Tag Archives: 1942

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The New A.I.F. Indoor Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Neither the sudden reversal regarding their gymnasium playing space, or the “Selarang Incident,” stopped the Aussie concert party from performing the show that had been in its final rehearsals. On Sept. 30th, Keep Singing—their first original revue written by Slim De Grey and Ray Tullipan—opened at a hastily arranged venue somewhere in the Selarang Area. This was also the first appearance of the troupe under their new leadership and name, “The A.I.F. Concert Party.”

It wasn’t long before they found another location in Selarang for their permanent theatre: a bomb-damaged garage. Frazer Harvey and his construction crew went to work and quickly got the new space transformed into a theatre that would seat close to a thousand audience members. 

 The A.I.F. Theatre in Changi. Wash drawing by Murray Griffin.
AWM #38598.

In Murray Griffin’s drawing you see the new A.I.F. Theatre built into the garage. It was completely open on one side but curtains could be pulled across this opening to shut out any daylight or rain when necessary. Audience seating was in two sections: on the level main floor and in the stalls at the back. All seats were made from split palm logs, but the stalls were supported by large posts made from rubber trees. At the far end is a proscenium with a raised stage built on a foundation of solid oak rifle racks; an orchestra pit in front. Scenery would be improvised from old tenting and anything else they could scrounge or steal. Compared to their old gymnasium theatre, the acoustics in this new theatre proved to be excellent even without a microphone.[i]

Playbill for October ‘42.

The month of October found Prom Concerts still being presented every weekday evening at the Pavilion Theatre in the Southern Area; the “P.O.W. WOWS” continuing with their latest show in the 11th Div. Area and on tour; The Dream still playing at the Command Theatre, and I Killed The Count running at the New Windmill Theatre until another diphtheria outbreak temporarily closed the theatre.


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes,” 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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Fare Well

By Sears Eldredge

The Senior Officers finally embarked by ship on 16 August accompanied by a group of O.R.s (including Jack McNaughton and Arthur Butler from “The Mumming Bees”) as administrative staff, cooks, and batmen. Tom Wade fantasized about the female impersonator, Arthur Butler’s, reaction to the undignified medical inspection carried out on all those departing to ensure that no one with dysentery was included in the draft: “Privates, sergeant majors, brigadiers and generals, even the governor of the Straits Settlements had to drop their shorts in the open square, bow to Japanese medical regulations with the rest of us and receive the sleek glass rod. (What did Gloria d’Earie, the female impersonator, say when he received the glass rod? Ah Ecstacy! [sic])”[i]

A month after their arrival in Taiwan (their first stop), McNaughton and Butler, along with a group of Officers and O.R.s, were sent on to Keijo [Seoul] POW Camp in Chosen [Korea]. By Christmas, they would begin to produce a series of shows enlisting additional performers from among the other POWs. [See forthcoming blog on POW entertainment activities in Korea.]


[i] Wade, 53.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Trouble in the Works

By Sears Eldredge

Meanwhile, problems with performer burnout and/or dissatisfaction with a particular format and content were beginning to be heard among divisional concert party entertainers, as had happened in the 18th Division’s “The Optimists.” (See Captive Performers, Chapter 1). Intense discussions about the need to change their production format and rethink their individual roles within the company had been taking place for a while in the A.I.F. Concert Party. Some in the group “wanted to branch out in new directions,” recalled Jack Boardman, “straight singers [wanted to become] comedians, musicians [wanted to become] actors and actors [wanted to become] musicians.”[i] To accomplish these changes would require, some believed, a change in their leadership.   

