26 May

Bob Farnon: The Practical Joker

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… as MURRAY GINSBERG recalls

Lew Lewis and I attended a wonderful birthday party at the home of Floyd and Bonny Roberts last June 11, in celebration of Floyd's 90th birthday. Floyd played 1st trombone with Bob Farnon's wartime orchestra in London. 88-year-old Lew Lewis played tenor saxophone in the Army Show Orchestra that toured Canada in 1943 but he didn't go overseas with the rest of us in December of that year. Lew knew Bob and brother Brian intimately. All three had played on various gigs in Toronto when they were kids.

As expected, a lot of musician friends were present along with about thirty civilian guests, which made for a memorable afternoon in Bonny and Floyd's garden on a sunny Sunday afternoon. And the stories were all entertaining, particularly those about Bob Farnon. A lot of the guests were of vintage years who remembered The Happy Gang with Bert Pearl as compere. And several fondly remembered some of the jokes members of the Gang told.

One of the features of the daily broadcast was Pearl announcing that it was time to reach into the Joke Box. "Whose turn is it today?" he would ask. And one of the members, Blain Mathe, Bob, or Eddie Allen, would pluck a joke from the imaginary box and ask a question, such as "Why does a chicken cross the street?" And Bert would reply, "I don't know Blain. Why does a chicken cross the street?" And Blain would say, "To get to the other side!" And everybody would roar with laughter and play a huge chord.

One day one of the members moved the studio clock forward ten minutes without telling Pearl. On a cue from the producer in the control booth Bert began the show "on time" by knocking three times on an imaginary door, and saying "Who's there?" and everybody shouted, "It's the Happy Gang!" and Bert said, "Well, come on in!" and group went into the opening theme song Smiles.

Then after a few words of welcome to the audience, Bert said, "It's time for someone to put his hand into the Joke Box. Who's turn is it today?" Bob replied, "It's my turn today, Bert. Why does the ocean roar?"

Bert answered: "I don't know Bob. Why does the ocean roar?"

"You'd roar too, if you had crabs on your bottom!" Bob replied.

Bert Pearl's face immediately drained of blood. He began to sputter and choke. He gesticulated toward Bob. "Why on earth did you say that terrible thing on the air?" he whispered. Of course, everybody broke up howling with laughter and rolling around on the floor. Poor Bert was beside himself. Then announcer Herb May got on a chair and turned the hands of the studio clock back to the correct time. But poor Bert had a dreadful time getting back to continue the show. For days he was in shock. He would never know for sure if those bastards were going to play another trick on him.

At the same party a musician who had been a member of the Toronto Symphony when it performed at the Royal Festival Hall during the Commonwealth Festival of the Arts in 1965, remembered a couple of British musicians visiting the Toronto players in the Performers' Lounge and asking Principal 2nd Violinist Clifford Evans whether the famous story about Bob Farnon and Bert Pearl had actually happened. Cliff, who had never met Bob, turned to me and asked if I knew the story. "Yes, it certainly did happen," I replied, amazed that anyone in Britain would have heard the story. I always thought it only to be a local Toronto musician's tale. When I queried the visitors how they had heard about it, their enthusiastic reply was "News like that travels fast. Everyone in the United Kingdom loves The Guv'nor and wants to know everything he does, whether true or false."

Another story told at Floyd Roberts' party:

In the early 1980s when Bob Farnon came to Canada to conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, someone organized an Army Show reunion. Some twenty-five friends and colleagues from across the country including Floyd and myself met and dined in the lounge of the Arts Centre, then enjoyed the all-Bob Farnon music concert. Floyd Roberts and I shared a room at the Chateau Laurier, one of Ottawa's finest hotels.

Afterwards a number of us were driven to the home of a wealthy orchestra patron to meet old friends in the orchestra and enjoy an after-concert party. One of the guests we were happy to meet was His Excellency Edward Schreyer, Canada's first Canadian-born Governor-General. To our delighted surprise His Excellency displayed an amazing knowledge of Farnon's work and reputation, citing certain "highly intelligent" arrangements of songs Bob had recorded, such as A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square and I've Got You Under My Skin, as well as his particular voicing of strings, which the Governor-General understood to be a conundrum to most renowned American, Canadian and British arrangers.

At 2 am, after a full day, I returned to our hotel room and no sooner had gotten into into bed when the door opened and Floyd, followed by Bob carrying a large bottle of Chivas Regal were invited to sit down to share some of The Guv'nor's bottle. Did anyone sleep that night? Not on your life. Bob regaled us with wonderful stories of the world famous singers, movie stars and musicians he had worked with during a fabulous career.

The rest is history.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.