It's the Happy Gang!
Their radio menu ranges from corn to caviar, and they boast over a million fans five days a week— Meet The Happy Gang
MONDAY to Friday every week, half a dozen performers converge on a CBC microphone in Toronto to serve up a radio repast that ranges from corn to caviar. They give their fans music with melodrama, sentiment with a tabasco dash of humor, poem readings sandwiched between scalpel-sliced repartee.
They call themselves The Happy Gang.
According to Elliott-Haynes, specialists in radio listener surveys, the 30-minute program which these gladsome gangsters have created rates as Canada’s most popular daytime radio fare.
The agency, which polled a million listeners for Master of Ceremonies Bert Pearl and his crew, asserts they have held that top spot since 1940, when they swung over from a sustaining to a commercial program after three years on the air.
Although more countryfolk listen to the show than city dwellers, listeners come from every segment of the population—service people, shut-ins, housewives businessmen, Canadians and Americans. Fan mail pours in at a rate of more than 1,000 letters a week during the 10 months each year that the program hits the ether.
During the seven and a half years it has been on the air, the Gang has polished off more than 1,700 per-
formances, interrupted only by such urgent messages as a speech by Winston Churchill. A crowning achievement was the presentation to the show of the Beaver Award for “Distinguished Service to Canadian Radio in the Field of Programs for 1944,” Canada’s closest approach to a radio “Oscar.”
The Happy Gang broadcast, on the air at 1.15 p.m. EDT, is one of the few programs that needs no script writer. All the chatter is ad lib. Only the music is rehearsed.
Bert Pearl is the spark plug of his versatile organization. All six performers take their turns at instruments, singing, comedy and commercial chores with an easy nonchalance.
Bert Pearl is one of the fastest ad libbers in Canadian radio. Once a member of the studio audience asked: “Are you married?” “No,” flashed back Bert, “1 only look this way because I don’t take my doctor’s advice!”
Back in June, 1937, station CBL in Toronto decided its morning schedule needed pepping up. Bert, at that time a .studio pianist, was called in and a program mapped out. After juggling with other titles, it was tentatively named “The Happy Gang.” When he stepped to the microphone a few days later, the young M.C. had only a vague idea of what he was going to say, but somehow words came. Between Bert’s wisecracks, Bob Farnon (later a musical director and captain with the Canadian Army Show overseas) played the trumpet and clowned around the studio, Blain Mathé tuned his fiddle, and Kay Stokes, seated at the studio organ, laughed loud and long at anything that was even remotely funny. Behind the controlroom glass, Producer George Temple watched, waited and wondered, never knowing just what was coming next.
Fan mail started a never-ending avalanche. Herb May was soon added to The Gang as regular announcer, and the show was broadcast from coast to coast. Hugh Bartlett took over the announcing when Herb left in 1938. The casual good-natured informality of the program has never changed.
At first there was no studio audience except on special occasions, when a few fans were invited. The show found a sponsor in 1940, and several months later it was announced that the broadcast would henceforth originate from the CBC concert studios in Toronto. Expecting a few fans to drop in, The Gang was amazed when the auditorium was filled and many were turned away. There’s been no worry about a full house since then. Soldiers, warworkers, visitors from every province crowd the studio.
Rehearsals are usually an hour in length, starting about 11 a.m. Then, after lunch, everyone is back for last-minute touches until shortly before going on the air, when Bert introduces the members of The Gang to the audience.
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It’s unusual to find in one person the combination of talents that Bert Pearl possesses. He sings, plays the piano, selects music for the program, and directs t he musical rehearsals, which are prompt and businesslike. He has a rare ability to win audiences, sometimes even against their will. He also writes music and arrangements. The tunes, “Keep Happy with The Happy Gang,” the “Joke Pot Song,” and “Don’t Play Bingo Tonight, Mother,” are all Pearl compositions. Once, when Alan Young was taking an Army medical, Bert filled in for him and did a fine job.