The reason why John Wood was drafted into responsibility for artistic/programming/etc. was that some performers thought Val [Mack’s] style was too old-fashioned and that an experienced “new broom” was required. Others disagreed and preferred the status quo. In the end Val continued as O.C. for discipline [Administration] and the John Wood style of show started. Less vaudeville/burlesque/music hall and more revue/drama/musical comedy. There was no visible animosity between them as a result of the change.[ii]

And since the orchestra had increased in size to fourteen members and had started giving musical concerts on Sunday evenings on its own in McNeilly’s Y.M.C.A Hut in the Convalescent Depot, it was decided that it should be administered separately. Sgt. Bill Middleton, their Musical Conductor, was given this responsibility.[iii]

When the Australian concert party reached full strength, it would have forty-three members: nineteen actors/singer/specialty acts, seventeen musicians, and a permanent staff of seven (see below).[1] 

The playing time of their shows in the Gordon’s Gymnasium had now stretched to eighty-five minutes, instead of the earlier fifty. Realizing the importance of this venue to their future plans, they sought permission, which was granted, to transform the gymnasium into a permanent indoor theatre space. 

Alterations to the Gordon’s Gymnasium were almost complete when their grand plans for a permanent theatre had to be scuttled. Some of the working parties that had been stationed in and around Singapore began to be transferred back into Changi, and their re-appearance, along with an influx of thousands of POWs from Java, caused an acute housing shortage making it necessary to use the gymnasium for their accommodation. The concert party was given twenty-four hours to move out all their staging and equipment.[iv]

Playbill for August ‘42.

August opened with “The P.O.W. WOWS” performing “Ringside Laughter” at their Rice Bowl Theatre and on tour. The 4th item on their bill, “Dickey-Bird” must have been a heads-up to the audience that they were about to receive coded news about the progress of the war from their secret radio.[2] The St. George Players continued touring with Macbeth.

Back in the India Lines, Wilkinson was finding it increasingly difficult to both direct rehearsals of I Killed the Count and play the leading role, so Major Frederick Bradshaw, who had just been brought up from Singapore and had been a professional West End actor, took over as director.[v]  

A new show, Windmill Variety No. 1, opened at The New Windmill Theatre on 17 August, which was headlined by Padre Foster-Haigh’s Male Voice Choir, the 18th Div. Signals String Band, and Fergus Anckorn performing several of his conjuring tricks.            

Elsewhere in Changi, the P.O.W. WOWS had produced their 11th tour show which starred John Wood (on loan from the “The A.I.F. Concert Party”) and were ready to open their 12th edition which contained the song, “Changi Blues.” Another play, The Dream, was running in the Command Area, and the “Changi Celebrity Artists” continued their tours. To complicate matters, there was another outbreak of diphtheria in the camp which caused two deaths and put nearly two hundred men in the hospital. Fear of an epidemic spread throughout Changi.[vi]


[1] Orchestra: Herbert Almond (Clarinet), Ray Arnell (Saxophone, Violin), Ernest Banks (Banjo and Saxophone), Eric Beattie (Violin), John Boardman (Piano and Arrangements), Fred Brightfield (Drums and Effects), Ron Caple (Drummer and Comedian),  John Garrett (Guitar),  Jack Geoghegan (Guitar, Variety Artist, Leader Swing Band), David Goodwin (Saxophone and Arrangements), Keith Harris (Piano and Arrangements), Tom Hoffman (Cornet), Leslie Jacques (Trumpet), Bill Middleton (Musical Director), Fred Stringer (Trumpet, Piano), Ray Tullipan (Song Writer, Cellist), and Ernest Warne (Trumpet, Electrician).

Entertainers: Russell Braddon (Thought Transference), Wally Dains (Specialty Dancer), Ted Druitt (Ballet and “Glamour”), Slim de Grey (Variety Artist and Song Writer), Stan “Judy” Garland (Specialty Dancer and “Glamour”), Leslie Greener (Actor, Writer and Critic), Douglas Mathers (Baritone), Val Mack (Vaudeville, Producer, and Comedian),  Bernard McCaffrey (Baritone), John Nibbs (Singer), Doug Peart (Actor and Variety Artist), Bob Picken (Comic Artist), Syd Piddington (Stage Director and Magician), “Happy Harry” Smith (The “Funny Man”), Keith Stevens (Variety Artist, Writer), Jack Smith (Comedian), Charles Wiggins (Variety Artist, “Glamour”) Frank Wood (Singer, Actor, Variety Artist), and John Wood (Producer and Star Artist).              

