The Scout Gang Show began its life in London in 1932. Ralph Reader was the producer of that show and also the composer of its songs and writer of its sketches. lt was staged at the Scala Theatre, London, opening on 30 October for three evening performances. Ralph could never have envisaged the growth and popularity of the Gang Shows which spread quickly all over the world.
Ralph was a man of the theatre and had produced two shows with the Holborn Rovers before being asked by Admiral Phillpotts, then the County Commissioner for London, to 'organise a concert' to raise money to put in a swimming pool at the campsite at Downe. What Ralph produced with his original songs and sketches and with the help of his friends and 150 boys, became the first Gang Show. They had difficulty deciding on a title, considering 'Downe and Out', 'Up Downe' and 'Downe to Piccadilly' but when a young lad called the cast to rehearsal and reported 'The Gang's all here', they knew they had their title.
The following year they staged 'The Gang Comes Back' for a week in London and people talked naturally about 'the Gang Show'. The name was here to stay.
After the third show the provinces became interested and Stoke, Glasgow and Newcastle produced shows using original Gang Show material as well as additions of their own. Ralph Reader wrote, "We in London now became aware that something far bigger than anything we had possibly imagined was happening."
The London Gang were the first amateurs ever to appear in Royal Command Performances and these occurred in 1937, 1957 and 1964. One of the signature tunes of Shows 'We're riding along on the crest of a wave' was written by Ralph for the 1934 London Show at which every seat was sold before the opening performance and in 1937 the Gang Show became a film.
Ralph Reader used his enormous talents to create an institution in the Scouting movement and turned over all the material to the Boy Scout Association to be used without payment for Scout shows anywhere.
Gordon Davison, who has produced a large number of the Kirrawee shows, recalls seeing the first show in 1932 as a Cub aged nine years and enjoying it. He had been born at Clapham, South West London at the end 1922 but by the age of six he had lost his father. Several members of Gordon's scout group joined the London show though it was too far for him to travel. When South West London shows started up, he became a member and met Ralph Reader, who would come over to polish off their productions.
Gordon's first performance was in a sketch called 'A Hole in the Road' when he was about 12 years old and he went on to take part in about 20 more Gang Shows, mostly as a member of the cast until the last one when he 'had a hand in the production.'
Following the war years when he served in the Royal Navy on destroyers as a petty officer and continued scouting as a member of the Deep Sea Rover Crew, in 1950 he married Barbara Tolmie and they migrated to Australia with their son Paul in March 1958, settling at Sutherland.
They arrived on the Tuesday and the District Commissioner of Sutherland was around on the Wednesday and Gordon was at the troop on the Thursday. That year was the tenth anniversary year for 2nd Sutherland Troop and Gordon thought they should 'put on a bit of a show for the parents'. lt was not a Gang Show but Gang Show material was used.
The group decided to stage a Gang Show the following year and the Seniors from 1st Sutherland joined with 2nd Sutherland making about 48 participants.
At that time the Sutherland groups were operating in Sutherland District, as Kirrawee District had not been formed. The show was financed by the people involved with 2nd Sutherland and 1st Sutherland, and the Sutherland School of Arts was hired. Costumes were made by the parents (not always a good idea according to Gordon), the show ran for four performances on Thursday, Friday and two on Saturday and a small profit was made. Beverley Hayhow provided the music for the Gang and also played the organ at the Sutherland Congregational Church.
At that time there were two other Gang Shows operating in Australia. Brisbane staged their first show in 1952 and the following year a Ralph Reader Musical 'We'll live forever' was presented by Scouting members throughout Melbourne, establishing the Melbourne Gang Show. This made Kirrawee the third group to produce a Gang Show in Australia.
Two years later, in 1961 the show, now officially a Kirrawee District project, returned to the School of Arts. Members of the Gang included Jim Bruce, Bill Wilcox and Ron Hamilton plus a 'wardrobe department' recruited from the ladies with Gordon's wife Barbara Davison taking a major responsibility. Although this show was presented by Kirrawee, it also involved troops from 2nd Sutherland, 3rd Gymea, 1st Kirrawee and Gymea Bay.
