Historicist: The Funniest Woman in the World
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Historicist: The Funniest Woman in the World

Toronto's Beatrice Lillie becomes a world-famous entertainer and comedian.

Beatrice Lillie in 1928. DN-0085466, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

She was born in Parkdale on May 29, 1894, the second daughter of John Lillie, a guard at the nearby Central Prison, and his wife Lucy, an ambitious choral singer. From her inauspicious beginnings playing in the streets of Toronto, Beatrice Lillie would grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most beloved stage comedians, delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic into the 1960s.

Beatrice Lillie was born at her family home at 68 Dovercourt Road, a row house located one block south of Queen. Years later, Lillie recalled the house as “a redbrick house with a garden as big as a handkerchief in front and a yard the size of a postal card to the rear. It was—still is—one of several dozen such houses on the street that managed to squeeze eight narrow rooms within their skinny frontage.” John Lillie moved his wife and two daughters several times: first to a house on Northcote Avenue, then to Gladstone Avenue, and eventually they left Parkdale entirely for a home near Queen and Sherbourne.

Lillie recalled her Toronto memories in her 1972 autobiography, therein painting vivid pictures of the Queen City at the turn of the century. Her Parkdale homes were a stone’s throw from the nearby railway tracks, where she and her older sister Muriel used to play underneath the freight cars. “All a mite greasy,” she wrote, “but it offers all necessary conveniences on a hot, humid day. You don’t notice the train whistles blowing or the bells clanging because you hear them every day in the house.”

Her other childhood pastimes were more conventional, including trolley rides and going to see local shows. These treats cost money, and Lillie would do anything she could to earn the necessary nickels and dimes. Young Beatrice would visit the local shopkeepers, singing their favourite songs in exchange for the cost of a streetcar fare or theatre ticket. She describes regularly performing for a local grocer whose shop “smelled of soap, bacon sliced on the cutting machine, and biscuits, kept in big tin boxes on the floor in front of the blackened wood counter.” She also regularly visited a Chinese laundryman, whose favourite song was her rendition of “Hear My Prayer.” “He seemed forever bent over his ironing board in an atmosphere of steam, starch, and hot linen. He knew just about as much English as I did Chinese. We depended on smiles and nods for communication.”

Beatrice Lillie, date unknown. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. (th-29914)

While in Parkdale, Lillie attended Gladstone Avenue Public School, where her principal was Alexander Muir, best known to history as the composer of “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Lillie recalled him as “a shaggy-headed St. Bernard of a man, who used to play quoits with the older boys in the schoolyard on Friday afternoons.”

Lucy encouraged both her daughters to pursue musical interests, with Muriel emerging as a talented pianist while Beatrice pursued singing. By the time the family had relocated to Sherbourne Street, Lucy had become involved with Cooke’s Presbyterian Church, located at the northwest corner of Queen and Mutual Streets. Lucy led the church’s choir and drafted Muriel to play the organ. “Three times every Sunday,” Beatrice recalled, “the two of us went with Mumsie to a monstrous redbrick building … regarded by its congregation as something of an architectural masterpiece in the style known as Romanesque, with double banks of stained-glass windows roaming all over its front and twin towers covered in Spanish tile.” It was at Cooke’s Presbyterian that Beatrice Lillie made her first stage appearances, performing in Sunday school concerts with the congregation as her audience.

It soon became apparent, however, that Beatrice was something of a mischief-maker. “It will not come as too great a shock,” she wrote in 1972, “if I tell you that I was thrown out of the choir often. Once, temporarily, for pulling faces during sermons and making bored little boys break out in giggles.” A second expulsion came during a particularly hot day. Fanning herself to keep cool, Beatrice found herself next to “a large, flatulent lady,” whose stomach “rumbled inside her corset like a water bubbler.” After this woman let out what Lillie described as “the sort of sound one imagines an oil well makes before it starts to spout,… without missing a beat, I lowered my fan and froze her with a glare. The one word I spoke could be heard loud and clear: ‘Really!'” Her mother did not allow her back in the choir again.

Cooke’s Presbyterian Church at Queen and Mutual, 1925. City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1266, Item 5621.

Although this sort of behaviour was ill-suited to a church choir, Lucy nevertheless recognized that Beatrice had talent and soon had her younger daughter receiving instruction from Harry Rich, a retired comedian of considerable reputation. Rich had been a popular figure in Toronto’s theatre scene until ill health forced him off the stage. Although Rich’s instruction was apparently exhausting, Lillie later gave him considerable credit for refining her mannerisms and helping her become a professional entertainer.

Through the auspices of Harry Rich, the three Lillie women soon began doing secular performances around Ontario, billed as “The Lillie Trio.” According to a 1935 Globe article, “Beatrice put an end to this engagement quickly and characteristically. During one of her mother’s solo numbers she went behind the curtain and whacked her parent with a broom through the backdrop.”

Beatrice continued to perform solo, and soon began receiving some recognition for her efforts. The stage section of the June 12, 1907 Globe mentions a variety show at the Princess Theatre, held as a fundraiser for the Children’s Aid Society. The show was called “Jappyland,” the organizers evidently choosing the name because it featured excerpts from The Mikado, San Toy, and other Asian-themed productions of the era. Lillie’s mention is brief, with the reviewer noting that “Miss Beatrice Lillie in ‘Mimosa San’ won a popular verdict.”

Around 1910, Lucy and Muriel relocated to London, England to try to advance Muriel’s career as a pianist. Following some miserable months at an Ontario boarding school, Beatrice joined them in London at age 16, spending much of her time honing her skills in London theatres. In 1914, she auditioned for and impressed André Charlot, a producer of stage revue shows. Lillie soon rose to become one of the top regular performers in Charlot’s revues, her name increasingly appearing at or near the top of the bill.

