1939 New York & British Isles


The 1939 Trip of the Kitsilano Boys Band

by Carson Manzer

The Band left Vancouver by train early in June 1939, in two adjoining tourist cars which would be our home for the trip as far as Toronto. Mr D was accompanied by his wife, a kind and compassionate lady, who was to be our surrogate mother for the next four months, and by their daughter Vera, a very comely and multi-talented teenager, who was our sprightly Drum Majorette, vocalist, and xylophone soloist. Also travelling with us were the parents of Malcolm Fish. (Malcolm has kindly read this account, and has provided some pertinent additional details which I had forgotten.) By day we had double seats facing each other, which by night were converted to upper and lower berths by the porter. Breakfasts and occasionally lunches, of somewhat spartan proportions, were prepared by a team of the senior boys. Another team was assigned to the unenviable task of maintaining the sanitary facilities whilst we were parked on a siding for the nights on which we played concerts. This task involved placing of containers, facetiously called ‘honey-buckets’, under the bathrooms on each end of the railway cars, and removing them before we were shunted onto the main line and reconnected with the next passenger train going east.

Usually we had dinner in the cities in which we stopped and played concerts— Calgary, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg and Toronto. In Regina we had dinner in the Headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for whose famous “Musical Ride” we had played endless repetitions of “Carioca” at their performance in Victoria the previous year. At this dinner, the Commandant spoke about the serious drought to which Saskatchewan had been subject for a number of years. He joked that on one recent morning his young son had come indoors sprinkled with tiny drops. He asked his father what on earth had happened, and when told that the water coming from the sky was ‘rain’, the boy fainted. The father went outside, collected a bucket of dust, and threw it over the boy to revive him!

In Winnipeg, at Assiniboine Park during lovely weather the band drew the largest outdoor audience ever yet recorded . We all left the stand during intermission, selling postcard pictures of the band to the eager crowd. We sold all the cards that Mr D had brought along for that performance.

From Toronto we went directly by train to New York, where we remained for a week, playing concerts at the Worlds’ Fair, where we were sponsored by the Swift Company at their special bandstand. The crowds were large and enthusiastic, especially when we played Sousa marches, with Mr D’s special arrangements of the trios and his progressive highlighting of each section of the band as we stood up. At one performance, Raymond Paige, a leading orchestral conductor of that era was present, and was asked by Mr D to conduct the band in a selection.( It could have been Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”, an American composition.)

After the train trip to Montreal, we went on board the CPR Liner, the “Duchess of Bedford”, and set off down the St. Lawrence River, past the location of the sinking in May, 1914 of the “Empress of Ireland “, on which Mr D and his family had been passengers. (That ship sank in 13 minutes after a collision with another vessel in a dense fog, and Mr D’s brother Leonard was among the thousand passengers or so who lost their lives.) The trip to Liverpool took 5 days, but for those of us who were seasick for the first time in our lives, it seemed like weeks! Our ship, and her sister ships, “Duchess of Atholl” and “Duchess of York”, were built at the same time, all with the same design flaw. They wallowed and floundered through the high waves, instead of cutting through steadily. For this reason, they were known as “The Drunken Duchesses”!

On arrival in Liverpool, we were met by Mr Stockwell, the official Agent for the band, who had arranged our itinerary, our engagements, our travel arrangements by train or bus, and our billeting in various lodgings close to our performance sites. We were taken through the Mersey River Tunnel to Birkenhead, a sort of “West Vancouver” to the big city. We played for a week as the last ‘turn’ at the Argyle Theatre, a ‘music hall’ with a great reputation for being the site of the first success of many show people, including Harry Lauder, a great vocal favorite in the U.K. There were two complete duplicate programs per night, which were very well received. On one of the days, which were free except for rehearsals, the band went to Southport to play a concert on the pier at that seaside resort, just across the bay from Blackpool.

We then played for a week-end in Llandudno, Wales, and after a week at the new Hippodrome in Coventry (same performances as in Birkenhead) we went to London, where we played at the Wembley Stadium and were recorded at the Pathé News Studio.

