Articles

THE NOT-SO-HAPPY GANG

More than 2 million Canadians listen as Bert Pearl and his Happy Gang chortle their way into their 13th year. But the laughing listeners don’t hear the wrangles behind the wisecracks, the sighs behind the smiles

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1950
Articles

THE NOT-SO-HAPPY GANG

More than 2 million Canadians listen as Bert Pearl and his Happy Gang chortle their way into their 13th year. But the laughing listeners don’t hear the wrangles behind the wisecracks, the sighs behind the smiles

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1950

THE NOT-SO-HAPPY GANG

Articles

JUNE CALLWOOD

IN THE field of the professionally cheery—the happy-go-lucky emcee, the chuckling announcer and the convulsed vocalist—there is nothing in Canadian radio to compare with the Happy Gang. Broadcast across the country for a half hour five days a week its tireless good humor has won the program a record for longevity in daytime variety shows.

Currently in the gala throes of its 13th season the Happy Gang has but one outstanding peculiarity. When it’s not on the air it isn’t happy.

While it is natural for humans to feel the boss foolishly is overlooking their sterling qualities, and while it is entirely normal for musicians to feel that most other musicians should not be permitted to carry a music stand, the constituents of the Happy Gang (10 men and a woman) strike a new ultimate in both fields. With one or two exceptions the Gang feels nothing warmer than respect for the boss, Bert Pearl, and in the other department it is possible one half the Gang would cheer happily if the other half was fired.

The final incongruity is that the unhappiest man

in radio, according to his friends, is Bert Pearl, billed on the show as “that slap-happy chappie.” Some people close to Pearl have a theory his unhappiness stems from frustration.

“The guy is brilliant, far superior to the Happy Gang show,” one CBC producer claims. “He is a first-rate orchestra leader, one of the best accompanists I know, and without parallel in his good taste. It’s killing him to slosh around with that always-smiling routine.”

Pearl’s retort, typically gloomy, is: “If I'm

any better than this, why hasn’t someone given me a better show?”

The Happy Gang, despite the rumblings in the basement, is heard by more than 2'/¿ million Canadians, (»eating the soap operas by hundreds of thousands. Farm wives on the Prairies have written with unmistakable sincerity that the Gang sustains them through loneliness; a nurse wrote after an old woman’s death that one of her patient’s last wishes was that tire Happy Gang be thanked for having made her declining years happier.

“Maybe I’m just an idealist.” wrote one fan,

“but I don’t see how merely commercial motives could make anybody as consistently cheerful and pleasant as you folks are.”

Another: “Guess you just naturally have the

knack of making people happy.”

Credit for this sort of appreciation goes to Pearl. He is the showman on the program; he’s got a sense of timing and fitness and an agile wit to cover all the catastrophes that can occur in an unscripted show. He emcees the broadcast with an easy friendliness that never seems forced or artificial. Other memljers of the cast, while individually gifted musicians, lack either his glibness or his clean family-type humor.

Pearl ribs the weather and Easterners tmany of the Gang, including Pearl, are from the West), comments on the news of the day, reads some fan mail (the ones with a humorous twist) and reminds everyltody, everywhere, to remember to keep happy.

The Gang, the most expensive and most successful daytime show in Canada, has been heard and admired as far west as China and as far east as

More than 2 million Canadians listen as Bert Pearl and his Happy Gang chortle their way into their 13th year. But the laughing listeners don’t hear the wrangles behind the wisecracks, the sighs behind the smiles

Africa. Listeners in Arizona and Alaska have been advised about the weather in Toronto, and the “Keep Happy” slogan is as familiar in Canadian homes as “What’s for dinner, ma?”

Despite the handicap of their disinclination to sound merry, members of the Happy Gang feature happy patter, happy songs and happy rhetorical questions (“What’s money as long as you’ve got your health?”). Incredibly the show maintains a high standard of sincerity, month after month. The boys always seem to the listeners to be carefree and convivial and millions of people have felt better for having heard them.

There are some unkind souls in radio who claim this trick is the best thing the Gang does. The effectiveness of the act lies in the fact that each member of the Gang is a professional entertainer, accustomed to smiling broadly at the customers and restraining himself from booting the guitarist while on the bandstand.

