Tag Archives: Roberts Hospital

Out of Bounds

By Sears Eldredge

On 14 July, the POWs got word from Japanese H.Q. that the British and Australian units within Roberts Hospital would start moving to Selarang Barracks Square in a week. (This will eventually place The Palladium and Command Theatres out of bounds—but not their players and production staff. When they did move, they would take all their costumes, props, lighting, curtains, etc., with them to their new locations.) They would move to the Old Convalescent Depot in Selarang which had become Command and Southern Area Headquarters.

Concurrently, “30 medical officers and 200 Royal Army Medical Corps other ranks” (known as “K” Force) were sent to Thailand, which caused POW Command H.Q. in Changi to fear that some sort of epidemic had broken out Up Country.[i] How right they were. The troops Up Country were dealing with cholera.

Playbill for August/September/October ’43. In early August, the A.I.F. Concert Party shared their theatre with a N.E.I. concert party. What they staged was a musical comedy in Dutch seen by Huxtable:

. . . about two young bloods touring the world.[1] They were smart, well-groomed and clever, and the female impersonators were good. One of the latter, in fact, was quite ravishing in a long, blue evening gown, blonde, beautiful and languorous . . .. I was sitting with Smith-Ryan, and next to him sat a Dutch officer who helped a little with translation.[ii]

Over at the Kokonut Grove Theatre, which was about to go out of bounds, the N.E.I. POWs stationed there produced, Faust: An Operetta in Three Acts. The last show at the Palladium, which was also going out of bounds, was Alan Bush and J. J. Porter’s The Little Admiral. Meanwhile both the musical, Everybody Swing, produced by John Wood, and the revue, In The News, were performed at the A.I.F. Theatre.

Programme cover for Everybody Swing. Des Bettany.
Courtesy of The Bettany Family.

In September, the Aussie’s produced Let’s Have a Murder, a musical mystery play written by Slim De Grey. They were also given word that the Japanese planned to record their shows for short wave radio broadcast to Australia— “as an indication to the world of how happy we all are here at Selarang Barracks,” thought Huxtable.[iii]

October saw the opening of The Time of Your Life, produced by British POW, Ken Morrison, at the A.I.F. Theatre,[2][iv] followed on the 19th by The Fleet’s In, produced by Bennie McCaffrey, which featured a “Toe Dance” by Charles Wiggins to a trumpet duo playing music from the West End musical, Mayfair. At The Little Theatre, Osmond Daltry produced Sutton Vane’s thought-provoking mystery play, Outward Bound.

Program cover for Outward Bound. Desmond Bettany. [3]
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Outward Bound is a serious play about the passengers on a boat headed to an unknown destination. What an audience discovers is that the passengers have all died from various causes, and their unknown destination will be either to Heaven or Hell. Only the young couple, appearing on the boat as they prepare to commit suicide are saved from death by the barking of their dog. It was directed by C. J. Buckingham (prior to this he had only functioned as Stage Manager). Former actors from The Palladium Theatre were in the cast. Huxtable, who saw the play on 10 November, thought it “a difficult play to produce successfully before troops, but in spite of that it was most successful. [F. W.] Bradshaw and [Osmond] Daltry are both professional actors. Daltry lost an eye and a leg (thigh amputation) [in the Battle for Singapore] and has to get around on crutches. Bradshaw, young and handsome, has been in Hollywood, I believe.”[v]

On 17 October, David Nelson records that Command was opening a “new theatre.”[vi] According to Huxtable,

[this would be the] former building where Smokey Joe’s restaurant used to be. The walls of the big entertainment hall still carry the cartoons in black and white, painted by Private Rogan of the Convalescent Depot, depicting Walt Disney figures and similar characters. This hall, being in the original NAAFI building, had a proper stage and they have enhanced the effect by rooting up the floor in front of the stage and constructing a pit for the orchestra.[vii]

It, too, would be known as “the little theatre.”[4] Now the Command Players had both an indoor and an outdoor theatre.


[1] Interesting enough, this was the same plot of a show, Zijn Groote Reis (His Big Journey), produced by Dutch POWs in Chungkai POW Camp, Thailand, on 15-16 September 1944.

[2] In mid-August, Morrison, a compere and leading player in shows at the Palladium, received a letter from his mother that told him his wife had been killed in an air raid the previous December. [Capt. A. Smith-Ryan diary, PR00592]

[3] Bettany got the playwright wrong on his program cover.

[4] “Little” refers to the limited number of audience members that could be accommodated in the auditorium. Outdoor theatres could accommodate a lot more.


[i] Nelson, 100.

[ii] Huxtable, 132.

[iii] Huxtable, 137-138.

[iv] Mack, Show Log.

[v] Huxtable, 141.

[vi] Nelson, 116.

[vii] Huxtable, 144-146.

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

Gentlemen Only

By Sears Eldredge

The “New Windmill Theatre’s” revue, Gentlemen Only (the company now billed as “The 18th Divisional Concert Party”) opened The Palladium Theatre on 21 December.[i]

Program cover for Gentleman Only. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

In a wry take on the show’s title, Desmond Bettany’s cover for the program shows one of the checkpoints many POWs would have to pass through to get to the Palladium Theatre in the Roberts Hospital Area. (This program was done for the revival of the show in January, ‘43.)

