by Murray Ginsberg
When I think back over the number of years I've known Bob Farnon - almost sixty - and reminisce on the number of times I've gotten vicarious pleasure from his many successes, it's a shock to realize he is no longer with us. Bob was one of those rare individuals who made all of us who loved him feel good that he was always there, indestructible, within reach. It's a sad fact of life that no one on this planet lives forever, even a hero, and the inevitable must one day happen. But my God, now that he is gone he will be so sorely missed.
What an enormous legacy he left! My first visual encounter with Bob Farnon was in 1936 when I was 13 years old when my aunt took my cousin and myself to a radio broadcast of Percy Faith and his orchestra in Toronto's Baton Auditorium.
It was the first such show we had ever seen and to our young ears the concert was a thrilling experience. Although we were just into our teens with little knowledge of who the top musicians in Toronto were, Percy Faith's name was well known across Canada because of the beautiful music he created. The players, elegant in their tuxedoes, sat on three levels on the stage, the strings on the first level, the saxophones and woodwinds on the second, and the brass on top.
The one hour show was broadcast over the local Canadian Radio Commission (CRC) station which was the forerunner of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) as it is known today.
Amongst Faith's 40 top calibre musicians were violinists Sam Hershenhorn, Albert Pratz, Hyman Goodman, saxophonists Charley Green, Cliff MacKay, percussionist Harry Nicholson and trumpeters Morris London and 19 year-old Bob Farnon to name a few. For us that concert was an unforgettable experience.
Every morning after school began those of us who had been taking lessons on musical instruments would discuss the broadcasts we'd heard the night before, especially the shows our favourite musicians were on. One show we listened to enthusiastically was the Friday night Pond's Cold Cream Hour with Wally Armour's great band on Toronto's CFRB.
Another was a show conducted by Geoffrey Waddington, (who first began to use Bob in a dance orchestra he led at the Royal York Hotel's Imperial Room in 1933). Whatever show he was on, after some jazz solos, Bob Farnon's name was usually mentioned. It didn't take long before Farnon and a few other Toronto musicians became our heroes. When you were 14 years old and Bob Farnon was 20, he was light years away, beyond the reach of mortal man.
One of the shows we hardly ever heard because we were in school was the 'Happy Gang' which started as a two-week summer replacement in 1937. The Happy Gang went on the air immediately after the 1 pm CBC news, and had a spontaneity to it that made it an instant hit. The performers who made it a Canadian institution were pianist/ leader Bert Pearl, organist Kathleen Stokes, violinist Blaine Mathe, trumpeter Bob Farnon, singer/accordionist Eddie Allen, and a few others. The show included jokes, songs and ditties sung by Pearl and Allen, and instrumental numbers by Stokes, Mathe and Farnon.
The show would begin with three knocks on an imaginary door. Bert Pearl would ask, "Who's there?" and the members would shout, "It's the Happy Gang!" and Bert would reply, "Well, come on in!" and the group would go right into the opening theme, Smiles (". .. There are smiles that make you happy ...There are smiles that make you sad. ..1!). The Happy Gang was so popular (it ran for 22 years) that every Canadian housewife, it seems, intimately knew everything there was to know about the show members. What the housewives didn't know were some of the jokes Farnon and the others sometimes played on the very nervous compère Bert Pearl.
One of the show's features was Joke of the Day, where every day a different member would ask a riddle or tell a joke. One day in 1941 when it was Farnon's turn, Pearl, who always felt the show's spontaneity kept it popular and never wanted to know what the gag was before the show went to air, said "It's time to reach into the Joke Box. Whose turn is it today?"
Bob replied, "It's my turn Bert. Why does the ocean roar?"
"I don't know, Bob," Pearl replied. "Why does the ocean roar?"
"You'd roar too if you had crabs on your bottom!"
Bert Pearl's face immediately drained of blood. He went into deep shock. While he sputtered trying to say something intelligent on the air, everybody in the studio howled with laughter. Then he saw announcer Herb May get on a chair and move the hands of the studio clock back ten minutes. Then he realized it was another trick the Gang (and the producer in the control booth) played on him. Before he had arrived at the studio someone had moved the clock forward ten minutes making him think they only had five minutes to go before the show went on the air. How was the poor guy to know? He had great difficulty getting over that one.
