In November, 1941, Major Leofric Thorpe of Singapore Fortress Signals became involved with a concert party which toured the forward British bases in the more remote areas of Malaya. Afterwards he wrote an extensive Official Report of his experiences on this tour from which the following is taken. The report was written not only to detail what happened during the tour for its sponsors and the Entertainment Committee, but to educate the readers about the proper makeup of a military concert party and the need for someone to be designated as Officer in Charge/Producer of any future parties who could provide the proper organization and leadership—which had clearly been lacking on this first tour.
For anyone who has ever toured a show, Thorpe’s report is very familiar and extremely humorous, filled, as it is, with stories of incompetence, turf wars, unforeseen mishaps, mishandling of funds, and miscommunications. But given the context of the terrible events about to engulf East and Southeast Asia in a war with the Japanese, it reads like a commentary on the unreadiness of the British forces in Malaya just before hostilities broke out. At the same time, though, it reveals the ability of Thorpe and the concert party performers to triumph over administrative bungling and put on a series of successful shows for the entertainment-hungry troops.
Even though Thorpe’s report was an official one, it is not without bias. Thorpe takes every opportunity to point out to his readers (the sponsors and the Entertainment Committee) the incompetence of the man they had put in place as Producer—the position Thorpe thought he should have had.
Major Leofric Thorpe had been posted from India to Singapore in September 1939. Soon after his arrival, he became involved with a local amateur theatre group called “The Island Committee,” comprised of rubber brokers, tin miners, solicitors, and other British colonials—and also military personnel from the units stationed in and around Singapore, especially the huge military garrison at Changi. During the next two years, Thorpe became firmly entrenched at The Island Committee as Honorary Secretary & Treasurer as well as the Stage Manager for their productions. In early 1941, in addition to their regular season of comedies and revues, Thorpe instigated the development of a series of concert parties under the title, “Fun Fare: A Roundabout of Mirthful Entertainment,” to tour the local military installations. One item on the bill was Thorpe performing a solo piece called, “Saving the Petrol Ration”: “I did my after-dinner night act of riding a one-wheel cycle, and juggling either with three Indian clubs or with five billiard balls.”[i]
Towards the end of October, 1941, Thorpe heard about plans by a new group, the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee, to form a concert party to “entertain the troops in the rubber” – those troops guarding the isolated rubber plantations run by British colonials in Northern Malaya. It was to be funded by a local Singaporean brewery and the Singapore Cold Storage Company. Thorpe believed his two-year involvement with The Island Committee made him an ideal choice as Officer in Charge for such a touring company. But that was not to be:
“At the production of ‘Fun Fare’ at the Alexandra Hospital on 30 October, Lieut. Morison, who was working as compère in the show, announced that he had been selected by Command to be Officer i/c Concert Party, and was shortly to make a tour of the units to whom it was intended to give the show.”[ii]
The rationale given for denying Thorpe the leadership position was that his rank of Major was too high for an Entertainment Officer. He thought there might be other reasons as well.
It was probably assumed that as Lieut. Morison had worked on the Stage in England as compère in a number of Concert Parties, that he was a suitable man for the position. Actually this was not necessarily the case, for only a few of the qualifications have anything to do with actual work as an actor.[iii]
Because of his work with The Island Committee, Thorpe was well-connected with the civilian authorities in Singapore, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t complain vociferously to those he knew who were members of the Services Entertainment Committee. All he admits in his report is that he “accompanied the Touring Party as a result of a conversation with Inspector Blake, at the Victoria Theatre on 16 Nov.”[iv] (Inspector Blake was a member of the Singapore Straits Police and an important member of the Entertainment Committee.) As compensation, Thorpe was given the multiple roles of Stage Director, Stage Manager, and Accountant, and L/Cpl. Peter Gwillim, who had worked with Thorpe at The Island Committee, would be his indispensable clerical assistant.
As a portent of troubles ahead, Thorpe and Gwillim learned that Morison, who had supposedly made a preliminary reconnaissance of the tour sites, had not filed any report on his return concerning vital technical information about the theatres and/or halls in which they would perform. He had, in fact, not visited all the prospective sites.
Absolute measurements of stages, prosceniums, etc were essential as the equipment to be taken from Singapore depended on these facts. Unfortunately, I had nothing to go on . . . Gwillim and I later had to arrange everything, even down to commodes and toilet paper, with very little time in which to do it. In the end I took the equipment of the Island Committee, which took up about 31 crates and boxes. Lt Morison could not even tell me where there were mains or the voltages. [v]
Nor, they would discover, had Morison made any arrangements with the local base commanders in Malaya regarding the concert party’s needs for housing, additional manpower to help setup and work backstage during the show, or additional equipment.
