By Roy L Hales
Her artistic roots go back to Vienna, while Russian troops still occupied part of the city. Years later, cast as the female lead in “As You Like It,” she found a much more fulfilling role than centre stage. She will be performing it again at this summer’s Lip Sync. Lella Gmeiner is the Queen of the Green Room.
“I’ve had my turn onstage. I don’t particularly want to be on stage, but I do want to help other people to shine and look good,” she says.
Her First Performances
Her first performances were at the ad hoc parties around the piano in her family’s home.
“My parents were very proud of me and in a very Viennese Shirley Temple way … I would sing a song, or recite a poem that I’d learned.”
As her mother wrote radio plays for Radio Free Europe, Lella was also called upon to broadcast at a very young age:
“Whenever they needed a child’s voice, they would bring me into the radio station with that old British accent that I had at the time and I would lisp whatever they told me to lisp.”
Lella’s parents also seized the opportunity for their daughter to become a child model:
“My parents were cobbling together a living in postwar Europe and did many things. One of their friends said, ‘Oh, there is a position for a very young child modelling clothes with this American clothing house called Brooks Brothers, you should take Lella down there. Maybe they will take her on. So they took me on and four times a year – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter – there would be a big fashion show for the Brooks Brother’s House and I had the notorious position of being the youngest fashion model in Vienna. So it was kind of fun putting on the dog, strutting these amazing clothes and learning how to walk with a book on my head and curtsey and turn, have make applied and my hair done.”
The Vienna Of Her Childhood
The scars of war were still very evident in Vienna.
“Buildings were shattered and being rebuilt. The city was occupied. You couldn’t go anywhere without papers to prove your legitimacy there. There were many many maimed people in the streets. It was common to see people with missing limbs, eye patches, terrible scars …”
Lella’s family lived directly across from where the Russian officers were quartered. She remembers the way they sang on Sundays.
“The Russians at the end of the war were the boys from the back country. It was kind of like the Welsh singers, the Welsh miners. It was that kind of powerful folk tradition which came to be known here, in North America, as the Red Army Chorus singing the folk songs from the Steppes of Russia with these amazing castrato voices that would make the chandeliers rattle and the windows shake.”
“My mom was English and my dad was from Vienna. They met in England and married and had me. When I was three months old they went to Vienna, to introduce me to my father’s parents and have a Christmas holiday together. They decided, largely because of the occupation in Vienna and the Marshall Plan, that Vienna was a place of larger affluence and opportunity than London. So they decided to relocate to Vienna and pursue their lives there.”
“There was cream; there were oranges; there was chocolate. Note of that existed in England. London was absolutely smashed into the ground. There was still rationing in London. Vienna was just a little fractured around the edges. They bombed Vienna to break the hearts of people, but not to destroy the industry because there was none. It did not fuel the war effort. It was the land of milk and honey in Vienna. People were waltzing in the streets, drinking coffee, schnapps – having cream in their coffee! – eating oranges on the side and pastries and it was fun! fun! fun!”
Lella’s mother very much wanted to be an actress. Her parents discouraged her from studying to doing this professionally.
“It wasn’t considered stable, let’s put it that way, and they wanted her to have a stable skill that could earn her a living. So she didn’t go to LAMDA  or RADA , but she always found ways of being engaged in amateur community theatre and loved it.”
Lella’s dad was an organist, who studied at the Vienna State Academy.
“Most of his life he taught at university and/or was an organist affiliated with the church. Later on he managed to get a lot of CBC gigs, which got him national exposure here in Canada.”
Growing Up In Wolfville
“There wasn’t much of future for musicians in Vienna during the 1950s, so after the occupation of Austria ended, Lella’s dad obtained a teaching position at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
“My father was the youngest faculty member, he was only a little older than the students. He was in his late 20s and he brought a very different musical tradition to that university. They had experienced a much more sedate and controlled and romantic sensibility, musically. He was coming from the highly theatrical Baroque era. He brought a great sense of passion and largesse to the musical world, both in his choral endeavours and keyboard instruction and his sense of music history. He would invite students back to the house to have seminars.”
