Doreen Brownstone passed away peacefully at Riverview Health Centre on Friday, December 16, 2022. Doreen was predeceased by her parents, Jessie and Mark Stein, her sister, Laura Hoffman, her sons Michael and Jonny, and her daughter Sheila. She is survived by her grandsons Cole Brownstone and Kyle Reese Wunder, by her special “surrogate daughter” Patricia Hunter and her family—Zaz, Abbie, and Adele Bajon—and by her extensive “theatre family”. Funeral services were held graveside at Shaarey Zedek Cemetery on Sunday, December 18; pallbearers were Susanna Portnoy, John Bluethner, Harry Nelken, Mariam Bernstein, Daniel Thau Eleff and John Myers; honourary pallbearers were Joanie Sheps and Heather Pullan.

Doreen was born in Leeds, England, on September 28, 1922, and had a very happy childhood, describing herself as a tomboy and a show-off. She was no slouch academically, though, and won a scholarship to the prestigious Roundhay School for Girls, which was a great source of pride for her and her family. Doreen’s father was a tailor and was able to save money by making her school uniforms himself, which she wore with pride. As Doreen would often say as she shared her fond memories from her schooldays, “that school changed my life”. At 100 years old, she could still recite poetry she had learned in school, and if you spoke to her in French, she would proudly respond en français. And, importantly, it was there she learned to swim, earning many awards.

At the age of 19, inspired by the words of Winston Churchill (she could still dramatically recite most of his speech), Doreen enlisted in the Royal Air Force. She was very proud of her service and remembered it fondly; it taught her discipline and responsibility and felt like being ‘back at school’.  She was on the RAF Halton swim team, competing with other stations. The RAF was also where she was introduced to acting when the division padre informed her that she had been cast in a play: “The rest is history”.

Doreen met Canadian Billy Brownstone during the war, married him in 1945 and immigrated to Winnipeg in 1946 where their three children were born. In Winnipeg, she joined the YMHA (Theatre) Players and was active in other amateur theatre groups where she first encountered John Hirsch as both drama teacher and director (as Doreen said, “He was our Theatre School”). 

In 1957, when Hirsch and Tom Hendry founded the semi-professional Theatre 77, they included Doreen in the company. In 1958, Theatre 77 merged with Winnipeg Little Theatre, with Hirsch as artistic director and Hendry as business manager, to become the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Hirsch cast Doreen in MTC’s first professional production—A Hatful of Rain opposite Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent—and thus began her 60-year career as a professional actor, working for every professional theatre company in the city and for many across the country. She acted in over 100 plays, including a touring production of Driving Miss Daisy at the age of 83, the role of Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof seven (or was it nine?!) times, the last one a Yiddish production at  the age of 89, and in Vigil at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2013 at the age of 92 where she shamelessly showed off her agility by energetically doing toe touches on stage. The oldest working actor in Canada, she continued to do play readings and some film work. At 95, she appeared in the television series Channel Zero with actor Rutger Hauer.

Alongside her illustrious acting career, Doreen was also the beloved “Mrs. Brownstone, my swimming teacher”. Doreen maintained a forty-year career as a swimming instructor, teaching two and three generations of families to swim. She was known as Doreen, the actor, and Mrs. Brownstone, the swimming teacher to her legions of fans from both careers. It was impossible to go on an outing with Doreen and not get stopped a good many times by audience members who wanted to tell her how much they enjoyed a particular performance or by generations of kids who proudly recall her teaching them to swim. 

Doreen always expressed how extremely lucky and blessed she was to do the two things she absolutely loved: acting and swimming. Doreen’s passion and vitality on stage and at the pool were a testament to her amazing dedication and creativity. She attributed her lifelong fitness to her years of swimming, and the mental sharpness she maintained up to the age of 100 years to her acting.

Doreen connected with so many and forged lifelong bonds with friends in her Pan card game group, her Taylor Avenue friends, swimming teachers and students alike, and her doting “theatre family”. In later years, these friends and her new Shaftesbury friends would meet at Doreen’s celebrated coffee klatch gatherings on Friday afternoons in the Shaftesbury Coffee Bistro. In winter, many of us came proudly wearing the colourful knitted hats she had made for us. She would hold court, looking classy with one of her signature pashminas draped over her shoulders. 

Doreen always supported her fellow artists in times of joy and was there with a sympathetic ear and loving hugs in difficult times. She was a faithful friend and colleague and always made a point of seeing others’ work, taking special pleasure in their accomplishments.

Doreen was awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards from ACTRA, The Canadian Actor’s Equity Association, the Winnipeg Arts Council, and the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. In 2017 she was awarded the Order of Manitoba. She really got a kick out of seeing the letters O.M. after her name! She also received the Nellie McClung Foundation Trailblazer Award in 2021.

Doreen felt each day she was given was a gift. Her faith was a comfort and helped her through her many challenges in life. Doreen’s exuberance, chutzpah, joie de vivre, determination, generosity, and love fuelled and filled her long rich life. She is held in unparalleled esteem by all who knew her.

Doreen Brownstone, the Grande Dame of Winnipeg Theatre, has taken her final curtain call but will continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Doreen’s “theatre family” would like to thank the staff at Shaftesbury Park and at the Riverview Palliative Care Unit for their care and kindness, the Kenaston Superstore Pharmacy team, and a special thanks to her GP Dr. Kristen Creek for her exemplary, attentive care. Thanks also to all the friends and relatives, young and old, who spent time with Doreen. Their love, friendship and conversation meant the world to Our Doreen. Finally, thank you to our extended “theatre family”. There were so many of us who could be called upon to take Doreen to appointments, sit with her during a hospital stay, or just visit, who could be counted on in times of need, or pull together to fête Doreen, decorating the room in her favourite colours of pink and purple, the last time on September 28 for her 100th birthday. It takes a village and we have been so lucky to have ours. Special thanks to Stefanie Wiens and Angus Kohm for going above and beyond, taking care of many of Doreen’s needs. Stefanie’s medical knowledge and caregiving meant that everyone could rest easy knowing she was in capable and loving hands.

“In mind a constant thought, in heart a silent tear.”

Donations in Doreen Brownstone’s memory may be made to Jewish Child and Family Services,

The Actors Fund of Canada, or a charity of your choice.

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