Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter V. — The Panto
The engineers, under Major Roger Dansey, had constructed a light railway running up to the line, and the station directly outside our marquee was named "Dunedin." So, here it was that we put on our pantomime, "Achi Baba and the Forty Thieves" (including the orchestra): we had to include the latter, for we were only fifteen all told, on-stage.
We were fortunate in getting all our costumes from Oscar Asche when he re-dressed "Chu Chin Chow" in London. All the musical numbers were right up-to-date, and included many of those from Asche's most tuneful show.
One of the hits of this epic event was the appearance of Lt. Dave Kenny in the role of "Titania, the Fairy Queen," as, I feel sure, any of the numerous Wellington friends of this much lamented prince of good fellows might well imagine, should they picture that big lump of good nature dressed as he was in a short muslin dress, with beautiful golden hair and a pair of gossamer wings, floating on to the stage, carrying a tall staff topped with a silver star, and singing "I am the beautiful fairy queen, always a love and ever sixteen."
With his two shining front teeth lighting up his ever-beaming smile, he was surely an example of mirth personified; and how he did enjoy it!page 84
Le Comte's "Achi Baba" (a poor wood-cutter and lead-swinger) and Lyttleton's "Cogia" (Achi's wife) were both riots of humour, as was all the by-play with Edward, the donkey, of which Lymer and Nation were the fore and after parts respectively.
Unfortunately this screamingly funny quadruped over-balanced one night, and fell on top of the orchestra, into the well. Trezise did some excellent featured numbers with the girls (?) particularly one in which, dressed as an artist, with velvet tarn and palette complete, he sang tributes to the fair beauties as they stepped in turn from an easel, where each had posed, while Theo put some imaginary touches to the picture. He was also the prima-donna in the Lena Bashwell Quartette (a take-off on the Lena Ashwell Concert Parties which came over from London to amuse the troops in France), in which Dave Kenny played the piano with long-fingered woollen gloves, which he would remove and blow up sometime during the act.
Lyttleton, in a most unruly shock of long hair, stood on Trezise's train, whilst playing the violin obligato, and Norman Martin contrived to dig the singer in the ribs with his 'cellist's bow every time the fair screecher got anywhere near the top note of Arditi's "Il Bacio."
The long train of Trezise's beautiful frock was fixed throughout its entire length, from the hem to the back of the neck, with dome fasteners; and when he retired, after bowing solemnly to the applause, the whole back portion of the dress stripped off, with results that may be better imagined than described.page 85
It was certainly very low comedy, but did it go?
The biggest feature of the entire pantomome, however, was Lyttleton's conducting of the orchestra in Sousa's great march, "Stars and Stripes."
Dressed in character, as the dame, Lyttleton certainly rose to great heights in this specialty number, and it is only the truth to say that he was successful in stopping the show nightly. It is not disrespectful to Sousa and his stirringly popular march to say that it lent itself admirably to the purpose for which it was used on this occasion, and the energy with which Lyttleton threw himself into his job as conductor had to be seen to be believed.
The announcement of the well-known bass solo found him dancing round as though trying to beat out a fire in the seat of his skirts, while, with the shriller answering notes of the wood-wind, he would twiddle a little finger in his ear, as if trying to dislodge a bee, and so, to every changing phase of the music he responded with a suitable gesture until, with the march bowling along swimmingly in the last triumphant strain, the little comedian put on an exhibition of every stroke in the sport from the breast-stroke to the Boston crawl, finally collapsing apparently exhausted in the middle of the orchestra.
It must be realised that any attempt to commit a detailed account of so clever and humorous an act as this to paper, must be doomed to failure beforehand, as one can only give a slight indication of the situation as it was.page 86
I am quite sure Lytt. would like me to mention the excellent assistance he received at all times from our wizard drummer, Les Probert, without whose expert handling of the many and varied percussion effects the act could never have achieved its tremendous success.
Leading ladies are usually mentioned early in any theatrical review, and so perhaps I ought to offer an apology for my failure to mention "Morgiana," the slave, as played by our "Sweet Nell," whose biggest song was the then popular "Let the great big world keep turning." The "Kissing time" duet from "Chu Chin Chow," which she sang with Trezise, was one of the most tuneful songs of the whole show.