“I was an ear on the stairs listening when I was supposed to be in bed, at a very early age. It was so fascinating. He had a wonderful of weaving together what was happening musically, with what was happening historically and culturally around that piece of music – to give it so many different anchors in people’s minds. So you would not forget. You had so many points of reference around a single piece. What was happening architecturally?; what was happening in terms of wars?; occupations?; what were the linguistic influences?; what was happening in terms of clothing?; How were people constricted or released in their bodies, in terms of clothing. All these interrelated influences on a piece of music would be discussed in these seminars.”
Meanwhile Lella’s mother encouraged her involvement in community theatre.
“There was always a place for children in plays. I was six when we came to Canada and I do not think there was a year when I wasn’t involved in two or three plays in some capacity. I loved the excitement of being involved in a production, even if I had no lines or was just in a crowd scene. There was the fun of a costume and make-up and watching the big people do their stuff, handing out programs and putting up posters. Its a great way of bringing a community together.”
National Theatre School of Canada
By 1969, she was in the National Theatre School of Canada.”
“Theatre school was probably the most profound formal education I ever had because it was experiential. It really addressed the learning process – not just in a sedentary reading and writing sort of way but in a very emotional and physical way as well as intellectual. I really, really loved it. I had the great privilege of working with some amazing teachers from Europe and North America.”
“The school was in its infancy in those days. I think we were the sixth class that went through. We had master classes at Stratford, each summer. So I had the opportunity to rub shoulders, briefly, with some of Canada’s greatest and in that process I came to realize that much as I loved theatre, and all aspects of theatre, I didn’t like the lifestyle that I saw at the top of the heap in Canada. It wasn’t where I wanted to be going.”
As She Likes It
When she returned to Acadia University, Lella was asked to play Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” She was in love by that time, but agreed to do it if the director find a good understudy.
“About a month into the rehearsals I said its [my boyfriend] Bernie [Anderson], not Rosalind, who is going to win this … That was really the turning point for me, in terms of my focus in performance. When it came time for the show to go up, I did step in as the make-up person, the Greenroom Queen. At the end of the show I was cleaning up backstage and realized in a very profound way that it is the people backstage who make the performers look so good – from the Director to the Stage Manager, to the Lighting and Sound Producers, to the costumes, makeup, hair people, to the prompters in the wings. These are the people that make the actors shine and I had never fully realized the significance of the roles they played. I felt really proud of myself for learning, in that moment when I thought I’d made this great sacrifice to my relationship by not taking this lead role, that the bigger role was not to be centre stage but was to be backstage and supporting. That is the role I love to play.”
Another dream was stronger. Lella Gmeiner and Bernie Anderson attempted to carve out a new life for themselves in the wilderness at the head of Toba Inlet, in British Columbia. They started with three other land partners.
“The others left after after a few months because it was too intense for them. Bernie and I stuck it out. [My daughter] Noba was very much a part of our lives within a few months of being there. She was already an established part of my body. We Alaska milled boards out of tree that were already down on the ground and built a faceted house, in a post and beam configuration. [We] travelled up and down the [Toba] river in various boats; a great swirling river with logs jammed into the ground …… in the river bed. You learned to read the swirling waters to know where there would be a log just under the surface – so that you wouldn’t be ripping your propeller out. It was too fast a river to paddle up, you needed a motor. We also had a beautiful jeep. We barged a lot of materials up to Toba when we went there: jeeps, trucks and unimags, bathtubs, sinks, windows, rocking chairs and all kinds of things. I think it was a frightening number of tonnage … So yes, we were in Toba until two Springs following that. … Noba was born in the Spring of 1977 and in the Spring of ’78 Bernie left to go fishing.”
They started with prawns, but mostly fished for salmon that season.
“It was a rich and profound experience living on the water, being with people who were raised in that fishing world .. When we had accidents with our nets we would get help and information. We were the kids on the block and they were the established folks. It was a great feeling of being welcomed into a community.”
They didn’t want to return to Toba after the season ended and started looking around for a new home. Hearing that Cortes was a magical place, they found a cabin to rent in Whaletown. Their landlords, John and Roadshow, “were wonderful forces in this community, both artistically and politically and culturally and they were dear to many, many people.”
