Irving Berlin Comes to Bournemouth

The Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth was a five minute walk from the Atherstone Hotel where Harry and several of the other bandmembers boarded. Built in the 1920s,   
the beautiful Art Deco-style concert hall became a haven during the war years, offering entertainment for the military personnel stationed nearby. It was easily the most impressive building in town, a beacon near the English Channel. So far it had survived being bombed – in November, 1943, an aerial assault had come close to the beach and pier when twenty-five bombs had been dropped. Fortunately, only one person had been killed.
Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth

*        *         *

The weather was fine, so the walk wasn’t too onerous, even though they were lugging their instruments. The bandmembers wended their way along the hedge-lined roads to the garden below the Pavilion. One of the boys had taken their picture in front of the rock garden earlier that day, after their rehearsal. They could hear the waves lapping onto the shore across the street.
(l to r) Les Mann, Harry Culley, Ed Evans, Ernie Shedden, Les Allison, Al Smith
“Can you believe this weather? Back home there’d be piles of snow and ice everywhere,” said Harry.
“Yeah, look at those palm trees - it’s never really winter here I guess,” Smitty said.
“I’m looking forward to playing with Irving Berlin tonight at the ‘Grand Anglo-American Ball,’” said Harry.
“Yes, it’ll be good to play some decent music – not like that old time dance we played last week.”
“That really was something – all those old ladies dancing quadrilles and lancers in their silver and gold slippers – English country dances from the 19th century.”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll be quite different tonight. Berlin is one of the most popular songwriters of this century – Blue Skies, White Christmas, Always, and we’re going to accompany him!”
“Yes, I can’t wait to tell Helen about it.”
            The band opened with the Star-Spangled Banner, as a nod to Berlin’s home country, then launched into Oh Canada and God Save the King and while playing for the two-hour dance, they caught a glimpse of Berlin backstage, getting ready for the cabaret.
American songwriter Irving Berlin
“My, his hair is awfully black – I bet he dyes it - he must be over fifty,” Harry whispered to Ossie who was sitting next to him on stage.
“Here he comes now,” Ossie said. The Emcee announced the arrival of “America’s Ambassador of Goodwill”, as the band broke into “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning,” a medley of military tunes.
Berlin sang, “I've been a soldier quite a while And I would like to state
The life is simply wonderful
The Army food is great
I sleep with ninety-seven others in a wooden hut
I love them all
They all love me
It's very lovely but . . .”
After this first verse, the “Full Beauty Chorus” marched out singing from both wings of the stage and lined up in front the band, with Berlin in the middle.
“Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning
Oh! How I'd love to remain in bed
For the hardest blow of all
Is to hear the bugler call
Ya gotta get up
Ya gotta get up
Ya gotta get up this morning.”
My sentiments exactly, thought Harry. Nothing seems to have changed much in army life since World War I when Berlin wrote that song. But at least they were out of the barracks for now.
Pavilion stage
“Good thing he’s got their back-up voices,” said Harry at the end. “I think he’s a better composer than a singer – his voice is so high.”
Ossie nodded, all the while keeping his eyes on the backs of the beauties in front of them. The band accompanied the next few song and dance numbers, finishing up with the ‘High Step Sisters”, then they all rushed backstage to get Berlin’s signature on
their programmes.

Pavilion program
Bournemouth, January 6, 1944
Dearest Helen,
Well darling, here’s another day over. The band went over very well tonight. We played for Irving Berlin while he sang some of his old tunes . . . .
That’s Irving Berlin’s autograph on the back of the programme. Here’s a snap for you taken in the park in Bournemouth. It’s really a beautiful place with a built-up rock garden behind us. There’s also a pool full of goldfish close by. We go through this park on the way to rehearsals and one of the boys stopped us to take it. Smitty is always kidding – just like Ross [Harry’s younger brother.] 
All my love, Harry
 Toronto, Feb. 10, 1944
My Darling Harry,
Well, honey, your pictures came today, and I think it’s just swell of you all. You look very serious but handsome! I notice you are growing a moustache again. As a group you look well taken care of anyway. I don’t believe you’ve gained much weight. I can remember seeing Smitty [in Ottawa] and the one next to him, Les Allison, is it? The girls wouldn’t believe that Smitty was only twenty-one. . .  That park looks beautiful, it reminds me of Victoria when I see the rock garden.  . . The grass stays green all winter, doesn’t it? It wouldn’t have been very cold as you haven’t gloves on. Berlin’s autograph is a scrawl all right. That must have been a nice show.
All my love, Helen
Irving Berlin's signature on the back of the program
Passing the Time, January 1944