Our next engagement was in Bath, Somerset, whence we returned to Liverpool proper, for a week at the Shakespeare Theatre. Again, we were the closing “turn”, and just before us was the performance of “Two-Ton Tessie O’Shea”, an absolutely enormous woman who was the darling of the music halls. She had a voice to match her girth, and was a fun lady to talk to. Several of the boys were invited to chat with her in her dressing room–it was considered an honor!

“Two-Ton Tessie O’Shea”

Carson Manzer writes: I mentioned playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, on the same billing as “Two-Ton Tessie O’Shea”, and that some of the boys had been invited to gab with her in her dressing room. Somewhere I have a signed photo of her. At that time in the summer of 1939, the first implications of the forthcoming war were evident. We were taken for a tour of an aircraft manufacturing plant at Speke, just outside Liverpool, where Bolingbroke Bombers were being built. (In the summer of 1942 I was driving a dump-truck during the construction of an airfield at Long Beach, near Tofino. The reconnaissance Bombers were the very same “Boley’s” which had been manufactured at Speke).

Also, the air-raid Warden system had been instituted, under the initials ARP. Tessie’s opening line, as she entered the stage, was to hoist up her voluminous dress and shout “Are there any Wardens out there? I’ve got an ARP tent right here!”. This brought down the house, each of the twelve gigs (2 per night) we played there. Most of the solo ‘turns’ at those variety theatres were somewhat ‘racy’ !

I can visualize the huge shimmering silver dress even now!”


ABOVE: Ken Sotvedt purchased the 1939 poster in an antique market for $40. Karen Sotvedt brought it to the concert on June 28, 2004 to be kept in the Kits Band Archives. Doug Johnson made the fine digital photo.

We traveled directly to Worthing, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, and played three concerts a day on the pier at the waterfront. Our next gig was in Clacton-on-Sea, on the east coast, where one of Butlin’s famous “holiday camps ” was located. Again, we played three concerts a day outdoors. From Liverpool we went to Rhyl, a seaside resort in North Wales. That town had a reason to remember Canadians, as it was the site of the demobilization of the Canadian Army in 1918, according to Mr Butterfield, the editorial columnist of the “Province”, who had personally witnessed that event. On reading Stu Keate’s article elsewhere in the paper about our visit to that town, he recalled that the Canadian soldiers had gone berserk and had wreaked major damage on it. We were treated royally there, however.

These engagements at the seaside were all in August, with growing reports of the possibility of war. We were booked, after Clacton, at Great Yarmouth, another beach resort quite adjacent. It was during this last week of August that the rumors of potential war became stronger, and word was received from the High Commissioner for Canada in London that arrangements were being made to send the band home. Two buses were sent to Great Yarmouth to transport us to Glasgow, where the “Athenia” was at anchor, awaiting her sailing time.

This arrangement did not please Mr D, and he weighed the possibility of using the buses to go to Southampton, where the “Empress of Britain” was docked awaiting her passengers to Quebec City. The Empress was a CPR ship, as was the Duchess of Bedford on our June crossing, so our tickets would be valid on it. Mr D must have done some quick research, and reasoned that because the Empress was a much larger, newer and faster ship, (42,000 tons vs 14,000 tons) the crossing would be safer and there would be more requirements for the band on board the Empress. In addition, the grim memory of his boyhood experience on the “Empress of Ireland” likely gave him serious pause. His intuition must have made the decision for him, and although there were many survivors of the torpedoing of the Athenia on September 4, one can only conjecture what the fate of the Delamont family, the band members and the accompanying parents would have been.

On the way to Southampton we stopped briefly in London, where Mr. Stockwell sent us off with a formal handshake for every member of the band!

The ship left Southampton on the morning of September 3rd, and proceeded due south across the English Channel to the city of Cherbourg in Normandy, to pick up a large number of Americans who had been touring Europe that summer, many of whom had shipped their own personal automobiles to Europe earlier that year. The harbour of Cherbourg was very shallow, so the ship had to dock at the end of a long jetty protruding out to deeper water. That jetty was lined with luxury automobiles, as far as the eye could see–Packards, Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, Lincolns, La Salles, Hudsons, etc.–enough to impress some of us “depression-kids” greatly! As many as possible were winched on board– in the hold, lashed down on the tennis courts, and even in the drained swimming pools. Those for which there was no space were simply abandoned.

