Articles

MEET MAGGIE MUGGINS

Turning back the clock to play rac io’s lovable moppet is a breeze to Beryl Braithwaite. But at 13 she’s got a shrewd eye on a movie future

JUNE CALLWOOD July 1 1949
Articles

MEET MAGGIE MUGGINS

Turning back the clock to play rac io’s lovable moppet is a breeze to Beryl Braithwaite. But at 13 she’s got a shrewd eye on a movie future

JUNE CALLWOOD July 1 1949

MEET MAGGIE MUGGINS

Turning back the clock to play rac io’s lovable moppet is a breeze to Beryl Braithwaite. But at 13 she’s got a shrewd eye on a movie future

JUNE CALLWOOD

BERYL BRAITHWAITE is a 13-year-old schoolgirl who lives in a little town called Streetsville, 20 miles outside Toronto. She has white-blond hair, dancing blue eyes, dimples and a tour-figure bank account.

Beryl is a radio actress, the best Canadian child actress in the business. When she goes on the air she earns roughly a dollar a minute, union scale, and she has been heard coast to coast almost every week of her life for the past three years.

When she is of!' the air she occasionally prattles in her light girlish voice about her stocks and bonds, futures in certain industrials and the inadvisability of some mining investments. A broker admirer has been giving her tips for the past two years.

Her working day is Wednesday, though she sometimes works on other days as well. On a working day she wears silk stockings to school instead of her customary ribbed woolen ones. At 11 o’clock she slips out of her Grade VII classroom and takes the train to Toronto. She lunches in Union Station and then boards a streetcar to a movie or the public library, where she spends two or three hours.

Around 3 o’clock she turns into the rambling building on Jarvis Street which houses the Toronto studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She waves at the receptionist, hangs her coat in the waiting room and climbs upstairs to the studio to begin rehearsing. About two hours later her show goes on the CBC network, with the biggest audience of small fry of any children’s broadcast in the land.

Best Friend and Worst Enemy

FOR THIS kind of a job the competition is keen, but Beryl is well ahead of the pack of moppets whose eager feet pitter-patter into audition rooms. For one thing she is a pleasant, well-mannered child in a profession which abounds in brats of all ages; for another she loves to act, and doesn’t freeze when the producer gives her the On The Air signal.

It is this knack of being unconcerned at the knowledge that a few hundred thousand people are listening to her slightest sniffle that marks Beryl apart. Even within the radio business there are some (notably orchestra leader Mart Kenney) who sound like terrified truants when confronted by a mike. Beryl’s father, radio script writer Max Braithwaite, shook visibly the first time he spoke on the air and his small daughter watched with astonishment.

Beryl has been a radio actress for more than three* years, playing the parts of children ranging in age from six to 16 and including the role of a boy. She has done some commercials of the “Why is your shirt so dirty when mine is so white?” variety which have been dubbed into the Canadian edition of such shows as the Bob Hope and Amos ’n Andy productions. But her best-known role is the one that brings her to Toronto every Wednesday. She is radio’s Maggie Muggins.

Maggie Muggins is a chirping six-year-old redhead, heard on the CBC network for 15 minutes every Wednesday afternoon. Her popularity has made the Muggins child an industry. Two books written about her have sold 80,000 copies; about 25,000 Maggie Muggins dolls have been sold since last November and the demand is increasing.

Dressed as Maggie Muggins in a gingham dress and organdie pinafore and with her yellow hair tinted red, Beryl has made five personal appearances in Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal to autograph copies of the Muggins books or to endorse the Muggins dolls. These appearances haven’t helped make her wealthyshe received $5 for each one from the publisher and doll manufacturer.

Despite the experience and acclaim Maggie has brought Beryl, Maggie could l>e her worst enemy. At the CBC everyone greets her as “Maggie.” Kiddies swarm around her and her escort at personal appearances, where she is introduced as Maggie and always signs autographs “Maggie Muggins.”

