Grace Macdonald is remembered as a dance teacher, choreographer and inspiration to young performers in Vancouver. She holds a special place in the history of musical theatre in this city with her contributions to MUSSOC (Musical Society of the University of British Columbia), Theatre Under the Stars, Vancouver Opera and the B.C. Lions Cheerleaders. Not only did she teach and encourage students who went on to have successful careers in dance, theatre, television and movies, but dancers who learned from her can still be found throughout the Lower Mainland teaching or dancing for recreation. Richard Ouzounian's comment on Grace's importance was:
That's why we all learned so much from her. She knew what to do, and how to do it, and she did it with equal portions of love and determination. I feel sorry for any young person in Vancouver who will have to go into the business without knowing what it was like to work with Grace Macdonald. (Ouzounian, 1987)
If you walk down Granville Mall you will see her star on the Entertainment Walk of Fame, but who was this wonderful woman and how did she get her start?
On November 12, 1916 Grace Macdonald was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents, John Macdonald and Margaret Campbell were born in Glasgow and they married there in 1897. Grace's brother William and her sisters Margaret and Elizabeth were born in Glasgow. Her brother John and sister Jeanne were born in Winnipeg. In her interview with Karen Greenhough for Dance in Vancouver, Grace talked about the beginning of her career in dance:
My mother thought when I was two and a half that I was the world's next ballerina and took me to classes and when I was five I was demonstrating physical exercises for the school board to show that physical exercise is good for anyone any age. They took me around the schools to demonstrate that when they first started PT (Physical Training) they called it there. Then after that I went to a person by the name of Geraldine Foley who was called the Zeigfield of Canada. She was a very lovely lady who came from London, a marvelous teacher! And while I was with her I became one of the Winnipeg Kiddies (a children's vaudeville show that used to travel around Canada and the United States.) Winnipeg was a hotbed of art and talent at the time. Leon Leonidoff and Florence Roggey used to come every year from Radio City Music Hall in New York to give classes and put on a big pantomime. I was in the pantomime as a little boy or you know Puck or I was somebody running around doing jumps and leaps as I was quite excitable as a child. They came every year and it was a big thing in Winnipeg. (Macdonald, 1979)
Grace opened her studio above the Broadway Academy at the corner of Broadway and Alma. She organized everything by herself, teaching tap, ballet, musical comedy, character, acrobatics and Scottish dancing. She had always had a good sense of timing and rhythm so she was especially good at tap. She was probably the first to teach musical theatre in Vancouver.
When I moved out here I was only fourteen at that time and I couldn't even find a teacher to teach me what I already knew so I started to teach. I was teaching in Vancouver when I was fifteen. There were several studios here. They may have been marvelous dancers but they were not good teachers. I couldn't find anything like I had (in Winnipeg). I waited around six months and then my mother said, "That's silly! Why not start your own?" So I did and I taught and went and studied three or four months of every year in New York or Chicago. (Macdonald, 1979)
I taught everything because I had been trained in everything, acrobatic, ballet, character. I went to Chicago and New York to learn and taught what I learned. Confident? I wasn't really confident. I used to be in tears every day because people would come in and say, "Would you get the teacher for me dear?" You know because I would look so young. So I had long hair at the time and the solution was to put it up and I think everybody in Vancouver knows me by my picture which has my hair up. I wore my hair like that for twenty-five years. (Macdonald, 1979)
Until she was about eleven or twelve years old Grace performed with the Winnipeg Kiddies. Then her teacher, Miss Foley, left town and her new teachers Gertie Stadelman and Sarah Baker took her to Chicago with them. For the next three or four years she studied in Chicago taking tap with Tommy Hyde and Charlie Chapman ( dance partner for Bill Robinson ), character with Walter Cameron and ballet with Adolph Bolm. She also went to New York to study ballet with Ulefta and Ivan Tarasoff. Then Grace's family moved to Vancouver where her father took a job as the for Woodwards.
When asked what inspired her first choreography Grace replied:
I wasn't inspired! I came to Vancouver as I told you when I was quite young and a couple of years after I was here my brother-in-law Andy Mansen, (father of Razzmatap's Grace Inglis) who is a marvelous person, was here and he came to me and said the Kiwanis Club put on musicals and they needed a choreographer. I had never done it. He said, "I'm sure you can do it." He said something I've remembered all my life, "If you don't know what it is, learn it. Say yes, then go and look it up somewhere and learn it." I did, truly. I went to see Karl Hoff the director of Kiwanis. I was sixteen years old. He asked if I was sure I could do it. I said, I'm sure. (Macdonald, 1979)
She soon realized that choreography was something she could do quite well. In the Winnipeg Kiddies she was expected to learn routines in the afternoon and perform them that night. She knew about three hundred routines so she could draw on what she knew for her choreography.
At the age of twenty-two, Grace retired from teaching dance to get married and raise her family. On September 9, 1939 she married James "Jimmy" Gillan who worked for Canadian National Steamships. He was a man who was full of fun and went everywhere with her. They had two children, Donald Gillan and Lynne, who is now Mrs. Norman Schneider. But Grace couldn't stay away from dance for long.
