Tag Archives: Jack Boardman

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

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 Carries On

By Sears Eldredge

Even with the reduction in camp numbers caused by the deployment of troops to Singapore, Up Country, and other overseas locations, concert parties continued to flourish all over Changi. When the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” opened their next major Variety Show in the Gordon’s Gymnasium, the highlight was John Wood in a solo drag act singing “Flora MacDonald,” a song made famous by the British female impersonator, Douglas Byng.

John Wood as “Flora MacDonald.” Cartoon by A. E. G. West.
Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

According to Jack Boardman, who was sitting in the orchestra pit, 

John Wood was dressed in full tartan rig including cap and sang a song . . . “Many’s the time I’ve been out in the heather, behind the bracken with young Charlie Stu” . . . dialogue mid-way through details how Bonny Prince Charlie was shacked up with her on the Scottish moors hiding from the Sassenachs and used to work in the field by day. He was particularly fond of porridge and would return home at night to the shack, saying, “Flora, Flora, I must have it now (ha’e it noo).” Flora would say, “Bonne Prince Charlie, get ye to bed. You’ll have your oats in bed and not before.”[i]     

[i] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

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 18th Division Players

By Sears Eldredge

In response to the success of Malayan Command’s Arms and the Man (and perhaps a little sense of rivalry), 18th Div. H.Q. requested that Capt. Charles Wilkinson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, form a Dramatic Society.[1][i] Canvasing the 18th Division Area for an indoor location, the Entertainment Committee found a N.A.A.F.I.[2] building with a stage that, if it could be acquired, could be easily remodeled to fit their purposes.   

The N.A.A.F.I. building in the India Lines, Changi, Singapore.
Photograph by Capt. Charles Wilkinson.

Over in the Selarang Area, “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” had also located a potential indoor venue – the former gymnasium of the Gordon Highlanders – where they could perform additional shows. Here they could hold their audience’s attention for a longer period of time – fifty minutes rather than their half-hour tour shows. So, they put everyone and everything they could muster on stage—songs, instrumentalists, comedy sketches, a magic act, and a ballroom dance number, as well as the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey, with “Joey,” his dummy—for Sing As We Go, their first show in this new indoor locale.

Highlights of their next show, Cheerio, included a telepathy act with Syd Piddington and Russell Braddon that would become one of their great concert party acts,[3] and a piano duet by Herb Almond and Fred Stringer.                 

How these two pianos were “acquired” are intriguing stories. One piano – an upright – had been obtained without the Japanese knowing about it.

One night, some months later, a party of engineers, led by Sergeant Keith Stevens of the 2/12 Field Company, making use of one of the gaps in the fence, made their way stealthily to an unused building in the former British naval base, in which a piano had been discovered. Without anyone’s authority they took possession of the heavy Robinson upright and carried it through the scrub and swamps back to the camp, a distance of about two kilometres. This was a daring and highly dangerous exercise, for if the lads had been discovered outside the wire they probably would have been treated as escapees; and the usual penalty for attempting to escape was death.[4][ii] 

“The Piano.” Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

The other piano – a grand – was actually acquired with the help of the Japanese. Some Australians on a day-long working party cleaning up the debris at Raffles College of Singapore University found it. As Boardman tells the story,

Not a full size grand, but one of the intermediate sizes. And they said to the Japs, “Can we take it back?” And they couldn’t care less, you see. So to get it on the truck they had to take the legs off, and the pedal. And, of course, when you see a baby grand without those things, it’s just a flat box.

So they put it in there. And then some of them sat on it on the way back. And they came back, and they said, “Boardie, try this out!” And in front of the theatre was all cement. And to play it I had to kneel down. Somehow, they got the Cantonese to build some legs on it and put on its pedals — and we had two pianos then.[iii]

[1] Wilkinson was passionate about theatre and his diary recording the planning of shows, their rehearsals and performances, as well as his attendance at other productions, has been a godsend.

[2] Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. An education and recreation center.

[3] Piddington and his wife would continue this mind-reading act to great acclaim after the war.

[4] This is the treasured upright piano that the concert party would bring back with them to Australia after they had been liberated and now resides at the Australian War Memorial.

