ABOVE: George on the far right holding the winning certificate from the 1966 Kerkrade Music Festival. The following interview was done in 2008 for my book The Lost Chord – Strawberry Fields Forever – The Sixties Boys from the Vancouver Kitsilano Boys Band
George was one of the older boys on the 1966 Kits Band tour of Europe. He has been playing the bass horn now (2008) for 50 years! Mr. D often relied on him to do errands for him on the tour. I will let George tell you more about that.
“When did you join the Kits band?”
“In 1963, I was in the Richmond High School Band. Our bandmaster, Jack Habkirk, had been in the Kits Band, as had most of the music teachers in the lower mainland at that time. He said, “You’ve got to get into a more challenging band.” There was a Richmond District Junior Band at that time as well as a Richmond District Senior Band. Jack ran the junior band until Al Horrocks, who ran the senior band, moved into Vancouver and then Jack moved over to the senior band. Jack was at Palmer Elementary. Bernie Reid, the night school principal, came up with the idea for the district bands.”
“When did the district bands start in Richmond?”
“The district bands started about 1962. I started playing in 1959. This year will be my 50th year playing the tuba. Jack said, “Call Mr. Delamont up and tell him you are a student of mine and that you would like to join the Kits Boys’ Band.” I took my heart in my hand and telephoned Mr. Delamont. I had just finished playing the Flying Dutchman in the Lower Mainland All Star Band with Fred Turner.”
“Was that for competition?”
“No, I think it was just Fred Turner’s idea. I was also in the BC All Star Band as well that year. That was in Victoria. I called Mr. Delamont and I said, “I’m George Ellenton. I am a tuba player in Jack Habkirk’s band in Richmond. He says, “Oh John’s band, yes, are you any good?” I said “I think I’m pretty good Mr. D. I was just in both the Lower Mainland and BC All Star Bands and we played the Flying Dutchman. He says, “Have you got a tuba?” I said, “Yes, I just got a new tuba.” He says, “Well bring it along.” I show up on Monday night for the junior band – the early rehearsal. I go to open my tuba case and no key. I had left the key at home. I had only had the horn about a week and I took it to school every day and I always locked it up. He says, “What, what are you doing back there?”
“Well, I locked my case and I forgot to bring the key.”
“Well geez, uh, gosh!”
He’s flustering around, as he was oft to do, and then he says, “Well, get one of the sousaphones out of there.” I had never seen a sousaphone except on TV, let alone played one.
I finally got this thing on, no shoulder pad, 700 pounds it seemed, strange mouthpiece. I was so uncomfortable but I was a good player in those days, so I adapted and got through the rehearsal. He says, “You can stay for the second rehearsal but if the guys show up you will have to give up the horn but maybe they can get your case open.”
Sure enough, one of the fellows, Jamie Hawthorne showed up. Big Mike Gregg comes in with his French horn, which happened to be a Huttle – the same make as my locked up tuba in the case. He says,
“Mike, is that a Huttle horn you got?”
“Yes Mr. D.”
“Unlock that IDIOT’s tuba case!”
He took his French horn key over to my tuba case and unlocked the case. The tuba case has never been locked since. I had heard all the stories about Mr. D, the tyrant, so now I knew why.”
“Are there any other early stories?”
“At one rehearsal he was picking on Graeme Monteith, a clarinet player. He usually had a chair nearby that he could bash around. At this particular rehearsal he didn’t have a chair. He gets up and starts thrashing around and he says to Graeme, “You, get up!” Graeme gets up and Mr. D starts bashing his chair into the ground and it breaks. He tosses it off to the side and says to Graeme, “What are you doing standing there? Go get a chair and sit down.” That was one of his famous temper tantrums.”
Charlie Forester and I went through Junior and Senior High school together. He became a geologist with Imperial Oil. I heard he went down to South America to do exploration work for Imperial Oil.”
“Can you tell me anything more about Jack Habkirk?”
“He was a great bassoon player and tenor saxophone player. He also became a great trumpet player. He began playing trumpet when he started teaching band. He was a really neat guy. He played in the Lion’s band. He passed away about 1967. Jack told me a story about the boys practicing their marching on the deck of the ship going over to England in 1934. One of the boys was having problems with his slide and the next thing they heard was, “Slide-Over-Board.” Jack played in Mr. D’s professional band. He played the cruise ships in and out. He was in the VSO. He was a good musician. He had what all the Delamont guys have, the ability to program.”
