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Theatre pioneer went to Hollywood and back; His career ran the gamut from the city's Totem theatre, to Broadway, to managing Liberace

Sat., Jan. 2nd, 2010
2:50 AM Canwest News Service

Thorhallur Marven Arngrimsson began life as a Depression-era child with rickets disease in a Regina Salvation Army orphanage. He became the young founder of Vancouver's first year-round professional theatre company, an actor alongside Albert Finney on Broadway, inventor of the Fashionstick, manager of Liberace, husband of the voice of Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost, and father of arguably the most hated child star in television history.

Thor Arngrim died Dec. 16 in Vancouver as a result of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 81.

Arngrim was born Wilfred James Banin in Regina on Nov. 25, 1928, and adopted as a toddler by a large Icelandic farming family from Mozart, Sask. At 14 he moved with his family to Campbell River; he left school and at 16 found himself hustling stove parts and magazines in Vancouver. He also went to every play he could in hopes the producers might put him in one.

In 1951, at 22 a stage veteran, he co-founded Totem Theatre with Stuart Baker as an outdoor summer stock company in West Vancouver's Ambleside Park. The Gold Dust Twins, as they became known, soon had a permanent venue in a downtown union hall at Dunsmuir and Beatty streets, where they produced plays ranging from Charley's Aunt to No Exit.

Arngrim was a natural promoter - he knew it mattered that Totem Theatre patrons could have a drink at the Beatty Street theatre's adjoining Press Club and that a stunt involving a stripper's horse arriving in the theatre as a ticketed patron would get everybody talking. Arngrim once rented an elephant to promote a production of The Man Who Came To Dinner, but the effort ran into difficulty when the elephant's owner insisted that it do tricks, while Arngrim, who left town before he'd paid for the elephant's services, wanted the animal to simply stand outside the theatre.

After all, Arngrim did take the quality of his theatre seriously. Totem was technically innovative, raised local performance standards, brought the community's insular theatre companies together, and turned penniless young local actors, like future Beachcombers star Bruno Gerussi, into local celebrities.

Trying to keep Totem Theatre's managers at least close to the straight and narrow was actress Norma Macmillan, also the company's bookkeeper and publicist, and author of A Crowded Affair, a play about a B.C. family that the company produced in 1954. As Totem foundered because of the lack of a permanent venue, Arngrim proposed to Macmillan, and the newlywed couple moved to Toronto.

In 1956, Thor found himself on Broadway in the original New York production of Tamburlaine The Great, which directing titan Tyrone Guthrie brought to the city from the three-year-old Stratford Festival, where Guthrie was a driving force. Arngrim's stage-acting career continued in New York, including a 1964 role with Albert Finney in Luther, and he also produced theatre at New Jersey's famed Grist Mill Playhouse, where Macmillan's Free As A Bird was staged with Tony winner Edie Adams in the cast.

However, it was Macmillan's career as a voice actor that took off. In 1962, she played Caroline Kennedy on the satirical album The First Family, which became the fastest-selling record in history. In 1963, she became the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost on ABC's The New Casper Cartoon Show.

Thor Arngrim achieved his own prominence in 1965 as inventor of the Fashionstick - a cane wrapped in stylish fabric, often to match a woman's outfit. They sold for $185 in Saks Fifth Avenue, were used by Bill Blass, and were featured in Vogue and the cover of Jet magazine. "They're of absolutely no use whatsoever," Arngrim told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1965, the family moved to Hollywood. Arngrim worked with Seymour, Heller & Associates and later Arngrim Petersen, and as a manager worked with Liberace, Rene Simard and Debbie Reynolds. He also managed the careers of his children. Stefan starred as Barry Lockridge in Irwin Allen's TV science fiction drama Land of the Giants and opposite Kirk Douglas in The Way West. Alison played the despised Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Today, Stefan Arngrim works extensively in film and television in Vancouver, while Alison Arngrim continues as an actress and comedian in Los Angeles. Her book Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Being Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated will be published in June.

In 1993, Thor and Norma returned to Vancouver. Macmillan continued to act, and in 1998, Arngrim produced a play about Alzheimer's disease, Strangers Among Us, which won two Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards. His last role was to find a publisher for the novel his wife had nearly completed at her death in 2001. The Maquinna Line, a family saga set on Vancouver Island, is due out in March.

A few days before he died, Arngrim told a friend, "I'm happy," and after an actor's generous pause added, "I don't know why." Thor Arngrim had enough reasons, not the least of which is that he never did have to pay for the elephant.

A celebration of Thor Arngrim's life is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 30.