TrooPS and Troupers.
"Old never die"Nor Will the memory Of the theare of the trenChes
THERE IS the legend of the six Nova Scotians who were taken prisoner during a sortie in the Vimy Ridge sector toward the end of 1916, and whose more than surly behavior amazed their captors. Prodctyngs punctuated the halts for reluctant backward glances toward the towers of Mount St. Eloi, and brought forth deep-throated growls from the Canadians as they plodded on again toward the enemy lines.
“Out of the War you are not pleased to be?” asked a German officer.
“Listen,” snarled the spokesman, “we were trying out a new act Monday night, and now you have made us miss the show.”
The incident is probably exaggerated, but. besides possessing a propensity for fighting, the gentlemen who served under Currie in France were inveterate devotees of private theatricals. It was in the spring of 1916 that German aviators returned to headquarters to report strange happenings they had witnessed over that part of the enemy line held by those inexplicable Canadians.
It seems that, on their aerial forays, the fliers in the service of Kaiser Wilhelm were sighting groups of khaki-dad Canucks whose predilection was the executing of what appeared to be dance formations hitherto confined to the legitimate stage.
Upon hearing the drone of approaching enemy aircraft, it was the practice of these unpredictable Canadians to break their measured tread and scurry for the nearest shell-hole or adjacent dugout, only to emerge, once the plane had headed homeward, and calmly resume what
looked like so many steps to the right, kick; so many steps to the left, kick.
The German airmen had let the gymnastic Canadians have a few bursts of machine-gun fire just on general principle, but the barbarians from over the sea were too elusive and there had been no casualties. The peregrinating performers spotted by the German fliers were the original “beauty choruses” rehearsing for battalion concert parties.
Good for Morale
TOURING the last two years of the Great War, the Canadian Corps was in show business on a large scale, and had progressed from simple diversion in a dugout to elaborate productions which held such professional merit that several were presented in London’s largest theatres.
Nearly every unit had its troupers and each division had its concert party, to which gravitated the cream of battalion talent. The salient point was that the morale of warweary’ men had to be maintained. Apart from leave, the work of the concert party members was the most efficient means of providing emotional escape for men who had faced hails of lead and the loss of cherished comrades.
It should be remembered that these Thespians of the trenches may have received a few privileges as far as fatigue duty was concerned, but they continued to go into action, and many of them were killed or gassed, or badly wounded. Besides being machine-gunned in rehearsal, the troubadours put on their shows within enemy artillery range, and many a scheduled performance was postponed
TT IS to reconstruct some fragments which belong in the nostalgic memories of some thousands of Canadians that members of the various divisional concert parties will present, as a highlight of the Canadian Corps reunion at Toronto, some of those sundry sketches and still remembered characterizations which contributed so consistently in upholding what was known in official communiqué vernacular as “the spirit of the troops.”
To digress for a moment, the twentieth year since the signing of the Armistice will be celebrated at Toronto by an estimated 100.000 veterans July 30 to August 1. And from many scattered points, the headliners of the four divisional concert parties are heading homeward to present once again, as part of the celebrations in the reconstructed French village, the stage gambols which more than twenty years ago beguiled the soldier audiences. Temporarily shelving their civilian duties, the legendary favorites are en route from various parts of the North American continent and the British Isles. One well-remembered singer has even journeyed from faraway Tahiti.
In the earlier days of the concert parties, the efforts of the dugout dramateurs w-ere of the simplest. It was discovered that someone could sing a song to a harmonica accompaniment, and someone else could recite “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” with gestures. It was a rare occasion when one of the youthful jesters was discovered to have had pre-War professional experience in the theatre.
Not until the German drive to the Channel ports was halted did the more elaborate entertainments come into being. As the Canadian troops dug in, greater opportunity was found for the development of troupers of the trenches. Sometimes the auditorium was a barn ; sometimes a hay cart was the stage for summer evening company smokers.
In course of time, every Canadian battalion had its concert party, of varying entertainment calibre. As the audiences became familiar with material and personnel, a policy of interchange was formulated, whereby the entertainers of one battalion were the guest artists of the neighboring one.
