Gisele MacKenzie

'Canada's First Lady of Song'
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The Independent Online

Gisele Marie Louise Marguerite LaFleche (Gisele MacKenzie), singer and actress: born Winnipeg, Manitoba 10 January 1927; married first 1958 Robert Shuttleworth (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Robert Klein (marriage dissolved); died Burbank, California 5 September 2003.

Once known as "Canada's First Lady of Song", Gisele MacKenzie had a rich, highly pleasing contralto voice. In the UK, she was best known for her recordings of the Fifties and occasional appearances in television specials, but in the United States she was a prolific performer on both radio and television from the late 1940s.

Many shows displayed her versatility, including The Sid Caesar Show, on which she was a regular in 1963. Caesar said,

She was a wonderfully, wonderfully talented woman. She was a great singer and a great musician and had a great sense of humour. On my show she sang, played the violin, worked in sketches - she did everything.

Her violin playing had earlier made her a marvellous foil for the comedian Jack Benny, with whom she toured and later acted in his television show. The critic of the New York World Telegram and Sun wrote in 1955, "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."

MacKenzie's musical skills were inherited from her mother, who played the piano and organ. Her father was a doctor in Winnipeg, where MacKenzie was born in 1927. Her real name was Gisele Marie Louise Marguerite LaFleche, but in 1951 she took her father's middle name of MacKenzie, declaring, "Gisele LaFleche sounds like a striptease artist." She displayed talent as a singer, violinist and pianist as a child, and studied violin for five years at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

She also loved popular music, and during the Second World War she was singing at a party for sailors when she met Robert Shuttleworth, a military bandleader who later hired her to sing with his civilian orchestra, becoming her manager and, in 1958, her first husband.

In 1946 she scored a great hit with her singing on a radio show for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Meet Gisele. By 1951 she was doing guest spots on the Hollywood radio shows of Edgar Bergan and Morton Downey, filling a regular spot on Bob Crosby's show Club 15 and touring with Phil Harris. She had also begun to make hit records, including "Jolie Jacqueline", "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes", "Seven Lonely Days" and the novelty number which became her biggest hit in the UK, "Water Can't Quench the Fire of Love", which she duetted with Helen O'Connell in cod country-and-western style in 1952.

She was the featured singer on The Mario Lanza Show when Jack Benny requested that she join him on his tours in 1952 and 1953. It was Benny who recommended her to the producers of Your Hit Parade, one of television's most popular programmes, which was noted for a high standard of performance (Frank Sinatra was an earlier regular on the radio version). It featured the seven most popular songs of the week, and MacKenzie's tenure on it, from 1953 to 1957, made her a household favourite. She also had the distinction of being the only singer on the show to have a hit big enough to be performed on it - Jack Segal's song "Hard to Get", which made the top seven in 1955. MacKenzie, who had added acting to her skills, introduced the song in a television drama, Justice.

In 1957 she had her own variety show on television, The Gisele MacKenzie Show, and she was active as a cabaret performer - one of her several LPs was a live performance at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria. The actress Beverly Garland, a close friend, said,

She could sing no matter where she was. She didn't have to have a piano, a violin or anything. She was on key, and so brilliant that it just blew your mind.

Her vibrant contralto, sure sense of melody and assured acting made her a strong draw in regional theatre productions of such musicals as South Pacific, The King and I, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, Hello, Dolly and Mame. She acted in several dramas during the age of live television, and later made guest appearances in such shows as Burke's Law, MacGyver and Murder, She Wrote.

Tom Vallance