Eleanor Collins could have been the Oprah Winfrey of her day as she was the first Black woman to host a mainstream TV show in Canada while fighting racial discrimination on and off the screen.
The golden-voiced Collins, who was known as “Vancouver’s first lady of jazz,” got her first break while visiting CBC Radio Vancouver with a friend in 1953.
Collins soon became part of the fledgling station’s first live broadcasts and gained some fame hosting a program called ‘Bamboula; a day in the West Indies’, which lasted for three episodes. The show featured music from the Caribbean and was the first to have a mixed-race cast and many song and dance numbers.
Her talent, professionalism, and charm led to her own national television series, The Eleanor Show, a weekly music series that aired in June 1955 and ran for that summer. It starred Collins, pianist Chris Gage and dancers Leonard Gibson and Denise Quan.
The show was resurrected in 1964 and called Eleanor, but it did not last long. The sultry singer was often compared to U.S. singer Lena Horne in appearances on TV, radio and clubs. I “didn’t see a lot of my people on TV” she noted then.
Collins is credited with being the first Black artist in North America to star in her own TV series. She beat Nat King Cole’s achievement of being the first Black performer to star in their own show on American television by over a year. The Nat King Cole Show debuted November 1956 on NBC, decades after Winfrey and others ruled the airwaves.
She is fondly remembered for her ground-breaking work in that era and is regarded as a television pioneer.
Known for her smoky jazz stylings, Collins had worked with Vancouver’s leading musicians on CBC radio and television. Throughout her career, she was known as the consummate professional, who was able to take any song and give it life.
“She could start fires by rubbing two notes together!” once wrote Jack Wasserman, a nightlife and celebrity columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Collins was born in 1919, in Edmonton, to pioneering parents who were among 1,000 Black U.S. homesteaders who came to settle in the rustic Alberta prairies in 1910.
She won an amateur talent contest in 1934 at the age of 15 and soon after moved to Vancouver, where her family lived for a while in the infamous Hogan’s Alley area; which was the home of the Black community, whose residents included Nora Hendrix, the grandmother of iconic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
She married Richard Collins in 1942 and the couple settled in Burnaby, B.C., where they raised four children. They later moved into an all-white neighborhood and were met with racism as their neighbours began a petition against the family to try and intimidate them from settling on their street.
Instead of getting angry, Collins and her family fought to combat the ignorance of their neighbours and immersed themselves in their new community by participating in local activities, events, and organizations.
By the late 1960s the popularity of musical variety and live shows ebbed which meant less work for Collins, who kept busy in her community and serving as musical director at Unity Church.
To this day she insists that her most memorable performance was in front of 80,000 people attending Canada Day Ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1975. It was her largest live audience and she recalled looking out from the stage at all the people holding candles.
“Suddenly it came very clearly that I was Canadian,” she recalled much later, “and to be proud of it.”
The Order of Canada recipient was honoured with her inclusion in a new book celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Order of Canada along with Canada’s 150th Anniversary titled: “They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories”.
She was inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame, has been presented with numerous lifetime achievement awards and was singing at Unity Church well into her late 90s.
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