Individually, the Gang members are more sophisticated than folksy, their musical taste several cuts above that which is produced on the program. On the air they give the impression of being inseparable; actually members of the Gang rarely see one another socially. Bobby Gimby (trumpet) and Cliff McKay (clarinet) are as close as any two on the Gang ever get but they are a great deal less than buddies.

When rehearsals are over and the Gang breaks

off to get a coffee at the restaurant around the corner each Happy Gang musician seems to prefer his own company. There’s little happy conversation and laughter off the air.

“When I first joined I figured we guys could have stag parties every now and then,” comments Gimby, whose youthful ambition was to be a member of the Gang. “I tried it a few times, but it just doesn’t work. We aren’t the same kind of people.”

The Happy Gang comes complete with several red-hot situations, all of them unwittingly created by Pearl. Two years ago he hired Lou Snider to play some piano (which Jimmy Namaro had been doing) and some organ (which Kathleen Stokes has done since the Gang was organized). Characteristically, Pearl made no changes in the Gang’s lineup with the arrival of Snider. Today Namaro props up a wall and watches stolidly while Snider plays piano; Mrs. Stokes is poker-faced as she slides along the organ bench to make room for Snider.

Then there’s Pearl and Hugh Bartlett, the announcer. Bartlett has great support among the listeners in his admitted ambition to become emcee of the Happy Gang. When Pearl departs around February to give his frazzled nerves a rest Bartlett takes over enthusiastically. His enthusiasm, however, is not shared by the rest of the Gang and his regime is marked by profane and bitter battles.

Pearl is not unaware of Bartlett’s readiness to fake over his duties anytime but this is just one of those things he overlooks in his comrades.

Pearl is a strict foreman during rehearsals and, like many conductors, is never too impressed with the suggestions from the floor. This creates a frustrated fury within the Gang, especially since four members are bandleaders and arrangers in their own right. Jimmy Namaro, Bobby Gimby and Cliff McKay have or have had bands of their own and Lou Snider has his own radio show on the network. The situation is equivalent to having four prima donnas and putting them in the second row of a mixed chorus.

Much of Pearl’s unhappiness is caused by having to produce a happy show from this assortment of temperaments and jealousies. Maintaining the amiability required of him is hard on his nerves, and, as owner of the Happy Gang, he has tremendous responsibilities. He makes all deals with the sponsor, record companies and music-publishing companies, selects the music, writes the continuity, edits the commercials, hires and fires not only the Gang but a secretarial staff and the occasional writer.

A great deal of the low esteem in which the Gang and its offerings are held in the trade can be rightly laid to sour grapes because the group has outlasted every other network show and continues to flourish. This

Continued on page 51

The Not-So-Happy Gang

Continued from page 11

naturally leads to charges by less successful entertainers that the Gang’s music is monotonous and corny and that its name represents one of radio’s more engaging deceptions.

To a degree both charges are true. But Pearl has flatly refused to fire any of his Gang, despite his knowledge of the inner rumblings. “If I kick him out,” he says of one, “no one else will hire him. I’d have him on my conscience forever.”

Because of Pearl’s stand the Gang’s music is based on an array of instruments giving scant scope for variety— organ, piano, vibraphone, accordion, bass fiddle, violin, trumpet and clarinet. This assortment is one to chill the soul of any musician—and Pearl is considered a first-rate musician—but the Gang opened its 13th season last fall with the personnel unchanged.

“I can’t be such a heel,” Pearl often reminds people. “I still have the original Gang except for Bob Farnon, who is in England, and Herb May, who is too busy with other commitments. The kids cut me up at times, but they don’t quit.”

Pearl pays well over union scale. Each member of the Gang is paid upward of $125 a week by Pearl, who has complete control over such matters. Eddie Allen (vocals-accordion), Hugh Bartlett and Cliff McKay reportedly get the best pay. Pearl is rumored to pocket about $35,000 a year himself after paying the Gang’s salaries, but before income tax.

Rehearsals of the Happy Gang tend to be about as/jovial as sessions of the United Nations. The dispirited musicians are anxious to please Pearl, whom they call “The Little Man of Iron” or, familiarly, “The Little Man,” but this can be a fairly frustrating endeavor. It is said of Pearl that he would edit the Lord’s Prayer and he has a reflex action that causes him to reject anyone’s efforts at first glance, including his own. He frequently throws out as “lousy j'unk” lyrics or arrangements he himself had written the night before.

