Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Alice Leone Mitchell teaches Marshall McLuhan a thing or two

October 4, 1913 Winnipeg Free Press

Alice Leone Mitchell was born and raised in Nova Scotia, attending the Halifax Ladies' College and the Emerson College of Oratory in Boston. Upon graduation she returned and spent six years as the head of the oratory department at Mount Allison University.

October 26, 1917, The Voice

In 1912 she moved to Winnipeg and began teaching from her home, first at 408 Warwick Apartments then 6-275 Young Street, 31 Kennedy Street (1937) and 333 Broadway (1939 - 40s).

The Alice Leone Mitchell School of Expression engaged in “ ... training students for public speaking and physical culture including diaphragmatic breathing are especially emphasized.” An actress in her own right, those interested in drama could join her Alice Leone Mitchell Players. 

Mitchell was a regular on the city's society pages and her students held numerous well-attended recitals each year in churches and theatres around the city.

 September 1939

Mitchell was passionate about her craft. In a November 21, 1940 letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press she wrote:

All teachers of, music or of any of the fine arts, know the patience and perseverance required to acquire tone and master all the subtleties to express life on the keys of a piano, or the bow of a violin, yet one of the greatest, of all the arts, on account of the university of speech, is too often taught by those who have not taken the patience to acquire the knowledge to correct extreme emphasis.

March 8 1924, Winnipeg Free Press

One of Mitchell's many students was Elsie McLuhan, mother of Marshall. At times she sat on the school's board and the McLuhan home was the setting for  executive meetings and small recitals. In 1924 she began a public speaking career of her own. 

One McLuhan biography says that Mitchell's school was considered one of the “foremost schools in North America for training in the principles of public reading” and created a fierce snobbery in Elsie McLuhan toward the McLuhans' Irish Heritage, Ontario's Protestant elite and Winnipeggers in general !

McLuhan insisted that Marshall take lessons from Mitchell. In the book Extraordinary Canadians: Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Coupland writes:

“… Marshall was forced (by and large cheerfully) to remember vast swaths of English literature and poetry—and not merely remember it, but also recite it aloud with gusto: crisp enunciation and precise metre and tone, as was demanded by the Alice Leone Mitchell School of Expression. In his later life as an academic and teacher, this skill set would blow people away, especially his future Cambridge classmates, who had been expecting Marshall to be a hinterland yokel but found instead, if not a savant, certainly a classmate to avoid making citation errors in front of.”

May 9, 1946, Winnipeg Free Press

Mitchell never married and usually returned home to Nova Scotia to visit family for the summer months. In early 1945 she was in ill health and decided to return home permanently. She died at her home in Dartmouth on April 29, 1946.

Her final Winnipeg performances took place prior to Christmas 1944. One was a recital of the Christmas Story at the Professional and Business Women's Club's Christmas event, the other was in a short play entitled Even Through the Mist at the I.O.O.F. home in Charleswood.

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