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Anna Russell

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In spite of, or perhaps because of, her upbringing as a British lady of society, Anna Claudia Russell-Brown became regarded as "the world's funniest woman" for her witty satire of classical music. Russell was the daughter of an upper-class Canadian society belle and an English army colonel. Although Russell's relationship with her mother was strained, her father, a former Olympian and trained musician, supported his daughter's musical aspirations. Her education included musical and dramatic preparatory work at English boarding and continental finishing schools, after which she attended the Royal College of Music in London. There, she strived mightily after a career in "serious" music, studying piano with Marmaduke Barton and voice with Dame Editha Grepe. Composition lessons with Herbert Howells were discouraging, but from later study with Ralph Vaughan Williams, she learned of her penchant for writing uncannily derivative pieces. The head of the Royal College, Sir Hugh Allen, attempted to deter Russell from a career in classical music, noting that every time she got up to sing her fellow students convulsed in laughter. Russell nevertheless got some work with the BBC doing occasional lecture recitals on Spanish folk songs, but after her father's surprising suicide, she moved to Canada in 1939. In Toronto, her work for the BBC eventually landed her a similar position for the CBC. For the show Jolly Miller Time and for various revues, she began composing comic songs and routines; she then became co-host of the variety show Syd and Anna with Syd Brown. The encouragement she received was such that she moved to New York to attempt a performance career. There, Russell quickly learned that genre was crucially important, trying variety and Broadway before having some success on the lecture circuit. But it was not until meeting Arthur Judson of Columbia in the early '50s that her career took off. Her record Anna Russell Sings?, which contained her humorous, self-written parodies of various folk song types, spent 48 weeks as a top-selling album on Billboard's classical charts. Her concert career was also secure, due in part to the management of Eastman Boomer, in spite of some resistance from performers and critics who felt that her performance was a discredit to classical music. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, Russell made several successful national and world tours. Her book, The Power of Being a Positive Stinker, was published in 1955. Two years later, she became a naturalized American citizen and made a triumphant return to her college days, selling out the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. She also began what would become a sporadic career in "legitimate" opera and musical theater, playing character roles such as the Witch in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel or Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim's A Little Night Music. In 1967, Russell retired for the first time; the next eight years were spent in Australia running a catering business. Her manager Boomer re-appeared and convinced her to go back onto the road, where she enjoyed comparable success. In 1984, she began her First Farewell Tour and in 1985 published her autobiography I'm Not Making This Up, You Know. She then retired to Toronto, living on a street named for her. A part of Russell's talent lay in her knack for composing witty tunes and lyrics that sometimes seemed more real than the actual music that was her target, as in her routine How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta. Another key element was her ability to identify and satirize the humorous aspects inherent in classical music with deadpan delivery, as in her perhaps most famous number, An Analysis of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

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12 December 1911 in London, England

Years Active:

'50s, '60s