The most striking feature about Beryl’s attitude to yelling children waving autograph books at her is that she has no attitude at all. She neither simpers nor attempts nonchalance. She remains relaxed, grins gaily at everyone, answers questions about herself with a thoroughness that varies according to her fan’s age and understanding and,

best of all, shows a mature kindness to the litt lest shy ones. The tongue-tied frightened tots get asked about their dolls and trains, have their new shoes or dress admired and return to the mothers shinyeyed with adoration for Maggie Muggins.

Each of the Muggins dolls was accompanied by a picture of Beryl and on the reverse side was some literature about Maggie Muggins, which descrilæd the career of Maggie’s author (Mary Grannan) in great detail. Beryl’s name was not mentioned.

Beryl’s identity is kept in the background because the role of Maggie Muggins is a transient one for actresses, since Maggie must remain a six-yearold. Beryl was the original,

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Maggie and after three years of reading Maggie’s gleeful conversations with her animal friends she can still sound like a six-year-old. The hitch is that Maggie’s author has found the personal appearances profitable and she requires a Maggie who looks as well as sounds juvenile. By keeping Beryl as much a nonentity as possible, Mary Grannan hopes to be able to switch Maggies some day without jolting too much the loyalties of peewees across the nation.

Beryl already has convinced some people around the CBC that she is capable of bigger things. Kay Stevenson, producer of the Muggins shows and an educational series on which Beryl appeared, calls her “the best child actress we’ve ever had”; Frank Willis, one of CBC’s most able producers, says she is an “inspired child.”

“She already reads faster than most adults,” says Willis, “and she requires very little direction. I cast her as a 14-year-old in an hour-long production of a Tolstoy play and she was magnificent. No trace of Muggins.”

They Rout Pete the Rat

The usual procedure for the Muggins broadcasts is for Beryl and Mary Grannan to come down to the studio first and go over the script. Muggins is broadcast from a small room, furnished with two grand pianos under dusty tarpaulins, a shrouded vibraphone and a celeste, also under wraps. In the centre of the room are two microphones, one glittering and new and the other distinctly doddering. There are no chairs or other furniture.

Leaning on the pianos, Mary and Beryl go over the script. Beryl reads the Muggins parts and Mary everything else. Beryl reads without selfixmsciousness, racing through her lines with a verve and speed that would do credit to a third reading. The plot of a recent script, typical of the Muggins series, had her open with a song, chat with her elderly friend Mr. McGarrity for a few minutes about animal life, and then join her friend Fitzgerald the field mouse, played in a falsetto by Mary.

Maggie and Fitzgerald combine to rout a villian known as Pete the Rat (also played by Mary), they dash ofi a few more songs, get in a moral about children not touching guns and sign off. Throughout the reading Mary interrupted Beryl to give a few line directions. For example, Beryl tells Mr. McGarrity he sings “just like a BIRD” and Mary instructs her to read this “just LIKE a bird.”

“One thing about Maggie,” Mary says briskly, “you never have to give her an inflection twice. She has an amazingly quick ear and she can mimic your expression perfectly.”

When she and Beryl had gone over the script once, James Annand, who plays the role of Mr. McGarrity, came in and picked up his copy of the script. The three went through it together, timing the show at 13 minutes and 35 seconds, which Mary pronounced satisfactory.

Kay Stevenson, the producer, drifted in, followed by the accompanist, Lou Snider.

“We’d better have a dress rehearsal,” Kay announced and departed into the glass-fronted control room. Beryl took her place at her mike and Mary and Annand stood at the big mike. Snider sat down at the vibraphone.

“Let’s take it from the top of the minute,” Kay called and the cast watched the second hand on the electricclock sweep around the dial. When it

reached the top Snider burst into the Muggins theme and the show was off. Kay marked the progress of the time on her script two or three times to a page so she could tell instantly if the broad! cast was running longer or shorter than the rehearsal. The show was timed at 14 minutes and 13 seconds.

It was then a few minutes after 5. j Mary and Snider gossiped idly, AnI nand checked his script, Kay lit a cigarette and the engineer tried to synchronize the clock in the control room with the one in the studio.

