Lights Up!

By Sears Eldredge

By 10 October, the A.I.F. concert party was ready to open their new garage theatre with a long Variety Show. When they first moved into the theatre, electricity had not yet been restored, so the resourceful Australians found alternative methods of lighting their stage using pressure lamps filled with petrol that had been siphoned off from parked Japanese vehicles when I.J.A. officials came for meetings with the POW Administration. “Risky work,” conceded Jack Boardman, “and some day we would not know until the afternoon whether there would be lighting for the show that evening.”[i] 

But it wasn’t long before their theatre had electricity. Boardman again: “Needless to say, each week saw better lighting in the theatre. Progressively footlights, overheads, a switchboard with dimmer and a spotlight were introduced.”[ii] Taking advantage of this new lighting, “Happy” Harry Smith inserted a new routine into his “tit and bum” act. Strolling onstage dressed as a “lady getting on in years” with “an enormous bust,” Smith start singing in a contralto voice while “ogling officers sitting in front seats by using a mirror to reflect a spotlight [on them] while he sang, ‘The Sunshine of Your Smile’. At the end, during the applause, he would lift up his skirt and remove the socks forming his bosom with the words, ‘There’s gold in them thar hills!’”[iii]

“203.” Fred Brightfield. AWM. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The drummer, Fred Brightfield, drew a colored pencil sketch of the stage in their new theatre. A row of footlights can be seen along the front of the stage. The black box intruding into the middle top left of the sketch is a floodlight suspended from a pipe batten. Another light, this time a clip-on flood, is attached to center of the orchestra railing.

On stage, the comedy sketch “203” is in progress.[1] The title refers to the number of the harem girl who has found favor with the Maharajah. John Wood is the blonde dancing girl performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” “Happy” Harry, the punkawallah, and Jacky Smith, the Maharajah.[2][iv]

On the audience right proscenium wall is a large placard printed with the words to the Australian National Anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.” On Audience Left, under a clock, was another placard which read, “SILENCE during the overture PLEASE.”[v] 

Once established in their new indoor theatre, the concert party made two important changes in their programming: instead of producing a different show every week, which had become difficult to sustain, they would now present a new show once a fortnight; and, except for their weekly tour to Roberts Hospital, their audiences would come to them. 

On 20 October, their variety show contained a new song by Slim De Grey: “Waiting for Something to Happen” which gave voice to the POWs’ boredom (only the opening and closing verses are given below).  

Waiting for something to happen,

Turns all our laughter to tears.

There’s no use a-worrying,

No use a-hurrying,

We may be waiting for years.

Waiting for something to happen,

Might even drive you insane.

So we’d all be happier,

Feel a lot snappier,

If something would happen again.[vi]

They didn’t have long to wait.                                                          

[1] This is a revised version of their pre-war concert party sketch.

[2] Seated in the orchestra are Ray Tullipan (bass), Erv Banks (banjo), Jack Geoghegan (guitar), Roy Arnel (alto sax and clarinet), Dave Goodwin (tenor Sax), Eric Beattie (violin), Jack Boardman (sitting center with his back to us at the upright piano), Jack Garrett (squeezebox & guitar), Fred Stringer, Les Jacques, Tom Hoffman & Erv Warne (brass), and Fred Brightfield (drums). Bill Middleton, their Conductor, does not seem to be present.

[i] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[ii] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[iii] Boardman, J. “Notes”; Sprod, Bamboo, 63.

[iv] Boardman, J. Handwritten Notes on Brightfield’s sketch.

[v] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[vi] De Grey, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” n.p.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here:

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