Reminiscences of a Special Lady
by Marilyn Driscoll
Mary – the Teacher
Having inherited the quick wit and insatiable curiousity of her Irish ancestors, Mary was always fascinated with everything going on around her, able to turn the most mundane of incidences into entertaining, humourous stories with which to regale her friends, family and students. Never having married, while teaching in Devon Mary lived in the family home on Brunswick Street and made her way each day, usually on foot, across the old Carleton Street bridge to her school. It would have been easier had she secured a position on the South side of the river, closer to home but Mary was living in a time not quite as tolerant as today, and she was an Irish Catholic. Some things were just understood. (Pictured at right is the Grannan home on Brunswick Street in Fredericton)
No matter, Mary excelled at anything she put her mind to and during these years she added to her growing collection of stories. Gaining noteriety with her students and their parents for her entertaining teaching style and her love of storytelling, in 1935 Mary was approached by CFNB radio station in Fredericton to start telling her stories over the airwaves. Titled “Just Mary” and “Maggie Muggins”, as were her first children’s books, Mary’s stories were an instant hit with the children within the CFNB listening audience.
Mary – the Entertainer
Mary got her “big break” when the producer of her show at CFNB persuaded an executive from CBC Radio to review her work. CBC followed up with an offer of their own: to come to Toronto to head the children’s programming for CBC and to star in a national CBC Radio children’s show. As much as Mary loved New Brunswick, the City of Fredericton, and her family, Toronto was a fascinating lure to this young woman who enjoyed lots of action around her. She loved the Theatre, books, movies, and all the people associated with them. Toronto was indeed an irresistable draw, allowing her not only the means to bring her stories to a much broader audience but also to rub shoulders with many notables of the industry at that time.
Her new career also provided the opportunity for world travel, public appearances and speaking engagements. ‘Just Mary’ had become a recognized name and a much-respected member of “the arts”. In 1954, the wonderful stories made their debut in the quickly growing world of television. Now Mary’s characters became household fixtures as viewers, young and old alike, were enthralled by the antics of their favourites like Maggie Muggins and Mr. Magarrity coming to life before their very eyes. Eastern Canadians were most familiar with Maggie Muggins and all of her adventures but across the country other viewers were held captive by productions such as “Jubilee Road”, and “The Land of Supposing”. Mary continued to work for CBC, both in Radio and later in television, until her retirement in 1962, when she returned to her home in Fredericton and began the next phase of her life. By this time Mary had published 30 children’s books and written more than four thousand scripts for children’s entertainment.
Mary – a Friend’s Reminiscences
“Mary had the most wonderful smile. When she smiled at you, which was often, it was like the sun had suddenly burst out in the room. And her laugh! Oh, that wonderful laugh! It seemed to come from the bottom of her soul and was so infectious that it made everyone around her laugh too.” recalls long-time friend of the Grannan sisters, Don Roberts. Mary’s father and Don’s grandfather were both firemen in the city so Don had known the Grannan family for his whole life. However, with Mary being in her late twenties the year that Don was born, it was not until her return to Fredericton after her retirement that he really became an integral cog in the machinery of the Grannan household.
Don worked as a buyer for many years at McElmans Variety Store and when Mary first returned from Toronto she would stop in frequently to pick up the latest magazines and newspapers that would keep her connected to the “goings on” in the entertainment world that she missed so much. She and Don had many conversations in the store and, recognizing a person who shared her wide and worldly interests, Mary asked Don if, instead of her coming in every day for the papers and magazines, he could drop them off to her on the way home from work each day and she would pay him for them when he arrived. Don replied that he would be pleased to do this for her. And so it began.
“I dropped into the house every evening on my way home and the “girls” would always have supper waiting for me. I bet I ate my supper meal there 362 days of the year every year after that. I’m not sure what my poor mother thought of eating supper alone every night while I passed time with the Grannan girls, but she never complained of it. Why, some evenings, if I was feeling a little guilty about it, I would try to sneak past the house but always there was one of the sisters rapping at the window and gesturing for me to come in.”, Don laughingly relates as he takes a walk down memory lane.