[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 3 June ‘42.

[ii] Boardman, J. “The Changi Piano – and the Little Organ – The True Story,” Legacy Torchlight, 8.

[iii] Boardman, J. Interview, 25.

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

Touring Within Your Area

By Sears Eldredge

During April, the Australian concert party continued to tour a different show every week to the outdoor stages in the Selarang Barracks Area as well as two matinees to their sick and wounded in Roberts Hospital.

There were separate wards for battle casualties, dysentery, TB, malaria and so on [wrote Jack Boardman]. 

 I remember Happy Harry in his clown outfit on stilts singing and dancing in the dysentery ward. The blokes were really too sick to enjoy it but seemed to appreciate the efforts to entertain them.

In the earliest of these two concerts, I remember two patients who had battle wounds and were skeletal — one called Johnson weighing 42 pounds or three stones, who survived and came home, and his mate almost as gaunt. The smell of gangrene was strong in that ward.[i]

New songs and sketches were mixed in with previously performed materials to keep both the performers and the performances fresh. Boardman remembered one humorous incident that illustrates the hazards of performing on different stage heights:

It was funny, one time before we got our theatre going, one of our venues was around at the convalescent depot . . . And so Keith was doing this skit where little Jackie had played up, and he [Keith as the School Ma’am Teacher] was going to spank him, you see. So he pulled him onto his knees and hit him hearty. But he’d forgotten to put his underpants on — Keith . . . and when he sat down facing the audience with his legs apart, all was revealed. The audience was laughing and laughing. And Keith said, “Gee, I’m going over well tonight.”[ii]

But coming up with new material for a weekly change of program would soon prove to be a huge challenge for the Australian entertainers.

[i] Boardman, J. Letter, 18 August 02.

[ii] Boardman, J. Interview, Typed Notes.

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

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 2

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

But as the months of waiting for the war to start dragged on, the value of a show like the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s “Diggers’ Revue” for entertaining the bored Australian troops in their isolated camps in Malaya had not been lost on A.I.F. H.Q. in Johore Bahru. In September, Major Jacobs was asked to form an official A.I.F. Divisional Concert Party, but this time it “would function as a separate Unit and not be regarded as a temporary detached body.”[1][i] Jacobs again requested Lt. Val Mack as his second in command, but Mack’s CO refused to let him go, saying that he couldn’t be spared.[ii] This decision was overruled by someone higher up and Mack was transferred to the Divisional concert party. 

Auditions notices were sent out to all the units and one hundred and fifty men responded. Of these, four musicians and eleven entertainers were initially selected for the concert party,[2][iii] including John Wood, Eric Beattie, and Harry Smith, who had been in the previous show at Kuala Lumpur. Newcomers were Bob Picken, vocalist, from the 2/20th Brigade Concert Party; C. Wiggins, dancer and female impersonator; George Oliver, illusionist and fire-eater; Ted Skene, female impersonator (ingénue-type); Bernard McCaffrey, Irish baritone; Ken Wylde, actor; Tom Hussey, ventriloquist, with “Joey,” his dummy; Slim De Grey, yodeling and cowboy singer; and Les Bennet, actor.

Tom Hussey and Joey. AWM 116036

Besides Beattie on the violin, their quartet of musicians included Fred Stringer, piano and piano-accordion, Ray Tullipan, saxophone and cornet,[3] and Fred Brightfield, a former pit drummer for J. C. Williamson’s Tivoli vaudeville circuit in Australia.

Once chosen, the cast immediately gathered in Singapore to begin intense rehearsals at the Victoria Theatre.”[iv] Their official name would be “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” but in advertisements, the word, “Malayan,” was frequently dropped.

In late October, a preview of their show, “Pot Pourri” under the banner, “By the troops, For the troops,” was staged in the 2/12 Company lines at Johore Bahru, and attended by Maj. General Bennett, the A.I.F. General in Command [G.O.C.]. 

