WHITE, Helene Blanche
Born Helene Blanche Oxley
October 18, 1929 – Innisfail, Alberta
March 2, 2017 – Calgary, Alberta
A woman of huge talents and an intensely adventurous and inquiring mind, Helene was a pioneering film and television producer, achieving success in a male- dominated business. Her groundbreaking television series, Connecting, established her as a major player in not only the Canadian, but also North American, television industry. She also co-owned one of the first dog obedience schools in Calgary, worked as a professional actress and playwright, and with her husband Gregor White, was an active player in the booming days of the Alberta oil industry.
She was born in Innisfail to parents of strong pioneer character. Her father, Garnet Tupper Oxley, was descended from a Yorkshire family pioneering in the 1700s at River Philip, Nova Scotia. His godfather was Sir Charles Tupper, one of the Fathers of Confederation, who, as a country doctor, also delivered him. Her mother, Hazel Oxley (nee Cleveland) was often involved with charitable endeavours in Innisfail.
At the age of four years, Helene was diagnosed with polio, and forced to wear braces for over a year. This did not deter the curious and adventurous child from wandering the town, sometimes standing on her head, with her braces carefully balanced above, to the shock and entertainment of her parents.
It is a mark of Helene's indomitable nature, that she became a track and field star when she was a teenager, attending Crescent Heights High School. She won the Grand Aggregate title in track and field for Alberta in the mid 1940s. Her fiery and victorious speed in the relay race, held at Mewata Stadium, resulted in her being carried down Ninth Avenue on the shoulders of the boys track team. A writer for The Calgary herald said it was like watching Secretariat flying down the track.
The Oxley family had moved to Calgary in 1939, at the beginning of World War II. Even then, her intelligence and intellectual curiosity set her apart from her peers. She spent twenty-five cents of her weekly allowance on The New Yorker, the newly established magazine which exemplified cosmopolitan sophistication and literary wit.
Always a fighter against injustice, with a strong sense of moral outrage at any unfairness, young Helene once organized a strike at the Banff Springs Hotel, when she took a summer job as part of a team of underpaid and underfed teenaged dishwashers. The Hotel shut down for several days, and then reinstated the striking staff.
After high school, Helene entered the oil business, first at Suncor in Calgary, and then, becoming, at the age of nineteen, in charge of free hold leases for Canadian Superior Oil Company in Edmonton, She then became the executive assistant to John Dallas at Fortune Oils in Calgary.
But a blind date with a handsome ex-naval office changed her life, leading to courtship, and marriage.
Gregor White was the love of Helen's life, and she, of his. They shared a love of laughter, intellectual curiosity, and an appetite for adventure. At that time, he worked as a landman at Pacific Petroleum. After their marriage in 1952, he formed White Minerals, an exciting and successful venture in the wild days of the oil boom in Alberta. Helene was vice-president, and a member of the board. Gregor was actively running the company until his death. Helene is now president of White Minerals.
They both loved dogs, and Helene, following a stint as President of the Calgary Kennel and Obedience Club, opened two dog obedience schools with a partner, Pauline Rabson. The Western Dog Obedience School had locations in Calgary and Regina.
Yet Helene knew her destiny lay in the life of the artist. Helene first studied visual art, and then enrolled in the newly established Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Calgary. She graduated in 1973 with highest marks and a BFA in Drama, with a major in Dramatic Criticism, and began a new career.
She became a popular Alberta actress, appearing in productions at Theatre Calgary and Stage West, including the extremely successful Norman, Is That You? at Stage West Edmonton, starring opposite Gale Gordon, will-known from the Lucille Ball television series. She was also a successful playwright, researching and writing Echoes in the Attic, a very well received Edwardian styled entertainment performed at the Palliser Hotel, and at the John Irwin antiques shop. She also appeared a performer in the piece, receiving glowing reviews for her acting and writing. Her colleague from U of C, Victor Mitchell, directed. Together, Mitchell and Helene produced and directed two mystery plays, with an innovative production at the United Church in downtown Calgary, following the European movement of using "found space" for theatrical productions. They also presented the western premiere of the controversial Michel Tremblay Quebecois play, Hosanna, and had the unusual experience of having their show closed by the vice squad.
Helen joined the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers, knowing her creative path lay in the world of film and television. She wanted to direct. Always a savvy and brilliant businesswoman, she invested in the stock market and made enough to produce an award winning documentary on Agnes Hammond, a woman she had met through the Calgary Kennel and Obedience Club. Lady in Motion was an affirmation of independence and joy, winning numerous awards, including a bronze award at the International Film and Television Festival of New York in 1982. It was shown repeatedly on CBC Television, and established Helene as a producer and director with an elegant, detailed and uplifting approach to her work.
Helene formed HBW Film Productions, then created and produced Connecting, a groundbreaking series for the teenage market. Connecting, a teen talk show in an interactive format, was produced with then partner Garry Toth, and became a huge success, running in Canada from 1980 – 1985. It was a landmark series, in that the teenagers were treated as young adults, and their comments were taken seriously. The topics, for a time, were sophisticated and innovative, encouraging young people to examine real issues.
In 1999, Helene became the Canadian producer of a major international dramatic series, Caitlin's Way. She formed another company, Riverwood Productions, for the U.S./Canadian co-venture. Shot in High River, the series aired on Nickelodeon in the U.S. and Global in Canada. It was the highest rated premiere in Nickelodeon's history, with extraordinary ratings.
Throughout her career, Helene hired and mentored many people who, after beginning their careers with her guidance, later went on to further success. She opened doors, both creative and professional, to countless newcomers and established artists. If one were to list some of the most prominent performers, directors and writers in Calgary (or western Canada) odds are good that Helene offered them their first jobs.
Helene Blanche White is a true artist, an individual who followed her dreams. Her achievements have earned her a place in the history of Canadian film and television.
A Memorial Service will be held at McINNIS & HOLLOWAY (Park Memorial, 5008 Elbow Drive S.W. Calgary, AB) on Friday, March 17, 2017 at 2:30 p.m. Condolences may be forwarded through www.mcinnisandholloway.com
. If friends so desire, memorial tributes may be made directly to The Calgary Humane Society, 4455 – 110th Avenue S.E., Calgary, AB T2C 2T7, Telephone: (403)205-4455, www.calgaryhumane.ca
In living memory of Helene White, a tree will be planted at Fish Creek Provincial Park.