly Dally. "She was the only one who had the right touch," says Marilyn.

It became clear why that puppet was close to her heart. Her health failing, the physical demands of puppeteering taking their toll, Ethel decided she'd had enough.

"There was a great sadness in our house when she told us," says Marilyn. "She said, 'I'm not doing it any more. I don't have the energy.'"

By that time, the supper-club world had died, overtaken by movies and TV. Hal Seymour tried his hand at a variety of business ventures, but none took off. "That's when the drinking started to happen," says son Chris.

Hal died in 1980, at 69. It was a crushing blow for Ethel, who never really recovered. She rarely left the house after, and was content to pass her time watching TV and reading newspapers. In the absence of her extroverted husband, she reverted to the person she had been: shy, quiet, reserved.

She died at 100, one week after the birth of her first great-great-grandchild.

"They depended totally on each other," says Marilyn. "They had that bond you see in people who live and work together. They just always knew what the other wanted."

Ethel Seymour died on March 16, in Perth, Ont. She leaves her children, Marilyn and Chris, three grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More


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