Beryl disappeared to check a report ! that a sparrow was loose in the rafters j of Studio G. She returned only three j minutes before broadcast time, but no i one appeared alarmed that she would j be late. A minute after she came in, Byng Whitteker, CBC staff announcer, arrived and picked up his script.

At 5.29 Kay and the engineer switched on the network’s departing show, listened for the station and network announcements and watched the clock. Kay held her arm above her head; the actors watched her and she watched the clock. At 5.30 she brought her arm down and the theme started instantly.

“Just Mary brings you the strange adventures of Maggie Muggins . . .” murmured Whitteker into the mike.

“Maggie Muggins is fun and shä has freckles on her nose and it’s turned up . . .” began Mary. This is a new introduction, recently changed from “Maggie Muggins is six and she has . . .” as a gesture at co-operation with Beryl’s advancing maturity.

Beryl reads her lines standing easily with no trace of strain. She keeps her mouth at precisely the same distance from the mike for all her lines; between lines she turns and watches the other actors but she never moves her feet. As is her custom, this reading was perfect -—no fluffs, no mistakes. When the show was over she raced out of the studio, bolted into her coat, caught a waiting cab and was on her train home 15 minutes later. She arrived in Streetsville at 6.45.

For all this Beryl received the union minimum paid by the CBC to all who participate in its sustainer or nonsponsored shows. Beryl gets $12.50 for each Muggins show, and she also receives $12.50 for each of her oneminute commercial blurbs. For the recent hour-long production on which she appeared she was paid $40, which included more than three hours of rehearsing.

Campfire Girls, New Yorker

Streetsville, where the Braithwaites have lived for about four years, is a commuters* town northwest of Toronto, known principally for the rising cost of its real estate and the perpetual disrepair of its streets. The Braithwaites moved there when Max was discharged from the Navy and settled down to become one of the country’s better known radio and magazine writers.

Beryl, born Beryl Marie Braithwaite in Saskatoon, Sask., is the oldest of three children. The family is a happy one.

The Braithwaites are all hopeless punners and spend a great deal of time laughing heartily at their own antics, j Six-year-old Sharon recently tried to j twist her pun several ways to get more laughs and was chastised by her four. year-old brother Christopher.

“Shari,” he shrieked, “don’t milk it!”

Beryl’s attitude toward the younger j Braithwaites is part maternal and part nursery-school teacher. She arranges ¡ game3 to amuse them and contre!.! them with the expert use of makej believe. When her parents are out and

she prepares the meal she will hand Shari and “Kiffie” a menu, take down their order, serve them deftly and then present the bill which Shari pays with play money.

Beryl loves to read. She follows the New Yorker, dips into the Campfire Ciris and on into Sinclair Lewis. She learned to read when she was six.

“She read two and three hooks some days,” recalls Mrs. Braithwaite. “Max and 1 figured she was just scanning the lines, that she couldn’t possibly be reading, so we read one other books and questioned lier about, it. She knew it. thoroughly, down to the finest details.”

Beryl is equally impartial in her choice of radio programs. She is fascinated by the spoken word on the radio and will listen to anything delivered orally. Her favorites are mysteries and other dramas, but her parents have observed her listening with equal devotion to political speeches and radio forums.

One of Braithwaite’s first radio jobs when he was discharged from the Navy was to write a series for the CBC about family life, to be called with a stroke of ingenuity typical of the CBC — “Our Family.” He naturally chose the material at hand and wrote about a family much like his own. One part was for an eight-year-old girl.

Ambition: To Crash the Movies

Don Fairbairn, earnest CBC producer, was running this show and he told Braithwaite lie was having trouble casting the child role. Braithwaite cleared his throat, ahemed a few times and said that it just happened he had a daughter who could play that part.

'Phis is an old gag in radio; announcers bring in their certain-forstardom children every week. Fairbairn politely agreed to hear Beryl, went right on worrying about the part.

Braithwaite returned home, devised a cardboard mike and began coaching Beryl on microphone technique, fie taught her how to read her lines—his lines and when he had her ready took her to Fairbairn. Fairbairn was stunned and hired her instantly.