Both halves of the show opened with community singing and were followed by a series of comic sketches interspersed with solo specialty acts. The sketches contained an old military concert party favorite—a farcical ballet—“The Breath of Spring,” with a solo dance by Wiggins; “Hotel Swift” where Picken was the Waiter who “dispenses drinks in double time”; “Remembrance,” in which a solider with a “sympathetic Nurse” (Skene) were prevented from renewing their liaison by two Guards; “Eastern Interlude,” where “2 Diggers” inadvertently find themselves in the “Sultan’s” harem with “Fatima,” (Wood), “Hasheesh” (Skene) and a “Slave” played by Smith; a political satire, “Mexican Presidente”; and a repeat of the old “The Hole in the Road” vaudeville sketch with Jacobs and Mack. (From his penchant for repeating this comic routine in every show, and because he was a field engineer, Jacobs would be given the nickname, “Hole-in-the Road.”)[v]  

The preview performance was a success and permission was granted to take the show on tour. “Just as everything was functioning to a nicety,” Stewart wrote, “pressure of army duties forced Major Jacobs to momentarily relinquish his active part, and Lieut. B. Mack (2/10 Fd Regt) immediately took up the cue.”[vi] (What Jacobs’ other Army duties were we’re not told.)   

With the absence of Jacobs, the show had to be recast and reworked. A comedian, Harry McGovern, was brought in to replace Jacobs, but all the “Pot Pourri” sketches and routines were kept intact. The revised show was given the new title, “The Hit of the Show.” 

Before they could take their show on the tour to remote sites in Malaya, a portable canvas tent stage with lighting and other necessary equipment had to be procured. It was designed by Mack based on the tent stages he had employed in his traveling shows in Australia in the 1930’s.[vii] As it was the tail end of the monsoon season the tent had to be waterproofed.

Waterproofing the tent theatre. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

By 8 November their tent stage was ready. Now each member of the cast had to learn his assigned duties in setting up and tearing down the tent stage, as well as the loading and unloading procedures so that the stage, settings, and lighting equipment could all fit into three large trucks for transportation.[viii] Since they would be doing this on tour, practice sessions of these procedures took place.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s portable stage. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

This photograph of the A.I.F. Concert Party’s portable stage shows a large canvas tent-like structure held up by guy wires attached to a tall pole off to the Audience Right side of the proscenium opening. On stage, footlights sit before the front curtain which, like an old Music Hall olio drop, has advertisements painted on it.[4] It had been purchased from the income provided by the advertisers who also bought space in the program. Canvas wings flair out from either side of the stage to provide off-stage spaces for entrances, and an extension of the tent is visible behind the stage which allowed space for dressing and makeup rooms. Folding chairs are set up in front of the stage for officers attending the show.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in May 1941. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party was now ready to roll; their first stop, Jemaluang, on the East Coast of Malaya. According to Boardman, the show opened with the full company singing a traditional concert party introductory song, “The Hit Of The Show”:

It started off (singing):

“I’m the hit of the show . . .

(Speaking.) Different ones would pop out on stage.

(Singing.) “I’m the hit of the show,

I’m the hit of the show.

McCaffrey’s good, but you ought to see Wood.

I’m the hit of the show . . . .”[ix]   

Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, Mack’s elaborate tent stage lasted only two performances before it was abandoned for dryer indoor spaces that could be converted into a theatre.[x]

After touring the Australian camps in Malaya for two weeks, three performers, Bennet, Wiggins, and Wylde, left the show to return to their units and a new performer, Dick Bradfield, was brought into the company. A new show, “The Diggers Show,” was put together containing a mixture of old and new numbers. “The W.A.N.S.” sketch which had proven popular in Kuala Lumpur was put back into the show and the “Mexican Presidente” and “Eastern Interlude” sketches were removed so that Slim De Grey’s tap dance number and Harry Smith’s appearance in his “tit and bum” act could be introduced. The show would end with all the entertainers onstage performing an old Variety theatre farce, “Schoolroom,” which featured John Wood as the schoolmarm forced to expel one of the troublesome children in her class “after the teacher drops the chalk and reveals knees, thighs, etc., accidentally.”[xi]

It was in this show that Herschel Henbre’s patriotic song, “Aussieland,” was sung for the first time.  