Helen had just nicely got home from work and finished the  baked beans and toast she’d made on her two-burner hot plate and toaster, when she heard the doorbell ring.
Her landlady Mrs. McInnis told Ida Culley to go upstairs.
Ida Culley (left) & Helen Reeder
“I’m so glad you were able to come,” said Helen as she invited Harry’s mother in.
“Well, I have the night off, and I do need your help to figure out this double heel I’m working on for Harry’s socks,” Ida said, out of breath and looking around. “This is a very nice room and it looks out onto the street.”
“Yes, I’m feeling quite at home here now.”
“Oh, and before I forget, here are the two letters that came today from our favourite guy.”
Helen took them excitedly and read them right away. She hadn’t received a letter from Harry for a couple of days.
“Sometimes yours come quickly, and ours take longer, and vice versa,” Ida said, sitting down. “It’s always good to know he’s alright.”
When she’d finished, Helen handed them back to Ida.
“Well, it sounds like they had a nice leave in Evesham. The trains always seem so crowded wherever they go,” Helen said.
“I heard there was more bombing in London – I hope they’re not there when it’s going on,” Ida commented.
“Me too.”
 Helen got out her knitting book and looked up the instructions for the heel.
“Let me see where you’re at with it,” Helen said as she studied Ida’s work, and compared it to her pattern.
“Here’s what you do next,” she pointed to the page.
“I’ll copy out the instructions just to be on the safe side,” Ida said.
Helen got out her crepe paper to make some flowers. She was working on a dozen red and white roses to give to her friends. She started to fold and wax them.
“I think I’ll send a few to my sister-in-law Beryl, as her birthday is coming up,” Helen commented.
“I wouldn’t mind one or two also, they’re very pretty,” said Ida.
At 7 p.m., Helen turned on the radio.
“I think Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians are on tonight from New York – you know that Harry’s uncles play in that band – George plays trumpet and Fred plays violin?” Ida asked.
“Yes, he did mention that – there’s so much music in your family,” Helen said.
Time flew by as they listened to the music and worked on their handiwork, then Helen got their tea ready.
“Well, I should be going, we’re rehearsing all day tomorrow and I don’t want to be too tired,” Ida said. “Thanks for a nice evening Helen.”

Toronto, Jan.21, 23/44, Feb. 5/44, May 3/44 compilation
Darling Harry,
Last night I was through work at 4:30 and just sitting there wondering what I was going to do for the night when your Mother called and asked if it would be all right if she came up to see me. I was so pleased, as I had asked her different times, but it’s quite a distance for her to come  . . .  We had a cup of tea around eleven – if you could have only dropped in about that time! I walked up to the street car with her; and she was telling me who lived where, etc. She said it was the first time she’d been by the house since you left.
Honestly darling when I talk to her about you, one who knows you so well, I almost feel as though I’ve seen you.
There doesn’t seem to be much on the radio now. Last night we enjoyed it though – Waltz Time, a symphony, Fred Waring, etc. Thursday is a good night too. Mart Kenny is playing out at the Pier tonight, but you can’t surprise me at the last minute and say we’re going this time or do you remember that?
Have you heard that song”My Shining Hour?” Frank Sinatra sang it last night and Bing Crosby sang “My Ideal”.
Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians
            You have likely heard that Lt. Gen. McNaughton is back in Canada and holidaying at the Seigniory Club in Quebec. We hear there’s quite a bit of action in London these nights. Naturally, we think things too, but keep praying for you and all the others.
            Well, I suppose I should go and catch forty winks, but I don’t feel tired. It’s getting windy out and looks like rain. Thank goodness it isn’t cold.
I have a letter box up on the wall with every one of your letters in, your Mother thought I’d have to put some of them away soon.
Must go now, should be getting more mail one of these days.
Bye dear. Always yours,
With love, Helen

