Anna Russell | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Anna Russell

Anna (Ann Claudia) Russell (b Russell-Brown).

Russell, Anna

Anna (Ann Claudia) Russell (b Russell-Brown). Comedian, contralto, pianist, b Paddington, London, England 27 Dec 1911, naturalized Canadian 1943, naturalized US 1955, d Bateman's Bay, New South Wales, Australia, 18 Oct 2006; ARCM 1939, honorary LL D (Centenary, Shreveport, Louisiana) 1979, honorary LL D (Western) 1983, honorary D MUS (Windsor) 1988. Born to a Canadian mother, Anna Russell first studied voice, harmony, cello and piano at St Felix School, Southwold, in England, graduating in Dec 1928. (Details of Russell's birth and education are taken from her birth certificate and documents held at Library and Archives Canada, settling confusion over where she spent her early years.) She studied at the Royal College of Music 1934-9 with Arthur Benjamin and Vaughan Williams (composition), and had a brief career at the BBC Educational Music Department. After emigrating to Canada in 1939, she made her Canadian radio debut in 1940 on the CFRB English music-hall series 'Round the Marble Arch.' Russell was heard on CBC's 'Jolly Miller Time' and was co-host with Syd Brown on CJBC's 'Syd and Anna.' In the 1940s she was an understudy for, but also actually appeared in, the title role in scenes from Carmen with the Rosselino Opera. She married Canadian artist Charles Goldhamer.

Russell briefly attempted a career in opera, but after an accident during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, she switched to comedy. Russell's first one-woman show as a parodist was sponsored by the Toronto Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE) and was presented 11 Feb 1942 at Eaton Auditorium. She performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Sir Ernest MacMillan (who had encouraged her unusual talent) at their annual Christmas Box concert in 1944 and again in 1945 and 1949. She made her US debut at New York's Carnegie Recital Hall 2 Oct 1947 and performed in Town Hall 10 Feb 1948. Her satirical parodies of concert music and opera gained her international popularity and she appeared subsequently with leading US orchestras, in recital, and in Anna Russell's Little Show (1955) and All by Myself (1960) on Broadway. She played the Witch in Hansel and Gretel with the New York City and San Francisco operas and was the voice of the Witch in the 1954 puppet film of the opera.

Russell's recitals, until 1953 usually accompanied by John Coveart, continued into the 1980s in North America, England, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Australia. Her other accompanists were Eugene Rankin, Frank Bartholemew, and Robert Rosenberger. She performed in every major Canadian city and appeared in the 1953 Spring Thaw, the 1959 Vancouver International Festival, and the 1977 Stratford Festival. She also was featured on a CBC-TV special and portrayed the Duchess of Crakentorp in the Canadian Opera Company production of Daughter of the Regiment in 1977. That same year she referred to herself as 'the Rip Van Winkle of Toronto - a bit decrepit but not yet passed away. I still have one of the great voices of the decayed - a roar rather than screech, in a comfy basso nonprofundo' (Toronto Star, 29 Mar 1977). She presented a recital, 15 Nov 1982, during the opening season of Roy Thomson Hall, and in late 1983 began her farewell tour of the world. A video tape of her performance in Baltimore in November 1984 was released as The (First) Farewell Concert on Video Artists International 69019 (VHS). When she retired in December 1986, she deposited her papers in the Mugar Museum, Boston University.

Russell remained active in the years following retirement. In 1996 a number of her rare television performances from CBC's archives were released on a video compilation entitled The Clown Princess of Comedy (VAI 69402). In 1998 she made a guest appearance at the Ford Centre (Toronto) with the Amadeus Choir and Mary Lou Fallis, and in the same year released two compilations of vintage material with Sony Classical entitled Anna Russell - Encore? (SFK 60316) and Anna Russell - Again? (SFK 60317). She was the subject of the book Anna in a Thousand Cities. Russell resided for many years in Unionville, Ont, on a street named in her honour, and moved to Australia around 2004.


The Power of Being a Positive Stinker (New York 1955)

The Anna Russell Song Book (London 1960)

The Writings of Anna Russell and Cora C. Russell (New York 1965)

I'm Not Making This Up, You Know: The Autobiography of the Queen of Musical Parody, ed Janet Vickers (New York 1985)

Further Reading

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