The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party
The first units of the 8th Division Australian Imperial Force arrived in Singapore on 18 February, 1941. With the likelihood of war with Japan becoming more imminent, further units of the A.I.F. 8th Division would be sent to Malaya in August. Their Headquarters would be at Johore Bahru across from Singapore Island.
In late spring, Major J. W. Jacobs of the 8th Division Signals was asked to form a concert party as a charity fund raiser for the Malaya Patriotic Fund in Kuala Lumpur. Jacobs requested Warrant Officer Val Mack, a former professional vaudeville comedian who had toured Australia with his own troupe, “Mack’s Comedy Players,” as his assistant. Jacobs would take care of “arranging for the men to be released from other duties and generally being responsible for the administration” while Mack would develop and rehearse the shows.
Some A.I.F. Battalions and Brigades had already established concert parties, so Jacobs and Mack scouted out these groups to borrow the best entertainers for their important fund raiser. Besides Jacobs and Mack, the cast for the charity show would consist of Gunner Eric Beatty (a violinist well-known from Australian radio broadcasts), Signalman John Wood, “who was already well known as a young juvenile lead in both radio and the movies, having made some films at Elstree Studios in England,”[ii] and Pte. Harry Smith (an old circus performer and vaudevillian known professionally as “Toto”).
Two of Smith’s specialties included walking on “the highest stilts ever seen in the southern hemisphere” and playing tunes on his “aboriginal instrument”—a eucalyptus leaf!).
Also, among the performers would be Pte. Stan “Judy” Garland (tap dancer and female impersonator), Cpl. Val Ballantyne (singer-bass/baritone), the Englishman, Capt. Scott-Fox (baritone), and Signalman West (piano-accordion).
Variety Show concert parties were fairly easy to produce. According to Jack Boardman, Mack would determine the final running order of the show, but each artist would choose the content of his own solo moments so that the only rehearsals necessary were for any jointly performed pieces, such as the opening and closing choruses and comic sketches.
So Val would get it all together: “What are you going to do next show, Harry?” And Harry’d say . . . well, on one occasion he said, “Uh, ‘scuse me for saying this, but I’m doing my tit and bum act.” “Oh, ah.” And then, “What are you going to sing for us?” And he’d tell him what songs he was going to sing. And they’d cobble it all together and a dress rehearsal before the final thing.[iii]
In “A Soldier and an Entertainer,” Kerrin Frey’s unpublished monograph about her father, Val Mack, she wrote,
He had rules he expected to be followed at all performances. One was that there should be no smut, blue jokes, and dirt on stage. He insisted that a show must be fit for one to share with one’s daughter, aunt, or mother, if they could have been there. Another of his decisions was that there should be no microphones on stage. Not that such were lying about ready for use, but offers were made to find one or more mikes which offers Val refused. He said if a singer or actor could not be heard without the aid of a mike he should not be on stage. And of course, electrical gadgets have a habit of going wrong in the middle of a performance.[iv]
After several rehearsals, their show, “The Digger Revue,” opened at the Town Hall in Kuala Lumpur on Empire Day, 25 May 1941, with the Sultan and Sultana of Selangor, Major Kidd, the British Resident, and Major General Gordon Bennett, Commanding Officer of the 8th A.I.F. Division, in attendance. As the curtains parted, the full company was seen onstage singing around a campfire. What followed were solo turns and comic sketches performed by various members of the company, the more unique items being Smith’s stilt dance and playing tunes on his rubber leaf, and Beatty playing his violin on his head accompanied on the piano by Jack Boardman, who was on loan from the 2/20th Battalion for the occasion.
Their comic sketches included “The Quartermaster’s Store,” a satire on the military red tape written by Major Jacobs, as well as the old vaudeville routine, “The Hole in the Road.” John Wood proved his versatility by playing a variety of male characters in the earlier sketches, but then “gave the audience quite a shock” when he appeared as a female character in “Baby” (but definitely not a child) in “The Baby Photographer,” and later in the second half as “Miss Montmorency,” a Captain in the Women’s Australian National Service causing trouble for a befuddled Colonel and his men, in a sketch entitled, “The W.A.N.S.” The show closed with the full company singing “Waltzing Matilda” and “There’ll Always Be An England,” followed, of course, by “God Save The King.”
