Thursday, 1 December 2011

Deanna Durbin: From Winnipeg to Hollywood (1922 - 1936)

December 4, 1947, Winnipeg Free Press

This is part 3 of a look back at the life and career of Winnipeg-born singer and actress Deanna Durbin who is celebrating her 90th birthday on December 4, 2012 !

On December 4, 1922
Edna Mae Durbin was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Though she lived here for less than two years before her family moved to Los Angeles, the Durbins kept close ties to the city thanks to extended family and friends.

media dubbed her Winnipeg's Sweetheart and followed the young starlet as if she never left.

This is a look back at the Winnipeg side of Deanna Durbin's life.
At the end of part 3 I will include a number of Deanna Durbin links for those who want to step deeper into her Hollywood career.

James Durbin ca. 1940s (source)

Durbin's father was James A. Durbin, (October 2, 1884 - May 1, 1976). He grew up in or near Newton Heath, Lancashire, England, a small industrial town just east of Manchester City. He was a slight man with a good soprano voice. His parents, however, steered him toward the trades and he apprenticed as an iron worker (1).

Newton Heath FC ca. 1892 (BlogUnited)

Today, the world knows Newton Heath for its football club the Newton Heath L&YR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways) or, as it was re-christened in April 1902,
Manchester United !

Ada Durbin ca. 1940s (source)

Mother Ada Tomlinson Read, (December 8, 1885 -June 10, 1972), was one of twelve children of William and Sophie Read of Ruabon, Wales, though they later moved to Chester then to the town of Oldham. It, too, was a very industrial urban centre.

Thorpe Road, Newton Heath ca. 1909 (source)

The couple
married in 1908 in the Congregational Chapel in Thorp Road, Newton Heath. The following year they had their first child, Edith.
Union Bank Tower (left) next to the Leland Hotel and the “gingerbread” City Hall, circa 1912 
Union Bank Tower and City Hall, Winnipeg ca. 1912

In 1910 the Durbins left for Canada. After a year and a half in Peterborough, Ontario they decided to head west to Winnipeg and why not ?!

In 1911 - 1912 Winnipeg was firing on all cylinders. The grain trade was booming, record amounts of cargo were being shipped into the West and land speculators were becoming
millionaires overnight. The skyline was filling up with impressive new developments such as the Bank of Commerce (now Millennium Centre) and Union Bank Tower, the West's first skyscraper. The Grain Exchange on Lombard Street, barely 5 years old, was about to undergo a seven storey addition.

There were four railways located in the city at the time. The CPR with 3,000 employees was Winnipeg's largest single employer (2).
Very soon James A. Durbin, blacksmith, would be one of them.

Both Durbin houses with Weston CPR Yards at top (view map)

1913 Henderson Directory of Winnipeg

1914 Henderson Directory of Winnipeg

When the Durbins arrived in Winnipeg in 1912 they lived at 388 Blake Street. The following year they moved around the corner to 2234 Gallagher Avenue, which is where they remained for their time in Winnipeg.

Today this is known as the Weston neighbourhood, named for the huge C.P.R. Weston Shops located to the north. Back then, though, it was known as "C.P.R. Town" and filled mainly with immigrants who worked in the yards or at factory jobs.

Ad ca. 1918

C.P.R. Town was a noisy, smelly place to live. Weston was (and still is) the C.P.R.'s main shops for Manitoba. Dozens of trains passed through and were assembled and disassembled day and night.

Manitoba Rolling Mills had a steel plant that included a smelter adjacent to the yards at Gallagher and Vincent. In 1908 it underwent a large expansion and the plant received so many complaints about the smoke, noise and putrid steam that filled the neighbourhood that they had to shut down night-time production for a time
(3). The mill was still in operation when the Durbins lived there. (It's no wonder Deanna would later be referred to as a "St. Vital girl", it has a much nicer connotation than "C.P.R. Town girl" !)

Deanna Durbin's Winnipeg Childhood Home
Durbin home, (1913 -22), 2234 Gallagher Ave.

