Winnipeg theatre stage legend Brownstone dies at 100
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The grand dame of Winnipeg theatre has taken her final bow.
Doreen Brownstone — who was cast in the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s first production in 1958, and in 2014, still working at age 92, became the country’s oldest professional actor — died Friday morning at 100.
Brownstone arrived in Winnipeg in 1946, and crafted a career of critical acclaim and collegial adoration throughout the Canadian theatre world and beyond, playing roles in an estimated 100-plus stage productions and more than 30 TV/film credits.
“Doreen Brownstone was a wonder,” said Mariam Bernstein, a Winnipeg actor-director. “She was our theatre baba, a much-loved and incredibly generous member of the community.
“She led by example with her passion for acting, her flawless comic timing and how she brought both the pain and joy in her life to her characters. She was hilarious, and I can’t believe I won’t hear her glorious belly laugh again.”
Born Doreen Stein on Sept. 28, 1922, Brownstone grew up in Leeds, England, where she was a champion swimmer.
In 1941, at 19, she quit her job to join the Royal Air Force, where an official asked her to be in a play, according to her online biography.
After the Second World War, Brownstone and her husband moved to Winnipeg, where the actor joined a number of performance groups, including the YMHA Players, Winnipeg Little Theatre, and Theatre 77 — headed up by Tom Hendry and John Hirsch, a fellow adopted Winnipegger and European émigré.
It was Brownstone who suggested to Hirsch and actor Gordon Pinsent they start their own formal company, according to various sources.
Brownstone was integral in the establishment of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, an organization whose premiere performance, a Hirsch-directed staging of Michael Gazzo’s A Hatful of Rain, starred Brownstone and Pinsent in 1958.
Over the next 64 years, Brownstone quietly and humbly staked her claim as one of the greatest actors in the province’s history. On stages for the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, Rainbow Stage, Royal MTC, Theatre Projects Manitoba and Prairie Theatre Exchange, Brownstone became synonymous with professionalism and excellence.
“Today, we celebrate the remarkable spirit, tenacious personality and untouchable legacy of Doreen Brownstone,” Royal MTC said in a social media statement Friday. “Our hearts go out to her family, friends and our theatre community, which has been forever changed for the better by her presence.”
In later roles, such as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof or Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy, Brownstone shone.
In 2014, she was cast as the lead in the PTE production of Morris Panych’s Vigil — and was celebrated as the country’s oldest working professional stage actor.
She got the role, and that title, out of a combination of chutzpah and earned respect: when being honoured with a lifetime achievement award the previous year, the nonagenarian had chided PTE’s artistic director for not hiring her, according to a 2014 Free Press feature.
Robert Metcalfe of the PTE obliged, casting Brownstone in the bedridden role of Aunt Grace in a performance that earned raves (especially when she touched her toes on stage).
Around the time of Vigil, Brownstone, a member of the Order of Manitoba, received considerable fanfare over her performance, remarkable body of work, and, of course, the distinction as the country’s oldest working stage actor.
“I’d like to hang on to that record, if there is one,” she said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.