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Gisele MacKenzie, 76; Actress, All-Around Musician Rose to Fame on '50s 'Hit Parade'

September 06, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gisele MacKenzie, the Canadian - born singer - actress who was a regular on the popular 1950s television musical show "Your Hit Parade" and starred in her own short-lived NBC variety series, has died. She was 76.

MacKenzie, who was once known as Canada's First Lady of Song, died Friday in Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank after a long battle with colon cancer, said her daughter, Gigi Downs.

MacKenzie rose to national attention on "Your Hit Parade." During her years on the weekly show, from 1953 to 1957, she joined such vocalists as Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms and Dorothy Collins in singing the seven most popular songs in America each week.

Although most of the show's singers were recording artists, MacKenzie was the only one to ever have a big enough hit to appear in the show's top seven while she was a regular: "Hard to Get" in 1955.

In 1957, she starred in her own NBC musical variety program, "The Gisele MacKenzie Show," which lasted six months. She later was a regular on "The Sid Caesar Show," a 1963 ABC comedy-variety show.

"She was such a lovely lady," Caesar told The Times on Friday. "She was a wonderfully, wonderfully talented woman. She was a great singer and a great musician and had a great sense of humor."

On his show, Caesar said, "She sang, played the violin, worked in the sketches -- she did everything."

Actress Beverly Garland, a close friend of MacKenzie, said she was an incredible performer. "The wonderful thing about Gisele was she could sing no matter where she was," Garland said Friday. "She didn't have to have a piano, she didn't have to have a violin or anything. She was on key and so brilliant that it just blew your mind. She had this wonderful, wonderful gift, and she'll be a real loss to the music world and the entertainment world."

The daughter of a Winnipeg doctor, she was born Jan. 10, 1927. MacKenzie -- a family name that she adopted after coming to Hollywood in 1951 -- inherited her musical talent from her mother, who played piano and organ. As a child, MacKenzie began singing and playing the piano and violin at an early age. She gave her first public recital as a violinist at a hotel in Winnipeg and studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

While entertaining troops during World War II, she met Robert Shuttleworth, a lieutenant who was a bandleader in the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war, he hired her as a violinist, pianist and vocalist with his civilian band.

Shuttleworth became MacKenzie's first manager and they later married and divorced. She also was married to Robert Klein, a businessman, whom she also divorced.

Although Shuttleworth urged her to concentrate on her singing, MacKenzie was not sure whether she wanted to be an instrumentalist or a singer until the day someone stole her violin.

"I figured that was a pretty good sign that I should be a singer," she once recalled.

In 1946, her rich contralto singing voice caught the attention of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which resulted in her own quarter-hour radio show, "Meet Gisele."

By 1951, she was in Hollywood doing radio guest spots with Edgar Bergen and Morton Downey before becoming a regular on Bob Crosby's "Club 15" show and then as featured singer on "The Mario Lanza Show" on radio.

An impressed Jack Benny had her join him on tour during the summers of 1952 and 1953. And the comedian, who became MacKenzie's biggest booster, recommended her for "Your Hit Parade."

In 1955, MacKenzie made the first of many appearances on Benny's weekly television show; she often performed a violin duet with him.

"She played the violin and the piano with a master's touch, and did one of the best comedy sketches with Benny I've ever seen," wrote a critic for the New York World-Telegram and Sun in 1955.

Over the decades, MacKenzie starred in numerous regional theater productions of "Mame," "Gypsy," "The King and I," "Hello, Dolly!" and other musicals.

She made her dramatic debut in a 1955 "Kraft Television Theatre" production and also continued to make occasional TV guest appearances, as well as appearing in commercials.

Even after MacKenzie began receiving treatment for cancer, she continued to make concert appearances, said actress Jane Kean, a longtime friend.

"And her singing voice was exactly the way it was in the '60s," Kean said. "She was just amazing."

In addition to her daughter, MacKenzie is survived by a son, Mac Shuttleworth; a brother, George La Fleche; a sister, Janine Helzer; and two grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.

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