The circa 1910 home that the Durbins lived in is just over 1000 sq ft and built on a 25 foot lot. (The house is assessed at just $56 k if anyone wants to create a Deanna Durbin Museum there !)
Weston Shops
C.P.R. Weston Yards ca. 1903 (Source) and 2010

John immediately found work as a blacksmith at the C.P.R.'s Weston Shops. (I wonder if he knew my pal William Harvey ?!) One building he likely worked in can be seen in the background of the modern photo above. At the time there was an entrance to the yards right off of Gallagher Street making for a very short commute !

C.N. shop workers, not CPR, but of the same era (source)

The shops were a tough place to work due to long hours, dangerous working conditions and backbreaking labour. In fact, the seeds of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike were sewn in the metal workers shops in the Weston yards. A machinist working there at the same time as Durbin, R. B. Russell, became a key general strike labour leader.

Edna Mae Durbin at 6 months (Winnipeg Tribune)

On December 4, 1921 the Durbins' second daughter Edna Mae, (later changed to Deanna), was born at the Grace Hospital at Preston Avenue and Arlington Street in Wolseley, (now demolished).

Grace Hospital ca. 1911

The Salvation Army facility was built in 1905 to specialize in the care of wayward girls and included a small maternity wing. In 1911 the hospital underwent a major expansion and within a few years it was Western Canada's largest maternity hospital. In 1921 Edna Mae was just one of 1,300 births !

C.P.R. Weston Shop workers ca 1925 (source)

James did not appreciate the cold weather. Deanna later recounted that what little savings they could make in the summer was eaten up by heating costs in the winter. It was decided that the family would move to a warmer climate and in May 1923 they left for Los Angeles with 12 year old Edith and 1 1/2 year old Edna Mae.

Despite leaving the Durbins were still bullish about the city. In 1925 they convinced Sophia Read, Ada's widowed mother, and four of Ada's siblings,
brothers Jack and Albert and sisters Mrs. W. Gordon and Mrs. A. Crofts, to move to Winnipeg. The Reads settled in St. Vital at 157 Berrydale Avenue. Both Jack and Albert got work as machinists with the C.N.R. shops in Transcona.
The Durbins ca. 1926 (Winnipeg Tribune)

In Los Angeles John worked as a machinist and other manual jobs and the family eventually settled at 212 West 85th Street, which appears to have been demolished. Ironically, it is located one block from Manchester Avenue which must have given them a chuckle !
Source: Musical Courier, Vol. 159-60 ca. 1959

Eldest daughter Edith, Dee-Dee to Edna Mae, attended university to obtain her teachers certificate. Edna Mae showed an aptitude and a love for singing. Once Edith began her career in 1932 she helped to fund singing lessons for her younger sister at the Ralph Thomas Voice Academy in Lost Angeles.

December 13, 1941, Winnipeg Tribune (Source)

The Durbins made regular visits to Winnipeg. Aside from extended family, they also had a number of close friends that they kept in touch with over the years.

For Edna Mae the main draw was her 'granny' Sophia Read who lived with sons Jack and Albert at their small home on Berrydale.
Read (1860 - 1944) was from Chester, England and shared the same birthday as Deanna, though 61 years apart !

The longest period of time Deanna spent in Winnipeg since moving to L.A. was the summer of 1935. She visited again in 1936 and 1937 but after that her meteoric career kept her away.

1. From Spring 1973 Liberty Magazine (no longer available online)
2. From
Winnipeg 1912 by Jim Blanchard
3. Winnipeg Free Press, October 8, 1908.

More family photos can be found in the Photos and People sections of
Deanna Durbin Devotees.

See the end of part 3 for reference and source links.

© Christian Cassidy 2011


liveloverman said...

I love your article.
Saw her movies in my youth in the forties and fifties in the local cinema here in Holland.
Since then í became a life-time fan of this beautiful and outstanding woman with great singing and acting talents.
Look forward to more articles of this kind.
Jan Lambrechts, The Netherlands.

mrchristian said...

Thanks for this ! it's great to know she has fans around the world !

Jody said...

...and apparently so do you, Chris!

mrchristian said...

Part 2 is now up. I had to stretch it into a three-parter !