Reel Beach: Remembering the remarkable Siegel sisters who grew up on Lee Avenue

Tonight We Raid Calais (1943) was based on a story by Rohama Lee (Siegel) who grew up on Lee Avenue.

By BERNIE FLETCHER

I agree with Gene Domagala that the corner of Queen Street East and Lee Avenue is the “historic heart” of the Beach.

Legendary sportsman Ted Reeve (1902-1983) grew up above the Lee Avenue Post Office, his widowed mother’s stationary store on Queen Street East.

Filmmaker Norman Jewison (1926-2024) also lived above his parents’ store on Queen Street East, but was actually born at his grandparents’ home on Lee Avenue, across from Kew Gardens. Just a few doors down lived two talented sisters you have likely never heard about.

Screenwriter Rohama Siegel and singer Sarah Siegel adopted “Lee” as their stage names to honour the happy family life they enjoyed growing up on Lee Avenue.

Their parents, Isadore and Ida Siegel, moved first to Leuty Avenue in 1910, then to Lee Avenue by 1921. The Siegels and Ida’s father, Samuel Lewis, were pillars of the small Jewish community in the Beach. Ida was the first Jewish woman elected to serve on the Board of Education and helped organize the first Home and School Association in Canada.

Rohama was an adventurous spirit making headlines when she stowed away on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936. She was a journalist who wrote for the Star Weekly and “wanted a thrill” as well as a good story. Rohama turned to screenwriting for Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox in England and Hollywood.

“Sair Lee sings blues that break your heart.”
– Royal York Hotel, 1936, Toronto Star

Sarah became a kindergarten teacher at Gledhill Public School but her heart was in singing as Sair Lee in a two-piano musical duo with Ruth Lowe who wrote Frank Sinatra’s first big hit, I’ll Never Smile Again in 1939 after the sudden death of her husband. The song became symbolic of the pain and loss of war as many took solace in the haunting lyrics.

The Second World War affected everyone’s lives.

Brothers David and Avrom Siegel became R.C.A.F. pilots.

Sair Lee was singing in nightclubs and on CBS and CBC Radio where Lorne Greene (who later starred on Bonanza) was the “Voice of Doom” to Canadian listeners.

The “It” girl on CBC was Frances Bay known as “the soldier’s girlfriend.” You might know her as the feisty marble rye lady from Seinfeld.

The war effort was supported at home by war bonds, concerts, songs and patriotic movies to boost morale.

Sair Lee and Ruth Lowe wrote the 1941 song It’s V for Victory. One of the war films was Tonight We Raid Calais (1943) from a story by Rohama Lee. She first wrote a play called Project 47 which anticipated a tunnel under the English Channel.

On June 6, the 80th anniversary of D-Day was commemorated. The Allied invasion depended on secrecy and fooling the German high command into believing the landing would come at Calais instead of Normandy. The ruse worked.

According to imdb, Tonight We Raid Calais is one of director Quentin Tarantino’s favourite war movies. (You can watch it for free on YouTube.)

Set in occupied France, the film is about the French Resistance and a British commando sent into France to signal an Allied bombing raid on a Nazi munitions factory. Who can be trusted? Whose side are you on? Who is a patriot?

The French people were caught in the middle of the death and destruction. In the fog of war thousands of French civilians were killed by Allied bombing. A father (Lee J. Cobb) is a fighter with the French Resistance, but his daughter, Odette, believes the English are responsible for the death of her brother.

Odette is played by French actress, Annabella, whose own brother was shot and killed by the Nazis.

Calais was liberated by the Canadian army in September of 1944.

Rohama Lee went on to publish and edit Film News in New York and supported Canadian educational films for the rest of her long life (1905-1996).

Little sister Sair was Hollywood-bound with a big name orchestra, the Pennies, when illness stopped her career. Sadly, Sair Lee (1912-1943) died within a year of getting married. Rohama named her daughter Sarilee after her late sister.

Rohama and Sair were women ahead of their time who followed their dreams and lived their lives to the fullest.

During a University of Toronto debate in 1926, Rohama declared:

“We should not live to become interesting or pleasing to some man, but to find happiness within ourselves.”


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1 comments

Where exactly did Ted Reeve grow up? Was the Lee Avenue Post Office on Queen St. East? Was his mother’s stationary store above the post office? He grew up in a store? So curious about all of this! Would love it if you would clarify for confused me

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