Green was magnificent as the blood-thirsty O.C. of the "Forty Thieves," while Dick Moloney was well in the picture with the "Cobbler's Song," which was also from "Chu Chin Chow." My own song had to be called "Roses of Araby" as, it being an Eastern panto., "Roses from Picardy" might have seemed rather incongruous.
The whole show took over three hours to run through, and as we were all wanted in nearly every concerted item, the number of changes we were required to make kept us busy the entire evening.
Most of us had to be dressed as girls at some stage of the proceedings when, with the aid of a length of rope and a lot of luck, we endeav-oured to squeeze into the dresses provided.
One of the heroes of the show must have been friend Matthews, a new-comer to us who, in spite of the freezing cold, continued topage 87blacken himself all over, every night, so that he might appear in his character of an Ethiopian attendant to Princess Morgiana.
The Princess's first entrance was preceded by a slave in the person of Taffy Williams, a helper from the Dental Corps, who contrived to walk backwards while bestrewing the lady's path with rose petals.
On rum issue nights, Taffy had to be guided in his task, as on several occasions he very nearly ruined the scenery by the very unsteady course he was wont to steer.
Our splendid orchestra gave us a great start off with a spirited rendering of one of Suppe's overtures, and its work right throughout the entire performance was quite up to the highest professional standard.
I have mentioned somewhere previously the magnificent work of our scenic artist, but I must again pay him a tribute for his excellent work in the Panto., which required so many changes of scenery.
Some of the effects he obtained were little short of astounding. The lighting on stage was positively dazzling, and after some hours of working in the strong spot-lights, the pitch blackness everywhere outside caused several casualties from falls into the deep ditches which lined each side of the road of our billets.
Here, as in other parts of the line, rats were very much in evidence; being, as usual, ever on the hunt for food. My Christmas parcels contained a half-pound cake of solid chocolate which I stowed away safely in the pocket of my British Warm, as a special treat for the morrow.page 88
That night I could not sleep a wink, for those confounded rats kept jumping on top of me all night, and as fast as I knocked them off, they would return.
On looking for my extra special treat in the morning, I discovered a large hole chewed out of the stout jean pocketing of my overcoat, and only the paper wrapping of my much-prized chocolate remained. On another occasion I received a bite on the middle finger of my right hand from one of the hungry brutes, which were sometimes as big as rabbits—almost.
But all that is merely by the way, and to get back to the pantomime, there is no doubt it was a great success. We never lacked audiences, and long queues could be seen daily, waiting hours in the snow, from early in the afternoon until 5.30 p.m., when the doors opened. As I have said, the big marquee was in a very exposed position, and on several nights when the distinctive drone of enemy bombers could be heard overhead, all lights were extinguished while a thousand men sat in silence, in the dark, hoping that the Hun had run out of bombs.
These could be heard often, as they burst nearby, and on one occasion two New Zealanders were killed by one of these bombs while souveniring coal from a dump not far away from our tent. The great need of firing can be understood, for it was Christmas, when once again winter held the whole land in its grip, and it was here, amid the snows of Belgium, that we had our second 'Xmas overseas.
Christmas dinner I had with the members of my old unit at Hooge Crater, whither I was page 89spirited, via Ypres, one dark and freezingly cold night, in an ambulance car.
It was there we learned of the death of two of our former members, one an original stage performer, George Carr, and the other our first flautist, Len Poore. Both were killed in the heavy fighting round Hooge Crater, and their tragic deaths only served to remind us the more how fortunate we were to be even the five miles or so back from the front line, a fact which I feel sure we all appreciated.
From the initial company of twenty-four, we had now grown to the large total of forty-eight members, though three of these were only on loan from their units until the end of the pantomime.
The orchestra was now a thoroughly well-trained organisation of twenty-two players, while with the three extras we numbered fifteen all told on stage.
Three electrical engineers looked after our lighting which, as I have said, was remarkably good.
Two cinema operators, a wig man, or perruquier, as the programme terms him, a piano-tuner to keep our three pianos in order, with two cleaners to look after the marquee and act as door-keepers, together with two very necessary cooks, completed the nominal roll.
