Judith Evelyn, a 30-year-old Canadian stage actress, boarded the British passenger liner Athenia with a sense of foreboding the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, in Glasgow, Scotland. That same morning the German army invaded Poland, and England launched a nationwide emergency evacuation of schoolchildren from cities likely to become targets if Britain went to war.
The circumstances appeared bleak for this bright and ambitious actress from Canada’s Prairie Provinces who had pushed her career from humble beginnings to unexpected heights.
Judith Evelyn was born Evelyn Morris in Seneca, South Dakota, but grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, with a step-father who was a successful stage actor. Young Evelyn fell in love with acting, working with her step-father in the Chautauqua shows of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When she changed her name from Evelyn Morris to Judith Evelyn there was no doubt she intended to make acting a career.
After earning a Master’s Degree from the University of Manitoba, Evelyn headed for Canada’s more worldly eastern provinces. She found small roles in various plays, before landing the lead in a Toronto production of Moss Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime.” There she met a junior announcer for the local radio station, Andrew Allan, who was moonlighting as an actor, although his passion was in writing drama.
Shortly after “Once in a Lifetime” closed, Evelyn and Allan were cast as young lovers in a play titled “One More River.” In the play’s third act, the young couple shared a long, romantic kiss, and one night after the kiss Allan forgot his next line, which was the entrance cue for one of the play’s characters. The incident led to a good deal of back-stage ribbing and sparked a life-long friendship between Evelyn and Allan. Within a year, Evelyn found herself starring in Canada’s first radio soap opera, which Allan helped to write and produce.
Buoyed by his success and encouraged by Evelyn, Allan headed for London in early 1938, hoping to gain experience in writing and production for the theater. Evelyn soon followed and was able to find work with a variety of small parts on the London stage, while Allan found opportunities writing and directing radio productions. Evelyn’s confidence grew as she proved capable of holding her own in one of the world’s most competitive theatrical environments.
By the summer of 1939, however, the threat of war seemed to monopolize the theater-going public’s interest, and uncertainty about the future caused sponsors to begin withdrawing support for radio programing. At about this time, Allan’s father, the Rev. William Allan, came to Scotland from Toronto to visit his elderly mother. When the Rev. Allan received word that his wife had become ill back in Toronto, he invited his son to join him on the return trip, and the younger Allan, in turn, asked Evelyn to join them.
With enthusiasm for the theater on the wane, she made a last-minute decision to drop out of rehearsals for a London play and return to Canada with Allan and his father. It would prove the most fateful decision of her life, as we will see in Part 2.