When WWII broke out in 1939, Canada scrambled to get on a war footing which meant conscription of Canada’s young men. While thousands flocked to the recruiting centres, radio was going full blast, turning out every kind of show, many of them geared to the war effort. The Happy Gang was just what the country needed to keep morale high.
Long after Farnon left to join the Royal Canadian Army Show in 1943, the Happy Gang continued to entertain until the early 1960s. But Captain Robert Farnon in his new role began to create magnificent arrangements for a Canadian Army Show stage musical planned to tour the country in 1943. While he was working on the stage show in Toronto, the performers, chosen from the best talent in Canada, were stationed in Montreal where the Army Show had first assembled in December 1942 to do a weekly Sunday night radio show. Those broadcasts featured a male and female star singer, a mixed choir and writers Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster (who, after the war became Canada's reigning comics on radio and television, and ultimately were featured on 57 different occasions on Ed Sullivan's television show from New York). The members of the orchestra were drawn from army bands as well as new recruits who had played in the nation's best bands and symphony orchestras. Some prominent names were saxophonists Brian Farnon (one of the funniest guys we ever met), Lew Lewis, Hank Rosati, trumpeters Denny Farnon, Babe Newman, trombonist Teddy Roderman, pianist Denny Vaughan, violinists Bill Charles, Louis Sherman, Frank Fusco, bassist Peter Sinclair, and others. The orchestra was conducted by Captain Geoffrey Waddington.
The radio broadcasts from Montreal were designed to encourage recruitment, generate patriotism and raise the morale of Canadians from coast to coast while the Broadway- type variety show was being written. In early 1943 the Army Show company moved to Toronto and began rehearsing the stage show in the Victoria Theatre in downtown Toronto. Those rehearsals were a delight because Bob Farnon's ingenuity in his application of heart-stopping harmonies and exquisite orchestration among the woodwinds, strings and brass was too brilliant to believe.
One morning at a rehearsal the librarian distributed parts of a new arrangement of David Rose's Our Love for a ballet dream sequence which was going to be used in the second act. That arrangement was so breathtakingly beautiful because of Bob's symphonic scoring for flutes, clarinets and strings that after the musicians ran through the piece the first time, they all burst into spontaneous applause with cheers and shouts of "Bravo!" And with the wonderful arrangements and compositions that followed during that happy time, we realized Bob Farnon was in a class by himself, head and shoulders above many well-known American and Canadian arrangers. And to add to our amusement, Bob's priceless sense of humour drew many a laugh when he gave the arrangements odd, sometimes naughty titles.
Finally, after weeks of rehearsal, the curtains of the Victoria Theatre opened, audiences flocked to the box office, and the Canadian Army Show became a hit. The show played Toronto for a number of weeks, then went on the road. Since it travelled across Canada playing all the army camps and most cities, the cast and stage crew lived on a train which consisted of four sleeping cars, and ten cars loaded with scenery, music stands, instruments, kleig lights, yards of electrical cable and other equipment.
Whenever the train pulled into a railway sideyard for any length of time, the next morning and every morning, true to army tradition, the cast and crew had to be up and outside, washed, shaved, dressed in cleaned and pressed uniforms, and lined up, ready for inspection. When it was Captain Bob's turn to be Officer of the Day, he would lead the entourage. As army officers on inspection duty often do, a kindly major might stop to speak to one or two privates as they moved along the line. "Are you feeling better, Smith?" or "Have you heard from your mother, Jones?" But Captain Farnon, always with a mischievous twinkle in his eye was often heard to inquire, "Did you know your fly is open, Private Roderman, or are you trying to tell me something?" or "What time did you get out of Celia's bed last night, Private Newman?" Whenever that sort of questioning took place, it was assumed the colonel would speak to Captain Farnon. But we were never sure, except that if the colonel did say something to the good captain, the good captain, frankly didn't give a damn. It was clear to all of us that he had little patience for military intelligence which he considered an oxymoron. We learned early on, that Captain Farnon was always good for a lot of laughs when he was scheduled to be Officer of the Day.
Such was the life we led on the Army Show train. We travelled from coast to coast, indulged in a lot of merriment and saw much beautiful scenery, especially in the Rockies.