We remained in the Cherbourg harbour overnight, and under cover of darkness at least a hundred (a guess) Polish peasants swarmed on board and concealed themselves in the forward hold. There were people of all ages, some families–none with luggage, other than what they could carry on their backs. Of course, they had no tickets, and for a while it looked as if they were to be forcibly put ashore. Also, there was talk of delaying the sailing so that the ship, which was painted a brilliant white, could be camouflaged. However, it was likely that the news of the sinking of the “Athenia” off the north coast of Ireland influenced the Captain’s decision to “make a run for it”. (The peasants were allowed to remain on board.)

To avoid any chance of encountering the submarine which had torpedoed the “Athenia”, the Captain set off to the southwest, down the Bay of Biscay and off the coast of Spain, wisely reasoning that the submarine likely planned to proceed south, down the west coast of Ireland, to intercept our ship had it taken the usual direct route to Canada, in about the same area as the “Lusitania”, an American luxury liner crossing the Atlantic in 1915, was torpedoed by a German U Boat, (which act greatly influenced USA’s entry into the Great War) with the loss of eleven hundred lives.

Once safely at sea, zig-zagging constantly, but at full speed of 26 knots, as compared with U Boats’ estimated top speed of 10 knots, daily morning boat-drills commenced . All classes of passengers were required to wear or carry life-jackets at all times, and to assemble on deck to rehearse our procedure in the event of the order to abandon ship. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough jackets for those who boarded last, which were the peasants. However, their little children were adept at “appropriating” the jackets of those who carelessly put them down even for a minute. (Mine was lost about the third day out.)

One can only imagine the toll that this crossing took on the mind and physique of our beloved Bandmaster, of his wife and daughter, and of the band parents who had accompanied us. We were told that he seldom slept, reliving the horror of his youth. However, he courageously conducted us during three concerts a day for the duration of the trip–about 8-10 days, as I recall. (The customary direct crossing for this ship took four days).

In a lighter vein, I recall a personal incident of an unusual nature of which few, if any, of the band were aware. The boat drills were held for all passengers, regardless of their accommodation–first class, cabin class, third class(the band!) and steerage(the peasants). During the second boat-drill I found myself standing next to a very pleasant and well-mannered teen-age boy, whose agitated parents had hurriedly sent him off to USA to live with his aunt in Illinois for the duration of the forthcoming war. Richard and I struck up a conversation, and he invited me to go down with him to his cabin in the first-class section, (which adjoined the third-class) to get acquainted. (I learned that the forward section of these liners was most affected by oncoming large waves, that the rear section was less affected and was hence “cabin (second) class”, and that the middle section, being least affected by rough weather, was reserved for first-class passengers.)The band was in the forward section.

Richard had a large, sumptuous cabin, with two double beds, his own bathroom, his own ‘wet’ bar (which we never used), and swift service from stewards, as to any meals and snacks he wished to be served in his cabin at any hour. Contrasted with our quarters, which were ‘staterooms’ with 4 bunks, two on each aside of the small room, with the bathroom down the hall, this was luxury such as I had never seen before, except in the movies. As Richard was lonely, quite apprehensive, and having little rapport with the comparatively brash teenagers of the obviously opulent american families who comprised the bulk of the first-class passenger list, he sought my companionship as often as I was able to meet him, given our schedule of three concerts a day . He often asked me down to dinner with him, in the large and elegant dining -room, complete with orchestra. The food and its presentation were, as they now say, ‘to die for’, compared with the fare we had in third class.

