The Hamilton Spectator
-Saturday, March 4, 1995
8:05 a.m. - Traffic is backed up on the QEW and Gema Zamprogna - or Felicity
King as she's known on Road to Avonlea - is sitting in the front seat of the car
beside her father, Lou, cozy in a grey-and-cream plaid jacket and jeans, looking
fresh, relaxed and natural.
This is a "late" day for the star of the hugely successful Canadian TV
series, now in its sixth season. Gema travels between her parents' central
Hamilton home and either of two sets - one in Scarborough and the outside set, a
model village built in Uxbridge, north of Toronto. Today she is on her way to
the Scarborough warehouse where interior scenes are filmed. She's due in hair
and makeup at 9 so she can be on the set for 10.
A normal work day usually means getting up at 4:10 a.m. and being picked up at
4:45 a.m. by a driver - unless her dad takes her.
After six years of these kind of mornings, she's got her sleep mode down pat.
"I bring my pillow and go to sleep. I try not to wake up too much. I don't
eat and I move slowly, so I can go back to sleep in the car."
At the end of the day, she's so tired she falls asleep once she's in the car
heading home. It's not uncommon for her working days to stretch to 15 to 18
hours. It's hardly the glamorous life a young viewer of Road To Avonlea might
fantasize that Gema leads.
The day before, for instance, she was up at 6:15 a.m., got home at 9 p.m., ate
dinner, waited for flowers (it was Valentine's Day)from her boyfriend, Steve,
who goes to Queen's University, talked on the phone for an hour, then went to
8:30 a.m. "Oh my god, Dad, we're going to be really late," she says.
Traffic is jammed and we're only at the Dorval Drive exit in Oakville. "I
think we should get off the highway." Lou, one of those bright, morning
people, is calm and unruffled.
Father and daughter kid back and forth, keeping an eye on the clock. It's
obvious they are pals who understand each other. And they share a bond that
comes from their lives on stage. Lou is well known in the Hamilton and
Burlington area as a dance teacher, choreographer and actor.
As we move in spurts on our own road to Avonlea, Gema answers questions about
early mornings, long days and the difficulty of juggling acting with school
(she's in her final year at Hillfield-Strathallan College) and a teenage life.
Gema worked on Road To Avonlea through November, attended school full-time in
December and January and then was on set working again until yesterday.
"It's difficult," she concedes. "I can see a difference when I'm
not working. It's two different lives. But I have a life in Hamilton with my
friends and at school."
Adds Lou: "There is a lot of discipline, commitment, responsibility. We
made it clear at the beginning that she was not willing to give up the real
"Gema, (mom) Pauline and I worked out the crucial times for her to be in
school. We sat down with teachers at Hillfield-Strathallan to work out the
months she should be in school. Then we stipulated in her contract when she
Through the six years of the show, Lou has become a firm manager, ironing out
difficulties and specifying contract conditions.
By law, a tutor and a guardian are required on the set only until a performer
turns 16. When Gema turned 16, Lou stood his ground. "I said, 'no tutor, no
She has schoolwork from her teachers, she works with the tutor and once a week
gets back to school to talk to her teachers.
"The ideally perfect thing, 'The Plan' is Queens," Gema says.
"Guelph is the second choice. I'd like to be close to home. Queens (in
Kingston) would be perfect. I'd like to be away from home but close enough to
drop in. Afterwords? Then I could go to the university of Alberta or University
of B.C. where I could take drama. The good programs are out west."
It's expected there will be one more season of Avonlea after this one. But this
is Gema's last, as university life beckons.
"It'll be difficult to say goodbye. I'll have mixed feelings. It's been a
huge part of my life. But I'm starting a new life."
GEMA part 3
9 a.m. We're finally rolling. Lou picks up the car phone to tell someone on the
set not to panic. Gema is on her way.
9:25 a.m. The Avonlea set is located in the middle of grimy, derelict buildings
that Avonlea's prim Aunt Hetty and the rest of the fictional King family would
be loathe to be seen near. A number of trailer homes have been parked in the
middle of this industrial wasteland, including one jokingly referred to as the
Avonlea Motel, where each actor has a tiny dressing room.
Tara Meyer (who plays Sally Potts in the series), hair in rollers, is having
mascara applied as Gema comes into the hair and makeup trailer. They catch up on
each other's life. Linda, the hairdresser, puts Gema's hair in hot rollers and
Tim, the assistant director, takes her order for "eggs and toast, no bacon
and soya butter." Gema is counting calories because a March Break trip to
St. Lucia is coming up.
