Denise Morelle, actress (born 3 December 1926 in Montréal, QC; died 17 July 1984 in Montreal, QC). This beloved actress dedicated most of her career to the theater. She was made famous by her many appearances on children’s television programs on Radio-Canada, most notably for her famous character, Dame Plume. Her sordid murder, which remained unsolved for many years, caused much consternation in Québec society and the arts community.
Professional Stage Debut
Denise Morelle was born to a family of seven children in the Guybourg neighbourhood in the east end of Montréal. As a child, she sang and danced with her siblings at every possible opportunity. She took private acting lessons before enrolling in the École des Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, where she took the stage for the first time in 1952 as a servant in Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. A couple of years later, she made her professional debut at the Théâtre de Percé, during the staging of Jacques Languirand’s play, Les Grands Départs (1958). Following this performance, she became a regular on Montréal stages, particularly at l'Égrégore and at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM).
She later performed in several notable plays under the direction of Jean-Pierre Ronfard, such as The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus at the TNM in 1961 and Ubu roi by Alfred Jarry at l'Égrégore in 1962, in which she portrayed the hilarious character of Mère Ubu. She also performed in Les Violettes by Georges Schehadé and Le roi se meurt by Eugène Ionesco, also at l'Égrégore, in 1962 and 1963 respectively. In 1971, Morelle performed in Bertolt Brecht’s comedic play Trumpets and Drums. The following year, she performed in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, co-produced by the National Arts Centre and staged by Jean-Louis Barrault. In the 1970s and 1980s, she performed at the Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in Jules Romains’ Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine and in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Jean Duceppe.
Collaborations with Brassard and Tremblay
Morelle distinguished herself through her collaborations with the powerhouse duo of author Michel Tremblay and director André Brassard, of whose she was a favourite actress. She participated in the staging of Bonjour, là, bonjour with the Compagnie des Deux Chaises in 1974, as well in the staging of Surprise! Surprise! at the TNM the following year. In 1980, she played the role of Yvette Beaugrand, a middle-class worker who dreams of becoming a singer, a part that Tremblay wrote especially for her. She also appeared in two popular films by Brassard — Il était une fois dans l'est (1974) and Le soleil se lève en retard (1977) — as well as three films by the famous directorJean Pierre Lefebvre: Il ne faut pas mourir pour ça (1967), Les maudits sauvages (1971) and L'Amour blessé (1975).
She performed with Jean Duceppe‘s theater company in Elizabeth Bourget’s Bonne fête maman as well as in Michael Christopher’s Le Dernier Round in 1981 and 1983 respectively. Her last role on the stage was in Suzanne Aubry’s La Nuit des p’tits couteaux at the Salle Fred-Barry in 1984. As a member of Brassard’s theater company assembled for the Théatre Français at the National Arts Centre, Morelle was slated to participate in the staging of Michel Tremblay’s Albertine, en cinq temps, when her tragic death put an abrupt end to her career.
A generous and joyous woman, Morelle was known for having portrayed her characters with heart. Her speaking voice had an incredible range, allowing her to speak in a low, warm tone one moment and in a higher register the next. She could be irresistibly funny, yet was still able to express darker emotions convincingly. She earned lasting fame through her roles in children's programming at Radio-Canada. A whole generation of Québécois grew up watching her play Mame Bouline in Bidule de Tarmacadam (1966–70) and the unforgettable Dame Plume, the outrageous and comical singer in La Ribouldingue (1967–71). She also portrayed a scary witch in several fairy tales told on the television series Fanfreluche (1968–71).
On 18 July 1984, Morelle was found dead in an apartment on rue Sanguinet in Montréal. The investigation showed that she was murdered the previous day while visiting a vacant apartment she had been interested in renting. The owner had told her that he would leave the door unlocked. The murder made national headlines and greatly saddened the people of Québec and the arts community. The crime went unsolved for 23 years until her murderer was found in 2007 thanks to DNA evidence. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
In 1990, the city of Montréal honoured the memory of Denise Morelle by naming a small park in her name located on rue Rivard, on the Plateau Mont-Royal.