O'HEARN firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2008-06-12 published
Rising star of Canadian stage resisted the lure of Hollywood
Actress who got her start fronting a wartime Rinso Revue road show, and was voted 'Miss Radio,' performed at Toronto's legendary Crest Theatre and starred opposite the likes of Lorne Greene
By Noreen SHANAHAN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Toronto -- Mona O'HEARN was an iconic forties actress who excited audiences and showed great promise on the Canadian stage. Today she is all but forgotten. What's left of her story lies in a single suitcase with a broken clasp.
The suitcase, which recently emerged from storage, holds decades of theatre programs, press clippings, fan letters and publicity shots. It also contains obituaries marking the loss of such Friends as Murray Davis and Mavor Moore, fellow thespians with whom she shared a stage, a script or a sound studio.
The brittle, yellow newsprint, folded long ago by her hands, scattered dust as it was opened. Here's Ms. O'Hearn, circa 1944: "My real ambition is the stage, but I think I'd like radio, if I could get a chance. Meanwhile, I'm plugging at a typewriter, holding down a stenographic job I don't care for." And here's a clipping from a few years later, "Meet Mona O'Hearn… devastating proof that Toronto girls are yum-yum!"
But in her life and career there was often a great divide between simple ambition and "yum-yum." She was a shrewd, intelligent woman and a strong advocate of Canadian theatre. Although tempted by actor Friends Leslie Nielson and Lorne Greene to head south to Hollywood, she opted to remain behind to work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Toronto's Crest Theatre, as well as supporting the fledgling Canadian Actor's Equity Association. "She's enthusiastic in defence of the underdog in matters of social, racial and political ideas," reads another clipping. "One of her pet themes is a National Theatre for Canada."
Mona O'HEARN grew up in Toronto during the thick of the Depression. After her father, Tom O'HEARN, left home early each day to work as a sign painter, Mona practised monologues in front of the hall mirror and gave the rest of her family hell for getting in her way. She was an angry, opinioned young woman during a time when success required social conformity and the right shade of lipstick. She often locked horns with her mother and sassed her siblings, while her father quietly tended homing pigeons in the back yard. "She was always a rebel," reflected her brother, Ray O'HEARN, 60 years later.
Ms. O'HEARN began acting at East York Collegiate Institute on Cosburn Avenue, and in amateur productions. In 1940, after graduating from high school, pressures to get a desk job meant life with a Dictaphone rather than a microphone. But her ambition soon lifted her out of that rut. She took up modelling between secretarial gigs and, times being what they were for beautiful young women, she ended up signing her name on some pretty bizarre contracts, such as posing for steamy 10-cent comic covers with titles such as: "Murder - Straight Ahead" and "Fatally Yours." Another time, due to a shortage of manpower during the Second World War, she glued on a thick white beard and played Santa Claus for the cameras. "This is how Santa is transformed into a pin-up girl," the caption said.
In 1942, she served as emcee and flashed some thigh with the Rinso Revue, a travelling road show sponsored by a detergent manufacturer that billed her as an expert in domestic science. "This-is-the-way-to-wash-your-clothes was a necessary part of her performance," commented a Medicine Hat reporter. "But she made of the work-a-day, soap-and-water part of her 'turn,' a lively adventure." She won the dubious honour of being named by a shipload of sailors as "the girl they'd most like to stand beside the microphone with."
Although unmarried at this point and reputedly a terrible cook, her wifely persona landed more acting jobs in popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio dramas, including playing opposite John Drainie in the long-running serial John and Judy. She also starred in Soldier's Wife, Canada's top-rated daytime program. According to one reviewer, she learned to be a "tearful little expert" in such roles. "Just to please the feminine members of the listening audience."
It's also possible that her tears expressed an ache for more serious roles. She later acted in a radio dramatization of Mazo De la Roche's The Building of Jalna, catapulting both herself and the novelist to greater fame. "I expect more of you as an actress," said Ms. De la Roche at the time.