In three or four years at the B.C. School of Dance she had three or four hundred in the musical comedy department alone.
I happened to meet Jeanette Armstrong and she said,"We're badly in need of a tap and musical comedy teacher at our school". (Kay, Jeanette's sister, was director of the BC School of Dance). I said, "I'll come and have a little look see." (Macdonald, 1979)
When Kay Armstrong decided to open her own studio on Granville Street, Grace became the principal of the B.C. School of Dance. She brought in Rosemary Deveson, Heino Heiden and Madame Karpova and continued as the principal for ten or twelve years.
The jazz style was beginning and tap was coming back again. People were really getting quite interested in that. It's something they can go to once or twice weekly and enjoy. With tap you can use a lot of personality. (Macdonald, 1979)
Since the school was run by a directorate, Grace was frustrated by the fact that she was never completely in charge. The load was heavy, so she decided to open her own school again and moved toTwelfth and Yew. There she had three or four studios and about six hundred students.
Dance Educators of America and the National Association of Dance Artists asked Grace, the only Canadian to be hired, to join their faculties for summer conventions. She would travel to New York, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago meeting many well-known teachers whom she would invite to guest teach in her school. Barbara Parkins, a student of Grace's went with her to Los Angeles as a demonstrator for Dance Educators and decided to stay. That was the beginning of Barbara's career as an actress.
Grace's involvement with community theatre in the Lower Mainland included Vancouver Community College, Dunbar Musical Theatre, Skystage, as well as many years with Theatre Under the Stars. In 1974 she performed for the first time in seventeen years, as Sue Smith in the Theatre Under the Stars production of No No Nanette.
She also worked with well known artists such as the Irish Rovers and Shari Lewis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She choreographed for the Vancouver Opera Association for a number of productions and was best known for her work with MUSSOC.
Miss Macdonald first became involved with the university in 1952 when she choreographed MUSSOC's production of The Red Mill. This show heralded a new age of Broadway style musical theatre on campus. During the next thirty-three years she choreographed almost all of Mussoc's productions, including such hits as The Boyfriend, Half a Sixpence, Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Oklahoma and the 1966 production of Fiddler on the Roof which was her last MUSSOC show. (UBC Reports, 1987)
Director Ray Michal recalled working with Grace at UBC as, "A great privilege- she was a lovely person, totally supportive, full of enthusiasm and ideas." (Wyman, 1987)
In 1954 Grace was approached by B.C. Lions Football Club to work with their cheerleaders. At the time there were six boys and one girl. Under her direction the cheerleaders learned new cheers and performed routines at halftime. Their numbers steadily increased and when they went to Toronto for the Grey Cup in 1964 there were sixty girls. Her commitment to the cheerleaders lasted until 1972 when the adverse conditions became too much for her. The outdoor practice sessions three times a week for two and a half hours, often in the rain, took a toll on Grace's health.
Many students who were successful in theatre got their start with Grace McDonald. Notable alumnae include Ruth Nicol, Valerie Easton, Jane Mortifee, Patrick Rose, Ann Mortifee, Margot Kidder, Brent Carver and Jeff Hyslop.
Jeff Hyslop, a student of mine was in A Chorus Line and Jesus Christ Superstar. He's such a going concern and he's such a marvelous dancer. He inspires other kids. When they see him they say," Well I can do it too because I was as good as him when I was taking classes with him."(Macdonald, 1979)
Her students remember her fondly as someone who made the most of every minute in class and was always kind. Their admiration for her is obvious. Jeff Hyslop tells how the lady came to a dress rehearsal with third degree burns covering her legs after an accident involving a pan of bacon grease.
Anyone else would have gone into a hospital. Not Grace. Her kids were waiting for her at rehearsal and so that is where she had to be. (Ouzounian, 11 April, 1987)
"She was a classic," remembers singer-comedienne Ruth Nichol. "She could teach anything. She made it important. She made us believe in who we are." (Wyman, 1987)
Grace Macdonald was a professional at the age of ten. She expected her pupils to do the same. She believed in working to the best of your ability and doing things properly, even if it was just for fun. She told her students to take pride in being the best they could be and not to settle for anything less. She believed that it was important to continue to learn and keep up with the times. She did not think that dance companies should expect government funding. If they were good enough, audiences would come. As a dance adjudicator she would often tell dancers they were not ready to perform. She encouraged them to listen to criticism and try again next year. She told students they wouldn't be good if they stopped working for one moment and they had to show the audience that they loved what they were doing.
"We all want to sort of live in a little wonderland of Singin' in the Rain. Tip tap your way through adversity if you want." (Macdonald, 1979)
Grace Macdonald died on April 4, 1987 at the age of 71.
Inglis, Grace. Personal Interview. 11 April, 2008.
"In Memoriam Grace Macdonald". UBC Reports 30 April, 1987. Macdonald, Grace.
Interview with Karen Greenhough. Karen Greenhough Dance in Vancouver Collection. 1979.
Ouzounian, Richard. "Grace Macdonald: Grand Lady of Theatre". Vancouver Sun, 11 April, 1987, page E3.
Wyman, Max. "Double Loss For Dance". Province 8 April, 1987, page 46.