Received a wonderful parcel from Ineke yesterday, my birthday, containing two pillow cases, writing pad and pencils, the pocket Bible and the pocket Testament which Dad carried with him in the last war, playing cards, needle, thread and wool, a tin of home made Swiss milk toffee, condensed milk, cigarettes and cigarette papers. I feel like a millionaire. The pad and pencils are a godsend. Out 5.30 to 6.15. The tough guys are on duty, W and W, Looney, Pokerface etc.
Yesterday, I celebrated my 39th birthday in a prison cell. And, just half an hour ago, still in the cell, I celebrated the first day of my fortieth year by sitting down on a plateful of soft boiled rice! My cell is 2.5 x 1.5 meters (8 feet x 5 feet) and the furnishing is scanty. A small oblong table, a three legged stool, a bed which folds up against the wall when not in use, and a small cupboard hanging on the wall above the bed is the inventory, if one excepts the very respectable WC pot with a zinc basin above it in the corner apposite bed and door. In removing anything from the cupboard, therefore – and I had just taken my writing pad from under the plate of rice – there are only the table and chair to put it on. The table being otherwise engaged at the moment, I placed the plate of rice on the stool, took out the pad, closed the cupboard, turned round and sat down. The immediate sensation was a surprising one – a soft yielding combined with a concave resistance, which at last suddenly gave way with a mild crack as the plate broke under me in three pieces. Realisation came with a crack, but even then a moment’s cogitation was necessary to determine how the act of rising could be accomplished with a minimum of further disaster. Taking off my shorts was a delicate operation as was the messy job of scraping the seat with my spoon. Soft boiled rice also all over the stool and floor – but all is cleaned up now and order restored, my shorts hanging on the window with the damaged portion exposed to the evening breeze. No supper tonight, though.
But to get back to this prison business. The nearest I have ever been to prison in my life before was away back in 1919. I had given up a promising position in the Aberdeen Public Library (13/6 per week which equates to, in today’s money, 67.5 pence or 94 US cents, with the prospect of becoming perhaps a junior librarian in 20 years’ time) to join with a travelling concert party, The Balmorals, which was just commencing a winter tour of practically every town and village from Aberdeen West and Northwards. I joined as vocalist, at fifteen and a half years of age, and was provided with a second hand dinner suite (30/- from one or other old clothes’ store) with a salary of 30/- per week all found or, again in today’s money, £1.50 or just over US$2. The Balmorals party was run by Gus Stratton and James Montague (Monty) and consisted of Stratton and his wife and child, Monty, a young/old lady, whose name I forget as pianist and myself. As I have said, I joined the party as vocalist but my duties as a member of The Balmorals were manifold, not only during the performance but also during the rest of my waking hours as no doubt with a view to economy, no extra help was engaged at any point. We played only one night in each place and travelled, sometimes by rail or car and sometimes even on shanks’ mare if the distance was not too great, from point to point. Monty’s son, Jimmie (poor lad) was our advance agent and his duties were to precede us by about a week to ten days, on a bicycle, pasting bills advertising the show wherever possible in, and in the vicinity of, the villages to be visited, hiring a hall for the performance and arranging for the hire of a piano if there was none in the hall. When the party arrived the first thing to be done was the distribution of handbills along the streets and outside the schools and the arranging of the seating accommodation and placing of the piano by the male members, while the ladies occupied themselves in setting things to rights ‘back stage’. I also sat at the receipt of customs, in the ticket box, when the doors opened and as soon as everybody was inside, I would close the door and dash round to the back of the stage to be ready for the ‘come on’ with the others. The program lasted about 2.5 hours altogether, commencing usually at 8pm with an interval of 15 minutes. During the first half the ‘sit around’ method was adopted as in a Pierrot show on the sands with all members of the party seated in a half circle on the stage, Gus and Monty acting as ‘corner men’, and each member rising and coming forward to do his or her turn in succession. I usually sang a couple of songs, Mrs Stratton and Gus a semi humorous duet or two, Thelma Stratton sang and danced, while Monty and Gus kept the patter and announcements going from their respective corners. The second half was another pair of shoes, consisting of individual turns and finishing up with a hilarious sketch. The items, as billed, included ‘Thelma the Wonder Child’, ‘The Strattons, Scotch Character Duo’, ‘Professor Montague, Conjurer and Illusionist’ (Monty), ‘Maximillian Sylvester, Ventriloquist’ (Monty again) and ‘Donald Munro’ (myself) tenor vocalist.
A note by Pat O’Neill about ‘The Concert Party’:
The concert party was usually composed of a group of singers, much like a small choir who performed popular songs as well as art songs. The concert party format was very popular at the time and still exists in various areas of the UK.
Although the music hall tradition continues today, during the beginning of 1900, music halls dominated the musical scene and virtually every town and village boasted music hall activities.
A very famous artist called Sir Harry Lauder was to become The World's Most Beloved Musical Humorist. Follow the link and you will get an insight to not only Sir Harry but also to the idea of a concert party.