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Manitoba History No. 89
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Memorable Manitobans: Lionel Edward “Leo” Nicholson (1894-1947)

Click to enlargeSports broadcaster.

Born at Winnipeg on 25 July 1894, his father Edward Nicholson was a Winnipeg grocery broker who could afford the best for his kids. Young Leo and his older sister Mae were frequent playmates with the children of the city’s social elite. Their violin and piano performances were featured on the cover of Town Topics, the city’s arts and culture magazine. Their mother Madge was one of Manitoba’s first automobile owners, and she often took her two children on “road trips” to rural Manitoba and the USA. The Nicholsons summered at the large family cottage on Lake of the Woods, entertained guests at the St. Charles Country Club, or took extended holidays in Europe, Japan, and China. They enjoyed the mineral waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and they wintered in California, Bermuda, and other sunny locales.

As a teenager, Leo attended a private school in Wisconsin, and raced his mother’s car while home on holiday. After a tour of duty as afighter pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, Leo returned to Winnipeg with a 19-year-old English bride named Lillian Rich. They settled into ahome on Oxford Street. The 5' 3" dark-haired beauty must have captivated her new father-in-law. Seeing a future for her in Hollywood, Edward Nicholson bankrolled Lillian with $1,000 of his own money.

With Leo as her manager, Lillian’s found success on the silver screen. Her first role in the 1919 movie The Day She Paid was followed by a flurry of roles, mostly dramas and Westerns. She made five movies in 1920, seven in 1921, and six in 1922. Then, none in 1923. Her father-in-law died that year in California after a long illness. Leo accompanied the body back to Winnipeg for burial while Lillian locked up their California house and divorced him. Her movie output resumed,waned gradually in the early 1930s, then ended in 1940 after a series of uncredited roles as nurses or telephone operators, and she died quietly on 5 January 1954.

Leo looked for employment in California. He allegedly tried his hand at directing movies although there are no records on what ones he made. Then he had the idea of becoming a sports journalist in the new medium of radio, and began broadcasting football games in Los Angeles under the sponsorship of an automobile agency. In 1930, he moved back to Canada where, in Vancouver as kindly “Big Brother Bill”, he created a radio program to feature talented local children.

As one of Canada’s first sports broadcasters, Leo Nicholson began calling “every sports event that has a book of rules”, including bicycle races, softball, golf tourneys, and salmon derbies. He announced home games for the Montreal Canadiens hockey team in 1941 and, for a time, wrote a sports column for the Vancouver News-Herald. Known for his rapid-fire elocution, Leo was widely credited for popularizing box lacrosse in Canada, and for describing it as “the fastest sport on two feet.” He also worked vigorously on behalf of Vancouver charities and war bond drives.

Leo Nicholson remarried (Marjorie Isobel Taaffe) but had no children. He died after a brief illness on 28 October 1947, in Vancouver.

See also:

A Thousand Words: Winnipeg’s Silent Film Star by Gordon Goldsborough
Manitoba History, Number 50, October 2005

Sources:

We thank Nick Bawlf and Alix Bawlf for providing additional information used in this profile.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 23 April 2011

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

This is a collection of noteworthy Manitobans from the past, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society.

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