Tuesday, October 4, 2016

From Hal to HAL - Part 1: The First Eighteen Years

THE RAINS of Winnipeg were, and still are, of mostly Scottish ancestry.

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a strikingly beautiful Wednesday in the late spring of 1928, on the ninth day of the month of May – making him curiously a Taurus – Douglas James Rain was born into that Scottish heritage.

DOUGLAS WAS named after his father, James Rain. Coincidentally another James Rain, also from Winnipeg, was the president of the Scottish heritage association – the Manitoba Dumfries and Galloway association – but the Rains of Douglas' immediate family were not deeply involved in clanhood or in their general heritage; it was what it was, and that was the extent of it.

At the time he was born Winnipeg was completely different from the city it is today. Only 9 years prior the city had been rocked to her foundations by the General Strike, the biggest strike in Canadian history, and the effects could still be felt among the working class. Unemployment and social problems were still huge issues, and resentment still lingered among those that were, at least according to themselves, treated rather unfairly after the strike. On the other hand, the same year Doug was born Winnipeg finally got her own airport, Canada’s first international one, the Stevenson Aerodrome.

Winnipeg was at a crossroads in 1928; a sizable portion of the city’s population was still entangled in past events, whereas certainly as many were looking forward, and in doing so were inadvertently erasing their recent history. To a great extent, everything was more or less politicized.

Growing up on Oakwood Avenue in the Riverview neighborhood in Winnipeg, young Douglas had his own interests, and they were about neither politics nor clanhood. While both politics and genealogy as endeavors tend to be geared towards solitude and quiet time studying manuscripts, Douglas saw manuscripts in a different light. From a very young age the precocious boy displayed an attraction towards dramatics, towards the craft of the stage.

His parents - Glaswegians James, a rail-yard switchman, and Mary, a nurse - recognized his talents early on, and at their behest he began studying at the Jean Campbell School of Speech Correction and Dramatic Art on Garwood Avenue in Fort Rouge. It was a Winnipeg drama and elocution school founded in 1920, and ran by Mary Pearl Craw, who at the time of founding still went by her maiden-name Rice, and her mentor Jean Campbell, who also was director of speech and dramatic art at St. Mary's all-girl catholic academy. Jean Campbell had herself been mentored by Jean Alexander, renowned speaker and writer, whose books were sold all over Canada. In fact Alexander and Campbell had been on tours together crisscrossing the country. So when other boys were playing scrub baseball on corner lots, Doug was trotting off to speech lessons. He learned voice production, breath control, the phrasing of lines and an easy familiarity with a dozen different accents. His first teacher at the elocution school was co-founder Pearl Craw. Pearl was always proud of the fact she was the one who had taught “young Douglas public speaking.”

Things progressed quickly for the young artist. In 1934, at the age of six, he became a performer at the local Radio Kiddies, and in December of the same year the press noticed a “diminutive” Douglas Rain “of the CJRC Radio Kiddies” entertaining blind children at the annual treat that the Lions' Club of Winnipeg gave at The Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The CJRC Radio Kiddies was novelty programming by James Richardson’s recently licensed 100 watt station, broadcasting out of Winnipeg. For his excellent contributions Doug received a monetary reward of 25 Canadian cents. Thus Douglas took his first step on his long path to becoming a professional.

At the age of seven – the age when children are usually sent to first grade of school – Douglas, just Doug to his friends, was already performing regularly. But of course he went to school, as well; Winnipeg public school.

Displaying ambition at such a young age seldom goes unnoticed. Sure enough, at the age of seven he was rendering monologues as a member of The Good Neighbors Club, a charity organization focusing on helping the homeless and unemployed, consisting of unmarried, young men who themselves were unemployed as well. The young boy was naturally noticed by the local press, especially for his “clever recitations” at one particular Irish night, delivering his reading in an impeccable Irish accent that could have fooled a native.

The Irish heritage was notable in Winnipeg, as were all the other European groups. The last quarter of the 19th century and the pre-war period of the 20th were characterized by extreme expansion of the city. This included a steady influx of people of all walks; workers, aids, and officials; and mainly immigrants; Winnipeg after all has the largest community of Icelanders in the world after Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The Rains were not keen on their heritage, however. Unlike most people of Scottish protestant heritage the Rains were mainly Unitarian, too. Douglas’ mother Mary, who was born Mary Jordan, was even on the Unitarian Service Committee staff of the local Unitarian Church. Further, although he was born in 1895 in Glasgow, Scotland, Douglas’ father Jimmy was not involved in any heritage association; he was working for Canadian National Railway. In fact, James was a veteran of World War 1, serving as a young man; he was only a couple of months shy of 19 years old when the war broke out; as a Private in the 184 Battalion of the Canadian Infantry in the Manitoba Regiment – regimental number 874520 – receiving a Military Medal for his actions in the conflict. This was not common in Winnipeg; the city had the highest percentage of conscript defaults in western Canada, second only to Montreal.

Although not an actor himself, the elder Douglas James was a straight shooter who stood by his son, whatever the boy decided he wanted to do. Young Douglas had the best support anyone could wish for.

As soon as Douglas had been bitten by the stage bug, he could be seen all around his native Winnipeg. He took part in all sorts of revues and events, delivering his narrations, readings and monologues to the public. He was also at that time already a performing member of Winnipeg’s Little Theatre, and was notably cast as Little Tim in Dickens’ timeless play A Christmas Carol. Playing the part “with naturalness and clearness that would do credit to a stage veteran” he was immediately noticed by audiences and critics alike. Much later the Little Theatre was to play another role in his life, in ways he could not have expected.