Fundraising for the show involved arranging a car trial and Gordon recorded that "lt rained like mad and thunder stormed and it didn't take place and we then had to run a raffle to pay the cost of the car trial."
Publicity involved appearing on ABC TV performing some items and this necessitated a very early morning rise to have the performers made up and into the studio. For future shows they repeated the ritual on Channel 9 with 'Miss Marilyn'.
For the earlier shows, the males performed any female parts. The can-can and hula 'girls' did a great job and were received enthusiastically by the audiences. Jim Bruce recalled a number entitled 'Bring on the Glamourous Girls':
So Gordon picked four of us to be dolled up as ladies and we had to have evening gowns and wigs and make-up and not one of us wanted to be in it - everyone said it was a big hit but we hated every minute of it.
ln later years young men reacted differently and Peter Critchley is one of those:
I enjoy doing 'drag' and probably get a lot of comments behind my back. I find it's a challenge and without blowing my own trumpet I think, for a male to play a woman, requires a lot of guts to begin with, especially with a lot of other males around, plus a fair amount of talent to make it not look either 'camp' or gaudy unless it has to be acted that way.
The problem was solved when the Gang Show admitted girls from the Guiding movement and later when Scouting accepted females as members.
London Gang Show first admitted females to their show in 1968 and Gang Shows world wide soon followed suit. Kirrawee first included them in the 1975 show when they welcomed them from the two Rover Crews of Scouting, the Ranger Crew and Guide leaders, though 'some of the old stagers were a bit apprehensive.'
There would be no show without the backstage crew and other workers behind the scenes - stage crew, costume ladies, make-up artists, prompts, dressers, lighting and sound crews. Scenery and props are prepared by the Stage Director and his crew before each series of performances. Not much scenery was made for the Gymea Bay School Auditorium performances over the years 1963-1969 but with the move to Port Hacking High School
Auditorium in 1971 they began to work more on scenery. The Port Hacking High School was the venue from 1971 to 1991 , except for 1987 when it was necessary to use Cronulla High School Auditorium. Port Hacking was not available after that time and the show moved to the Sutherland Entertainment Centre. lt became traditional for the stage crew to present their own version of the show to the Gang and this is invariably hilarious.
The make-up ladies are an important part of the show, as is the 'prompt' but dressers are a more modern aid. Jim Bruce recalled the early years:
Out in the dressing rooms you could never find anything. We were all in together. There were no dressers or anybody looking after costumes. You looked after yourself so it was pretty hectic backstage.
The early shows were 'pretty basic' with lighting, Fred Dawes being listed as responsible for this job from 1961-1967. D. Porter controlled it in 1969 and then Jim Bruce, who joined the Gang in the 1961 show "started to get some of the real snazzy stuff!" He went on to become a professional in his theatre work and others joined him in this work at Kirrawee, including David Bassford and Marc Rayner.
Costumes, of course were a large part of the whole and a band of dedicated women produced some amazing costumes for hundreds of performers.
Outstanding amongst these would be Lenny Westerhof who took over this responsibility in 1975. Lenny's expertise in cutting and drafting began when as a girl of 13 during World War Two she cut a waterproof skirt from an old raincoat. ln the Gang Show she tackled some stranger costumes, such as sea horses, pixies on toadstools, mermaids and other mind boggling adornments. Previously Barbara Davison and her 'ladies' had worked on costumes, followed by Jean Quinn from 1963-69 then Dorothy McManus and Pat Black took over in 1971 when Lenny initially joined.
Other helpers were Robyn Genge, Val Stapleton, Joan Lord and Phyllis Critchley, all of whom helped with the recording and filing of costumes into easy-access boxes. One sample of each costume is hung and the rest filed away. There are over four thousand costumes in the wardrobe department.
The changing shape of children over the years poses a problem sometimes, and novelty costumes can be a challenge as they come in all sorts - jockeys, emus, penguins, starfish, etc.
ln the closing number the Gang always wear their own uniform with the distinctive red Gang Show scarf. lnitially it was just red, but when they had been operating for 25 years it was edged with silver braid. Now that it has been operating for over 50 years, gold braid edges the red scarf.
Sketches were initially contributed by members and it was not until 't989 that Peter Critchley took the first step into Sketch producer which involved locating sketches, writing them, adapting Ralph Reader's material etc. Peter's philosophy was.
