EST email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-07-12 published
Moms always liked him best
The Happy Gang's popular lead singer had a good reason for saying hello to his mom whenever the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio classic was on air
By James McCREADY Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, July 12, 2003 - Page F10
The double knock on the door occurred every afternoon at 1.
"It's the Happy Gang."
"Well, come on in!"
Then Eddie ALLEN, Bert PEARL, Bobby GIMBY and the rest of the cast of Canada's most popular radio program would break into "Keep happy with the Happy Gang."
Mr. ALLAN, the show's main singer, accordion player and sometimes emcee, died last week, leaving Robert FARNON as the gang's sole surviving member.
Every day as many as two million Canadians tuned in The Happy Gang, which led the national ratings for most of its run on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from 1937 to 1959. Until television came along in 1952, Mr. ALLEN and his cast mates were among the most famous people in the country.
The show was the creation of Mr. PEARL, who'd come to Toronto from Winnipeg (his real name was Bert SHAPIRA) to study medicine. To pay for his education, he started playing piano on radio with a band that included violinist Blain MATHE, organist Kay STOKES and Mr. FARNON, a trumpet player who would go on to be the most successful of them all.
The band morphed into the Happy Gang and Mr. PEARL was the driving force behind it. Eddie ALLEN was hired as the fifth member of the troupe and stayed with the program until it went off the air.
He was born Edward George ALLEN on December 24, 1920, in Toronto, and came from a family of musicians. His father, Bill ALLEN, played the trombone and was in a military band in France during the First World War. When Eddie was 10, his father asked him what instrument he wanted to play. The boy thought about it for a while and made up his mind after seeing a huge piano accordion in a music-store window.
"It was bigger than I was," Mr. ALLEN remembered, "but dad bought it anyway."
In a couple of years, he was entertaining at small events with his accordion, making $5 or $10 a week. Better than a paper route. He also won some local singing contests. When he was 17, he started singing and playing three nights a week on a radio program called The Serenader. Bert PEARL heard it and called him in.
"I auditioned him with Bert PEARL, and we liked him right away," Mr. FARNON says from his home on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. "He looked about 12 years old and could barely see over the top of his accordion. He was terribly shy, no self-confidence like the rest of us. He was very popular with the ladies, a very good-looking little chap."
What impressed most was his voice. "There really wasn't a singer in the Happy Gang until he came along. I really liked his voice."
Mr. FARNON remembers an incident from a Happy Gang rehearsal. "Eddie was about to sing a song called, I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, and I came up behind him and said, 'If you bring the gasoline.' He laughed so much he couldn't sing it when we went on the air."
The Happy Gang was old Canada, when the country was more rural and white skinned. It is impossible to imagine the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation mounting something so corny and wholesome. How corny was it? The host, Mr. PEARL, was known as "that slap-happy chappy, the Happy Gang's own pappy."
He also knew that sentiment sold. Mr. ALLEN would sing The Lord's Prayer on the program, two or three times a year, such as Good Friday, and during the war he sang it as an inspiration for mothers and their boys overseas.
By that time, the show's "appeal was enormous," wrote Ross MacLEAN, the late Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer and media critic who began listening as a child. "During the war years... its influence on the nation was profound. Its almost daily performance of There'll Always Be An England helped maintain home-front resolve and stirred at least this school kid into a frenzy of tinfoil collection, war certificate sales and the knitting of various items for the navy."
Among the cast, Mr. ALLEN was the kid. He was slight, about 5-foot-6, and looked as though he were too young to shave. A newspaper reported that while he was on his honeymoon in 1942, a hotel clerk in Hamilton didn't believe he was old enough to be married and refused to rent him a room. Even some of his fans were quoted by writer Trent FRAYNE as saying, "Oh my goodness, don't tell me that little boy's married."
On air, he always sang old-fashioned ballads. "Every mother would love the stuff he sang," said Lyman POTTS, a retired broadcaster who crossed paths with some of the gang. He recalled that one of the songs Mr. ALLEN performed on a Happy Gang recording was I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch. It was popular on the program, maybe because it was the perfect example of the Happy Gang's sort of cornball humour.
Another example is the line Mr. ALLEN used almost every day in the early years of the program. Mr. PEARL had told him not to let fame go to his head -- "Don't ever get the idea that you're too big to say hello to your mother." So, for his first six years, Mr. ALLEN's opening words were "Hello mom."
During the war, they dropped the shtick for fear of hurting the feelings of mothers with sons in uniform. It sparked a letter-writing campaign. "Don't let Eddie stop saying 'Hello mom,' " Liberty Magazine reported in May, 1945. "He reminds me of my own boy overseas. I wonder if he could think of all of us mothers when he says hello."
Over the years, the show appeared 195 times, always live (tape had yet to come into use when it began), in the course of an annual 39-week season, most of the time with the same cast. Its time slot was moved when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation began running a 1 p.m. newscast, but the shift to 1: 15 EST didn't hurt the ratings. At first, it was produced in a studio on Davenport Road in Toronto and later in front of an audience of 700 to 800 on McGill Street near College and Yonge.
The program's mainstay was not talk or jokes but music, and the signature double knock on the door was an old-fashioned radio sound effect provided by Blain MATHE, who would move up to the mike and rap twice on the back of his violin.
Working together so closely did create some personality conflicts. There were practical jokes, usually aimed at the most uptight cast member: Mr. PEARL, a control freak who loved to plan the program in detail and had his own small office at the McGill Street studio.
One day, Mr. ALLEN and the other Happy Gang members set all the clocks forward by a few minutes. "We're late," they announced to Mr. PEARL, who raced into studio. After the opening, a couple of performers started to whine: "I don't want to do this."
Thinking they were actually on air, Mr. PEARL was shocked -- and didn't feel much better when he learned it was all a joke. It might have been one of the reasons he suffered a nervous breakdown (called "nervous exhaustion" for public consumption) and left the show in 1950 after 18 years and moved to the United States.
Eddie ALLEN took his place as emcee, but the incident rated an article in Maclean's by June CALLWOOD, the country's top magazine writer at the time, entitled: The Not So Happy Gang.
By then Mr. FARNON was long gone. During the war, he had joined the Canadian Army Show's band, and later led the Canadian band with the Allied Expeditionary Force, just as Glen MILLER led its U.S. ensemble. After the war he became a top arranger, working on Frank Sinatra albums and scores for such movies as Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck.
Sinatra, however, was a little too flash for Eddie ALLEN, who preferred Bing Crosby. He was a sharp dresser, but his style was understated, almost always a conservative suit and muted shirt in a business where the shirt easily could have been orange.
His love of clothes gave him something to do when he left show business. Eddie ALLEN owned a men's clothing store in the west end of Toronto after he left the program. He later retired and moved to London, Ontario
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