WARTIME ENTERTAINMENT

Sometime in 1943, the exact date escapes me, some of us in Harland and Wolffs got together to form a "concert party."  I don't even remember exactly why or how we got on to this, but I suppose since entertainment was at a premium, and we had been living with the blackout and other discomforts for four years, something was needed to lift the spirits.  The term "concert party" was understood by everyone to mean an ensemble variety or vaudeville group and when we had auditioned, rejected and sorted out the group, we had a party of 10 people, five men and five women.  They did not all work in Harland's, in fact, but we had one girl soubrette with professional experience who was working as a tram conductor when I discovered her.  Another novelty song and dance girl was working in a city office, while our classic soprano was a telephone operator with the phone company.  The comedian, Jimmy Dixon, and his straight man, worked in Harlands, as did the classic baritone, Bob Moohan.    

Out of the ten people, we had two pianists, one of whom, Helen Pedrick, was a church organist and a great accompanist.  We always featured an accordionist, and we had several during the period the party was in existence.  One was Albert Lewis, who went to Australia after the war, another was Isa Pringle, who was a rather flamboyant player and could always be relied on to make a big hit.  We had a guitarist and a violinist (the straight man), Bob McKirdy.  At that time, I didn't perform at all except in odd skits, but I was the organiser, the pusher, who got them all moulded into a cohesive group.  Eventually, we were able to take on full professional engagements, doing Garrison Theatre gigs (for the troops) and shows at Army, Navy and Air Force bases, until well after the end of the war.  I wrote scripts, skits, parodies, acted as stage manager, did special effects, wrote the programmes with cues and lighting instructions, and did everything that made our group fairly slick and professional.  When we had fleshed out a format which used everyone to the fullest, and gave our audiences a well-balanced musical and comedy show, we started getting bookings from the Entertainment Officer for Scottish Command, Captain Archie McCulloch, who was a frustrated comic himself. 

For a long period, after we got going, we usually did two shows a week, sometimes in Army depots, sometimes in fairly isolated camps and often in military hospitals.  We did Garrison Theatres about once a month on a Sunday night, sometimes in Greenock Town Hall, which seated 3,000 and was always filled to capacity with sailors, soldiers and servicemen of every nationality.  The other Garrison Theatre was in Perth, which was not quite so large -- about 2,000 or so -- but it, too, was always a full house.    

One memorable show was in the Grand Hotel in Glasgow, which was the Headquarters for the American Red Cross.  It was a good show and we were very well received by the GIs who formed the audience.  Going to some of these shows in isolated country camps away out of town, meant long drives in cars provided by the Army command and, often we didn't get home till after midnight.  Having to start work at 7:30 the next morning was not easy, but I think the charge we got out of doing a little bit extra for the war helped to keep us going.  We kept the group, with some changes in personnel from time to time, until about 1950, and by then, we were doing shows in the local town hall and in the Public Parks, among others.  But gradually, it came to an end and the group broke up.

Before I get away from the concert party story, I should mention something of the members who played in it.  As I said at the beginning of the chapter, there were ten players, but six of these were the permanent all-time members.  The others were changed around as circumstances warranted, and their availability varied.  We changed our accordion player at times, and over the years, we used probably four or five, but Albert Lewis and Isa Pringle were the two best and were with us the longest.  We also shuffled some song-and-dance acts and on occasion, we used two different Country & Western guitarists.  Jimmy Dixon was the comic and Bob McKirdy was the straight man.  They always made a big hit and we tried to keep their material fresh and current.  For army shows, we had a lot of military material, which always went over big.  Nancy Wisdom was a classical soprano who had a beautiful voice.  Her solos were either from opera -- Musetta's "Waltz Song" or current favorites, such as "Fascination."  She also sang duets with Bob Moohan, a very strong baritone.  One set they used to score heavily with was from "Maid of the Mountains."  She would sing "Love will Find a Way" and he would do "A Bachelor Gay" and then together, "A Paradise for Two."  Bob soloed later in the programme with songs such as "Bless this House" or a current favorite, "Some Enchanted Evening," or occasionally an operatic aria, such as "Flower Song" from Faust.  We did some ensemble revue-like material and some comedy sketches, which always proved very popular. 

As stage manager, I arranged lighting cues, spotlight moves, and "black-outs," which was a way of emphasizing a "shock" punch-line to end a skit.  The programme was so slick that one act followed another like clock-work.  I used to lay out the music for the entire programme in such a way that it could be picked up at one side and laid down at the other in strict sequence, and there was never any lull to slow up the action.  Away from the show and from work, Jimmy Dixon, Bob Moohan, and myself used to go around to the variety theatres in Glasgow, perhaps once a month, and by juggling around, could take in two shows on a Saturday.  This helped to give us ideas for presentation and production, which kept our show very professional.  At that time, Glasgow boasted seven or eight variety houses, so we had plenty to visit and plenty of ideas to think about.  After the war ended, all this tapered off and our players went their own way.  Jimmy Dixon kept going on his own, doing cabaret, "smokers," and occasionally functions like our Masonic Club Banquets, where we would have 30 or 40 minutes of cabaret.  This was only a part-time thing, because Jimmy was a department manager with the Singer Company after the war.  Nancy Wisdom married a Canadian and went to Toronto, Albert Lewis to Australia, Bob McKirdy to his home in Greenock.  Bob Moohan and I kept in touch, and I learned to play accompaniments for some of his songs which were in demand in the Masonic functions we often attended.  Sadly, this also tapered off when Bob's wife suffered failing health and, more and more, needed care at home. Jimmy Dixon and I kept in touch even after I came to the U.S.  We visited him in 1981 when we were in the U.K., but he died around 1985 from a brain tumour.