“Mary was fascinated by such a broad range of topics, from old silent film stars to books and authors to circus entertainers. Nothing the least bit sensational or interesting was missed by her keen mind” says Don. In the evenings they would sit by the hour in the sunroom of the house, the three sisters and Don, each on a sofa as if they were “adrift on their own little boats”, as Helen Grannan would often remark, and they would play brain teasers, each trying to stump the other. The questions varied and ran the gamut of all of the things that Mary was interested in, which provided an abundance of material from which to draw their questions. By this time Don had been “adopted” by the sisters and treated like a son they never had the opportunity to have, none of the girls having married. Mary was always well-prepared for “question time” and would often reward Don with “prizes” for a correct answer. Her prizes were items she had gathered in her many travels and during her life in Toronto, mementos of the incredibly interesting life she had led. Sometimes it would be a favourite book. Other times it might be an intricately decorated glass and silver bowl, or an old crystal ink well. With the house being chock-full of beautiful things, lovingly collected, there was no end to her list of things to choose from. Don, in his turn, would spend the days thinking very hard about questions he might be able to stump the women with. He rarely could do so, given the sharp minds and voracious reading habits of all three Grannan sisters. He would frequently bring things they liked the most, usually imported chocolates or something of the like, to give as prizes for answering his questions correctly. “The last thing they needed was more “stuff” to put on a shelf” he mused. “It was a wonderful way to keep the mind sharp. You never knew what topic Mary’s quizzes would be drawn from so you had to be well-prepared” laughs Don as he reminisces.
His close friendship with the Grannans brought him into contact with many famous people as well as he would be invited to parties at Mary’s house. He developed a close friendship with J. Frank Willis, also of CBC fame, and his wife Gladys and would often visit them when he was in Toronto. Later, after Frank’s passing, Don and his wife Joan remained good friends with Gladys until her passing.
Don remembers, as if it were yesterday, the day in 1975 when the phone rang at work and the voice told him to come quickly, one of the Grannan sisters had died. His heart leapt to his throat as he replied “Which one?”. “Mary.” was the answer. Don recalls standing in shock, receiver still in his hand, his worried staff around him saying “Don, are you okay? What’s wrong, Don?” He dropped the phone and ran from the store, all the way to Brunswick Street where he wrapped his arms around a grieving Helen and assured her he would be there to help her through everything. “I was devestated” said Don, “but I knew I had to keep myself under control to help Helen deal with all of the details now facing her”. News quickly spread around Fredericton and indeed was picked up by CBC and related to the whole country. Mary had died suddenly, going upstairs to her room after lunch for a quick nap as she said she was feeling a little tired. She sat on the edge of her bed, then fell back and it was over. It was the way she would have wished it – going while her mind was as sharp as ever, her famous wit and vivacious personality still in top form. She was just a few weeks shy of her 75th birthday.
While few remain who knew Mary personally, the image of this wonderfully creative woman lives on in the hearts of all those who, as children, crowded around the radio on Sunday, or brought Maggie Muggins into their living room through their new television screens. Mary will always be remembered wearing a stylish hat, large earrings, her silver cuff bracelets, and her enormous smile.
The year 2006 finally witnessed something that has been missing all these years: the publication of a definitive biography of Fredericton’s famous children’s entertainer as well as a compilation of several of her “Just Mary” stories. Halifax-born author, Margaret Hume, launched her Mary Grannan biography on the anniversary of Mary’s birthday, February 11th, in the city where Mary, and “Maggie Muggins” were born. So, with great respect and the sincere hope that one day we’ll once again be able to purchase beautifully bound books of all the wonderful tales created by this imaginative lady, we end this journey into the “Land of Supposing” with the words of the irrepressible Maggie: “I wonder what will happen tomorrow!”