“Tell me about your early days in the band, leading up to the 1966 European trip.”
“We traveled to Alberta by bus in the summer of 1965, and played at the Calgary Stampede and Edmonton’s Klondike days. In the summer of 1964, we had traveled to Penticton for the Peach Festival. They were fun trips. I remember I fell asleep on the beach in Penticton and returned to put on my uniform for the concert, all sunburned. It isn’t much fun marching in wool pants with sunburned legs. The lead-up to the 1966 trip was fun. The playing gradually got a little more intense and we started marching in the General Gordon School yard. Both my mom and dad had been drill sergeants during the Second World War. They would come to pick me up and to watch. They were not impressed by our first efforts. However, they were very impressed by the time we returned from Kerkrade. Every foot was in place when we marched triumphantly down Granville and Hastings streets at our homecoming.”
“Tell me about the 1966 European trip.”
“I had not planned on going on the trip. I had just wasted a year, ‘65-66, at SFU. I majored in cards. I had decided that I was going to straighten up and go back to SFU. I had a job in a pool hall in Richmond. I was a pretty good pool player in those days. I had a good salary and was managing to bank most of my salary. Delamont said to me,
“Are you coming on the trip?” I said,
“I don’t think so Mr. D. I have to stay and earn some money.” He says,
“The trip to Europe would be far more valuable than a year at university. If you come up with your spending money, I will pay for your trip.” I couldn’t beat that, so I went and he paid my way. When we returned, I owed him $20. The week after we returned, I applied for a job and got it at the Bank of Nova Scotia. After getting my first pay cheque, the first cheque I wrote was to pay off Arthur. He was quite good to me.
I was the concertmaster on the 1966 trip. I didn’t really do anything except start one rehearsal when he was held up. He used to give me a hard time about my conducting. He would say,
“You have no pattern!” Imagine, him telling me I had no pattern, he was all over the place but it worked for him. I remember someone saying once,
“There are two volumes to a Delamont band, loud and ‘Oh my God.’ The trip was exciting. I was kind of a father confessor figure, I guess because I was older. I kept a diary of the trip but, unfortunately, I can’t find it. I remember some of us did a pub crawl in Woolwich Arsenal. In Edinburgh, George Bouwman and I decided we would have a drink in every pub along the street from where we stayed to Princes Street. We were so bombed! I remember the kindness Mr. Delamont showed me in Kerkrade. I had a migraine headache. We were supposed to march into town after the marching event. We went back to our home stay and I lay down. I usually sleep off the migraines. When I woke up, I could hear the band playing. I got my uniform on, put the sousaphone together and caught up with the band in time for the last number. After we had finished, Mr. D came over and said, “What happened?” I said,
“I’m sorry Mr. D. I had a migraine headache and passed out.” He said,
“Okay, I hope you feel better.” It wasn’t a big deal. He was good that way.
I remember Wally, which of course was the name we gave him, his guardians at the airport told Mr. D that he was not to go anywhere that alcohol was being served and that he was to be in bed by such and such an hour. All good Christian values as they saw it. When we got off the bus at Woolwich Arsenal, Mr. D said, “Wally, I’m thirsty. Go into that pub over there and get me an orange pop. That was Mr. D being defiant. Don’t let the boy go anywhere near where there is alcohol. Wally, go into the pub and get me an orange pop.
I always remembered the theory if we were supposed to be somewhere at say two o’clock, if Mr. D arrived at 2:10, he was not late, we were all early. It was a great trip!
In Cologne one of the valves on my sousaphone was sticking so Mr. D said, “Go find a music repair shop and get it fixed.” I looked in the yellow pages and found a shop, all in German of course. There I am walking down a street in Cologne, in my slacks, sweat shirt and sports jacket with the body of the sousaphone wrapped around my shoulder. I eventually find the shop and the fellow of course speaks no English. Anyway, he fixes the valve. On my way back it is starting to get hot because the sun has come out. Here I am wearing my slacks and sports jacket, so I decide to go into a bar and have a beer. I get talking to this guy and he buys me a couple of more beers. When I come out of the bar, I am totally disorientated. I have no idea where I am, so I see some railway tracks. I figure the best way to get back into town is to follow the railway tracks, except I begin following them in the wrong direction, out of town. I realize my error when I see a sign which reads, “Dusseldorf that way!” Finally, I flag down a taxi. He doesn’t speak any English either. All I can remember about the charming converted bunker where we stayed was “am zoo” or by the zoo. So, I say,
“Take me to Cologne Cathedral.”