She has a short look at the "sides" - the little script for her
upcoming scene. While the rollers do their job, she has her make-up applied.
"These are our children," says Dottie Smith, the make-up artist.
Gema eats breakfast while Dottie sponges a medium base on to Gema's fair skin.
"We're doing a young, pretty look and since we have a pretty face to start
with, it makes life easy," says Dottie.
Then it's back to LInda for the upswept hairdo that's "like building a
castle" to transform Gema to a glamorous-looking Felicity.
"It makes me feel like Felicity. It puts me into the 'here' mode, says
There's some joking about the little bottle of $18 hairspray that Faye Dunaway
used the week before for her guest appearance. Lou comes in to tell Gema that
her tutor, is waiting.
The look is finished. Gema has become Felicity. She's pleased. "Oh, I like
this. That's my favorite so far," she tells an appreciative Linda.
Then, it's into the warehouse where the sets have been built.
We pass the King's kitchen, the White Sands Hotel dining room and Aunt Hetty's
Allan King, who is directing today's episode, is still on another scene so Gema
heads off the set, to a table and tutor Angelo Maniccia of Hamilton, a McMaster
graduate. Under a high, bright studio light, Gema puzzles out a math problem
about light bulbs.
"Whoops, gotta go," she announces as the call comes for her to get
ready. She comes back dressed as Felicity, complete with corset, bum pad,
undervest, slip and petticoat, blouse, skirt, jacket and coat.
Gema is told she has to wear a hat. "That sucks. Oh, my hair is so good
today," she laments.
Noon Gema reads her lines as the announcement is made, "Rehearsal is up.
Principals to set please."
The scene is in the Avonlea General Store where Sally Potts, with her sweet,
tiny voice, is trying to recruit women to be the first telephone operators in
Avonlea. Felicity speaks to the doctor. Then she and Sally have another one of
their famous confrontations. Gema is confident, poised, polished and
professional beyond her years.
There are touch-ups to hair and brush-ups to lips.
Smith talks about Gema with great affection.
"She is wonderful. She is what every grown woman wishes she could have as a
teenage daughter. She is considerate, popular and she always sees the best in
everyone. I've never heard her say anything unkind about anyone. There is no
ego. She has a good sense of humor and she adores her family."
Later, at lunch, "Aunt Hetty and "Janet King" are sitting
together. When asked about Gema, both speak with admiration.
Lally Cadeau, who plays Janet, Felicity's mother, describes Gema as
"She has a good sense of self and plays her role well. She's smart and not
Born in Hamilton, Cadeau attended Loretto Academy and first performed at the
Hamilton Player's Guild as the young Elizabeth The Queen in 1959. She says
Gema's parents have been very pragmatic.
Jackie Burroughs, who plays Aunt Hetty, adds that Gema will "live her own
life exactly how she wants and she'll have lots of fun, too. She's very mature.
All her energies are focused. She's had a lot on her plate."
Zack Bennett, 15, who plays Gema's brother Felix, says he actually considers her
"She is honelty my sister. She feels like a sister. If I get too silly from
too many Cokes, she'll hit me across the head. The guys at school say, 'She's a
babe. Aren't you attracted to her?'
"And I say, No wa, man. She's my sister"
2:20 p.m. It's raining. Tim, the assistant director, offers Gema a big striped
umbrella for the walk from the make-up trailer to the set.
"No, I won't take that," she says. "It's too big. I'll feel silly
3:20 p.m. A new scene in the General Store where the whole King family gathers
to hear a telephone message.
Felix has to be reminded to take his earring off.
"My feet hurt," Gema says.
On the set, Burroughs has everyone in giggles. It breaks the tension and
boredom. Scenes are tediously repeated throughout the day.
The principals talk about how close Cedric Smith, who plays father Alec King,
and Gema have become over the years.
"I like her a lot," says Smith. "She's fun. She's very unaffected
and above it all. It surprises people. She started out haughty and acerbic as
Felicity and it surprises people because they expect her (Gema) to be like that.
It's a sign she's doing the job well. Gema focuses extremely well. It comes from
doing live stage stuff and the discipline of dance."
Gema bounces back and forth from set to tutor.