“Roadshow was involved in the production of Alice in Wonderland, which happened that fall for the children’s Christmas party. It was directed by Hanu Wasyliw and had a cast, many of whom are still here: David Rousseau played the mad hatter, George Sirk played the hookah smoking caterpillar, Bernice McGowan played the Cheshire cat, I think Howie Roman played one of the cards. I was seccoubded into playing Alice because George Sirk leaked out that I had gone to the National Theatre school and also because nobody else wanted to take the time to learn that many lines.”
“It was a wonderful production that went up for the Children’s Christmas party both at the Gorge Hall and at Manson’s Hall. Manson’s Hall was still being …remodelled and there were piles of lumber on the sides of the auditorium, but we mounted our show, it was well received and I got to know this amazing core of people through the rehearsal process, even though I had just arrived and then left in the Spring to go to Twin Islands.”
Noba’s Environmental Aspirations
Lella and Bernie were Twin Island’s caretakers for the next decade.
As a result, their daughter Noba, “had a magical association with the land from a very early age. Being an only child on Twin for ten years, the natural world was her playmate in many ways. we had, through a whole series of extraordinary coincides, a tame deer … So she had a deer that would come into our house. She had a crow that Bernie robbed from the nest before it even had feathers and its eyes were open … So she had a crow on her should, she had a deer in her arms, she had a rare ability to be with animals that we perceive as wild and in a place where there weren’t any other children. So she substituted those children for imaginary things in the forest and real things in the forest and on the beach. [She] dragged the cat down to the beach and taught it how to swim.”
They eventually moved to Victoria, where there were more opportunities for Noba’s education, yet from grades 6 through 12 she and her mother made periodic pilgrimages back to Cortes.
These were the years when Noba’s environmental aspirations took shape. She belonged to an environmental organization called the West Coast Environmental Youth Alliance, which connected young people from South America to Alaska.
“That was what she did instead of sex, drugs and rock and roll. She became an Eco Dork.
Back To Wolfville
Lella’ returned to Wolfville after Noba’s graduation. In a future broadcast, I intend to describe a special theatrical program she and a colleague developed. This was not why Lella went back to Nova Scotia. She wanted to be close to her mother during the closing chapter of her life.
“I came to know and appreciate my mother in a way I never have before.”
She was gone for twenty years.
“I was only visiting back here [on Cortes] every year, or sometimes two years went by. I was normally only here for a handful of weeks, but it was vitally important for me to stay in touch with this place. It was always where I wanted to return to.”
Queen Of The Greenroom
“Although I have this sense of belonging to Cortes that goes back to 1978, the reality is I have mostly been an outside rand a visitor whose maintained some relationships over those years and is very happy to be back here for the last four years.”
Shortly after her return, Lella bumped into Howie Roman again. Their relationship stretched back to the 1978 production of Alice In Wonderland. Now he was excited about the Lip Sync and wanted Lella to get involved.
“After about a year, I said I would come and help out backstage at the Lip Sync. I did and it was fabulous to be involved in that swirl of excitement again.”
“Its quite a situation at the Manson’s Hall to get people from the pioneer room around to the backstage entrance. Then I started offering help with hair, make-up, costume in and out, those sorts of things. Its a wonderful feeling to be supporting others in shining and connecting to fiends in the community. This is the role I want to play.”
Lella says the level of cooperation between CKTZ’s volunteer performers is amazing.
“I didn’t have my full kit when I first came back here, I’m used to having a big tickle trunk and all kinds of bells, whistles, and toys in terms of make-up and whigs to play with onstage, but Meinsje had a fabulous costume department, make-up and hair gear – and knew how to put all that together. Now we have Jenny Magenta who has a wonderful toolbox of toys. The willingness for people to share backstage is phenomenal. Do you have a safety pin? Or I need my hair done. Or I don’t have any lipstick, do you have any? Bobbi has come forward to do people’s hair backstage; Laura Balducci has helped out. with hair. There has been such a collaboration, always.”
Does she have anything to say about the Lip Sync coming up ion August 25th?
“I’m really looking forward to it.”
Top photo credit: In the Wings by Tim Perdue via Flickr (CC BY SA; 2.0 License); photo used in podcast is from the greenroom at CKTZ’s 2018 Cabaret Night.