New Zealand’s entertainment troupes in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War have received very little attention from historians, who usually concentrate on those in Europe, such as the Middle East Kiwi Concert Party. Brent Coutts’ 2020 book Crossing the Line rectified this, and the main theme was the experiences of three gay soldiers who spent the war performing in the Pacific concert parties: Harold Robinson, Ralph Dyer, and Douglas Morison. They “shared a queer identity and a love of performance.”
The Tui Concert Party
In Fiji, soldiers from the 36th Battalion had “improvised entertainments in their own time, performing by the headlights of trucks at various encampments”. Later, the 8th Brigade concert party “provided regular cheerful programmes of high order” after giving its first performance at the Baker Memorial Hall, Nausori, on 5 June 1942. These shows continued at battalion level on Norfolk Island where the 36th Battalion garrisoned in 1943.
Carmen Miranda was the ideal performer on whom to base a performance. As well as her signature fruit hat and popularity as the “Brazilian Bombshell”, and her catchy songs with their Latin rhythms and whimsical lyrics, she had an irresistibly kitsch aspect that made her a joy to imitate. Mae West’s suggestive double entendres, said in a seductive way, were perfect for the tone the concerts required. Robinson would use the lines from her movies to tease the soldiers in a flirtatious manner: “I always did like a man in uniform. That one fits you grand. Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? I’m home every evening.” From I’m No Angel there was the line, “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.” The audience knew these quotations very well and they always brought a laugh.
Take me where the daisies
Cover the country lanes
We’ll make hay while the sun shines
We’ll make love when it rains.
When the battalion moved to New Caledonia, David Reid, who had put together shows on Fiji, writing many of the sketches himself, formally organised the battalion concerts into the Tui Concert Party. Towards the end of the war in the Pacific, Reid would transfer into the Pacific Kiwi Concert Party. The Tui shows were more carefully rehearsed and there were official tours of other units.
In May, they toured a show called Men of New Zealand, which was quickly followed by Tuis on the Air. Reviews praised the show, which included a burlesque opera, Faust, and a ballet number, and its success led to a performance for 3000 American soldiers at the large open-air theatre at Tontouta. Reid wrote a theme song that opened and closed the Tui Concert Party shows. In Harold Robinson’s memory, the lyrics went like this:
And when New Zealand is on parade,
Our folks at home are not dismayed,
Those ones we loved whate’er betide,
Are marching by us stride by stride,
And when we’re sailing for home once more,
We’ll just forget what’s gone before,
England, our country’s at your side,
New Zealand is on parade.
In July 1943 the Tui Concert Party toured the 8 Brigade area with their Revue No. 3, entitled Now and Then, which received acclaim for mixing older and present-day musical numbers, including two original songs written for the show. The Kiwi News reported that “Hal Robinson … scores heavily in ‘Tangerine’ and other female impersonations in company with Stan Carroll.”
Moving up to the forward area, The Tui Concert Party performed its 50th show, Variety, in October 1943 in a natural amphitheatre on Guadalcanal dubbed the Regent Theatre, with the assistance of the band of the American 198 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. The 36th Battalion then moved to the Treasury Islands, where it was involved in the landing at Falamai, on Mono Island, the first opposed landing of New Zealand troops since Gallipoli. In the Treasuries they partnered with American servicemen bands once again. In January 1944 the Tuis joined up with a military dance band and members of US Marine and Naval units to put on a variety show called Let’s Get Together. They made tours of Stirling and Mono Islands. One of the most successful concerts was the Coral Diggers’ Concert Party, a show at company headquarters on Stirling Island in the Treasury Islands on Christmas Eve in 1944. This show mixed a humorous take on 36 Battalion history with medleys of can-can “girls”, torch songs, hillbillies, bar-room singers and choral singing.
The Pacific Kiwi Concert Party
The Signal Corps had first begun organising a concert party in January 1943 on New Caledonia. The sketches would become a show called Keep ’Em Laughing, billed as an army revue; the title was a rewording of the American government’s wartime slogan “Keep ’Em Smiling”. It was these shows that were the beginning of an idea that would lead to the Kiwi Concert Party in the Pacific. Rex Sayers put together a small troupe attached to the AEWS – there were to be 12 permanent members – of comedians, musicians and singers. They produced a number of shows that toured New Caledonia, and then the New Hebrides, before being sent to Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella and the Treasury Islands. The most northern point that they performed was on Nissen Island in the Green Islands, north of Bougainville.
Sayers, the producer, who also sang as a tenor and acted in the shows, ran focused rehearsals and would not stand for any nonsense. This earned him the respect of others in the unit: the homosexual soldiers called him “Auntie Kiwi”. Sayers worked closely with, but gave musical freedom to, Ossie Cheesman, the unit’s key musician, and the band he put together. Cheesman, an outstanding musician and composer in his own right, could play the piano, piano accordion, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and trombone.