One evening, after our concert, he invited me to the ballroom where a dance orchestra held sway. The ‘silver spoon in the mouth’ teenagers were enjoying themselves, and after an hour or so they all went out onto the deck, in pairs. Richard had struck up an animated conversation with a fellow Englishman, and as I didn’t want to be spotted by the staff as an obvious interloper, I went out onto the deck also. The ship was blacked out from stem to stern, with all portholes covered and heavy black canvas covering the deck guard-rails right up to the next highest deck, so that no interior lights could be seen from the ocean. It was pitch-black, and for some unknown reason I set off to find the stern of the ship. I felt my way along, using the walls of the various rooms to guide me, and eventually reached the tail-end of the ship, where there was a gap in the canvas covering, about 3 feet wide. Standing there, with the ship’s screws thrashing far beneath me, I was bounced up and down like a top. Behind the ship I could see its wake, and the zigzag pattern it was creating, as it proceeded full-speed on its defensive route.

When I had started back, using my other arm for guidance, and was about half way to the entrance, I detected a faint smell of perfume, and paused to ponder its source. Suddenly, I felt a hand take my arm and then my hand, and by its size and softness I thought it might be that of a female. I was astonished, and blurted out, “I’m sorry, but you must have run into to the wrong person–I don’t know you.” When she replied to the effect that she wasn’t concerned about that, I assumed that this might be protocol with these people who lived in such elegance to just meet and talk casually, and so when she asked me to help her along the deck, I assented, and after a silent walk for a few minutes she said, “I’m looking for someone, you know”, in a sort of helpless manner. I replied that I was sure it wasn’t me, but she repeated her enigmatic statement, so I again reasoned that she wanted the security of a companion on her walk on the darkened deck. After a number of halting steps, side by side, as I guided us using the wall of the ship for direction, she asked me, “Could you come down to my cabin?” (Or similar words to that effect). Very surprised, but taking her for a person who was likely travelling alone, and was terrified, and remembering my training as a Wolf Cub at the 29th Vancouver St. Helen’s pack, (do a good deed every day), I asked solicitously, “What is the trouble–are you seasick?” There was a pause, and a slight gasp, and she asked, “How old are you?”. Brightly and somewhat proudly, I answered “Sixteen! Last June!” Suddenly, no one was holding my hand any more, and the scent of the perfume wafted away!

I went back inside, but Richard had evidently gone to his suite, and I never had the opportunity to see him again. We docked without incident at Quebec City, our ship being too large to go upriver to Montreal. All first class passengers likely disembarked first, and he probably was taken straight to the CPR station to start for Rockford, where his aunt lived. ( I had one letter from Richard later that year. I replied, but never heard from him again.)

We took the train to Montreal, where we played a concert in a large Department store. Our next stop was Ottawa, and as I remember, then went on to Winnipeg, stopping only at a town in northern Ontario for a concert, sold out. In Winnipeg we were slated to perform for Eaton’s, but as we were under contract with Safeway, who had put up $5,000 for 26 radio concerts over CJOR the previous year, there was a controversy between Mr D and the Band Parents’ Committee in Vancouver as to the continuity of that contractual obligation. There being a stalemate, we boarded our two faithful tourist cars and went directly home to Vancouver, to emotional meetings with families and a warm welcome from a large supportive crowd, including Stu Keate, the “Province” reporter.

One final sad note: the Empress of Britain was sunk in 1940 off the coast of Ireland, and the U-boat 30 responsible was dispatched to the bottom by a British destroyer soon after. The Duchess of Bedford survived the war as an armed troop ship, in one case heroically tackling and sinking a U-boat with her deck guns.”

Note about our author: Carson Manzer played cornet on the 1939 trip. On leaving Vancouver, he was asked by Stuart Keate, then a reporter for the Vancouver Province, to send back news items during the trip. It seems very appropriate that Carson would provide this summary of the trip, from his own perspective, in the hopes that it might encourage others to bring their diaries and memories to bear on 1939, and indeed on 1934 and 1936, but even more importantly to him, on the many post-war trips, which he speculates were made under considerably different circumstances and which he also imagines would make both fascinating and nostalgic reading for all band alumni.

Carson later joined the Canadian Forces and played cornet in the band. Upon discharge he articled as a Chartered Accountant and became Internal Auditor for a large Canadian Company. Carson enjoys retirement now in Calgary with his wife Mary.

Updated: February 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s