I think for most little girls growing up on the East Coast, there is something quite mythic and irresistibly alluring about Avonlea. When I was very small, before I knew the name Lucy Maud Montgomery, every Sunday evening, at 7:30pm just after bath time, I would watch Road to Avonlea while my mother brushed the “tangles” and the “knots” out of my wild mop of curls. The next morning at school my friends and I would discuss the newest escapes of Sara, Felix and Felicity with ardent admiration. As soon as I could read I memorized their names as they were printed across my TV screen. Sarah Polley. Zachary Bennett. Lally Cadeau. Gemma Zamprogna (I could never pronounce Zamprogna, so we were always on a first name basis). Mag Ruffman. Jackie Burroughs. These were my heroes. My celebrities. I was too young to understand that it was significant that this was a Canadian television show, and that these actors that I so passionately idolized and cared about with my whole, small heart, were also Canadian, just like me and that this made a difference. I just knew that they were stars like anyone else I loved on television, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Angela Lansbury, Cricket from The Young and the Restless… they were all just like them.
In hindsight, Hetty King, the stubborn, pompous, traditionalist, strict old schoolmarm, was not an entirely likeable character, but Jackie Burroughs made her the most fascinating one in all of Avonlea. Even at six years old I know that I was riveted by Hetty; Jackie knew how to milk her for comedy, she knew how to be devastatingly vulnerable and she knew how burst out of the television, in a way that I think those trained for the theatre often do, with the power to really communicate and connect passionately with her viewers, as though her performance were really unfolding right before our eyes, and not just a trick of the camera. Jackie had a way of saying everything with just the curl of her lip, the glint in her eye, a hint of a smile, the subtle movement of her hands. She had a way of melting Hetty, like in the Christmas Special Happy Christmas, Miss King, that could reduce an audience to a puddle of tears. She had a way of expressing joy, this childlike exuberance that even as a small girl I remember finding utterly contagious, in a way that most “grownups,” even the ones on TV and in the movies, I think had forgotten how to experience. There was more than a hint of mischievousness in Hetty King, which, from what I have read, must doubtlessly have been inherent in Jackie. Her feistiness always triumphed over her stern facade and I still delight in watching that.
Jackie must have been formidable to watch in the theatre, when she performed at the Stratford Festival under Artistic Director Robin Phillips and in the contemporary theatres of Toronto in the mid 1970s. I recently was mesmerized by this clip from the 1987 Canadian film A Winter Tan in which she played troubled author Maryse Holder; her performance, even in this two minute clip, is one of unmistakable genius and a radical departure from the world of Hetty King.
It is interesting to reflect on the giants of our childhood as it is impossible for me to know exactly how Jackie Burroughs inspired me or specifically shaped the woman that I would become because I was too little to be aware of the impression that Avonlea was leaving on my young soul. I think that ultimately growing up watching Jackie every week, and later every day in reruns, from the time I was five or six until I was eleven was that from the very youngest of ages I was watching performances of the very highest calibre. I came to expect that actors would be formidable, whether they were on my television set, in the movies or on the stage in front of me. While I wouldn’t say these high expectations made me a critic even in elementary school, I did not have twelve year old Kenneth Tynan’s penchant for tirelessly crusading against mediocrity, but I do feel like I have always been attracted toward the people, in all mediums of the arts, who are exceptional and exquisite in their talents. I think that I believe in Canadian artists so passionately because how can you not believe in the community out of which Jackie Burroughs emerged? How can you deny our brilliance as Canadian actors when Jackie Burroughs exists? How can anyone dismiss the concept of the *Canadian star,* which Jackie Burroughs undoubtedly was and deserved to be just that?
I’m not sure how old I was when I learned that Colleen Dewhurst, who played Marilla Cuthbert in the Anne of Green Gables films had passed away in 1991. I must have been quite young, young enough to see anyone over fifty as being liable to die of “old age,” because I remember continually taking quiet comfort in the knowledge that Jackie Burroughs was still alive. I know that I always had an unspoken wish, one I think I felt, but perhaps had never even put it into words even in my own mind, but I know that I wished to someday meet Jackie because I felt like she was important to me. As Hetty King was a teacher, she was my teacher, as she was Sara Stanley’s austere aunt with the heart of gold, so too was she my aunt with a heart of gold. I guess, as Lucy Maud Montgomery would say, I could tell, even at six, that we were kindred spirits. Even as I got older, I kept taking quiet comfort in knowing that Jackie Burroughs was out there… in Toronto somewhere… Jackie Burroughs was there.
My heart cracked when I heard that Jackie had passed away last Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 from gastric cancer at her home here in Toronto, surrounded by her family and friends. She was only seventy-one years old and I know that she will be eternally missed by the film and theatre communities of Canada and by everyone who has ever been touched by her magnificent talent. There is a wonderful article that chronicles Jackie’s fascinating life in The Globe and Mail, which I urge you all to read. She leaves behind her loving family: daughter Zoe Yanovsky and her partner Greg Ball; 2 grandsons Max the Pearl and Henry Zalman; their babba Anna; her brother Gary, his wife Sarah and daughters Josie and Alex along with their children; her goddaughter Maggie. She will be dearly missed by many devoted friends in Canada and in Mexico. A funeral service will be held at 2p.m. on Wednesday, September 29th at the Cathedral Church of St. James on the northeast corner of Church and King Streets in Toronto. All are welcome to attend.
There is a line that Jackie Burroughs spoke as Hetty King on Road to Avonlea, “Now as I gaze out upon those same sparkling waters, I realize that youth is never left behind, just carried always, gently, in the heart.” So much of my youth was spent gazing out at the ocean, standing on red beaches in Prince Edward Island with clean, cold, salt air filling my nostrils and pouring into my lungs, and that period of my life will always be intertwined with my love and belief in Avonlea. So with my childhood tucked up with care, Jackie’s memory and Hetty King, will live on in there in my heart forever. I don’t know what I believe happens after we pass on, but I like to believe in this, “wherever you wander, whatever glorious adventures lie ahead of you, you can rest easy knowing you’ve a place to come home to; the dearest spot on Earth, our Avonlea.”
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