Charlot brought his prosaically named Charlot’s Revue of 1924 to Broadway. Lillie received immediate praise from the New York critics. By the time the production came to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre late in 1924, Lillie was undeniably the show’s standout star and received a hero’s welcome from her hometown. A Toronto Star review of the production wrote that “it is almost impossible to conceive extreme comedy effect achieved with less striving … [Lillie] is buffeted and knocked about, but with dominant spirit, in spite of disturbed costume and dignity, always succeeds in surviving to finish her song with the complimentary and highly satired final line. Her slightest gesture has comic significance.”

Beatrice Lillie, date unknown. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. (th-29923)

Over the ensuing decades, Lillie would emerge as an international star, becoming one of the world’s most famous comedians. Although she made several film appearances (and later on, television appearances), most agree that she was at her best on stage, where she could turn any song or skit into comedy gold.

Lillie’s comedy is difficult to pin down. She presented a unique image with her short dark hair, pillbox hat, and a distinct nose that she herself described as “bigger than a button, but, dear me, who wants a button for a nose?” On stage she would often present an initial pretense of dignity or respectability, but would fracture this with elements of irreverence or zaniness. A 1929 Globe article marvelled at “her ability to impersonate people, and her natural flair for burlesque [which] intermingle so closely that it is hard to distinguish between them.” Toronto historian Donald Jones wrote that “she would select some simple love-sotted ballad and before she had sung its first line there was a distinct glint in her eyes that assured her audience that she didn’t mean a single word of what she was singing.” A 1953 review in the Star offered: “Miss Lillie serves as the commentator of the foibles of human nature and, by ridiculing them, punctures the pomposities she finds around her.”

In 1962, a Globe and Mail reviewer attempted to describe her genius as starting with a serious, icy image, and then finding a way to puncture this image “by a lurch, a guffaw, even a tumble into the off-colour. The Lady remains, but the clay feet show when she hikes up her skirts. Couple this double image … with a sense of timing that is unearthly in its accuracy, and perhaps you’re getting close to the genius of Beatrice Lillie.”

The Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1955. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Lillie returned to Toronto several times at the peak of her fame, usually when doing a limited run of her most recent Broadway success at the Royal Alex. When in town in 1936 to appear in At Home Abroad, she was invited to a special ceremony at City Hall where she received flowers, an “official embossed address,” and the keys to the city from Toronto mayor Sam McBride, who punctuated the presentation to raised eyebrows by putting his arm around her and kissing her cheek.

Amongst the shows she brought to Toronto was An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, for which she won a special Tony Award in 1953. By this time, many reviewers were referring to her as “the funniest woman in the world,” such that it became something of a nickname. While Lillie was still earning laughs later in her career, a 1962 Star review noted that this nickname reflected more Lillie’s consistent professionalism and honed talent than a style of hard, side-splitting hilarity. “[I]f, bemused by ‘the funniest woman’ tag you expect prolonged belly-laughter,” wrote reviewer David Cobb, “you will be disappointed. A miniaturist, Miss Lillie isn’t that kind of comedienne … Instead, Miss Lillie gives an object lesson of the techniques of humour, the insane non sequitur, the suddenly arched eyebrow, the pause for effect, the subtlety with which she can suggest unspeakable depravity in the simplest, most virginal phrases.”

The future Beatrice Lillie building, as it looked in 1909. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Lillie’s career wound down during the 1960s. She made her final film appearance as a scheming white slave trader in the 1967 musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. According to biographer (and apparent friend) Bruce Laffey, Lillie had memory problems on set, repeatedly forgetting lines and frequently forgetting who Julie Andrews was. Following some even more difficult public appearances on television, Lillie effectively retired from the industry, and lived out the remainder of her years in England, dying in 1989 at the age of 94.

Public commemoration of Beatrice Lillie in Toronto proved challenging. Several years before her death, there was a movement to install a plaque on her first home at 68 Dovercourt. The owners of the house refused, however; local media described them as Portuguese immigrants who had never heard of Lillie and who did not want their house to receive extra attention.

Later, in 1989, an alternative was found when Toronto renamed the City-owned public building at 1115 Queen West, near several of Lillie’s childhood homes, the Beatrice Lillie building. Opened in 1909 as the local library branch, it was later repurposed as a public health office. At the naming ceremony, then-mayor Art Eggleton referred to the late Beatrice Lillie as “the funniest woman in the world,” and called the dedication “a fitting tribute and a proud statement of the gratitude of the people of her home city.” As of 2014, the Beatrice Lillie building is the home of the Theatre Centre.

Additional material from: Merna Forster, 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces (Dundurn, 2004: Toronto); the Globe (February 20, February 23, 1903; June 12, 1907; February 6, 1909; April 23, 1910; December 2, 1924; January 22, May 10 1927; May 4, 1929; April 5, 1935; March 31, April 1, 1936; October 10, October 11, 1949; September 29, 1952; December 19, 1953; March 15, April 10, 1962; January 21, 1989); Donald Jones, Fifty Tales of Toronto (University of Toronto Press, 1992); Bruce Laffey, Beatrice Lillie: The Funniest Woman in the World (Wynwood, 1989: New York); Beatrice Lillie (aided and abetted by John Philip, written with James Brough), Every Other Inch a Lady (Doubleday, 1972: Garden City, NY); the Toronto Star (December 28, 1907; December 2, 1924; March 30, March 31, April 6, 1936; December 15, 1953; April 7, April 10, 1962; January 21, March 15, March 25, 1989).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

CORRECTION: June 11, 2014, 11:55 AM This post originally credited the author of
100 Canadian Heroines incorrectly as Merna Foster. The author’s name is in fact Merna Forster. We regret the error.