Staff: Clarry Barker (Electrician), Bert Gailbraith (Tailor), Ted Rigby (Stage Carpenter), Bill Sullivan (Seating Supervisor), Robert Mutton (House Manager), Clifford Whitelocke (Publicity), and Bert Gay West (Décor). [Piddington, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” privately printed, n.d.]

[2]Whether there was more than one secret radio receiver in the camp is difficult to tell from the documents. They did not have a transmitter.


[i] Piddington, “On With The Show” in A.I.F. Changi Souvenir Song Album, n.p.

[ii] Boardman, J. Letter, 23 Aug. 03.

[iii] Stewart, Report, 3.

[iv] Piddington, “On . . . . ,” n.p.

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 27 August ’42.

[vi] Nelson, 39.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

“Changi by the Sea”

The Concert Parties in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, Feb.  ‘42—May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge


Dedicated to Oswald “Jack” Boardman[2]

With his peerless musical ability Jackie Boardman brought great happiness to hundreds of prisoners of war for the total time of their long captivity, yet he never sought headline billing. He was quite happy to accompany those of lesser ability, but he deserves to be rated as the brightest star of some legendary luminaries.

–Gus Baker. “Legacy Spotlight”[i]  

Introduction

This new blog series assumes that the reader is familiar with Chapter 1 (“In The Bag”) of my free online book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers,[3] which details how the defeated British, Australian and Volunteer troops in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, quickly reestablished their pre-war concert parties, or created new ones, to alleviate the boredom of POW life and to keep hope alive.

What readers will discover is that concert parties in Changi proliferated so much during the first year and a half of captivity, that it came to resemble Broadway, or London’s West End, with all its entertainment venues. The professional and amateur musicians and theatrical performers active in Changi numbered in the hundreds with more POWs behind the scenes in construction, technical, and design work. Changi was not the worst place to be.

Indeed, the POWs who were sent Up Country to Burma and Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma railway looked back wistfully on their time in Changi as in a holiday camp. Not counting the first few months as prisoners, or the last year and a half, the POWs’ living conditions during the intervening years were bearable—food was never plentiful (when the meat rations ran out, they were given fish), but they had running water (for at least two hours a day), electricity, gardens provided fresh produce (although a limited variety), and daily rations of rice. Though there are many reports that they were “always hungry,”[ii] their lives were not filled with sickness, brutality, and starvation as it was for POWs elsewhere.

Following the departure of the all-Australian “A Force” to Burma in May, 1942, there is little mention in Chapter 1 of the accomplishments of the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party”[4] which remained in Changi, because the focus is on those POW musicians and theatrical entertainers who were sent up to the Thailand side of the railway construction.

This new series of blogs will first recover the unreported story of the Australian entertainers in Changi—going back before May 1942, if necessary, to mention events left out of my book. But once that’s been done, it will tell as complete a story as possible of the extraordinary entertainment that took place in Changi—up to the point when the POWs are removed to Changi Gaol in the spring of 1944. A future blog will detail the story of the last year and a half of POW entertainment in the Gaol.

This will be the most comprehensive history of the POW entertainment in Changi POW Camp and Changi Gaol ever attempted.


[Title: “Changi by the Sea”] From “A prisoner’s lot is not a happy one”—a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”—sung in a camp show.

[2] Jack Boardman, who was the pianist/musical arranger for the A.I.F. Concert Party, provided me with voluminous invaluable materials on their activities in Changi POW Camp and Gaol.    

[3] http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/

[4] This had been the original name of the A.I.F.’s 9th Divisional concert party (see previous blogs on pre-war concert parties).


[i] Baker, Gus. “The Legacy Spotlight,” Sydney, 2003, p. 2.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 5 Feb. ‘44.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22