Reel Beach: Remembering the legendary Gordon Pinsent and Beacher Charmion King

This City of Toronto Archives photo from April of 1918 shows the beach at the foot of Kippendavie Avenue. The King home is to the right of where the street can be seen to end, opposite to where the children are sitting and standing.

By BERNIE FLETCHER

Canada lost a national treasure on Feb. 25 when Gordon Pinsent passed away at the age of 92.

I trust that the Canadian Screen Awards (April 11-16, April 16 at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV) will honour his many contributions in film, television, theatre and the arts.

The star of The Rowdyman and Away from Her was born in Newfoundland in 1930 and arrived at Union Station in Toronto in 1948 with three cents in his pocket and the faint hope of becoming an actor.

Pinsent loved acting, directing, writing and painting, but the great love of his life was “Charm”, his “soulmate” and wife of 44 years Charmion King (1925-2007). They met performing a play together in 1961 on his “luckiest day.”

While Pinsent is famously a proud son of Newfoundland, the King family had roots here in the Beach. As a little girl Charmion lived in a house right on the sand at 36 Lake Front near the foot of Kippendavie Avenue (see the photo above).

Where we walk along the Boardwalk today was once a line of houses, cottages and boathouses. Storms were washing away the shoreline and damaging the homes. Mayor McBride wanted to “give the East End a proper beach” (in 1929). In 1931 more than 200 buildings were demolished to make way for the Eastern Beaches Park.

Charmion’s grandfather, William A. King (1854-1932), was a builder along with his brothers Joseph and Rufus. By 1900 the Beach area was changing from a summer resort to a permanent community. The “King Bros.” built some of the wood frame houses that lined the lake from the foot of Woodbine Avenue to Kew Gardens. There was no actual street, but it was called “Kew Beach” or “Lake Front.”

By 1910 William’s young son, Charles King (1890-1973) was living in the home and would marry Amabel Reeves (1890- 1979).

Pinsent wrote that Amabel was “a beauty and a poetess in her day”. Charles became a sales manager for Neilson’s Chocolate and was called the “Candy Man.” Charmion was their only child. Even as a five-year-old she dreamed of becoming an actress.

While growing up by the lake sounds idyllic, the history of Charmion’s maternal family reads like a Charles Dickens novel. Amabel’s mother was born Mary Anne Kealey (1856-1922) and had a tragic childhood. Her father deserted the family and the young girl was placed in a Liverpool, England “industrial school” or workhouse, separated from her little sister and her mother who remarried.

The girl spent two years in a workhouse, the same as Dickens who later wondered “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.“

Mary Anne (later Marion) was shipped off to Canada in 1869 in the very first group (65 girls and three boys) of more than 100,000 British Home Children sent to Canada as domestic servants and farm workers. Few were actually orphans and only the youngest children could be adopted. Many were exploited as cheap labour, but Mary Anne seems to be one of the luckier children. In an 1870 letter to social reformer Maria Reyes who brought her over to Ontario, she wrote, “I am very glad that you have found me a good and kind mistress and master…from your affectionate scholar.”

There was more tragedy ahead. Marion married Samuel J. Reeves (1855-1894) in 1889, but her husband died of kidney disease at 39, the same month their third child, Samuel, was born. The widow and her son eventually came to live with the Kings. Samuel worked at the Dominion Bank at the corner of Queen and Lee and belonged to the Balmy Beach Club.

Tragedy struck again when Samuel served in the Great War. Shortly after receiving the Military Cross for bravery, Lt. Reeves was killed in France in August 1917. He was only 23. Marion Reeves lived her last years at 36 Lake Front and is buried at St. John’s Cemetery.

Gordon and Charmion’s daughter, Leah, has followed in her parents’ footsteps as an accomplished actor. Leah Pinsent and husband Peter Keleghan bought their house in the Beach in 2004. Keleghan is known for his self-deprecating humour in many film and television roles.

In a podcast, Keleghan tells the story of standing beside legendary Gordon Pinsent outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Keleghan was surprised when a fan came up to him first, but then the woman added, “I’m just working my way up.” Ouch,“ a total eclipse of the son-in-law!”

Also, congratulations to Sarah Polley for being the first Canadian ever to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. (John Irving doesn’t count…he didn’t become a Canadian citizen until much later.)


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2 comments

Mr. Fletcher! I was one of your Balmy Beach students circa 90-92. Hope you’re doing well. I have to inquire about the King Bros family history that you have included within this article. If possible that there is any more information/research, that you can share directly or privately, I would be very grateful. The King Bros were my great (maybe even great uncles) and am the granddaughter of Russell King

Hi Carly,
Nice to hear from you. I remember your wonderful family well. Say hello to your mom and sister for me. I will see what I can find out about Russell King. Rather than share personal family info on-line it’s best to send an e-mail to our editor Alan at alan@beachmetro.com and he will pass on any names, birth years, etc. that you know. I won’t give you any homework, but you can always try ancestry.ca at any Toronto Public Library branch. It’s interesting learning about family history. Good luck, Mr. F.

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