Conni Attwell

Jun 2016

James Bay Gem

By Liz Carroll
Photo by Bob Tuomi

Chorus-line to cooking column in seven short decades. That's the Conni Attwell story. For those who grew up in the thirties/forties yearning to be Betty Grable (me!), it reads like a dream come true. With a few nightmares along the way.

The chorus girl phase started when she was fourteen (but the showbiz background began at birth). Mom, Dolly, a pianist, and Dad, Jack, a violinist, met while performing at Silent Movie theatres. Once married the Adams created their own act, calling it The Ramons (he resembled silents' heartthrob Ramon Navarro), and took it on the road to Scottish coastal towns and areas longing for entertainment. The arrival of a bonny daughter, Conni, in 1932, and son Jack in 1934, didn't curtail their two-shows-a-night and Wednesday matinees. The kids thrived on backstage life surrounded by singers, dancers, and comedians. Later the itinerary would change to allow for regular schooling "with summer tours to wonderful seaside resorts," Conni recalls.

In March, 1941 Conni and Jack and new baby Bob were with their dad at their winter quarters in Glasgow when the bombing began -nightmare time. Dolly was playing piano at a Sunday night concert. The bombs were aimed at the Clydebank Shipyards. Some missed. Dad shepherded the children to the sand-bagged, baffle-board entry, and doled out sugary tea. Dolly, dashing home, was terrified as she passed flattened buildings. Theirs was erect. "It was quite a reunion," says Conni. "Next morning kids were all out on the streets picking up shrapnel."

At war's end The Ramons took on a new venture, a rehearsal studio, the first place in Scotland where variety acts, drama groups, musicians, and comics could hone their performances and give previews. Not surprisingly, Conni "caught the theatre bug. I had bit parts in some of the plays, filled in for missing dancers and singers and loved all of it."

With her parents' blessing she joined a concert party touring remote areas of Scotland. "We travelled on an old bus, props and costumes on one side, seats on the other. During one blizzard we went off the road. Our driver calmly led us out. That's when we realized we were hanging over the edge of a cliff." nightmare averted.

There was a baritone, soprano, accordionist, and song and dance girl Conni. "My official title was soubrette. We set up the curtains, sold tickets, ushered." At the end of the show they shared the gate, except for Conni. "I was the youngest. They figured a half crown now and then was enough. I disagreed. A month into the run they dropped me off in Inverness where I could get a train home. My dad said to chalk it up experience. So I did."

Back in Glasgow she joined a show at The Metropole Theatre as a dancer in an eight-girl chorus-line and toured Scotland and England. Then another with Ireland on the itinerary. "The theatre family was very close. We were more strictly monitored than some of the girls I met while working at odd jobs between gigs."

But after a decade the zest for dancing was fading: hard work, poor pay; crummy theatres; bad digs; a broken romance. It was time for a change. Conni got an office job.

Her parents had closed the Ramon Studio and were back to being Jack and Dolly Adams, caring for an aging relative in Edinburgh with Conni’s young sister Dorri. Her brothers were in the Merchant Navy. It was time for an even bigger change… Canada!

Ads were luring immigrants to resettle here. She applied, was accepted, and secure in the knowledge that she had a home to come back to, Conni set sail for Toronto.

She was not impressed. But she found work in a bank, lodged with a nice family and made friends. Through them she met, then married, a fellow Scot, Michael Attwell, and settled in to Canadian life. Their family expanded: Julie, Michael, Janice, and Graham. Her sister Dorri joined them in Canada. Show business became a fading memory.

Janice was born with Down Syndrome and Conni became actively involved with her schooling and with Special Needs groups. "Mike and I managed to get to Scotland several times. We alternated, each taking two kids to visit grandparents and families. Mum came to visit but Dad never made it, he died at 61."

As the children developed their own lives, Conni finally made time for a drama group. "Workshop 50. Oh, the joy of being back on stage, I even had a stint at directing."

In 1981 her marriage ended, and with Janice, she moved to Oakville and a radio station job. Her growing daughter was able to work with Arc Industries, a program for special needs adults, and to even navigate the transit system. The other children were starting their own families. Both sons lived in BC.

In 1993 Conni visited the coast. "I felt an instant connection, it was like Scotland."

She checked out facilities for Janice, was encouraged, and with enthusiastic family support, made the move to Sidney.

"We had a wonderful reception there. The facility met all Janice's needs. However, in time, it was decided that since both women were aging, the thirty-one year old Janice would benefit from life in a group home. "I was devastated but it proved to be the correct move."

Suddenly the always busy Conni had time on her hands. She floundered, then, on a March day in 1996, she took a carriage ride through James Bay and found her new destiny. This July she celebrates her twentieth year as a James Bay resident.

She joined SCEO (Senior Citizens Entertainment Pool): "A flashback to my Variety days." That led to acting (Masques, Target, Langham Court Theatres.) "I was back in my comfort zone." She signed with an agent and was booked for film extra spots, photo shoots, and commercials. A shoot for United Way ended up with Conni's picture on BC Transit busses. "That brought on the giggles every time I saw one pass." She's appeared in ads and brochures for retirement homes and has one currently running for NexGen Hearing with another photo shoot on her agenda. "It's a hobby now, a creative outlet that keeps me in the loop, active."

And of course there's family, with five grandchildren and two great grands. Janice is fifty-four and doing well. Sister Dorri and her husband live in the same James Bay building as Conni.

As for the aforementioned Cooking with Conni column, she's quick to say, "I'm not a cook or a chef, I just collect recipes. The best thing I did was volunteering as a receptionist at the Beacon fifteen years ago. The little paper has grown so much, widened my horizons. It's a lifesaver for me, a reason to get up, to use my mind, to meet wonderful people."

Anyone who has heard the wee burr in her cheery voice when she greets them at the office would likely agree that it is the Beacon that benefits most from this James Bay gem.