Lorraine Thomson was the star dancer on The Big Revue, the first CBC variety show that went on air in 1952. She went on to perform in a number of programs, especially The Wayne & Shuster Show, where she deadpanned as a Spanish dancer and in other comic routines. Andy Body, who danced with Ms. Thomson as early as 1950 remembers how she was totally focused when she danced.
“When she danced, you could see the joy in her eyes. When she came at me, it was as if she was in love with me,” Mr. Body said. Over the years, Ms. Thomson was the featured performer in shows with stars such as Duke Ellington and Robert Goulet.
Ms. Thomson, who died on Aug. 13 at the age of 89, soon proved she was more than a dancer. Her comedic talent brought her jobs as an actress and on-air host. Among other things, she was the first woman to host a game show in Canada.
Lorraine Lillian Thomson was born in Regina on July 12, 1931, delivered by her paternal grandfather, Dr. William Alexander Thomson. Her parents separated when she was 3, and she lived with her maternal grandparents, Will and Flora Moody, on a farm near Disley, Sask. She collected eggs, remembering the chickens pecked at her hand, and turkeys chased her. Lorraine loved the lambs, and because of that, she never liked to eat lamb.
There were musical evenings with the neighbours, with grandfather Will playing the fiddle and grandmother Flora on the piano.
In 1938, Lorraine and her brother, Bill, moved with their grandparents to a farm in Dunville, Ont., and the two Thomson children walked to a one-room school where Lorraine did Grades 1 and 2 in one year. In 1941 their mother took them to live with her in the west end of Toronto. When she was 13, Lorraine came down with pneumonia and almost died. She said in her memoir that she was saved by “the new sulpha drugs.” Lorraine had to spend a lot of time in bed, and that changed her life.
“Oddly, I had gone to bed quite short – around five foot two – and got up from bed at five foot six. To aid in my recovery, the doctor who attended me told my mother I should take dance lessons because it was a full bodybuilding exercise,” Ms. Thomson wrote. “Dance took me into all the careers I have had in my life. Basically, my life started when I nearly died from pneumonia.”
Ms. Thomson was a natural dancer. Her grandfather in Saskatchewan sent her money to take lessons. By the time she was 16, she was performing in the chorus line at the Canadian National Exhibition. In 1949, her mother moved to Biloxi, Miss., and at 17, she was on her own. She had a number of jobs, but in 1949 she danced for two weeks at the CNE and that paid her $800, enough to cover her expenses for six months. Soon she was part of a chorus line called The Canadettes. She trained under the great choreographer Betty Oliphant and travelled to New York twice for lessons.
She auditioned successfully for the Rockettes in New York, but television was about to start in Canada and she chose that instead. By that time, she was married to Julius Mallin, with a daughter, Francesca. The couple later had a son, James, as well.
Ms. Thomson was one of the early stars of CBC Television. She performed in programs such as Hit Parade, Wayne and Shuster, and many others as well as her main program, The Big Revue. It was all live, no taping to cover up mistakes. Once during a live performance, she was hit in the head by a microphone but kept on dancing.
As Ms. Thomson gained confidence and experience, she was given many other roles apart from dancing. In 1960 she was asked to design an exercise routine for a program called Open House and was soon doing interviews as well. She was hired as a full-time host for a program called 701, which as the title suggested went on the air at a minute after 7 o’clock. One of her co-hosts was Percy Saltzman, Canada’s first weatherman, famous for tossing his chalk in the air at the end of the forecast. She pointed out it was a good thing she moved on to hosting as variety programs were not as popular, and that meant less work for dancers.
From 1963 to 1967, she was the host of Audio, a radio program that ran daily in the same morning time slot that would be filled by Peter Gzowski’s show This Country in the Morning in 1971.
“It was on that program that she really honed her skills as an interviewer. She said doing Audio was like her university education because of the interesting people she spoke to over those four years,” said her daughter, Francesca Mallin Parker.
Ms. Thomson was often a guest panelist on Front Page Challenge, where four panelists had to guess the identity of the mystery guest. Eventually Ms. Thomson was hired as program co-ordinator, in charge of booking the mystery guests and fill-in panelists.
“I particularly remember holding baby Justin Trudeau while his mother, Margaret, was a secret guest on the show. She brought him with her because she was still breastfeeding him,” Ms. Thomson wrote. “We had a room set aside for privacy, but Margaret wanted him within her sight, so Justin and I were … in the wings when Margaret was in front of the panel.”
The people Ms. Thomson lined up for the program were so interesting that she suggested the CBC set up another program to interview them while they were in the studio. The new show was called V.I.P., and Ms. Thomson was the host.
"Much to our delight, we had over a million viewers on the first run. We made over 65 shows over 18 years."
In her memoirs, Ms. Thomson said one of the highlights of her career was going to London to interview Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. The subject was his involvement with the World Wildlife Fund. "So there I was, sitting on a sofa with the Prince in the same room where the Queen does her Christmas broadcasts. Yes, Philip is a flirt. But a gentle one, not too obvious," she wrote.
In all the years she worked in television, Ms. Thomson was never on staff at the CBC. She was always a freelancer, and she was very involved in the union that represented her, ACTRA. She was also on the board of the union’s insurance and pension fund. She was vice-president of ACTRA in 1975 and part of a delegation that went to Moscow as a guest of the Cultural Workers Union. At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in a Canadian artists’ union.
Ms. Thomson was also on the board of the Canadian Mental Health Association and was in charge of its fundraising campaign. In 1989, she was asked to join the Immigration Refugee Board to judge refugees’ claims. “When I was in high school I wanted to be a lawyer, so I went straight to judging rather than pausing to be a lawyer,” she said.
There was a month's training on refugee law before she and her colleagues started hearing refugee claims. She was on that board for four years.
In her personal life, Ms. Thomson had divorced her first husband and later married Knowlton Nash, who read the CBC National News for many years. Her daughter, Francesca, met and married Fred Parker, who was the director of the nightly newscast. In later years the two families moved into a large duplex in a blended-generations arrangement that worked out well.
Mr. Nash died in 2014. Ms. Thomson lived at home until moving into an assisted living facility where she wrote her memoirs, finishing in December of last year. One of the final paragraphs read:
"Please try not to be sad for me. Think about this skinny little girl living on a farm who grew up and had a fabulous career."
Ms. Thomson leaves her children, Francesca Mallin Parker and James Mallin, as well as three grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.