Bert says the catch phrase depicting
him as “Five Feet Two and a Half of Sunshine” is a bit misleading. “When people see me for the first time they expect to find some sort of a pygmy! Really, I'm five feet six and a half inches . . . without my wedgies!” His easy smile shows regular teeth. You notice his eyes are big and blue. His hair is brown and curly, but under some control, and he never wrears a hat.
In Bert's 32 years he has never “made the same mistake once.” In other words, girls, he’s a bachelor. He lives in a comfortable apartment where he indulges his hobbies of collecting cartoons and recordings—classical and swing.
He was born in Winnipeg; and took to music and the piano at an early age. His first ambition, however, was to be a
brain surgeon and startl'd the medical course at the University of Manitoba, but abandoned it, of necessity. A local radio station auditioned him for a studio pianist. He got a job , . .butas a singer! That was in 1932, and he was on the air continuously in Winnipeg for the next four years until he went East, to Toronto and the CBC.
Are Versatile Performers
Probably no similar group of seven musicians in North America has more talent crammed into it than has The Happy Gang. Take Blain Mathé, for instance.
He’s equally at home among the classics and jive. This dexterity dates back to his childhood when, tired of playing Mozart and Chopin, strictly “long-hair,” he’d break into his own swing version of the Masters’ works. Père Mathé called it sacrilege. Blain called it “doodling.” And it’s paid dividends. Also, Blain’s vocal chords are so elastic that he plays most of the female impersonations in The Gang’s comedy renditions. His ambition is to someday sing a whole soprano solo! But hLs great love is classical music, and, although he can saw off a mean hoedown if need be, most of the special requests for him to play are classics.
The “knock-knock” you hear at the beginning of the show is Blain rapping his knuckles on the back of his violin.
Blain is tall, slim, and has dark brown eyes. He was born into a musical family 35 years ago in Ottawa. Superstitious, he always carried a rabbit’s foot in his violin case. He is happily married and has a 10-year-old daughter.
Teaming up with Blain for special duos is the only female musician with The Gang . . . Kathleen Stokes.
A Gang original, Kay says: “Some
people fall for a smooth line, others fall in love, but I just fall, period!” Her ankles are so supple from pedalling the organ that they bend in any direction without the slightest provocation.
In Windsor, following a program, Blain was introducing Kay to some friends. “This is Kay Stokes,” he said, turning to Kay at his side. But Kay had disappeared. He was just in time to see her topple off the platform plunk into the arms of a group of fans. An announcer who tried to catch her followed headfirst.
Kay is from Thorold, Ont. Even as a child she had a yen to play the organ. She had her first chance in church. Next she played for a number of movie houses as a pianist and finally as organist. This power behind the mighty chords which roll from the studio organ is just an inch over five feet. She’s famous for her infectious laugh and admits she’s a sucker for the latest in costume jewellery. Dressing her hair is a problem for Kay. Womanlike, she loves experimenting with new styles, but The Gang prefer it sleek all the time. To keep peace in The Gang she’s often had to comb out a fancy “do” before her colleagues would start rehearsal.
In 1933 an 18-year-old soloist at the Chicago World’s Fair performed with a 100-piece xylophone orchestra made up of players from all over the world. Ten years later that soloist, Jimmy Namaro, joined The Happy Gang to do things with the vibraharp, xylophone, marimba and piano. In the interval Jimmy had found time to be guest star on the Kate Smith show, take a fling at running his own night club in Toronto, and lead his own orchestra for four years—oddly enougfi with Blain Mathé as first violin.
Early in his career Jimmy was tabbed “Tomatoes” and the nickname has stuck. The first time he was invited to his girl friend’s house he had
reason to regret his nickname. She had prepared an all-tomato dinner. There were big tomatoes, little tomatoes, sliced, stewed, fried and stuffed. Politely he struggled through the meal, but he's never felt quite the same about tomatoes since. The girl explained that she thought, with a name like “Tomatoes,” he must have a terrific appetite for them. Jimmie forgave her and married her. They now have a year-old daughter.
