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The Happy Gang

The Happy Gang, CBC Radio, 1943 or earlier

"Keep happy with the
Happy Gang… keep happy,
start your day with a bang

For many listeners, the day was almost half over when those lyrics were sung....for me it meant 1:15 p.m., time to go back to school. But for much of the country, it was a morning program, sent out live from the Concert Studio on McGill Street in downtown Toronto. And for twenty-two years it was a rock solid part of the CBC's broadcast schedule, until it fell victim to changing tastes, never having been given the chance to move to TV.

As is so often the case, the program began as something to fill an open time slot for the summer of 1937 on the Toronto CBC station. Leader and Master of Ceremonies, Bert Pearl, trumpeter Bob Farnon, organist Kathleen (Kay) Stokes and violinist Blain Mathe made up the entire team, along with announcer Herb May. By the fall, the program was going to the network, and in 1938 vocalist (and accordionist) Eddie Allen was added. This would be the lineup for the next few years, with Kay, Blain and Eddie remaining to the end in 1959. Other members over the years included Jimmy Namaro on vibraphone, Cliff McKay on clarinet, Bobby Gimby on trumpet, brothers Bert and Joe Niosi, Lou Snider, Lloyd Edwards and Les Foster. Hugh Bartlett took over announcing chores in 1938, and Barry Wood succeeded him in 1952. Bob Farnon went overseas with the Canadian Allied Expeditionary Forces Band (APN, Summer 2016) and remained in England, where as Robert Farnon he became one of the world's great arrangers and composers of light music.

Bert Pearl

Blain Mathe
Kay Stokes
Bob Farnon

The program would open with knocking on Blain Mathe's violin, followed by "Who's there?" "It's the Happy Gang!" "Well, come on in!" Bert portrayed himself as "that slap-happy chappy, the Happy Gang's own Pappy" and ran himself ragged, rehearsing and arranging and presenting daily programs that still tried to convey the impression of a group of people spontaneously having a good time. Old songs and new, hymns and novelties were the order of the day, plus for many years announcer Hugh Bartlett's corn-filled Joke Pot. But behind the scenes, Bert was frustrated, and the Gang members didn't socialize. A 1950 article by June Callwood in McLean's Magazine revealed the general state of unhappiness. CBC executives praised Pearl as a leader and arranger, but his retort was "If I'm any better than this, why hasn't someone given me a better show?" The Gang was never considered for television, Bert's frustrations continued to mount and finally in 1955 he had a nervous breakdown and left Canada for Hollywood.

CBC Mutual Opening (1:28)
As it sounded in the late 40s and 50s
CBC Mutual Opening (1:17)
Recorded December 1940
Bob Farnon on the Happy Gang's early days (1:25)
Interviewed by David Lennick, December 1978
Good Morning, Sergeant Major (2:55)
Bluebird record, c. 1941
Eddie Allen: At the Balalaika (2:43)
Decca/Apex record, c. February 1940
The Joke Pot (1:51)
Recorded 1946
Blain Mathe's hot fiddle: Wild Cat (1:43)
Recorded 1946
Tumbling Tumbleweeds (2:54)
Victor record, 1946
Don't Play Bingo Tonight, Mother (2:52)
Victor record, 1946
Complete program for U.S. syndication (28:43)
Recorded 1948

None of the behind-the-scenes preparation and tension was evident in the on-air show. The Happy Gang "live" broadcast was, however, nothing like the freewheeling, hap-hap-happy gang that we heard on the radio. The group assembled on the small stage to the right of Bert Pearl's grand piano, each with their own music stand carrying their sheet music and script. The show was obviously fairly tightly scripted, neatly timedout and every member of the Gang was disciplined and pretty well stood in their place. We young listeners always hoped to hear "Shut the Door, They're Comin' Through the Window" with its burpy hiccup and "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch". About halfway through the program, Hugh Bartlett stepped up to the microphone, front and centre, and opened his Joke Pot. Then Cliff McKay, Jimmy Namaro or Bobby Gimby was featured with a solo and that was usually followed by a ballad by Eddie Allen.

Cover of The Happy Gang Souvenir Album, 1951

Through the 1940s, the Happy Gang was tops. Tours, live concerts, recordings beginning in 1940 for Bluebird and Victor (The Gang) and Decca (Eddie Allen), continuing into the early 50s. The McGill Street Concert Studio could seat a few hundred people, and the radio audience was said to number over two million, including listeners in the United States where the show was picked up by the Mutual Network and also syndicated to private stations on transcription discs. And many of the members were stars in their own right, or leaders of their own groups, like Jimmy Namaro, Cliff McKay, Bert Niosi and Bobby Gimby. They would continue after the CBC cancelled the program in 1959 and replaced it with Tommy Hunter.

Eddie Allen, whose uncle Les had been a popular dance band saxophonist and vocalist in England (see CAPS CD Dance Bands from Canada, 1922-1930), bought a chain of clothing stores after the Gang went off the air. Bert Pearl stayed in Hollywood, writing for Jimmy Durante and serving for a time as music director for Gisele Mackenzie. Blain Mathe became principal second violinist with the Toronto Symphony.

The public's memories of the Happy Gang did live on for years afterward. A record twenty thousand fans assembled to see most of the group reunited at the Canadian National Exhibition bandshell in 1975. Bert Pearl came back for that concert, and Eddie Allen's voice was as strong as ever, moving the crowd with "The Way We Were". A Camden LP brought some of their 1940s recordings back into circulation, and the CBC Museum had a Happy Gang Exhibit for a few years. But at the Corporation, memories soon became irrelevant and were expunged. I found great photos of some of the Gang members tossed out when the music library was being moved in 2013. So… enjoy some photographs and memories of the Happy Gang.