Whether it is good or bad, our comedy and our expectations of comedy have changed and we do have to rewrite sketches, trying to keep
Ralph Readers ideas in it.
More often than not, sketches over the years have been the humorous interlude between musical numbers which reaches out to the audience in a special way. At other times there are stooges in the audience who have an interplay of words with the onstage cast member. Peter explains, "lt was complete review, vaudeville variety, which is what Ralph intended the Gang Show to be."
The music for the first show in 1959 was provided by Beverley Hayhow on the piano but by 1993 there was an orchestra of 8 players in the pit. From the 4th show in 1965 Beverley was joined by Michael O'Mullane on the saxophone and Frank Thornley on the drums, with Frank's son, Ray joining them on the organ in 1967. Others who played from 1971 were Valda Gardner, Ross Cannings, Arthur Heapy and Col Heapy. Many others have played in the orchestra since then.
Guidelines established in the past requiring the content of a Show to contain six-percent of Ralph Reader material before it can be called a Gang Show, have since been relaxed a little. ln 1960 the Melbourne Gang Show lost its right to the title that year because of the use of too much local Australian material. There are still opportunities for people with various talents to submit songs and sketches for the Gang Show, though they might be altered in some way before being used.
Choreography from 1973 benefited from Shirley Shephard who was a professional Choreographer who worked with the show for some years. She managed to train young boys to make a huge success of the Can-Can, despite dressing room dramas with the suspenders and mesh stockings. Her skill and patience encouraged the boys to confidently dance with bowls of fruit on their heads in a Brazilian segment and to perform amazing Cossack leaps in a spectacular Russian sequence in the 1981 show.
The 'office workers' from the beginning included Rita Clark, typist and Jean Williams who did the duplicating and also Mrs Shorter who joined in 1963. Printing was done by the local S.C.A.M. (Sutherland Cronulla Advertising Medium) office. Gordon remembers, "The old chappie there, we never tried to sell him any tickets but he came to our first show and he came to every show until he died."
The Gang Show is a surprise to many newcomers who expect 'a Scout campfire' as it is a truly professional presentation of "big production" musical items, spectacular costumes, colour, music and sketches. The 1993 production cost about $24,000 to stage and Gordon reflects "which is amazing when you think how it first started." ln comparison the first Gang Show in 1959 made a profit of €1.6.9 about $2.70.
Ralph Reader in all his years as 'Mr Gang Show' has composed and written over 500 songs and more than 300 sketches and until his death in 1982 wrote encouraging letters to Shows all over the world. He received the MBE in 1944 for his leadership of the RAF Gang Shows entertaining the Services in different parts of the world. Performers included Peter Sellars, Dick Emery, Spike Milligan and Tony Hancock, all of whom went on to fame following their experiences with the RAF Shows. ln 1957 Ralph was awarded the CBE for his services to Scouting and on his retirement in 1974, the London Gang Show closed.
Kirrawee Gang Show members have visited other Gang Shows over the years, even going to Auckland, New Zealand. ln 1971 they asked the local member of Parliament, Don Dobie, to procure flags from as many countries as he could for an item. lt was a very impressive sight to see about 50 flags he had 'acquired', moving down the hall.
Kirrawee gave a performance at the Eighth Australian Jamboree at Leppington in 1970-1971. There were about 210 in the cast playing on one of the biggest stages that had ever been built. Gordon recalls: Unfortunately it rained like mad during the performance but it went on. There were about 15,000 there at the start and we finished up with about 2,000 who sat through it, including the Chief Scout of the World, Chips Maclean who came back and congratulated the Gang.
The week-end rehearsals create an atmosphere which allows friendships to be made and cemented and at times can lead to more with a number of marriages resulting. Jim Bruce claims "By the end of the Show they're practically engaged."
Kirrawee has a fine record of performance although it is not staged as often as most other Gang Shows. They are 'Riding along on the crest of a wave" and this is not just due to the talented and enthusiastic cast, but to the innumerable people who work hard behind the scenes to produce a truly professional and thoroughly enjoyable show.
Adapted from a 1993 oral history project "Music, Magic & Mayhem" by Merle Kavanagh.