He takes me to the Cologne Cathedral. I finally find the streetcar that takes me back to the bunker. I whip into the bunker, assemble my sousaphone, rush as fast as I can down to the bandstand and sit down just in time for the opening down beat.
Paris was really neat. We had three folders of music and played a lot. There was a friend of mine over there from university, so we palled around for four of five days.
Southend-on-Sea was fun. We played many concerts and marched in the Carnival parade every day. We also had our free time in Southend – where the boys could go off and visit relatives for a few days. Those of us that stayed behind had the run of the amusement park where we ended up staying. Great fun! Wally caught the chicken pox. Dartmouth was great! We were the “boys from the colony” and our money was “no good” for any purchases. Mr. Delamont liked to prove he could out walk you. If he was walking on the other side of the street he would make a point of over taking us, except he would cross the street just as he was over taking us and bump us to prove he could out walk us.
Edinburgh was neat. We took the train to Scotland. I remember I needed to have a cigarette, so I went down to the urinal in the train station, to the farthest urinal and lit up a cigarette. In a moment I hear, “George, put that out!” Mr. D didn’t particularly care whether you smoked or not – just as long as you didn’t smoke in uniform. He had followed me all the way downstairs and into the urinal. It seemed like every time I tried to grab a smoke with my sweater or uniform on, he would catch me. He probably had to go to the urinal too but it seemed like he was always looking over my shoulder.
I remember the pride of marching down Hastings Street when we got back. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
“I worked for the Bank of Nova Scotia. I married my first wife in 1969 and separated from her in 1971. It didn’t work out. Her name was Marie Louise and my present wife’s name is Mary Louise. I just picked the wrong one. I spent four years at the Bank of Nova Scotia (1966-’70) and then four years at Canada Permanent Trust (1970–’74) during which time I spent a couple of great years in Kamloops.
I did a lot of theatre in Vancouver in 1968. I played in the pit orchestra, string bass for Guys & Dolls in June of 1968 at Metro Theatre. I was watching the actors on stage and I thought they seemed to be having more fun than we were in the orchestra. I have a rule, “No one is allowed to have more fun than me.” I took some theatre workshops and began auditioning for musicals. My first musical was in Ladner in 1968, Oklahoma. I was cast as one of the dancers. I did a lot of musical theatre between 1968 and ‘70. I usually had four shows going at once. I hurt my back re-doing Oklahoma in 1969 so I began to turn more towards producing. I did some conducting as well. I conducted Pajama Game for Richmond Theatre at Metro theatre in Vancouver, and was the Assistant Musical Director for Metro’s production of Kiss Me Kate.
In Kamloops, I did mostly dance – tap and ballet. In 1974, I came back to Vancouver. I thought about going to university to become a band director. I went to Douglas College in New Westminster in the daytime – Len Whitely and Wally Robertson were running the program at that time – and drove bus in the evenings. I was just about to get married to Mary and it was all too much, so I dropped out of college. They were sad to see me go because they had been so happy to have a mature student.
I drove transit from 1974 through 1987. I started playing tuba again. During that time I did a lot of dance work but no musical theatre. George Bouwman, my high school buddy, and also a trombone player on the 1966 tour, got me to join the Delta Concert Band, conducted at that time by Bobby Herriot. That is where I met my wife Mary Howland. She was doing her practicum and was conducting the Delta Band because Herriot was away. Then she took over the band program at Eric Hamber School from 1974 through 1980. It was a big program. Mary and I were married in 1975.
In 1985, I am driving bus, studying dance and then I went off to Western Kentucky University to get my DEA, dance teachers certificate. I started teaching dance in the community centers. I would drive my shift, come home and have a nap and then teach dance from three to seven.
I started teaching tap for Bev Rose. She was my mentor, the one who told me I was going to be a dancer in Oklahoma. She ended up being my daughter’s godmother. Eventually I left transit in 1988 and became a house Dad. During that year I auditioned for Gateway Theatre’s production of Cabaret. I got the role of “Herr Schultz.” I was about 38. That summer I did Westside Story at TUTS. I was cast as “Doc.” It was a great cast!