Jimmy is tall, has black curly hair and a trim mustache. Although he was born in La Rosita, Mexico, he grew up in Hamilton. Once a boy soprano, Jimmy had his first xylophone before he was 15, and soon afterward made his first radio appearance in Toronto. He now spends much of his time writing music, and often collaborates with Bert on arrangements for The Gang.
Another ex-boy soprano is Eddie “Swoon-Goon” Allen, whose original two-week trial with The Gang has stretched into its seventh year.
Canadian Mothers Like Him
Eddie is tops with mothers along the network because of the “Hello, Mom,” with which he precedes his first song every day. He looked so young when he first joined the group that Bert said, “Well, Ed, just so your mother will know you got here okay, you’d better say hello to her.” So it started, and it grew into a tradition. Several years ago, figuring listeners must be tired of hearing it, Eddie eliminated the familiar introduction. Soon mothers swamped the studio with letters protesting the omission. They said that to most of them it was as if their own boy in the armed forces away from home was sending a greeting. So once more it was, “Hello, Mom!”
1 asked Eddie how it felt to be one of Canada’s favorite crooners. “I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t like it,” he replied. The girls besiege him for autographs after every broadcast and once a fan phoned him long-distance from Manitoulin Island asking him to sing to her. She said it was her birthday and the call was a present from friends. Poor Eddie had to beg off . . . he had laryngitis.
Eddie is natural and unassuming and could pass for a high-school senior although he’s 24. He’s five feet eight inches with dark wavy hair and brown eyes. Born in Toronto, he’s married to his schoolday sweetheart, “Mum.”
At the age of 10, Eddie first got an accordion, and, after practice, won several contests at the Canadian National Exhibition. He also came out on top in several amateur shows, and made his radio debut at 15. On the program Eddie often accompanies himself at the piano. In his spare time he’s a song writer. His best-known opus is, “You Walk in My Sleep.”
About halfway through each Happy Gang show there is a feature called “The Joke Pot,” which combines what are probably the corniest jokes and the corniest acting in Canadian radio. These two minus quantities add up to a highlight of the program. Listeners send in 500 jokes every week, although only one is dramatized each day. This has been Announcer Hugh Bartlett’s special department since Bob Farnon left to join the Army. The Joke Pot grew out of Bob’s “grammatized” stories, which he really got most of the time from his grandmother.
Vancouver’s blond Mr. Bartlett always dresses his characters in an assortment of raggedy female props he has gathered from here, there and beyond. Listeners always wonder what makes the studio audience laugh just before the “mellerdrayrna.” For their information, it’s Hugh’s special version of a snake dance which he
performs while the rest of The Gang give out with the Joke Pot song.
Hugh started on an advertising career, hut, unfortunately for that profession, he collected phonograph records. A friend heard some and asked him if he’d mind assembling a few of the selections for a program being started at CJOR. Hugh took them down to the studio, and a few seconds before the program was to go on the air he was told, “Well, there’s the mike. It’s your show!” Hugh broke out in a sweat. He’d never heen on the air before. Hut he gave it a whirl and did such a fine job lie became a regular performer. He next won a newshroadcasting audition in 1937. The year after that las was transferred to Toronto. About six weeks after he arrived Herb May left to join the Columbia Broadcasting System, and Hugh was invited to take his place. “That.,” he says, “was the best break I ever got in radio.” In addition 1»; met Pauline, a secretary at the advertising agency which handles the program. In 1940 she became Mrs. Bartlett.
Hugh is about five feet eleven; won’t start a broadcast unless he has a pencil in his right hand; and has now a collection of more than 2,500 records, nearly all “hot.” Hugh sings in a peculiar “dead-pan” voice, and his tricky rendition of “Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas” is a favorite with listeners.