According to the reviews that appeared in the local newspapers the next day, the show had been an enormous success. “Never a dull moment was there in the two and a half hours of non-stop entertainment, the quality of which bespoke careful preparation,” wrote one reviewer.[v] The other reviewer agreed, singling out Warrant Officer Mack as “one of the finest comedians Kuala Lumpur had ever seen, either professional or amateur, and a great deal of the success of the show was due to him.” At the same time, though, the reviewer had to admit that “the Australians did shock the staid Kuala Lumpur audience with their ‘rich’ humour which nevertheless was very much enjoyed.”[vi] Both reviewers hoped the “The Diggers” would return in the near future with another edition of their show.
In July, Val Mack was promoted to officer ranks as a Lieutenant in recognition of his service.
As mentioned previously, Battalion and Brigade level concert parties had already been performing for A.I.F. units in Malaya that were protecting the strategically valuable rubber plantations and tin mines. One of these was the 2/20th Battalion, where L/Cpl. Bob Mutton produced weekly shows which starred the stilt walker, Harry “Toto” Smith and pianist, Jack Boardman (both of whom Jacobs “borrowed” for the charity show), as well as vocalist, Bob Picken; and, whenever her duties permitted, Sister Ogilvie from “the house on the hill,” a term which refers either to the off-limits Nurses’ living quarters or to the hospital.[vii] Another performer in this company was the “prima donna” female impersonator, Claude Edmonds, who “sang a clever duet with herself.”[viii]
He was a masculine type [wrote Boardman], big and muscular with lots of black hair on his chest, back and shoulders. He could sing like a woman and used to appear in a gown that revealed his chest and shoulders and he was a natural comic. One of his songs was “The Ferryboat Serenade” (“To serenade your lady, just take a spot that’s shady”). The audience really enjoyed his act.[ix]
But it was George McNeilly, the YMCA Representative attached to the 22nd Brigade HQ who, given honorary officer rank, pulled together Aussie soldier-performers from various Battalion groups, and created the 22nd Brigade Concert Party which toured entertainments to all the A.I.F. troops stationed in the area. Jack Boardman, who was seconded to this troupe, described its beginnings:
George McNeilly . . . was an ordained clergyman. He had rather an effeminate voice but was well liked. When he came to Malaya from Australia he was attached to my Brigade while we were camped in Mersing. In no time he acquired a truck, piano, pierrot costumes, etc., and formed a small concert party comprising [Jack] Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood, a drummer from one of our battalions, myself and others—all seconded from our various units when required.[x]
Like Boardman, Claude Edmonds had also been drafted from the 2/20th Battalion for this new Brigade Concert Party.
Their Pierrot costumes were the traditional ones: “white with red pom-poms on them where buttons are normally placed on shirts and blouses, with a pointed cap plus pom-poms.”[xi]
During the following weeks, the 22nd Brigade Concert Party toured the A.I.F.’s Mersing and Batu Pahat District camps performing their shows.
Part 2 of this post will be available to read on this website on 27th October.
One of the Federated Malay States, Selangor surrounds the capital of Kuala Lumpur.
Geoghegan and Wood were actually in the 27th Brigade the 22nd, so this is Frank Wood, a singer-actor, not John Wood who was the female impersonator.
 Jacobs, 16.
[ii] Jacobs, 16.
[iii] J. Boardman, Interview, 10.
[iv] Frey, 25.
[v] “The Malay Maul,” Kuala Lumpur, 26 May 1941.
[vi] Unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d.
[vii] Wilson, J., “Our Concert,” 2/20th Battalion Newspaper, 4 June 1941.
[viii] Pte. F “Joe” Wilson, Editor, “Siftings from Souvenir Seekers,” Weekly Bulletin of the 2/20th Bn., A.I.F.
[ix] J. Boardman, Letter, 25 June 04.
[x] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.
[xi] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.
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