According to the records and recollections, the first Canadian concert troupe was formed in 1915, when the First Field Ambulance presented a minstrel show at Bailleul. In all probability, there may have been other battalion parties in process of assembly, but the one which drew the most widespread accolades and is designated as the first officially recognized organization to tour the trenches, was that of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Subject to Interruptions
* I 'HE storyof its formation parallels that of other battalion parties which, then or later, entered the entertainment field. All faced the same difficulties, and the only facts that would not be duplicated would be the names of the separate members and the names of the towns or villages where the first performance was staged.
The Pats’ concert party came into being in the spring of Continued on page 33
at the last minute because of an unexpected bombardment. On stage or up the line, the footlight favorites drew their $1.10 a day and nothing more.
The whole colorful chronicle deserves a place in Canada’s recorded folklore, for it is one aspect of the theatre that is definitely British in tradition and one of the lighter phases of war.
Gitz Rice wrote “Dear Old Pal of Mine” and gained world-wide fame. Ross Hamilton as “Marjorie” is still remembered warmly for his uncanny impersonations of stately femininity. In mud-spattered khaki and hung with pounds of accoutrement, “Red” Newman became famous for his “Oh, Oh, It’s a Lovely War.” Back in Canada, Al Plunkett was the darling of the post-War flapper era and the sale of his records soared. Delicacies of fragility behind the footlights were Fred Fenwick, Leonard Young and Alan Murray, as female impersonators who mystified the spectators but were revealed as husky masters of make-up when encountered backstage or on their way up the line.
None of these troubadours of the trenches knew that they were creating history at the time, but what they did in France has never been forgotten by their comrades, and the oldtime magic of the concert party days is not difficult to recapture when veterans get together.
Reunion in Toronto
Continued from page 12 -
1916, just before the third battle of Ypres. Part of their original success must be credited to the Y. M. C. A., which had, by divers means and after considerable effort, succeeded in placing a piano in a hut near a Ypres rest camp.
Toward the end of May, 1916, as the battalion was ordered to relieve the Royal Canadian Regiment in the front line, six surprised men were ordered to fall out and report to Captain Pembroke (who is now living in Orillia, Ontario). The six mystified youngsters were Jack McLaren, of Toronto; T. J. Lilly, of Montreal, who had done some acting in that city; Fred Fenwick, who had just finished some courses at the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph when he enlisted; Stanley Morrison, of Montreal; P. D. Ham, of Toronto; and W. I. Cunningham, Montreal.
Now it had been the wont of these hearties, when on rest or in the front line, to be called upon by their comrades to get impromptu parties under way. This was usually a singsong in some muddy dugout or a rest billet. And the officers of the P. P. C. L. I. were presumably the first to recognize just what effect on morale such impromptu parties had. In the light of immediately subsequent happenings, the officers had the right idea. An enemy push was scheduled, but the knowledge of this was not general, and particularly not among the rank and file.
However, the sextet trudged back to the transport line and, after reporting, learned that all they had to do was prepare a show under Captain Pembroke’s supervision. Five days after the gleeful acknowledgment of this assignment, writing and rehearsals were halted. The enemy had broken through the Ypres salient, the Princess Pats had borne a heavy share of the attack, were badly cut up, and every available man was needed.
The six youngsters shouldered their rifles and other equipment, and headed up the line to rejoin their comrades. The furious German offensive continued. The Pats’ casualty total mounted cruelly. Upon being relieved, the small remnant of what was left of the P. P. C. L. I. dazedly stumbled back to the rest camp at Steenvoorde.
Real Talent Uncovered
HERE, after a rest period, rehearsals were resumed, and the first performance of the Princess Pat’s Comedy Company was announced for staging in the town hall. The morale of the battalion admittedly was bad. The men had come through a terrific engagement; that they had to complete a compulsory parade route march of some six kilometres from their rest billets to Steenvoorde boded no good for the six men of the line who were scheduled to present an entertainment.