“Ton of Fun” McKay
In 1943, when Boh Far non left The Happy.Gang for the wars, Bert Pearl was faced with the problem of replacing him with an instrumentalist who could give out with jibe songs contrasting with the sweet efforts of Eddie Allen. In spite of the fact that his car broke down and he was an hour late for the audition, Cliff “Ton of Fun” McKay got the job.
It was Canada’s “Voice of Hockey,” Foster Hewitt, who first heard Cliff sing, a dozen years back, and was impressed enough to compliment the young fellow. Inspired, the clarinetist began to develop his voice, and was soon being featured with different bands as singer and musician.
By his nickname you might imagine Cliff to be fat, but he isn’t . . . he’s just broad-shouldered all the way down. At the age of 36 he’s an inch and a half under six feet and weighs 2(H) pounds. Back in his home town of Guelph, Ont., Cliff' had visions of being a great doctor. That was before he got his first saxophone when he was 16. All thoughts of medicine vanished into music. From then on he played with hands all across Canada and the U. S. His own unit had a stand in Bermuda.
Cliff got into radio 12 years ago, and is now considered one of the best men on sax and clarinet. He’s one of the few radio artists to use a soprano sax. Although he’s the butt of much ribbing from the rest of The Gang, Cliff takes it all in his easy stride and dishes it out with equal abandon. His hobby is learning dialects. He can now pull a Dutch,''Greek, Cockney, Oxford, Scottish or Irish dialect from his sleeve whenever the occasion demands. Cliff is married and has a boy and two girls.
Three people are responsible for the behind-the-scenes work of The Happy Gang. George Temple, the original producer, is the sandy-haired bundle of energy who sits in the control room during the broadcast and carries on a strange sign language conversation with I he Gang. Born in London, George took up acting after service in the Great War. When he toured Canada in 1922 with a stage company he fell in love with the country and stayed here. He soon got into radio and was key producer with the CBC
when he joined The Happy Gang. One of his responsibilities is the split-second timing of the show. Often he contributes poetry readings to the program too.
John Adaskin, the agency director, is sometimes called “The Funnel” by the rest of the merger. Problems, suggestions and so on between the advertising agency, the sponsor and The Gang are routed through him. It keeps him busy, hut lie has a diplomat’s touch for the job.
Dark-haired and dimpled, “Johnny’’ comes from a musical family and has heen in show business most of his life. He once played cello in the Toronto Symphony. He was a CBC producer also before joining The Happy Gang in 1943. Johnny says, “I believe the fact that everything The Gang does, on and off the mike, is known up and down the network is responsible more than anything else for the continued popularity of the group. That personal touch gives listeners a feeling that each member of The Gang is an old friend.”
A cool-headed young girl, Mary Muir, is responsible for technical operations during the broadcast. She “mixes” the show, adjusts volumes on a control panel so that a clear sound picture fills the ear of the listener. Mary was one of the first girl operators with the CBC, and has been with The Happy Gang for two years.
The group has supplied more than 100 Allied merchant ships with portable phonographs and records through proceeds from the sale of its “Happy Gang Book of War Songs.” Other comforts are also being supplied.
In the last four years the postman has carried more than a quarter of a million fan letters to The Happy Gang mailbox. Most of these letters contain plain heartfelt appreciation for the lift given by the programs.
One day that will long remain in the memories of fans is Dec. 12, 1944. That was the day the great Toronto storm stopped every member of The Happy Gang from getting to the studio except Bert Pearl and John Adaskin. One after another, The Gang phoned Bert to say they couldn’t make it. Finally, in despair, Bert called John Adaskin and said he thought they’d better try to put something on the air. So, trudging nearly three miles through heavy drifts to the studio, Bert arrived with his hair caked with ice. John arrived soon after, toting a snow shovel.
On the air they had only a hazy idea of what they were going to do. Bert would play a number on the piano, ad lib a few minutes and signal the engineer for a record, then John would come in with a message from the sponsor. It was Johnny’s first try at commercials and Bert kidded him incessantly.
Ironically, Bert’s first ditty was,
I “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas!”