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s the place for me,

Where the girls are beautiful girls,

And the boys are wonderful boys.

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s where I want to be.

It’s the homeland of the free,

And the place for you and me,

That’s where they shout coo-ee!

In Aussieland.[xii] 

            In early December, 1941, the A.I.F. Concert Party was touring in the Mersing District. On Monday, 8 December, Mack received a letter from Dan Hopkins written on stationary from the Raffles Hotel back in Singapore which read,

                                                                                                            Dec. 7th. 1941.

Lieut. Val Mack

A.I.F. Concert Party


Hello Val:

Last week a member of your concert party called on me and borrowed a violin belonging to my bass player. Said your fiddler’s instrument had come adrift and you had to get one while it was being repaired. Now the bass man’s instrument is used in the band here on occasions & tonight we want it for a broadcasting session. That of course is now out of the question but I wouldn’t have included the number in the program had it not been for the fact that your bloke promised to return it without fail before Friday last. As it is I can’t raise a god-damn fiddle for love nor money for tonight so would you please stick the aforesaid lamb-chop on any truck coming this way?

We need it in the band and your fiddler’s instrument ought to be fixed by now. O.K.?

                                                                                          All the best Val,


Whether “Bang-bang” ever got his fiddle back is anyone’s guess as 8 December was the day the Japanese launched their all-out attack in the Far East,[5] including an invasion of Malaya at Kota Bharu on the northeast coast, and the first bombing of the Naval Base at Keppel Harbour in Singapore.

For the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party, “the war made the abandoning of the party essential and each man was returned to his respective Unit to lend a hand against the invader.”[xiv]  

Elsewhere in Malaya on 8 December, George McNeilly’s 22nd Brigade Concert Party was performing in a 2/30th Battalion hall at Batu Pahat on the West Coast. As Jack Boardman remembers,

In the middle of a performance by Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood, the Sergeant-Major interrupted and ordered several troops to battle stations as news had arrived of the Jap invasion at Kota Bharu. We finished the show to half the audience and were driven home by George to our different units.[xv]

With the Japanese coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya on 7/8 December, the long-expected War in the Pacific had begun.

To learn about the quick reorganization of the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, read “In The Bag” (Chapter 1) in my free online book, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/.

[1]An official report of this organization and its activities, from which much of the information for this blog has been taken, was written by Cpl. Leonard Stewart sometime after June, 1945 in Changi Gaol. This report must have been dictated by Val Mack.

[2]Stewart writes that twenty-five men were selected for the Concert Party, but programs of these tour shows do not bear this out, so Stewart/Mack must have been thinking of a much later time in the concert party’s history.

[3]Stringer and Tullipan had both been in the 2/18th Battalion’s Concert Party [Frey, 20].

[4]An “olio drop” is one that can be rolled up and down on a batten as needed.

[5]It was the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked (December 7th) on the other side of the international dateline. 

[i] Stewart, Report, 1.

[ii] Mack, Letter to his wife, 2 Oct. 1941.

[iv] Stewart, Report, 1-2.

[v] Morris, Interview, 7.

[vi] Stewart, Report, 1.

[vii] Frey, 18.

[viii] Frey, 19.

[ix] J. Boardman, Interview, 21.

[x] Frey, 19.

[xi] J. Boardman, “Notes on Mack’s Production Logs.”

[xii] Lyrics and score provided by Jack Boardman.

[xiii] Dan Hoskins, Letter, courtesy of Kerrin Frey, Val Mack’s daughter.

[xiv] Stewart, Report, 2.

[xv] 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

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

Coming Soon: The Australian Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, May 1942-May 1944.

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 1

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

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.[1]

Major James William (Jim) Jacobs. VX40983.

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”).

Harry Smith as the circus clown “Toto.” Courtesy of the Smith Family.

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!).

Harry Smith on his stilts in Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Smith Family.

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,[1] 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.

Val Mack. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

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]

Jack (“Boardie”) Boardman. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

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[2], 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.

[1]One of the Federated Malay States, Selangor surrounds the capital of Kuala Lumpur. 

[2]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.

[1] 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

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