The Treasure Trove of a Great Performer: The Gratien Gélinas Fonds

By Théo Martin

It took Library and Archives Canada (LAC) over 20 years to acquire the archives of Canadian theatre great and creator Gratien Gélinas. Between 1973 and 1997, many national archivists and archivists at the National Archives of Canada worked hard to convince Gélinas to donate his documents. Active to the end of his life, he simply never had the time to focus his full attention on donating his archives.

Through one of his sons, Michel Gélinas, the National Archives of Canada finally acquired the documents in the Gratien Gélinas fonds in 1997, two years before the artist’s death. Thanks to a family member’s initial work in sorting Gélinas’s archives, the documents were already arranged in an organized, logical order when LAC received them, making them all the easier for researchers to consult. LAC archivists performed the final task of processing, describing and detailing conditions governing access between 1999 and 2004.

Black-and-white photograph of a man dressed in a suit, with his arms folded and his left hand resting on his cheek, smiling and looking up to his left.

Portrait of Gratien Gélinas by Yousuf Karsh, 1942. Credit: Yousuf Karsh (MIKAN 3591652)

Black-and-white composite photograph showing Gratien Gélinas’s expressive hands in various poses. The bottom of the image shows a man looking up at his hands crossed over his head.

Gratien Gélinas by Yousuf Karsh, March 29, 1945. Credit: Yousuf Karsh (MIKAN 3916385)

The Gélinas fonds contains 16 series on different aspects of Gratien Gélinas’s career and personal life.

For example, it contains a series on his literary works comprising several metres of handwritten text or typed manuscripts. It also includes scripts from radio broadcasts written by Gélinas that entertained a generation of French-speaking Canadians in the 1930s, like Carrousel de la gaieté or Train de plaisir, which aired on CKAC and Radio-Canada and eventually gave rise to his trademark character, Fridolin. Fridolin would later become the central character in the Fridolinons, an annual review produced by Gélinas and his team between 1938 and 1946 (and later 1956) at the Monument National, in Montreal.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man dressed as a boy in short pants with suspenders, a sweater and a cap, sitting on a chair with his legs extended out in front of him.

Gratien Gélinas playing Fridolin in a scene from “Fridolinons,” March 1945. Photo: Ronny Jacques for the National Film Board (MIKAN 4318078)

The fonds contains manuscripts of seminal theatrical works by Gratien Gélinas: Tit-Coq; Bousille et les justes; Hier, les enfants dansaient; and La passion de Narcisse Mondoux, his last dramatic creation, written in 1985 essentially for himself and actor Huguette Oligny whose archives are also at LAC.

In addition, entire files of notebooks and annotated drafts perfectly illustrate how Gélinas developed and wrote his plays. They show the additions, deletions, impressions and scribbles of an artist constantly creating and questioning himself.

A personal note handwritten in French. [Translation] “I have to get my life organized in the next few months so that everything I do, say and think is centred on this ultimate, magnificent goal. A play that will be the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Tit-Coq”—personal notes made during the writing process, around 1946–1947 (MIKAN 2402016)

Because Gratien Gélinas usually produced and directed his own plays, he also accumulated many written documents that map his creative process. Researchers can explore not only his production records but also different versions of texts adapted from his plays for film, radio and television, along with English translations.

The fonds contains a large amount of multimedia materials, including extremely rare films, and very early Canadian short films like La dame aux camélias, la vraie (produced by Gélinas in 1942) and the feature-length Tit-Coq (produced in 1953). Incidentally, LAC has managed to convert most of the films in the fonds to digital format. Also included are a number of sound recordings dating as far back as the 1930s, with reviews, radio programs and shows produced by Gratien Gélinas. The fonds is a true treasure trove of information for any researcher interested in Canadian theatre and film.

Black-and-white photograph of a film scene showing various people gathered around a camera.

Filming of Tit-Coq, around 1952–1953 (MIKAN 3919038)

Added to this body of work are over 4,000 photographs, some of which document Gélinas’s early days in radio and on stage as well as all the theatre productions he participated in during a career spanning more than 60 years. Specifically, the fonds contains stunning photos by the National Film Board of Gratien playing Fridolin in 1945, other beautiful shots of him at the Stratford Festival in the 1950s and multiple photos from his private life and personal universe.

Equally remarkable about the Gélinas fonds are its visual arts materials: costume drawings and watercolours, set mock-ups, publicity drawings and collages that add a vibrancy and a visual element to the fonds as a whole. It becomes clear just how extensively Gélinas surrounded himself with many artists to produce and promote his performances throughout his career. We need simply consider the colourful, image-rich drawing by Robert LaPalme used as a set mock-up for Fridolinons ’45.

Brightly coloured painting of stylized figures and various objects.

“Bon voyage” by Robert LaPalme, for Fridolinons ’45 (MIKAN 3926980)

A watercolour depicting a stylized silhouette of a man smoking a cigarette.

“Tit-Coq” drawing mock-up by Robert LaPalme. Original drawing used for the play’s poster and program (MIKAN 3010586)

Many other documents also illustrate his career in Canadian arts and culture. Engagement contracts, correspondence and various promotional documents are also part of the fonds. Other papers relate to his work as an arts and cultural activist, including his involvement in the Union des artistes, or his career as a director of cultural institutions, such as La Comédie-Canadienne, which he founded in 1957, and the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which he chaired starting in 1969.

Adding special interest to this fonds are the documents related to his personal life. We discover a more intimate side of the multi-talented artist: notebooks, travel logs, various correspondence, photographs and works of art that offer a deeper insight into the person and his relationships with family and friends. In addition to correspondence with his family are a number of letters to or from figures from the world of arts or politics, such as Jean-Louis Roux, Lionel Daunais, Émile Legault, Jean Despréz, Robert LaPalme, Jean Drapeau and more.

Finally, we should mention that LAC also owns the fonds of Gratien Gélinas’s granddaughter, novelist Anne-Marie Sicotte, who wrote several biographies on Gélinas (La ferveur et le doute – Éditions Québec/Amérique 1995–1996; Gratien Gélinas, Naïve de Naïve Fridolin – XYZ Publisher, 2001), based in particular on archives in LAC’s possession. During her research, Sicotte not only transcribed various archival documents but also produced several audio recordings and transcripts of interviews with her grandfather.

The Gratien Gélinas fonds (and the related fonds conserved by LAC) portrays the life and work of a pioneer of Canadian theatre and broadcasting. It represents a veritable treasure trove of rich and varied documents accumulated over the lifetime of an unsurpassed artist and creator. This documentary jewel conserved by LAC awaits discovery and rediscovery by researchers and devotees of the performing arts from Canada and abroad.

Related resources


Théo Martin is an archivist in the Literature, Music and Performing Arts Archives Section at Library and Archives Canada.

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