Tag Archives: Slim De Grey

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

First Massive Troop Departures

By Sears Eldredge

In the last week of October, all of the British POWs from Fortress Signals in the Southern Area, as well as many from the 18th Division, started to be sent to Thailand to work on the railway. Huxtable . . .

. . . was glad to hear from [Denis] East that the theatrical and concert group to which he belongs are not to be moved with the rest of the 18th Division. By some means or other, exemption for them had been obtained from the Japanese, so the Windmill Theatre will be able to carry on although it expects to be moved inside our wire.[i]

But this wasn’t exactly true. Foster-Haig lost half of his choir and Fergus Anckorn and other entertainers from “The Optimists” were included on these drafts. Who wasn’t included was East’s own group, “The Changi Celebrity Artists.” By the first week in November, all the 18th Division drafts and all of the Singapore Fortress troops, including their concert party, “The Mumming Bees,” had been sent Up Country (see Chapter 1 of my online book for more details).

Playbill for November ‘42.

On November 3rd, the “A.I.F. Concert Party” mounted their first original revue with a book: a piece called, Hotel Swindellem. The plot follows two characters through various misadventures at the Hotel (which lived up to its name).

Although the Australians had been spared from sending any troops in these recent drafts, their concert party’s’ Variety Show two weeks later contained another Slim De Grey original song, “They’ve Taken My Old Pal Away,” which verbalized what many of the POWs in Changi felt about being separated from mates they had served with for a long time (only the first and final verses are given here):

They’ve taken my old pal away,

Somewhere over the sea.

Now [sic. Then?] we were so happy and gay,

But now life seems empty to me.

Now everything seems to have changed.

Like sunshine that turns into rain.

We were together in trouble,

In fun a good double,

But they’ve taken my old pal away.[ii]


[i] Huxtable, 89-90.

[ii] 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

“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

Mersing.

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,

Bang-bang.[xiii]

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.