Through an initial period of sullen and concerted catcalls, the audience out front indicated that they were in no mood to be amused, and inferentially dared the greasepainted warriors behind the crude acetylene footlights to make them laugh.
Meanwhile, the actors were also beginning to lose what patience they had, and began to punctuate the performance by strafing the audience with their own barrage of pungent invective. Fifteen minutes after the raising of the flimsy curtain, the audience had somewhat quietened down
and was watching the stage proceedings with respectful attention.
Soon they were applauding, and at the finish they were cheering. The members of the Princess Pat’s party were a hit! They had laid the foundation of that theatrical reputation which was to become C. E. F.wide and later result in a Royal command performance at the Apollo Theatre in London.
One of the earliest difficulties experienced by all concert parties was the procuring of costumes. At first the “ladies of the ensemble” wore burlap gowns and steel helmets trimmed with bandages. The opera cloaks might be of cotton batting daubed here and there with flecks of black paint to give that ermine effect. The wigs were made of rope that patiently had been unfurled into dinky curls, or perhaps an old upholstered chair or couch would be discovered and disembowelled.
As the efforts of the concert party boys caught on, they began to write home to Canada for costume items, or order these direct from London on their own initiative. Sometimes the transportation of these property effects became a problem, particularly when the strolling players were on their way up the line.
Now, according to the photographic records and certain individual admissions, some of the members who were conscripted into the concert parties of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces had faces like flounders, and it was a rare one that could have launched a rowboat, far less a thousand ships.
But military discipline was rigid, and, if the order was to play the part of a girl on stage, the order was carried out, however rebellious were the mutters once a superior officer was out of earshot. Should some unmannerly member of the audience be so rude as to shout, “Take her out and shoot her!” it was the privilege of the harassed one to hurl back some reflection on the parentage of the disturber.
There were others, however, who were masters of make-up. Perhaps the best known, as mentioned, were Ross Hamilton, Alan Murray, Fred Fenwick and Leonard Young. The classic story told of Hamilton, of course, deals with a young English subaltern who had just arrived in France and was the guest of a group of Canadian officers who had taken their accustomed places in the front row.
Hamilton’s current song hit was, “Some Day I’ll Make You Love Me,” and the special bit of business that always brought down the house was his directing of the song at some choleric colonel or newcomer, accompanying this with coy but fervent glances. On this particular night, the visiting Englishman was the recipient.
When he paid awe-struck tribute to the charms of the “lady,” the opportunity was too good to miss. Gravely, his hosts pointed out that the object of his admiration was a Red Cross nurse who occasionally came down from one of the base hospitals to help out in the show. W’hy not send a note backstage, and perhaps he could ride back in the ambulance? Hamilton, of course, ignored the note, but the incident became more serious when flowers started being delivered backstage.
It seems the youngster was going up the line for the first time and he must have a meeting; there was so much he had to say.
Hamilton, by this time, was getting pretty annoyed at the turn the trick was taking and avoided all backstage meetings. Unfortunately, with the dressing room situated in a hut to one side of the makeshift theatre, he inadvertently ran into the young Englishman one night while still in make-up. Fortunately, it was fairly dark and the quickest solution to the predicament was to whisper that he'd lx? right back as soon as he had changed and, yes, the officer could ride back in the ambulance.
After throwing his picture hat and wig into one corner of the dressing room and, amid muttered curses, climbing out of his gown and into the regulation khaki, Hamilton slipped out through a window in the opposite side of the hut.
Big Show Business
WHEN THE real worth of the concert parties began to he recognized at headquarters, it was the recommendation of General Lipsett, an R. M. C. man later killed in a reconnoitring party by a German sniper, that divisional concert groups he established. Under this plan, concurred in by Sir Arthur Currie, twelve men of each division were to he taken out of active service and were to devote full time to entertaining the troops. Naturally, for the sake of Art, these would be the cream of battalion talent.
The parties were assembled and were dubbed as follows: First Division, the
Volatiles; Second Division, the C-2’s; Third Division, the Dumbells; Fourth Division, the Maple Leafs. Incidentally, under this new program, all entertainment costs for the costumes and simple settings were shouldered for the duration of hostilities by the Y. M. C. A. The shows were, of course, free to the troops.