About two hours before the show goes on the air the Gang arrives at the CBC Concert Studio in downtown Toronto and looks over the music Pearl has selected for that day. Pearl stays in his office the first half hour of the rehearsal and the Gang runs through the numbers under the direction of Eddie Allen. They work out the arrangements as they go, pooling their ideas until they get something mutually satisfactory

Maybe a Pinch Would Help

Then Pearl comes downstairs and hears the numbers through. He rarely approves the first draft and he is apt to express himself forcefully. Absolute gloom settles on the Happy Gang. No one speaks while Pearl examines the music. After a moment he gives directions in a weary tone.

He can be just as sarcastic about his own work. During rehearsal of a ballad called “Homework” he discovered a high F in his vocal. “That’s too high for me,” he sighed. “I j'ust go to D flat. Maybe if someone pinches me I’ll make it.” After a run-through he enquired of the control room how it sounded.

“Pretty reachy,” answered George Temple, the producer. “But it’s early in the morning, maybe you’ll improve.”

“I’m not going to improve,” retorted Pearl. “Snider, you come up on that note and help me out.” They ran through it again and Snider in the organ pit crashed some chords together

to cover Pearl’s voice at the appointed moment.

Pearl shook his head in disgust. “That might do it,” he observed glumly, “but not likely.”

Blain Mathe, a sober man, slouched past looking sadder than usual. “Look at the time these guys spend on their numbers,” he moaned. “Y’know how long Kay and I get to rehearse our organ and violin solo? Two minutes, that’s all. The high spot of the show and they give us two minutes!”

Mathe is the most doleful of all the Gang. During the MacNamara’s Band number, in which he bangs the lid of a garbage pail with a stick, he maintains the expression of a man whose feet hurt. There is a reason for this, it appears.

“He’s been trying to throw a party for the Gang since we first went on the air,” a member explained. “Every now and then he issues all the invitations. But his wife won’t let him. Sad case.”

Tribute to a Princess

Mrs. Stokes, who is the wife of a post-office official and mother of a grown boy, was an original member of the Happy Gang in 1937 when the CBC needed a sustainer (radio j'argon for unsponsored) musical show to cheer the flagging housewives around lunchtime. They named Bert Pearl, a gifted staff pianist, to figure out the show, sprinkled in Blain Mathe and Bob Farnon, also CBC staffers, and gave Temple the producer’s chair, i

Shows like this sprout from the brain cells of the CBC with ease. They cost nothing, since the personnel is all staff on salary anyway, and they fill up empty air harmlessly while the CBC angles to sell the time to a sponsored show. Life expectancy of such shows is 10 weeks; the Happy Gang, it was hoped, would last the summer.

Pearl chatted with Farnon, since Mathe was no less tongue-tied then, and Mrs. Stokes giggled hysterically at them. The music was easy and relaxed; Pearl sounded like the happiest man alive.

In the fall, instead of dying, the outfit went on the CBC network with Herb May announcing. The Happy Gang nonetheless seemed such an improbable success because of its folksiness that when the sponsor, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company, finally appeared it bought only three of the five-a-week shows.

Then Pearl, who is as lost in the financial world as J. P. Morgan, contracted to own the show and today it is what is called a package show. The Jack Benny Show has the same setup—the sponsor deals with Benny and Benny decides on the show. Pearl controls the cast, administration, record and sheet music rights. Colgate rapidly bought up the other two shows.

Although Pearl has wounded the

feelings of almost every employee he has ever had he is the most vulnerable man in radio. After a Brotherhood Week broadcast, in which he paid a beautifully worded tribute to the unity of all creeds, he received an anonymous letter from Ottawa which read; “Thanks for lumping us with the Negroes and Jews.” This wouldn’t have drawn a contemptuous curse from most hardened public figures, but Pearl is still wincing nearly two years

“You know,” he mused the other day, “the writer was a woman, I’m sure of it. I’ll know her handwriting if I ever see it again.”

Another time he spent six days composing a 30-second tribute to Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her wedding. He reasoned that the papers that day and other radio shows would be saturated with the story, that the Gang might best contribute a brief expression of best wishes. The result, rewritten about 50 times, was a gem. The following day he received a heated letter cursing him for brushing the princess off in such a manner. Pearl can remember the exact wording of that letter too.

He is uncommonly good at expressing emotion on the air. This type of writing is tough; many good writers are inept at expressing, for example, their grief at the passing of a friend. Pearl’s technique is neither hammy nor pallid. The word that best describes it is sincere. A recent effort was an expression of sympathy for relatives of victims of the Noronic ship disaster.