In 1946, Ms. O'HEARN won "Miss Radio," a nationwide popularity contest for Canadian radio artists. She was noted queen of the airwaves during a time when families sat around the voice box or read one of the numerous radio magazines. With this success under her belt, she shifted into more theatre. In 1948, she and Lorne Greene co-starred in Dora Mavor Moore's production of Joan of Lorraine, at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre, a role earlier made famous on Broadway by Ingrid Bergman.
"Sadly, career pressures took their toll on Ms. O'HEARN around this time," said her friend and colleague, Laddie Dennis. "To alleviate stress, she spent afternoons sipping cocktails at the Celebrity Club on Jarvis Street, conveniently located across from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building.
It was a habit that soon developed, she added. "[Drinking] was the other half of your life. There was a tension that came with this kind of a career… the first thing you'd think about was 'let's all go have a drink.' "
In 1949, realizing she was an alcoholic, Ms. O'HEARN began sobering up and married Ed PARKER, a journalist from Winnipeg who fell in love with her during an interview for the Montreal Star, and who would later found the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto.
Within a year or two, her real life sharply contradicted her acting performances. Far from being a domestic wizard, she found the roles of marriage and motherhood beyond her scope. Within days of the birth of her son, Josh, in 1951, she had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for several months.
"Her career diminished after I was born," said Mr. PARKER. " She drank until my birth and then, because she wasn't self-medicating, she started having breakdowns." Mr. PARKER has few good early memories of his mother. His parents split up when he was 2 and he never lived with her. Ms. O'HEARN was diagnosed with a manic-depressive disorder and struggled with the condition for the rest of her life.
Although she was still deeply loved and respected by a score of Friends and colleagues, Ms. O'HEARN continued to create havoc in personal relationships. Ms. Dennis recalled asking her to be maid of honour at her 1949 wedding. Ms. O'HEARN arrived an hour late. "There she was, white-gloved, flowered hat, and late&hellip an example of the unpredictable and charming Mona O'HEARN."
Meanwhile, against all odds, Ms. O'HEARN's career did not fade away altogether. In fact, it prospered during the 1950s and 1960s. She joined up with Mr. Drainie in a 1951 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio drama of W.O. Mitchell's Jake and The Kid, featuring stories set on a Saskatchewan farm. And then, in 1953, she once again co-starred with Lorne Greene at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in The Big Leap, a play about a man who tipped himself over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In 1959, she acted with Martha Henry in Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You at the Crest Theatre, a venue that had marked the beginnings of indigenous commercial theatre in Canada when it opened five years earlier.
One of her most memorable roles was in Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Staged by Equity Showcase Theatre at Toronto's historic Arts and Letters Club in 1960, and produced by Ms. O'HEARN, it told the story of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
On opening night, however, the greatest scene occurred offstage. Ms. O'HEARN's young son watched his mother's performance, but unfortunately nobody had adequately warned him that she would be shot. When he saw blood pool around her body, he became inconsolable. "I was 9 and to me that translated into a real death," recalled Mr. PARKER. "I flipped out."
In the seventies, less work began to come her way. Although she continued to perform in small television roles and on stage as late as 1993, most of her time was spent as a voice and drama instructor.
Meanwhile, she and her son always had a fraught relationship that didn't improve with age. Although Mr. PARKER recognized how she was "sharp as a tack," he knew she poisoned many social environments and cost them both a great deal of grief. Even late in her life, she was tossed out of retirement homes because she was unable to get along with other residents. Mr. PARKER once told her that she had to start treating people nicely.
"I'm a tough businesswoman," she responded. "I can't change just like that."
"Mom," he said. "You are a great actress. Embrace the role!"
In 1996, Ms. O'HEARN moved into Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge in Toronto, a residence that provides residential facilities for senior or disadvantaged people who made their careers on the stage or before the camera. There, she mingled with other actors with whom she had once shared the limelight, and Friendships developed. "She had the ability to call you darlin' - just once - and you'd melt," said a friend.
Mona O'HEARN was born April 18, 1922, in Toronto. She died on March 6, 2008, in Toronto of emphysema. She was 85. She is survived by her son, Josh PARKER; her grandchildren Yvonne, Noah, Tatiana, and Edan; her brothers Roy and Jim O'HEARN; and her sisters Lillian DURNHAN, and Joan LADOCEUR.
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