Thursday, September 11, 2003

Gisele MacKenzie, Singer and Star of 'Your Hit Parade'


Gisele MacKenzie, the Canadian singing star of the 1950's television show "Your Hit Parade," died on Friday in Burbank, Calif. She was 76.The cause was colon cancer, said her daughter, Gigi Downs.

Although she was known mainly for her contralto voice, Ms. MacKenzie also traded barbs and violin riffs with Jack Benny and played the piano on her own variety show. On "Your Hit Parade," she sang the most popular tunes of the week with her fellow cast members Snooky Lanson, Dorothy Collins and Russell Arms.

Gisele Marie Louise Marguerite La Fleche was born on Jan. 10, 1927, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her father, a doctor who played the violin, and her mother, who sang and played the organ, encouraged her musical talent. She studied violin in her teens at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, but she began singing and playing popular songs on the piano after school. At a party where she sang for wartime sailors, she met Robert Shuttleworth, a military bandleader, who later hired her to perform with his hotel orchestra.

He became her business manager, and in 1958, her husband.

Ms. MacKenzie wavered between a career as a singer or one as a concert violinist until her $3,000 violin was stolen from a parked car. Her vocation thus resolved, she began singing on a Canadian radio show called "Meet Gisele" in 1946, her popularity earning her the informal title of Canada's first lady of song. In 1951, when she began to sing in the United States, she took her father's middle name, MacKenzie, as her last name. In an interview with The New York Journal in 1956, she
said she worried that the name Gisele La Fleche "sounded like a strip tease artist's."

She sang for two years on Bob Crosby's radio show "Club 15," and when it went off the air, she joined Jack Benny on tour. The attention she gained with Mr. Benny won her a spot on "Your Hit Parade," replacing June Valli.

She appeared on the show from 1953 to 1957, then left to star in her own variety series, "The Gisele MacKenzie Show," which lasted only six months. In 1963 she was on weekly television again, becoming a regular on "The Sid Caesar Show." Over the next four decades, she starred in regional theater and made guest appearances on television game shows and series like "MacGyver" and "Murder, She Wrote." Her two marriages, to Mr. Shuttleworth and to Robert Klein, a businessman, ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Downs, of Newport Beach, Calif., she is survived by a son, Mac Shuttleworth; a brother, George La Fleche; a sister, Janine Helzer; and two grandchildren.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times

Submitted by
Gayle DePoli

Comment by Tony Cucurullo

I thank you Gayle for these theatrical stories about the different stars of our industry.
I remember quite well Gisele MacKenzie, not as an intimate friend but as a coworker on the musical shows at NBC. In the 1950s NBC would hire studio tech's on a temporary basis. After the Korean War, we were lucky to get any kind of broadcast work, and the temp jobs were handy ways of getting experience. The oddity about all of this is the fact that the STAFF techs, or permanent techs had to work their way up to the major shows on NBC. Whereas I came along from the outside and was immediately put on camera on the "Hit Parade," Philco Playhouse, The Show of Shows. I was very fortunate to get to be the very first cameraman to operate the mechanical zoom. It was a test of coordination of one's skills. It had a brass rod and handle that had a handle that went from the back of the camera through to the lens and it pushed the lens in-and-out for the zoom effect. It was quite a challenge.
On the show, "Your Hit Parade," one of the singers, Snooky Lansing liked to gamble by tossing quarters, I had a lucky streak going when I left NBC and to this day, he still owes me about three bucks.
One of the female stars of the show was an excellent singer but a bit testy at times and would carry on with her demands. But, later when it was Miss Mackenzie's turn at rehearsals everyone was interested in helping her for she was the consummate performer. When you see the stagehands stop to listen to a performer that is in of itself an accolade to that star.
She was an adored person always friendly, and on occasion could get off some funny ad-libs.
I truly am a fan of her voice. She will be missed.

Gayle, I will take this time to wish you a very happy birthday, (Sept. 11th) and to add, that I think of you as one of our personal treasures. You came from that group (1975, the Bartillucci people) and you accomplished so very much. Keep sending these stories about people we associated with, for they are the gilded edge of our memory banks.

Tony Cucurullo