The Big Day

When they reached Waterloo Station in London after the two-hour trip from Bournemouth, the band members filed off the train, grabbed their instruments from the huge pile on the platform, then made their way outside to the waiting transport truck. They were whisked away on a ten minute drive to Canada House at Trafalgar Square, where they were scheduled to play. It was the fourth anniversary of the Beaver Club, the gathering place for Canadian service personnel in the city. There was great cause for celebration, as during the Blitz in 1940, a bomb landed very close, nearly destroying the building.
Paper streamers festooned the grand, high-ceilinged hall and hand-lettered “Happy 4th Anniversary” banners hung from the walls. But the centrepiece was the huge cake in the middle of the room. The place was packed with well-wishers, both civilian and military. Excitement was in the air as word spread that the King, Queen, and other dignitaries had arrived and at that very moment were touring the building.
After tuning up, the band started in on their usual program. Harry was quite nervous and was hoping that his clarinet wouldn’t squeak, his reed wouldn’t break, and that he wouldn’t play a wrong note.
(left) Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, Mrs. Vincent Massey
When Steve, the bandmaster, caught a glimpse of the royal entourage out of the corner of his eye, he nodded to the band, whereupon they broke into “God Save the King.” The audience rose to attention for the grand entrance. On the final note, the royal couple came over to Steve and shook his hand. Harry couldn’t hear what she said to him, but Queen Elizabeth seemed to be doing all the talking. She looked quite relaxed, whereas King George’s face betrayed the worries of the war.
“This is the first time I’ve seen their Majesties in person,” Harry whispered to Ossie, who was sitting next to him. “They’ve been through a lot – especially during the Blitz when a bomb just barely missed their drawing room at Buckingham Palace.”
“Can you hear what the Queen is saying to Steve?”
Queen Elizabeth talking to RCAF band members
“No, but look, now the King is shaking his hand, and the photographer’s getting a picture of them!”
“I’ll bet Gilchrist [the other RCAF bandmaster] will be green with envy - he’s jealous enough of Steve as it is, this’ll get him even more fired up.”
Then it was time to cut the cake. Mrs. Vincent Massey, the wife of Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain, stepped forward and served pieces to the band members first.
After tea and about a dozen doughnuts each, the specialty of the house, the band members had a few hours off until they had to get back to play for the dance at 7:30 p.m. Harry decided to spend his time in the news theatre across the square to take in the latest Canadian Army newsreels. Then he fought his way through the noisy streets to drop his bag off at the YMCA where they were staying for the night.
Mrs. Vincent Massey serving cake to RCAF band, Ossie on right
After the dance, they retreated to their room. That’s when they heard a deafening noise. Harry peered through the edge of the blackout curtain to see the sky lit up with phosphorous bombs.
“It looks like they’re dropping over by Whitehall, where the war office is,” he said. “Just our luck - the Luftwaffe are back at it now that we’re in town.”
“Maybe we should spend the night in the underground – we might be lucky enough to get a bunk.” Smitty was worried.
“I don’t know – I think I’d rather stay here, where at least there aren’t any rats,” Harry said.
The bombings continued throughout the night and in the morning, both of them were weary. On their way over to Birdcage Walk for their parade past the palace, they looked at the headlines: “The Little Blitz brings heaviest night raid on London since 1941.”
“The fortress outside the War Office was hit, as was the Horse Guards Parade near Whitehall and the windows were blown out at No. 10 Downing St.,” Smitty read. “Churchill’s assistant private secretary Sir John Colville called it a ‘short, sharp blitz.”
“Thank God we’re leaving for York later today – hopefully it will be a little quieter there,” Harry said. “Helen will kill me if I don’t make it home alive!”  They both chuckled at that one.

London, Feb. 17 & Glasgow, Feb. 23, 1944
Dearest Helen,
Well, this has been somewhat of a red letter day for all of us here. We had the honour to play for the King and Queen to-day! Yes, I’m not kidding. The photographer took a picture of Mrs. Vincent Massey serving the cake to the guy next to me. Dammit why couldn’t it have been me? The picture is supposed to come out next Friday in the Canada Weekly paper for the Forces, so I’ll send it to you sweetheart whether I’m in it or not.
[Later] We were in London last Friday night during the “little blitz” they called it. To say the least it was a little difficult sleeping through that one!
Eight of us are going up near York tomorrow to play a dance and I imagine it will be a lot colder up there.
I wonder how many more thousands of miles we’ll have to travel before this is over?

Toronto, February 29, 1944
Harry Darling,
Honey, it made me excited just reading your letter of the 17th yesterday, telling me all about your big day. I bet you did a good deal of rehearsing for that. Were you nervous when you were playing? I don’t believe I could have held the instrument! . . . Have you seen the latest postcard of them [the Royal couple] at home with the two Princesses? It was in the Telegram the other day.
                   It would be a big event for the Beaver Club all right, and for the Canadians. . . .
Well, it’s twilight now – it doesn’t get dark until after 7:30 p.m. these nights.
My best love,

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