The show lasted 17 weeks and when it disappeared in a CBC economy wave Beryl was asked to play in a British movie called “Maria Chapdelaine” to he filmed in Quebec. The script writer had condensed the parts of 12 children into a single meaty role, that of a 10year-old girl. Beryl would be required to dye her hair a dark red to have it photograph black. Her parents thought it over carefully, decided it had the ominous sound of opportunity knocking and agreed.

Beryl and her mother left for Grandmère, Que., and were there five weeks when the company ran out of funds and could get no more through from England. Beryl had so impressed the British, however, that they wanted to take her back to England with them, hut this also collapsed because of exchange diffieulties.

Mary Grannan was then searching for a Maggie Muggins and Beryl stepped into the part. She was, and is, much like the fictional Maggie. She, too. is full of excitement and curiosity, essentially kind and thoughtful and consistently courteous to her elders. Beryl is never bratty, never tries to join in when older actors clown during a rehearsal.

Her current ambition is to be a movie star. When she goes to the movies she sees a picture several times, sits in the first row so she can pretend she’s on the screen too. She solemnly feels that radio (which many dramatic stars, such as Ingrid Bergman, find the most difficult medium of all) is too limited and she yearns to “really act,

with my facial expression and my whole body.”

She keeps her hand in by acting about 16 hours of the day. When she wakens she spends a few moments deciding who she’ll be all day and she never dresses until the problem is settled. Her favorite is a lady spy. She eats her breakfast and sets off for school, keeping up an elaborate pretense of being a 13-year-old child to fool the enemy while inside she plots to overthrow the community.

At school she listens carefully, waiting for someone to slip and reveal the precious formula to her, and biking home she reports to an imaginary superior on lier findings. A number of Streetsville residents have overheard Beryl talking earnestly into thin air. They think she is rehearsing a part. On Saturdays Beryl usually chooses to be a housewife, a happy choice because her mother feels this is a good day to instruct her dreamy daughter in the rudiments of housework.

Beryl’s schoolwork flourishes despite lier frequent absences. She’s in Grade VII now but has kept so far ahead of lier classmates all year that this spring she will write her Crade VIII examinations.

The youngsters of Streetsville have gotten used to Beryl’s being famous in an anonymous sort of a way. She is indistinguishable in the mob that collects in the drugstore for Cokes after school, and if she has to turn down a skating party because of a show no one says “Imagine that!” They sympathize, murmur “Tough luck” and return to chewing on their straws.

Beryl is a boon to party-givers because she loves to tell stories and even adults are spellbound as she recounts such drama as The Foiling of the Green Dragon. One time she was invited to a hay ride party and she arrived to find her hostess tearing her hair. The wagon had broken down and the distraught woman was faced with an unscheduled four hours of entertainment. This was a breeze for Beryl— she told the children stories and devised quiet, controlled games the entire afternoon. The grateful parents are among Beryl’s hottest admirers today; it is from them she receives her tips on stocks.

Miss Muggins Is Getting Glamour

Most of her income goes into her savings account, earmarked for her future tuition at a dramatic school in New York. The family buys her everything most 13-year-olds would own, but when she wants something extra, such as her radio and record player, she must get their approval and then buy it herself. They have attempted to curb her generosity, which used to cause her to spend her wages on lavish gifts for the family, by doling her a dollar a week for all expenditures.

Beryl has been braced for three years for some tot to ask her why she is so big, but the question has never come. She is prepared to explain that she had to grow so tall so she could read what Maggie Muggins said, but it is not likely she will ever be called upon to make her explanation now. She has cut her braids, wears a feeble amount of lipstick and takes an interest in the opposite sex. She feels all .of this renders her unfit to present herself as a six-year-old any more.

Her sister Shari received a Maggie Muggins doll for Christmas last year and Beryl gave her a plastic cradle to go with it. Shari plays for hours with the combination.

“Isn’t she sweet,” she says solemnly, “she’s really Maggie Muggins, you know, but I call her Beryl.” It’s a good switch at that. *