"She's very bright and quick. She picks things up very well," says
Gema won an arts scholarship to Hillfield-Strathallan. It's presented every five
years to allow promising young actors to keep their academic careers alive.
"She's spectacular," says Michaele Robertson, academic director at
"She's an honor student with 81 percent. Gema is bright and works very
hard. She had work habits at 14 that adults would kill for," says
Robertson. It's a remarkable thing she's pulled off."
Robertson says Gema's parents have to take a huge amount of credit.
"She's a determined young woman. We'd love to keep her."
5:55 p.m. Last shot, scene 3: Gema is chewing on a piece of celery, complaining
that her feet are still sore.
Lou checks on her progress with Angelo the tutor: "How's she doing? I know
how bad she's feeling about not being in school."
Nachos are served on the set by the catering crew.
During a break in Aunt Hetty's kitchen, director King talks about the young
"Gema? I've worked with her for 12 to 15 shows. She's extremely
intelligent. She's very bright and warm and has terrific skills."
6:30 p.m. Gema's scene is wrapping up. Lou warms up the car while Gema changes.
Her day as Felicity isn't finished yet. Lou tells her someone from TVGuide is
calling at 9 to interview her.
She yawns. "Oh, I'm tired. It was a real easy day. Everyone was
It's Saturday afternoon a few days later. Pauline, Gema's mother, has a break
from teaching ballet at the family's The Dance Centre on Sherman Avenue South.
It's Pauline who Gema resembles most in appearance and personality.
"I never thought it would go this far. I thought Gema might do something as
a dancer. She used to love watching commercials. When she was 9, she said she
wanted to do a commercial but we put her off because we were concerned what it
would mean with time out of school.
"Then when she was 11 she persuaded us to do one. She auditioned for many
commercials but she never did any. She was shy and reserved. I don't think she
was the type for them."
It's probable that she would have been accepted by the National Ballet School
when she was 9, but she wasn't keen about being away from home. She is an
accomplished dancer (ballet, jazz, tap) and has always helped Lou with his jazz
dance classes. Last year she did a lot of teaching, mostly on Saturday nights
and she also helped with the Theatre Aquirious production of Annie that her dad
Gema was 11 when she starred in her first TV series, a guest appearance on the
show My Secret Identity. Her second big opportunity was Challengers, a TV movie
filmed in Winnipeg. The Avonlea role followed right on it's heels.
"I'm proud of her for the kind of person she is," Pauline says.
"She's never pulled any tricks. She's never taken advantage of anything at
home. She's never even tried."
Gema comes in, baseball hat on. She sits, tired and curled up on a chair with
her feet under her. She admits there were times she felt she's had enough of it.
There were times she would cry because she was so tired.
"But then I'd have a good day and I'd say, 'This isn't so bad.'"
Pauline remembers some seasons when they (Lou and Gema) would leave at 5:30 a.m.
and wouldn't be home at midnight.
"If Gema had ever said, 'This is enough,' we'd have said OK. We've never
pushed her to do it," says Pauline.
Gema won't disclose how much money she makes because it's not a subject that's
talked about except with her parents. "Money is no big deal to me. I do it
because I like it. It's the least of my worries. The days when I'm awfully tired
and frustrated, those are the days when I say I'm thankful for the money."
Any perks that come with the money are well deserved. There is a year-old silver
Toyota Celica in the driveway and some of the money she's made is invested.
"The biggest advantage of the money is that it will pay for university.
When I want to spend it, I do, but I don't overdo it."
Gema will be 19 in May. She doesn't feel she's missed anything in her teenage
"I always managed to get home for a sleep-over, a school dance or a party.
Friends would postpone plans for an hour so I could join them. They are
excellent and are all understanding. They know I like to keep the acting part of
my life separate and private.
She says she couldn't have managed school and Road To Avonlea without the
support of a school like Hillfield-Strathallan.
"It's been an emotional support from the students and staff. My career and
education couldn't have flourished at all without that support."
Gema. Her name is part of the name of the Gemini award for which she is
nominated for the Best Supporting Actress.
"I'll be a lot more suprised if I win." she says matter of factly
about the award ceremony in Toronto tonight where whe will find out if she wins
this, her second, nomination, and also present three awards.
Gem: Her nickname, by which family and friends call her.
Gem: A person or thing held to be a perfect example, a treasure.
Gema would scoff at this comparison. So would Felicity.