After the tour ended the writers and Captain Farnon began preparations for a new show. In November 1943, right in the middle of a rehearsal, Colonel Victor George came on stage, called for silence, and made an announcement. "I have just heard from Ottawa that the show is cancelled. The Army Show will be moving to England as soon as possible where the company will be broken up into five concert parties to entertain Canadian and British troops."
On December 15, 1943, the cast and crew boarded the liner Mauritania along with 10,000 other Allied troops in Halifax harbour, and after crossing the Atlantic on an uneventful zigzag course (to avoid German submarines), tied up in Liverpool on December 21. A waiting train took the Army Show contingent to Aldershot, Hampshire, where we settled down to rehearse our concert parties before taking off to entertain the troops.
Captain Farnon did not accompany us on that trip. He was required to remain in Toronto to organise an orchestra and choir which would eventually take the same trip to England to perform exclusively on the BBC's Armed Forces Network, along with Major Glenn Miller of the U.S. Allied Expeditionary Forces Orchestra, and Sergeant-Major George Melachrino of the British A.E.F. Band.
When Captain Farnon's musicians arrived in England in July 1944, they were first sent to the Army Show headquarters in Farnborough before moving to London. On a sunny Saturday afternoon about 20 musicians burst into our barracks room to greet us. Everybody leaped to their feet to embrace trombonists Floyd Roberts, Ron Hughes, trumpeters Fred Davis, Jimmy Ford, saxophonists Jack Wachter, George Naylor, bassist Howard Barnes, guitarist George Arthur and others whom we hadn't seen since leaving Canada. After Captain Farnon and his orchestra were settled in London, they began to make history on the BBC's Armed Forces Network. On occasion some of us in Unit A were called to perform with Captain Bob's orchestra in London. I remember the many times during rehearsals how we chuckled when a new arrangement was handed out. Ever the joker, Bob's titles would include such risqué pseudonyms as Piccadilly Commando, Lambeth Tart, or Hammersmith Scrubber (which ultimately were recorded under more legitimate titles as Willie the Whistler, Portrait of a Flirt, Peanut Polka and others.
With the end of WWII Bob Farnon's career blossomed so much so, that over the past sixty years he has been held in high esteem by world renowned arrangers, composers, singers and musicians from all walks of life. Almost from the first album release of Bob's prolific record output Andre Previn called Bob "the world's greatest string writer." Rob McConnell of Boss Brass fame and no slouch himself as an arranger, said, "Bob Farnon is the greatest arranger in the world." A Boss Brass album of Christmas music (pop songs and carols) under the Concord label released years ago shows Bob Farnon's unmistakable influence in so many of McConnell's charts, particularly the serene interludes and gentle modulations where he displays the Christmas Peace on Earth motif.
Bob Farnon is the recipient of a number of Ivor Novello awards, several Grammys, and in 1997 he was awarded (finally!) the Order of Canada, which is the centrepiece of the country's national honours system. The Order is a fraternity that recognizes significant achievement in important fields of human endeavour.
In the early 1970s Bob Farnon returned to Canada to conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. Charles Dojack, a former cellist with the Army Show Orchestra, and a resident of Ottawa, organised an Army Show reunion in honour of Bob Farnon. About 25 veteran entertainers from across Canada attended the event, which included a lavish banquet in one of the Arts Centre's dining salons, and choice seats in the concert hall. After the excellent concert we then attended an after-concert party in the home of one of the orchestra's patrons. His Excellency, Governor-General Edward Schreyer and Mrs. Schreyer were present at the party where both revealed an astonishing knowledge of music and a great interest in Bob's arranging skills.
At about 1:30 am several of us who had had a full day excused ourselves and took a cab back to the Chateau Laurier, the hotel we had booked for the night, where trombonist Floyd Roberts and I shared a room. I had no sooner gotten into bed when the door opened and in walked Floyd, followed by Bob who carried a 40 ouncer of Chivas Regal.
Did anyone get to sleep? Not on your life. Bob, Floyd and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning during which time Bob regaled us with dozens of stories about his career. At 5:30 the great man finally got up to leave, but not before we had killed the 40 ouncer. Robert Farnon will be sorely missed.