It was so beautifully done that there was a hush when he was through speaking and many women left the CBC studio wiping their eyes. Yet he nearly threw it away j’ust before the broadcast.

“I worked on that thing all the day before,” relates Pearl. “I knew how I felt about that fire and I knew the feeling I wanted to get across. But I am aware that if something like that misses, people want to say, ‘Get that bum out of there.’ Every time I write one of those I figure that this one will probably be the egg that will blow me right out of radio.”

“You Can’t Bring It Back”

Other radio personalities exude confidence and personality even when their feet have worn through their shoes. Pearl, at the wheel of his Oldsmobile convertible, exudes nothing but frenzied worry.

He worries about failure (“I’m at the top—there’s just one way to go”), about what the rest of the trade thinks of him, about what that man in Medicine Hat wrote, about the new song he is going to do (“I didn’t like it at first and now I hate it”) and about his health.

Around February each year he can stand his troubles no longer. Thin and

beaten, he informs the advertising agency which buys the program that he can’t carry on. “This show is a furnace that needs firing all the time,” he complains. “It’s inhuman. I’ve got to get away before I crack up.”

There have been reports that Pearl has a contract with his sponsors that he can be away from the show 12 out of every 13 weeks. This is nonsense, but it is a fact that Pearl has an unwritten understanding that he can take a brief holiday each winter.

While his nervous system is in some disarray there apparently is nothing the matter with Pearl’s health. A false rumor persists that he has had tuberculosis—Pearl says this stems from the time he drove to Gravenhurst and someone recognized his car near the san there.

“Since then I’ve had to deny that I’ve got TB about once a month. Once

1 met a guy whose brother works in the san at Hamilton. He claims I was there under an assumed name.”

His greatest agony occurs when the occasional “bad” show (the word is his) gets on the air. This sort of disaster affects him profoundly. “It’s gone,” he moans. “You can’t bring it back. We’ve broken faith with the people who count on us.”

Despite the vicissitudes of dealing with Pearl, Colgate has little cause to complain. Princess soap flakes were advertised only on the Gang broadcasts and the commercials had to be withdrawn when the company couldn’t supply the demand. When Colgate tooth paste needed a pickup the Gang commercials swung to the necessity for a bright smile and Colgate’s jumped to the best-selling tooth paste on the market for a period afterward.

A Raspberry to the Usher

Despite these impressive contributions to their stockholders’ dividends, Colgate’s and the Happy Gang have been unhappy in their association. A year ago the sponsor and Pearl tiffed and this time the sponsor auditioned some new shows to replace the Gang. None proved successful so both were chastened when the reunion took

The studio audience sees none of the tension which is so evident during rehearsals. Five days a week the 730capacity concert studio is near filled with fans. The big proportion of the audience are out-of-towners who comment in the lobby as they shuffle out “That McKay isn’t as fat as all that!” (advertised as “Ton of fun,” he’s 6 feet, 200 pounds); or “Bert isn’t 5 feet

2 like they used to say, is he?” (he’s 5.7); or “Isn’t Eddie putting on weight” (he is); or “Aren’t Bert’s feet small!” (size 6).

Pearl sometimes expresses his disapproval of his aggregation on the air, but. only the Gang itself is aware of the reproof. Once, when one of Bartlett’s Joke Pot gags laid a particularly unwholesome egg, Pearl commented dryly, “If you people out there don’t get it, don’t worry. We don’t get it either.”

Another time, when McKay and Gimby got crossed up on a rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Pearl cracked, “Boy, was that cold!”

Pearl often expresses the desire to dismount from the endearing little colt that has grown into such a headstrong bronco but it’s hard to turn loose the leading and best-paying daytime show in the country.

Sometimes he sighs for a little show again, with him at the piano chatting easily. Maybe a few convivial instrumentalists, just kick around some jokes and music. Might even call it The Happy Gang.

NEXT ISSUE

The Rise of E. P. Taylor

By Pierre Berton

Canada’s best-known tycoon has built himself an industrial empire out of beer, soft drinks, chocolates, food, bakeries, tractors, building board, chemicals, magazines, lumber and what have you. In a two-part article a Maclean’s editor examines the Taylor enterprises, and the man himself, revealing a fascinating story of a meteoric rise to riches.