Towards the end of the panto's run we were to suffer a severe loss when Trezise, who had done wonders for us on stage, found his health troubling him, and decided to return to New Zealand.page 90
The Division had had absolutely no claim on his services, as he had been ticketed for his return home to New Zealand months previously, and only came across to France to produce for the show. As an instance of how highly his services were rated, the Division augmented the 350 francs we had collected among ourselves by donating another 300 francs; and this amount, totalling in all some £26, was handed over to Trezise, on the stage, on the eve of his departure, by no less a personage than General Russell himself.
In a speech from the stage the General paid a deservedly high tribute to the great work Theo Trezise had done to make the show one of real value to the Division.
In the consequent re-shuffle of parts, Charlie Tidy took over Trezise's role, and in doing so, showed in no uncertain manner what a versatile artist he was.
A short break in the run of the show was caused when an epidemic of colds sent some of us into the hospital nearby; several, unfortunately, including the witch, Nelly, being out of action for a week or more. On thinking over some of the other shows we saw in France, I consider we may well acclaim ourselves fortunate in having such an excellent female impersonator as Stuart Nelson turned out to be.
He had a very pleasing light tenor voice, which might very easily be taken for a contralto, coming as it did from such a charming example of femininity as he was made up to represent.
Being small in stature, with smallish hands and ankles, helped tremendously, and although to page 91be sure, he could fairly be "one of the boys" off duty, there is no doubt his appearance on stage fooled many who came to see us. On one occasion during the pantomime, Major Peter Buck, now the famous anthropologist, came behind with several other Maori officers, one of whom had been so taken in as to bet Major Buck that our "Nelly was a lady."
In this case, of course, she wasn't, and there was some loud guffawing when the cause of the argument removed his wig, and revealed himself to the amazed—not to say shocked—Maori officer.
Major Buck suggested that, being the loser, he should make a speech in praise of the now fast "vanishing lady," and Peter's humorous though, of course, far from true translation of that speech from the Maori, caused one of the greatest laughs we had in France. The look on the face of the astonished speechmaker, at the absurd remarks his solemn translator made him say, was worth going a long way to see.
That the show was favourably known far beyond our own particular precincts, was shown by the men from widely different units to be seen in our audiences. Tommies and Aussies would walk miles to see our performances, especially when we were in Nieppe, which was handier to get at than was Dickebusche.
At first our entertainments were free, but subsequently a small charge of half a franc for N.G.O.'s and men, and one franc for officers, was made.
All proceeds were checked and paid into what was known as the Divisional Canteen page 92Fund, and we, of course, got none of the profits whatsoever.
The small charges of admission showed that our mission was not to make profits, but solely to provide entertainment for the troops: a most essential service, as here in Dickebusche, for instance, the country was laid waste for miles around, and with no civilians, and nowhere to go in all that vast region that constituted the Ypres sector, something had to be offered, by way of diversion, or the men might have been left to their own devices in seeking amusement.
That we succeeded in supplying this want I think we may fairly claim and, in doing so, I feel sure that the continued support and enthusiastic interest of General Russell alone will be sufficient answer, if any be still needed, to those croakers at home, who at that time thought we were not doing our bit, because we did not live actually in the front line.
That entertainment was of front-rank importance to the troops is proved by the fact that at the end of the war there were no less than five New Zealand concert parties in operation in France alone, to say nothing of those at camps and hospitals in England.
Besides the "N.Z. Pierrots" at the Base, where also were the "Te Koas," there were the "Tuis" and ourselves with the Division, as also was the "Gunners," a newly-formed Artillery party under the guidance of Colin Gray.
I feel sure we will all acknowledge that the possession of such talents as we were able to offer served to relieve us of the performance of the harder and more dangerous duties that fell page 93to the actual fighting troops, and I am quite content to leave the judgment, as to the exigence or otherwise of our particular job, to the men who were actually in France, and more especially to those who were in close contact with the Division in the field.
That the pantomime was a great success is proved by the comparatively long run it enjoyed, and all honour is due to the man who wrote and produced it on such an ambitious scale; and so I should like to leave on record here a tribute to Theo Trezise, who came over to France to help us when he might very well have been safely returned to New Zealand, and stayed long enough to merit, by his great talent for theatrical production, the sincere thanks of everyone in the Division.