For more than half a century, Sylvia Lennick was a stalwart presence as an actor and singer on Canadian radio, stage and television.
"She was a born actress," said actor and director Jack Merigold, likening Ms. Lennick's ability to play a role in several different ways with the work of the late Kate Reid.
Ms. Lennick died of complications from pneumonia at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto on Aug. 10. She was 93.
Among other kudos, she won an award in the Dominion Drama Festival playing Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday , the stage version of the film role made famous by Judy Holliday.
But what made her own name was the throwaway line she delivered as a nagging wife on American television in the late 1950s.
Ms. Lennick got more applause than headliners Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster when the troupe made its first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in May, 1958, with a performance of Rinse the Blood Off My Toga , a Dragnet -type crime skit in which Mr. Wayne, as private eye Flavius Maximus, tries to finger Marcus Brutus, played by Frank Shuster, for the murder of Julius Caesar. As Calpurnia, the bereaved widow, Ms. Lennick brought the house down at rehearsal and then with viewers when she repeatedly wailed, "I told him, Julie don't go," a line that was picked up across the country and is still world famous from coast to coast, as we like to say in Canada.
At the time, Ms. Lennick didn't anticipate that "Julie don't go," would provoke such a response. In fact, she worried about doing the part in a heavy Bronx accent in New York, where "everybody talks like that," as she said in an interview last year with The Toronto Star. As for laughs, she thought her best hope was the line, "It's the Ides of March. Beware, already," a comment that has proved completely forgettable in the last five decades.
"She was a delight," said actor Paul Soles in an interview yesterday. He described her as "one of the funniest women ever." Mr. Soles said he always thinks of Ms. Lennick and her husband, the late actor Ben Lennick, in conjunction with their three children. To him the Lennicks are an acting family, one which carries on the sense of a theatrical community from one generation to the next.
Acknowledging that the "Julie don't go" line will be Ms. Lennick's legacy, Mr. Soles said he prefers to remember her "for a magnificent sense of national pride and as a builder of our culture," especially in her years with Wayne and Shuster. "She never stopped creating theatrical opportunities and commentary on our culture all her life," he said. "To me that was the most important thing."
As for Mr. Merigold, he says: "We were show folk when there wasn't any show folk" in this country.
Sylvia Bela Paige, the eldest child of jeweller and watchmaker Charles Paige and his wife Clara, was born in Toronto during the First World War and was educated at Jarvis Collegiate.
She met her husband, Ben Lennick, when both were part of a troupe of left-wing actors and directors in The Theatre of Action in the late 1930s, which was a local version of a similar company in New York.
"She and he and a number of other Toronto actors were very involved in developing theatre companies and in what eventually became ACTRA [the union that represents many professional performers in Canada]" according to her son, Michael Lennick, a documentary filmmaker.
They were married on March 7, 1943. He was rejected for active service in the Armed Forces, so they both stayed in Toronto and worked in radio, during the era when actor Lorne Greene was known as "The Voice of Doom" on CBC radio, as the principal news reader during the Second World War. The Lennicks also organized a theatre company in the old Belmont movie theatre, which, not surprisingly, they called Belmont.
In 1946, Wayne and Shuster, who had been entertaining the troops as performers for the Army Show during the war, launched their live radio show on CBC. Mr. and Mrs. Lennick were regulars and easily made the transition to television. That is how she nabbed the role of Calpurnia in Rinse the Blood Off My Toga .
Ms. Lennick was such a hit on Ed Sullivan that Mr. Sullivan brought her back to New York the following Sunday so he could introduce her from the audience. When the camera swooped in on her, Ms. Lennick looked at the (deliberately) empty seat beside her and said: "I told him, Julie don't go," suggesting that her companion had excused himself for a bathroom break. "It brought the place down again," Mr. Merigold said.
As for Ms. Lennick, she had mixed feelings about the success of her Julie line. "Obviously she was happy to be well known for anything in Canadian show business," said her elder son. But near the end of her life she questioned whether she and her husband should have moved to Los Angeles, following on her success. But at the time, they were determined to stay here and help build a Canadian industry.
In the 1960s, along with Mr. Merigold, they resurrected Belmont Theatre Productions, the company they had founded two decades earlier. Although the stage was her true love - in Toronto, Stratford and New York - she found steadier work on television.
Among her many television credits, Ms. Lennick was a regular on The Adventures of Tugboat Annie and Cannonball, a series about the escapades of two long-distance truck drivers. In the early 1970s she played Mrs. Sherwood, the nagging mother on The Trouble With Tracy , a CTV series that was produced in Toronto as a daily show set in New York City. Ms. Lennick was not alone in thinking poorly of the series.
By the late 1970s the Lennicks and Mr. Merigold came up with a new venture, called "Theatre in the Home," doing readings and performing sketches in private venues and in retirement homes, bringing theatre to shut-ins.
After Mr. Lennick died in 1996, Ms. Lennick continued to perform and in recent times, began work on her memoirs. She never retired, and as recently as 2002 had a small part in Get A Clue , a Disney movie starring Lindsay Lohan.
At the end of a very long life as a singer and actor, her regrets were few, but she did confide to her younger son David Lennick, a broadcaster, that she would have liked to have been named to the Order of Canada or received a spot on the Walk of Fame. "She should have had those things," he said. "She was in theatre for about 70 years."
Sylvia Lennick was born in Toronto on Nov. 14, 1915. She died of complications from pneumonia at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre on Aug. 10, 2009. She was 93. She leaves children Michael, David and Julie and her younger sister Geri Gans. The funeral is planned for tomorrow at Benjamin's Memorial Park Chapel in Toronto.