With the New Windmill Theatre now in the hands of the Japanese, and the 18th Division’s new theatre still under construction, Greenwood and his “Nitwits” Orchestra left the Windmill company and moved over to The Palladium. They weren’t the only ones to do so: the actors Derek Cooper, Hugh Eliot, Rich Goodman, and Jon Mackwood soon followed suit. And so did Chris Buckingham, Milburn Foster, and Aubrey King, who became respectively, The Palladium’s Stage Manager, Lighting Designer, and Costumer. (Besides performing as a female impersonator, Cooper would also design sets.) The American seaman 1st Mus, J. J. Porter (who had arrived with one of the new Java Parties), started work at The Palladium as Musical Arranger for Jack Greenwood, but would eventually take over as Band Leader.


[i] David, 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

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

Working Parties Return

By Sears Eldredge

In mid-December, the 10,000 POWs remaining at work sites in Singapore were ordered back to Changi, and they continued to pour into the camp right though the Christmas holidays, placing great stress on the housing accommodations and food rations there.[i] Those Working Party concert parties who were in the midst of rehearsals for their Christmas shows, brought back all their costumes, makeup, props, and other paraphernalia with them determined to produce their shows at their new locations in Changi.

Renovations at the old Garrison Cinema had proceeded speedily. By late December it had been rebuilt and refurbished with a new roof, an enlarged stage, split log benches for seats, electric lights, and witty murals painted by Ronald Searle, Derek Cooper, and Stanley Warren on the auditorium walls.[ii]

Since the Garrison Cinema was in the Roberts Hospital Area, which housed the bed-down sick from the British and Australian Divisions in Changi, a multi-national theatrical organization was formed to run the new theatre. The Entertainments Committee consisted of British Padre E. C. Weane as Chairman, Australian Capt. Alan Bush as General Manager, and [British?] Jack Wood as the Foyer and Box-Officer Manager. Renamed “The Palladium” (after another popular London theatre), it would become the most prestigious performance venue in Changi.[iii] The original idea had been to use The Palladium as a venue for touring shows, but it soon developed into a producing venue as well.

Eric Bamber, who had had little prior experience with military concert parties, was amazed at what had been accomplished in the renovation:

Well, by this time we’d assembled a theatre staff. We’d got carpenters, we even had an electrician . . .. He tapped into the main source of power going from the Singapore power station down to the mainland . . .. Because he tapped it with a makeshift electrical connections of telephone wire. I mean the damn things were lethal. If you, if you touched something, you know, [sound effect-phew], they’d flare if they got wet, anything like that. But we had electrical power . . . and the bulbs were stolen, and sockets were stolen, and eventually we lit the theatre up. 

Well, the thing right now [was], we had a theatre, which had seats, and a stage, and a roof, and a staff, but we had no show.[iv]

That situation didn’t last long.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 19 December ’42.

[ii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[iii] Bamber, Interview, Reel #6, transcription pages 10-13.

[iv] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

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

“They Won’t Let You Go”

By Sears Eldredge

When the first draft of 3000 Australian (“A Force”) troops were sent from Changi to Burma on 14 May, it should have included pianist Jack Boardman along with Major Jim Jacobs and other non-concert party musicians and entertainers.

And I was quite happy about [it] [recalled Boardman] because I was going away with my mates. And then word came that I was to be taken off the draft because we’d started to give those little scratch concerts around. And “Blackjack” had said, “Anybody who’s entertaining is not to go.”

So I went and saw the officer and said, “Can you get me back on the list,” I said, “because I don’t want to be stuck here with a lot of people I don’t know? I want to be with my mates.” Anyway, he came back and he said, “I did my best for you, but,” he said, “they won’t let you go. That’s the end of it.”[i]

During their years of imprisonment in Changi, Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel “Blackjack” Galleghan would protect the members of his A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party from these overseas drafts. He insisted they be kept in Changi to keep the morale of his troops there high.

Before leaving for Burma, Major Jacobs transferred leadership of the Aussie concert party to Val Mack, who was given a field promotion to Captain to head the entertainment group.

[To learn more about the activities of the Australians sent to Burma and the extraordinary entertainment they produced against overwhelming odds Up Country, read Chapter 3, “Jungle Shows: Burma,” in my online book.]

As “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” continued their weekly touring shows in the Selarang Area and Roberts Hospital, “Happy” Harry Smith became famous not only for his pre-war tall stilt and “tit and bum” drag acts, but for taunting his fellow POWs in the best tradition of barracks’ humor with the mournful cry, “You’ll never get off the island!” “No matter how black the news nor how depressing the atmosphere,” Russell Braddon recalled, “Harry Smith . . . had only to turn his long face full at the audience and wail the apparent truism, ‘You’ll never get off the island,’ for complete hilarity to be restored.”[ii]


[i] Boardman, J. Interview, 37.

[ii] Braddon, 177.

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