In practical terms, the troupe was two separate groups – the band members and the female impersonators – who came together only for the productions and when touring. Jock (John) MacKenzie, a pianist from Auckland, was Cheesman’s understudy. The rest of the band was made up of Harold Toomer from Wellington, Burns Dephoff from Auckland, and jazz bassist Bob Ofsoski from New Plymouth. Harry Davidson and Henry Burns could do comedy, acting and singing. Allan Matthews, from Auckland, performed as a magician and ventriloquist. Maurice Tansley, a light baritone from Invercargill, always performed a serious song in contrast to the comedy of many of the other sketches. Owen Fletcher was a tenor who sang in the chorus and played slapstick roles.
The stars of the show were the female impersonators, Ralph Dyer and Douglas Morison, not just for their singing but also for their comedy routines. As one article noted, “By virtue of his majestic figure, Doug Morison usually portrays older and more dignified women; he can be depended upon to provide any middle-aged character for which the script might call.” In this respect, “Beulah” suited him as a camp nickname. Dyer, known as “Crystal” or “Cryssie”, took the more glamorous and sexy parts and was very good at musical comedy, in the style of American actor, dancer and singer Ginger Rogers. He liked to have a blonde wig styled like hers, with curls or waves, and copied her fashion style from the famous films with Fred Astaire. He also loved impersonating the glamour of Rita Hayworth and the sultry femme fatale Marlene Dietrich. Dyer and Morison would meet Harold Robinson after seeing him at a Tui Concert Party show. The three men would become close friends, bonded by their roles as female impersonators, and their homosexuality. Dyer and Morison would give Robinson the camp nickname “Helena”.
The Pacific Kiwi Concert party toured a number of shows. Their first was titled The Road Show and toured New Caledonia in June 1943. For the second show Over to You they were given a collapsible stage built on a six-wheeler truck which they used during a tour in August and September 1943. A third show entitled Take It Easy, Soldier was taken up to New Hebrides, Guadalcanal and Vella Lavella for the rest of the year. A final show Pacific Roundabout was presented in March 1944 in the Solomon Islands and Nissen Island in the Green Islands in May 1944. The rehearsals, constant performances and touring was tiring work, however, it gave the men purpose and fulfilment in that they felt they made a contribution to the war effort.
Their shows included popular music from recent films and musicals, as well as nostalgic songs that most soldiers would have already known. In their second show, titled Over to You, Rex Sayers sang ‘I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo’, a US No.1 in 1942 for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. A solo number by Douglas Morison, ‘The South American Way’, performed in costume as Madame La Zonga was his version of ‘Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga’, the title song sung by Mexican actress Lupe Vélez in the 1941 movie of the same name. Ralph Dyer sang ‘Home James and Don’t Spare the Horses’, a comic song made popular by English singer Elsie Carlisle in the 1930s.
Most soldiers saw in the songs and skits a reaffirmation of heterosexual relationships. While the purpose of the shows was to boost morale for Allied soldiers, New Zealand and American, the performances also served as a focus for queer soldiers. The homosexual soldier, watching the female impersonator sing to the male partner, saw two men romancing, and the possibilities of an alternative lifestyle and reality. The role-defying costumes, jokes, campy antics, and seductive double entendres were a means of fostering a queer identity and communicating obliquely to the queer part of their audience. Queer cultural nuances were clearly understood by homosexual soldiers in the audience.
The role Dyer, Morison and Robinson established for themselves as female impersonators, made them a focus point for other homosexual soldiers. They helped facilitate situations in which the community of homosexual men were able to socialise together. They met and at times enjoyed discrete romantic liaisons with some of these men. Douglas Morison’s diary provides the example of American soldier Hal Schaeffer who came up to the camp in Nouméa where they were performing and saw the show. Afterwards, he stayed and introduced himself to Morison. They would spend time “romancing” each day during the following week. Seeing these performers on stage signalled, as for Hal Schaeffer, that there were other men who shared their sexuality. Connections were made, albeit sometimes only briefly, and community was formed. Homosexual men no longer felt they were alone. For Dyer, Morison and Robinson, performing in the concert parties allowed them to express the flamboyant aspects of their homosexual identity, and it may have worked to protect them from homophobia, which they did not encounter to any great extent.
In the end, the musicians and performers of the concert parties who performed in the Pacific during the Second World War proved their worth. They made a historically significant contribution to the war effort that we remember.
See also: Musicians at War – The Kiwi Concert Party in World War II
Brent Coutts is the author of Crossing the Lines: the Story of Three Homosexual New Zealand Soldiers in World War II (Otago University Press, 2020), exploring the musicians and performers in the Tui Concert Party and the Pacific Kiwi Concert Party.