Again, there were no undue privileges for the players. When a respective division went up the line, the troubadours went too. They took the chance of stopping a bullet with their number on it, and many of them stopped it.
Toward the latter part of 1916, the headquarters psychologists arrived at the decision that the divisional concert parties would serve a greater punióse if moved from the base hospital and rest camp areas into more advanced positions, where their effect on morale might be more valuable.
And so the boys moved farther within the enemy’s artillery range. In acIclLon, the uncouth behavior of the German fliers and their lack of enthusiasm for these theatres of war continued to annoy actors and audience on the Canadian side of the lines.
By this time, the divisional concert parties were staging their shows in huge marquees that seated some 1,200 men at each performance. Based on previous experiences, the marquees were camou' flaged, but periodically they were spotted by the enemy.
More than ever, the Canadian Corps was now in show business, and on a large scale. Gone were the days of haphazârd collecting of costumes and stage properties. The entertainment units now travelled in lorries, and carried their own elaborate lighting plants and other cumbersome effects. Maybe some of the former glamor was escaping.
The procedure on arrival was to have a working party clear and level off the ground, erect the marquee and set up the portable stage and seats, with all the precision and dispatch of an old-time circus crew.
Still, the job was no sinecure. The boys were staging entertainments seven days and nights a week, with often two shows a night. In between, they travelled, wrote material and rehearsed.
The work, however, had an occasional compensation. For propaganda purposes, the Dumbells of the Third Division were sent to London, where they played a week at the Victoria Palace and another at the Coliseum. The C-2’s of the Second Division later followed. Members of both groups, of course, were lionized.
And so the pleasant months went on until the Armistice was signed. Then it was discovered that the concert parties must remain in France for several months after the cessation of hostilities. With thousands of men anxious to return to Canada on the first troopships, and bolstered in this determination by a job well done, the morale more than ever had to be maintained.
It was after the Armistice that the largest concert party production was ever staged. Entrepreneur of this was Captain Merton Plunkett, who presented “Pinafore.” in which some sixty members of the four Canadian divisional parties appeared.
With the old sugar refinery at Mons converted into a theatre, “Pinafore” ran for seven weeks. Later, this was staged for the King of the Belgians at the Trccadero Theatre in Brussels, where it netted some 50,000 francs for a widows’ and orphans’ War relief fund.
When they returned to Canada on the tail end of demobilization, the top talent of the four divisions formed themselves into a company and toured the Dominion. Their arrival and the shows that were staged became an outstanding event in the memory of thousands of civilians.
The esprit de corps so marked in France continued during the trans-Canada tours as the troupers travelled, this time more luxuriously, in two special railway coaches. I^ater, interest waned as the new talking pictures came into popularity. Certain members also wanted to return to more secure careers in business and had been dropping out.
What They’re Doing Now
AS A cross section of the adage that 4*“old soldiers never die,” it is interesting to detail what has happened in the intervening years to some of the former favorites who appeared behind the footlights in France.
Ross Hamilton is now a broker in Toronto; Alan Murray is the personnel director of the Sun Life Assurance Company in Montreal; Leonard Young is doing settlement work at St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York; Conrad Stephens is farming in the West; Tommy Young is a concert singer in England ; Morley Plunkett is running a haberdashery in Orillia, Ontario; Bill Tennant is a C. N. R. inspector; Jack McLaren has his own advertising agency in Toronto; Ted Charters and Elmer Belding are in advertising in New York; “Red” Newman owns a summer hotel up around Georgian Bay; Jimmie Good is with Famous Players Corporation at the Toronto head office; T. J. Lilly is with the Harbor Commission in Montreal; Norman Clarke owns a tannery at Barrie, Ontario; Merton W. Plunkett is with the North American Life in Toronto; W. I. Cunningham is with the Montreal Star; Bertram Langley has just returned from Tahiti; and Charlie McLean is now living in Italy.