Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A lost novel by 'voice of a friendly ghost' finds its way to the bookstore

Norma Macmillan performed the voices of Gumby, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Sweet Polly Purebred.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 7, 2010


Norma Macmillan’s voice in Saturday morning cartoons provided the soundtrack for a generation of children.

Her substantial acting skills made real the vulnerability of such animated characters as Gumby, Casper the Ghost, and Sweet Polly Purebred. She also provided the voices of Caroline and baby John-John on a hit comedy album about the Kennedy family.

A slight pixie with an upturned nose, the Vancouver-born stage actress appeared in Hollywood movies and once worked with Katharine Hepburn in a made-for-television movie. Less memorably, she was axed to death in “Nightmare on the 13th Floor.” She was stopped on the street by people who recognized her from television commercials for the Yellow Pages and Kraft Mayonnaise.

Much less well known was her work as a playwright. Her “A Crowded Affair,” a witty expose of social mores in a privileged Vancouver milieu written in the style of Noel Coward, might well have been the first play written by a woman with a British Columbia setting. She also wrote “Free As a Bird,” a screwball, Cold War comedy in which starred the Tony Award-winning comedienne Edie Adams.

Norma Macmillan has been gone now nine years.

She left a husband, the producer Thor Arngrim, and a son and a daughter, both of whom had been successful child actors.

She also left a box filled with a typescript on sheaves of the cheapest newsprint pulp in pink, green, and beige, a literary spumoni. Some sections were held by paperclips, while others were loose.

The widower vowed to get the novel published.

The work was long in the creation.

Alison Arngrim remembers her mother leaving their West Hollywood home on a moment’s notice with a hearty cry of, “I’m going up Island now.” Norma would fly to Vancouver, hop over to Vancouver Island, and eventually wind up aboard a converted minesweeper hauling freight and passengers. MV Uchuck III, named for “healing waters,” plied the waters of Nootka Sound.

Her novel, a multigenerational saga in the style of The Thorn Birds, or the Jalna series, opens at the moment of contact between the indigenous peoples and the Europeans. She’d visit the area for inspiration, staying in isolated cabins, a glass of Scotch beside her trusted Olivetti portable typewriter. (At home, she preferred a large bag of popcorn.)

“She sent the most fabulous postcards and letters,” the daughter said. “She was mucking about the wilderness.”

The novel, set on Vancouver Island from the 19th-century to the end of the Second World War, described five families wrestling with secrets and changing sexual mores.

She got a literary agent, had a mockup of the book constructed, shipped it around. The British television host David Frost found it cinematic in structure, and there was some interest expressed in turning it into a movie, or television series. But, as is so often the nature of these things, nothing happened.

The author continued editing her work, even after she and her husband returned to Vancouver. They had been a celebrated Hollywood couple, as he had been personal manager to the likes of Liberace and Debbie Reynolds, while also handling the careers of their children, Stefan Arngrim (Barry Lockridge in “Land of the Giants”) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson on “Little House on the Prairies”). They showed no airs being back home in British Columbia, where both are honoured on the Starwalk in downtown Vancouver. Ms. Macmillan became the host of a program for seniors airing on Co-op Radio.

Her sudden death in 2001 left her husband feeling responsible for completing his late wife’s project.

He asked a friend, Charles Campbell, a journalist and former editor of the Georgia Straight, whether the work could be published.

“I looked at it without reading it thoroughly,” Mr. Campbell said. “I found some interesting writing and interesting themes. I told Thor, ‘Maybe I can help.’ ”

The first step involved turning the typescript into an electronic form. Barbara-Anne Eddy, a researcher who once gained local fame by winning $52,000 US as a contestant on the “Jeopardy!” television game show, began retyping the work on a computer. She alerted Mr. Campbell to the unfinished state of the second half of the novel, offering helpful guidance to unreconciled narrative.

He approached a publisher. The instruction was to cut it by half.

He did so, an arduous and time-consuming process. “Where I did axe great chunks of material,” he said, “I found myself having to find the voice of a 65-year-old woman writing a novel in 1984. That was an interesting exercise.”

The effort paid off.

Norma Macmillan’s lost novel, “The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga,” is being released this month by TouchWood Editions of Victoria.

By coincidence, Alison Arngrim also has a book being published this year, as HarperCollins is releasing “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.” The memoir is about “a Hollywood child actress’s kooky upbringing.”

Meanwhile, her older brother, Stefan, an actor and musician who wrote songs with Warren Zevon, continues to perform and compose. He lives in Vancouver.

The widower was in the intensive-care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital, battling Parkinson’s disease, when presented a colour copy of the cover for his late wife’s novel.

It was at his bedside when Mr. Campbell visited late last year.

“I’m happy,” Mr. Arngrim told him.

After what Mr. Campbell regarded as an actor’s dramatic pause, he added, “I don’t know why.”

He did not live long enough to see the finished product, but died knowing he had fulfilled a duty.

Thor Arngrim and Norma Macmillan were important figures in the Vancouver theatre scene in the post-war years.