In October of 1988, I got a telephone call from my friend Bobby Bruce who performs as “Nearly Neil.” I first met him during the run of Cabaret (he was the EMCEE). Bobby said, “They are opening this new dinner theatre in Port Coquitlam called “Maz and Mes” and they are looking for a musical director. You should give them a call. I called the number and I heard, “G’day, Maz & Mes!” It was with a strong Australian accent. I said, “You have an ad in the Vancouver newspaper for a musical director?” “Oh ya darling, what’s your sign?” “Capricorn!” “Ah good, we’ll get along just fine!” She sets up an audition at her restaurant. I went down to her restaurant which they were converting into a dinner theatre and it was just a pile of rubble. I did the audition and got hired. I spent five wild and wonderful years at “Maz & Mes.” We did five shows a week and some specials, and it ran every night from mid October to December 24th. I had two weeks off in the summer, so I did about 1,500 shows in all. I was still
teaching dance at the same time. I served the meals, did the show and then I came back and drank with the customers afterwards. I made good money. It was lots of fun. It was hard on the body though because I was in my 40s and the kids I worked with were in their 20s. From Maz, I learned about programming variety. Maz had been a performer and a comedian in Australia. She married a Canadian and moved back here. Nothing matched in her restaurant – different pieces of china, different chairs. It had its own unique atmosphere. One day I came in and looked up on the balcony and all the chairs were the same – brand new. I said to Maz, “Come on Maz, we are losing touch with who we are!” “What da ya mean George, what da ya mean?” “Look at all those brand spanking new chairs, all in a row.” The next day when I came in, I looked around. The new chairs had been dispersed throughout the theatre.
In 1991, I wound up buying the dance school from Bev Rose. She had operated the school out of her house, so we bought the house as well. The school was in Tsawwassen. Now, I am working five nights a week at Maz & Mes and running my own business, which I had never done before.
I started playing piano when I was five. I am probably one of the last piano players around who can not only read charts but play almost any time in any key, due to all my variety experience because I had to come up with 60 songs or so each night for each performance.
The dance school was very successful up until 2005, when I let myself be persuaded to take the school in a different direction and to take on associates. After that, the business went into the tank. In 2007, I had to shut it down, sell the house and pay off all my debts. Here I am starting all over again at age 60.
I had a great time with the kids. We put on some great shows. The kids that I mentored are now mentoring me. Tracy Neff is going to be a big musical star. She did Company at the Stanley Theatre and Guys and Dolls at Gateway. She went to school with my daughter. Jennifer Page, a girl I mentored at Maz and Mes works regularly in Las Vegas.
I studied Russian ballet as well. I am recognized by Nadia Kalmanaskaya, in California, who has stated that I qualify to teach the first two levels of the Vaganova Ballet technique. That is the technique used by the Maryinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet. I have been down to Los Angeles to do shows with her as a performer and emcee.
My latest come-back started at Gateway last Christmas (2007) in My Fair Lady. Imagine that a comeback at age 60. Half the people that I used to work with are no longer around. Ray Michaels doesn’t call me anymore. Maz says, “No George, that’s because he passed away.”
My latest project is my “Frankly Yours” show. It is a loving tribute to Frank Sinatra. I started as a singer in the Elgar Choir at age 8.”
“Who are the three people that you feel influenced your life the most?”
“Arthur Delamont would be one. He taught me a lot about music and programming. Maz Gehring of ‘Maz & Mes,’ she taught me a lot about comedy, timing and programming. The third influence would be a tie between Bev Rose and Nadia Kalmanovskaya, my two dance mentors.
Of course I have to include my family – my wife Mary and my wonderful children. I have a beautiful 28 year old daughter, Jodie and a talented 26 year old son, John. My daughter was a very good dancer. Jodie toured the states twice with ‘Dance Caravan.’ She liked to be around her friends. She was accepted to the summer program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet but she decided not to go. John’s artistic talent manifested itself visually, as he works as a designer in the video and computer gaming industry.
One last story, when we were in Southend-on-Sea on the 1966 trip, Delamont asked me to go into London each day and pick up the band’s mail at Canada House. I went in about four times. On this one day I was feeling a little thirsty, so I stopped off at the bar in the station for a drink. While I was sitting at the bar an elderly English gentleman sitting at the far end of the bar said to me,
“Can I buy you a drink son?”
I recognized him immediately. He was the spitting image of my grandfather, except my grandfather had died in 1953. We chatted for a while and then I thanked him and boarded my train down to London. When I got back home, I told my mother about meeting this man who was the spitting image of my grandfather. She said,
“He could have been a relative. Your great grandfather had two families. We are not sure how it came about but he probably married twice.”
“All of us boys who played under Mr. D became known as Delamont’s boys. All the girls who went through my school became known as George’s girls!”