'This is the CBC Television network."
The station identifier many Canadians had grown almost deaf to over the years sounded very different on May 1, 1969. It was no longer one of the many indistinct, sonorous male voices heard on the state broadcaster. This one was sprightly and warm – and belonged to a woman.
Was the stodgy CBC becoming groovy?
The buttery contralto emanated from Maggie Morris, at the time the only female announcer on the CBC's English side, where she did station breaks and read some news and weather. But less than a year later, despite the fact her contract had been renewed twice and that mail was 5 to 1 in her favour, she was fired because, as brass put it, her pronunciation had become a bit too "precious." Her other crimes were allegedly affecting a British accent and "a strange sort of style."
Thoughtfully, her bosses had kept complaints away from her. "Naturally, a woman becomes a little bit emotional about a thing like this," CBC chief announcer John Rae told The Globe and Mail in April, 1970. "More so than a man." He added: "I'm not anti-feminist."
But fear not, for Mr. Rae had nothing against female announcers, noting: "I'm still looking for healthy young girls." He found one later, in 1970, when Jan Tennant was hired as the CBC's first permanent female staff announcer.
Ms. Morris confessed to being "hurt as hell" after being dumped, and there was little doubt in her mind that higher-ups at the CBC could not abide a woman's voice. "I could have been the angel Gabriel and those fuddy-duddies still wouldn't have accepted me," she told an interviewer. "I have never felt much like being a militant feminist," she told another in the cascade of media coverage that followed her dismissal. "But this might turn me into one, by golly!"
The workplace sexism straight out of Mad Men was "not an era she liked to talk about very much," Ms. Morris's daughter, Jane, confided. "She did find it kind of painful to remember. She had some tough times."
Such as when a colleague left an anonymous note in her mailbox: "You sound like Lorne Greene with a third ball."
The Globe and Mail thought otherwise. Ms. Morris's voice was "gorgeous, rich, deep, womanly and confident," gushed a 1969 profile, "with suggestions of great lurking power. She sounds as if she could talk the CBC butterfly [logo] into going back into business as a caterpillar."
A glamorous woman with a big, easy smile, Ms. Morris, who died in Toronto Sept. 4 at the age of 88, might be better remembered as the only cast member to survive all six seasons, 1962 to 1968, of the national CBC-TV quiz show Flashback, on which a four-person panel and one guest were given three minutes to guess a mystery fad, item or person from the past. The CBC replaced the program with the U.S. sitcom Green Acres.
And those with superior aural gifts may recall that following her sacking, Ms. Morris went to work for Bell Canada's public relations department. Apart from addressing audiences on how to handle nuisance calls and performing in personnel training films, hers was the voice behind those crisp, vaguely annoying recorded messages, "Sorry, the number you have dialled is no longer in service," and "All our directory assistance operators are busy. Please try again." It paid considerably more than the $8,000 a year she had been earning at the CBC.
The British accent may not have been so phony after all. She was born Margaret Glenesk Beal on Dec. 10, 1925 in London, England, the only child of James Beal, who was in the men's clothing business, and the Scottish Jane Glenesk. Ms. Morris was a small child when the clan moved to Yorkshire, where she developed happy memories of playing in the street, reading Louisa May Alcott's novels and watching Hollywood movies in smoke-hazed theatres.
But when war came, the British government evacuated thousands of children to Commonwealth countries, 1,532 of them to Canada (her memories of that time are stored at the Canadian Museum of Immigration's Pier 21 archives). Ms. Morris, aged 14, was sent to Winnipeg to live with a family she had never met, but where she received her first brush with broadcasting when she was chosen to participate in a Christmas telephone hook-up between refugee children overseas and their parents back home.
Returning to Britain when it was safe four years later, she trained as a nurse and midwife, delivering some two dozen babies. She travelled back to Winnipeg as a bridesmaid for a friend's wedding, ended up marrying the groom's brother, Victor Morris, in 1950, and started dabbling in local theatre and radio drama for CBC Winnipeg. The family moved to Ottawa but the marriage ended in divorce about a decade later.
Now with two children to support, Ms. Morris won a job hosting the CBC-TV show Diplomatic Passport, which took viewers to foreign embassies, and the interview program Contact. In between, she made guest appearances on radio and television, and voiced commercials.
The move to Toronto was made after she beat out 460 aspirants as a panelist on Flashback. When she filled in as a summer relief announcer on CBC Radio in Toronto in 1963 – the only woman on the English language network – the Toronto Star's headline proclaimed, "Girl Invades Man's World" (the "girl" was 38 years old). The appointment of the "petite brownette" who kept a box of "feminine makeup," the paper reported, prompted calls to the broadcaster from 13 "startled but impressed" men. There was only one request: Please don't read sports.
R.B. Fleming, the biographer of CBC luminary Peter Gzowski, recalls that Ms. Morris once worked as Mr. Gzowski's sidekick on Radio Free Friday, "a mostly forgotten radio show today, but one that was instrumental in developing the phone-interview format commonly used today in shows such as As It Happens and The Current."
One night, just as the show was about to go live to the East, director Peter Ward witnessed a strange scene "in silent pantomime" through the soundproof glass. "Maggie was diving for Peter's crotch," Mr. Fleming recounted. "He ran into the studio where Maggie was removing Peter's trousers. Peter had just spilled a large paper cup of scalding tea all over his lap. Had Maggie, who was a trained nurse, not reacted quickly, the host might have suffered severe burns. In considerable discomfort, Peter did the five hours that evening, with the help, of course, from Maggie."
In 1971, she married a rocket scientist. Stanley Smolensky was an American NASA engineer who worked on the Apollo program. When he took a post with Bell Aerospace in New Orleans, Ms. Morris quit her job, sold her possessions and went with him. Five months later, he died of a heart attack.
"It was a terrible tragedy," her daughter said.
Heartbroken, Ms. Morris returned to Canada, stayed with friends and eventually took a job doing public relations for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, then went back to nursing in an administrative capacity and continued a bit of voice work. In Toronto for a time, she was a tour guide. In later years, she recorded audio books for the blind and travelled the world.
She leaves her son, Glen, and daughter.
In her early career, she never really saw herself as being in competition with men, but rather with the standards men had set.
"Anyway," she once said with a small smile, "men are too much fun to compete with, don't you think?"
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