He did not limit his craft to the stage alone. In 1936, at the age of eight, Douglas had his first role in a nation-wide radio play, produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This was also the first year he received a certificate of elocution from Trinity College in London, the “First Steps” certificate. According to reports he had delivered his readings with “pleasing naïveté, humor and self confidence”. Several more certificates were to follow.

He was noticed almost everywhere he performed. At the annual Winnipeg Fresh Air revue in the spring of 1937, only two days before his ninth birthday, Douglas – "the very naïve lad of eight, who is a most impressive elocutionist" – almost stole the show with his two monologues, "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Ring-Bearer". It seemed clear for many that he was heading for bigger times than the local stages.

Not content with performing with one theatre company only, he joined as many productions as he could. From early 1938 onwards he performed with the short-lived and then-newly-renamed John Holden Players at the old brick-built Dominion Theatre in Winnipeg. Previously known as the Good Company, the John Holden Players company was not very well off financially, so they rehearsed at the Fort Garry Court Hotel. By default the old theatre building was only heated during public performances in order to cut costs, and the company could not afford the heating bill. The rehearsals at the theatre would have been chilly, to say the least. Unsurprisingly the John Holden Players company folded not long after. This was not unforeseen; Canadian theatre at the time consisted of an ever revolving ensemble of amateur companies.

DOUGLAS KEPT honing his craft of elocution. In 1938, at 10 years of age, he was awarded his second certificate for elocution by the Londonian Trinity College of Music. True to form he secured honors at the examination. This year he also got his first official recognition for his stage work, for his performance of “an angelic-faced crippled lad” as the enfeebled son Jimmie in Mary Reynold Aldis’ one-acter Mrs. Pat and the Law, directed by Gladys Rutherford. Adjudicator Malcolm Morley from London bestowed his mention of “praise for individual acting” upon Rain’s stage performance in the piece. Critics said his portrayal was “splendid”. The recognition was bestowed upon him at the Dominion Drama Festival of Manitoba region, an annual drama and theatre festival that was going for its sixth year.

As a precursor of things to come, in the late fall of 1938 Douglas had his first contact with the University of Manitoba Dramatic Society, at the staging of “And So to Bed” at the Civic Auditorium, a three-act, “very talky” play. The play was mainly cast by Dramatic Society players, but 10-year-old Douglas – “who is always good”, according to critics – all but overshadowed the senior players. The ‘very talky’ play that “opens slowly and does not develop until many lines have been spoken”, was right up Doug’s alley; his innate talents of elocution came to the fore.

In 1939 he was awarded again by the Trinity College – the award traditionally consisted of a local scholarship – this time for his examination in the Junior division. He secured honors at this examination, too, just like he did the previous year. At this point Doug had become a familiar presence on Winnipeg stages and an equally familiar voice on the radio, and was already well known in the local press as Master Douglas Rain.

At the age of 12 Douglas became a member of the Winnipeg Sea Cadets. The Sea Cadets is an organization hosted by the Royal Canadian Navy, specifically The Navy League of Canada and presently the Canadian Department of National Defense. The raison d’être of the organization is to teach and develop leadership skills. He relished the opportunities the Cadets provided, but it also meant his time was becoming more fragmented.

On the first day of June in 1940, the then-12-year-old “young artist of radio and theatrical presentations” was again awarded a local scholarship by Trinity College of Music, London, for elocution, intermediate division, with honors. Douglas scored 95 out of a possible 100 marks, taking the first place in his division. His examiner wrote of him simply: "He is naturally gifted, and will do well."

In 1942 Douglas made a tour to Ottawa with the Sea Cadets and was one of participants who got the most press when the Cadets performed. According to the papers his recitation of “Big Ben” almost “stole the show.” By now, however, his attention was already divided between the Cadets, readings, school, radio, elocution classes and recitations. Acting had by now become only one among many of his endeavors.

AT THE END of 1942, having achieved the highest standing out of 11 contestants from the United States, Newfoundland, and Canada, he was again awarded yet another scholarship by the Trinity College in London, but this time it was a special Empire, overseas, scholarship. This was his sixth Trinity College award, and his third scholarship. By now Douglas was rightfully a veteran scholar of elocution, at nigh to 15 years of age.

When Douglas started studying at the local high school his stage engagements began to receive less attention. Although he was still an imposing talent, and could deliver impressive performances, he was no longer the child prodigy he had been throughout the previous decade. He focused his own attention on his attendance at high school, and the focal point was Kelvin High School in Crescentwood, at the corner of Kingsway Avenue and Stafford Street.

Despite him focusing on high school, however, in 1944 Doug again performed at the Sunshine Revue, like he had done the previous year. Nonetheless this was to be his last performance at the revue. Studying aside, he was no less majestic a speaker, though. When his elocution teacher Jean Campbell was too busy to accept an engagement or too ill to perform she called upon the best of her students to fill in for her. Her choice was most often Doug.

Douglas graduated from Kelvin High School in 1946. At the graduation the presentation of class banners was made by fellow student Mary Raleigh and, of course, Douglas Rain.

After graduating it was time for him to make his first decision with a long-term impact.

(This chapter is only a preview of the first chapter of 'From Hal to HAL.' The other 9 chapters might be previewed later.)

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