And then there was the matter of the staff needed to produce a successful tour show. From his years of experience in the military and in amateur theatre, Thorpe had firm views on how a concert party should be conceived and operated if it was going to be successful: “Just as a Signal Unit is composed of a suitable number of Operators, Fitters, Linemen, Clerks, etc., so must a Concert Party have an Advance Business Manager, who goes round one stage ahead of the Company, a Stage Manager, a Producer, an Electrician, and a Carpenter.”[vi] Thorpe goes on to insist,
Here I should explain that the Mechanics of a Concert Party is equally important as the production of the show itself. It is only the method of presentation of a show which can raise it from the “entertaining the troops”, which is one of the horrors of modern war, to Theatre. It is absolutely necessary to create the atmosphere of the theatre. The audiences must feel that it is in a theatre, not in the dining room or some other place that it is very tired of seeing.[vii]
But Morison had not allowed for any Stage Staff to be included in the composition of the concert party. When Thorpe learned of this omission, it was too late to do anything about it, so it would be up to him (along with members of the cast and any untrained troops detailed to crew work at each site) to get the staging set up. Though Thorpe knew that L/Cpl Gwillim would have enough to do with the administrative side of the tour, Thorpe was forced to ask him to take on the additional responsibilities of Property Master and Assistant Stage Manager.[viii]
In order to have more authority in working with the other O.R’s [Other Ranks] and function at the sites in the Sergeant’s Mess,Gwillim requested that he be temporarily made a Sergeant. This was originally denied by the Committee on the grounds, “that it was not necessary to have anyone in disciplinary charge of the party, as it would be a ‘happy family’.” Thorpe knew otherwise.
This I knew to be a mistake because the ‘happy family’ was to be faced with some extremely long hours of very hard and monotonous work, and being in many cases temperamental, I realized that occasions would arise when a leader would be required, though his strongest weapon would be tack rather than the Army Act.[ix]
With Thorpe’s persistent urgings, Gwillim eventually did receive his temporary promotion to Sergeant.
Thorpe also had strong convictions on the range of talents needed to cast a successful touring concert party: “The Cast must contain a Low Comedian, and a Comedienne, an Ingénue, a Compère, at least one Dancer, several singers and instrumentalists, suitable people to play light and heavy parts in Sketches. Two Pianists are needed.”[x] But to Thorpe dismay, Lt. Morison had already chosen the members of the cast before Major Thorpe had been assigned to the company—some by audition and others he simply appointed—with little regard to the need for balance and variety among the limited number of performers permitted on the tour.
Morison had selected a group of seven Other Ranks along with three civilian women: “To my horror I found that two untrained girls were to accompany the party, Babs and Hilda Tennen, who had never worked on any Stage in their lives, and who were, as far as I could see, merely going to have a holiday at the expense of the sponsors.”[xi] Thorpe got Morison to promise that Babs, who had once done an “after dinner” Hula Dance, would take lessons at a local dance studio before they left on tour. The other woman in the cast was (Mrs.) Nella Wingfield, an actress and accordion player.
Among the O. R.s were Frankie Quinton, an accomplished accordion player; Fred Rackstraw, who did tongue twisters and “character studies;” Van de Creusen, another accordion player; Harry Pearson, who did impersonations; the pianist, George Rushby; Johnnie Thomas, a singer; and the female impersonator, Arthur Butler, “who was already well-known on the concert states of Malaya as Miss Gloria d’Earie.”[xii]
On 23 July 1941, had Butler appeared as an item with photograph in Vera Adrmore’s gossip column, “People & Places,” in the Malayan Morning Star. He was scheduled to perform “her impersonations act” at a birthday party for two women. Wray Gibson would also be present with his accordion.[xiii]
According to Tom Wade, Bombardier Arthur Butler “was slim and gracious, with small features and ardent brown eyes. He was always known as Gloria and the jokes about him were almost as numerous as they once use to be about Mae West. It was said that when he gave an order to the gunmen in his battery, they would always reply, “Yes, darling’.”[xiv] Stories about his escapades as “Gloria d’Earie” in Singapore abound. One anonymous source wrote that Butler, “undertook, on one occasion, to spend, dressed as a woman, an afternoon and evening in the city visiting Raffles Hotel and meeting people without being recognised as a man. And he got away with it.”[xv] Another, by “Tiny” Knight, was that Butler, who was an amateur boxing champion, flattened some sailor who tried to pick him up on one of his “drag” forays into Singapore.
TO BE CONTINUED, 1ST SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM
 A copy of the report was given by Thorpe to this writer.
 This has got to be misremembered. The reply was surely, “Yes, dearie.”
Told to this writer by “Tiny” Knight during a meeting at Tamarkan, Thailand, in 1998.
[i] Thorpe, Letter, 26 Sept. 2002.
[ii] Thorpe, “Stand Easy” Report, 1.
[iii] Thorpe, Report, 1.
[iv] Thorpe, Report, 3.
[v] Thorpe, Report, 2.
[vi] Thorpe, Report, 4.
[vii] Thorpe, Report, 2.
[viii] Thorpe, Report, 4.
[ix] Thorpe, Report, 3.
[x] Thorpe, Report, 4.
[xi] Thorpe, Report, 4.
[xii] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.
[xiii] Malayan Morning Star, Tuesday, July 23, 1941, 4. Clipping courtesy of Stephanie Hess.
[xiv] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.
[xv] Anonymous, 43.
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
Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.
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