Remembering the “Bard of Queen Street”

Would you want your kid to become a child actor? Back in the baby boom era of the 1950s and early 1960s, family shows were all over the dial in the “Golden Age” of television. On gentle comedies like Leave It to Beaver, adorable children got into innocent mischief, while stern dad sat smoking a pipe and smiling mom donned an apron over her cocktail dress to cook dinner from scratch. A wayward child was always rewarded with a life lesson before the end credits rolled.

California was the “promised land” for performers who wanted their place in the sun. Who can blame Toronto families for packing up and setting out for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles in hopes their talented offspring would become stars in the new medium of television?

Leslie Barringer never found fame or fortune out west, but he did appear on most of the popular family shows of the day. When he died in April 2011, he was better known in the Beach as “the Bard of Queen Street,” offering “poems for a penny” to passerby.

I remember a bearded man and his dog around Kew Gardens. I wish I had paid attention to Barringer. I wish I had known about his past.

I would have asked him about working on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Barringer played one of the terrorized school kids running from attacking birds in that classic scene.

Leslie Barringer is seen being attacked by a bird in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
Leslie Barringer is seen being attacked by a bird in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

I wonder how Hitchcock treated the child actors. The star of The Birds, Tippi Hedren, has accused the great director of being abusive to her (see the recent HBO film The Girl).

Hitchcock once claimed, “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”

In 1959 Bill and Joyce Barringer uprooted their growing family from Toronto and boarded a Greyhound bus to L.A.

Sons Leslie, Alex and Stephen all found smaller roles on the many wholesome family comedies like My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show. Leslie appeared twice alongside little Ronny Howard, one of the few who went on to fame as an adult actor and director.

Show business was unforgiving for those who were no longer cute kids. Even the greatest child star of all time, Shirley Temple, never made a movie after she turned 21. The recent Oscar ceremonies paid tribute to the curly-haired charmer who died last month, but few people remember the child actors many of us grew up watching.

When the work dried up in Hollywood, the Barringer family came home to Toronto. In the 1960s, Leslie was on some Canadian series like The Forest Rangers. He played Gordon Pinsent’s son on Quentin Durgens, M.P. Leslie was the last of the family to stay in show business, doing voice-over work in later years.

In the 1990s, he worked as a custodian at Corpus Christi Church. When Leslie Barringer died in 2011, friends remembered him fondly as a gentle soul.

Those of us with more than a touch of grey may recall some of the other performers who left Toronto for Hollywood, including Johnny Washbrook (star of My Friend Flicka), and Heather Menzies, who was only 11 when her family headed west in 1960.

By 14, she was cast as Louisa in The Sound of Music (1965). Maria von Trapp, the last surviving sibling of the singing family, died last month. She was portrayed as ‘Louisa’ in the famed musical. Oh, to be “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” again:

You wait little girl

On an empty stage

For fate to turn the light on …

Lights, camera, action!

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