BOB FARNON: CANADIAN MUSICIANS STILL REMEMBER
HIM AS A JOKER!
as MURRAY GINSBERG recalls
Lew Lewis and I attended a wonderful birthday
party at the home of Floyd and Bonny Roberts last June 11,
in celebration of Floyd's 90th birthday. Floyd played 1st
trombone with Bob Farnon's wartime orchestra in London.
88-year-old Lew Lewis played tenor saxophone in the Army
Show Orchestra that toured Canada in 1943 but he didn't
go overseas with the rest of us in December of that year.
Lew knew Bob and brother Brian intimately. All three had
played on various gigs in Toronto when they were kids.
As expected, a lot of musician friends
were present along with about thirty civilian guests, which
made for a memorable afternoon in Bonny and Floyd's garden
on a sunny Sunday afternoon. And the stories were all entertaining,
particularly those about Bob Farnon. A lot of the guests
were of vintage years who remembered The Happy Gang with
Bert Pearl as compere. And several fondly remembered some
of the jokes members of the Gang told.
One of the features of the daily broadcast
was Pearl announcing that it was time to reach into the
Joke Box. "Whose turn is it today?" he would ask. And one
of the members, Blain Mathe, Bob, or Eddie Allen, would
pluck a joke from the imaginary box and ask a question,
such as "Why does a chicken cross the street?" And Bert
would reply, "I don't know Blain. Why does a chicken cross
the street?" And Blain would say, "To get to the other side!"
And everybody would roar with laughter and play a huge chord.
One day one of the members moved the studio
clock forward ten minutes without telling Pearl. On a cue
from the producer in the control booth Bert began the show
"on time" by knocking three times on an imaginary door,
and saying "Who's there?" and everybody shouted, "It's the
Happy Gang!" and Bert said, "Well, come on in!" and group
went into the opening theme song Smiles.
Then after a few words of welcome to the
audience, Bert said, "It's time for someone to put his hand
into the Joke Box. Who's turn is it today?" Bob replied,
"It's my turn today, Bert. Why does the ocean roar?"
Bert answered: "I don't know Bob. Why does
the ocean roar?"
"You'd roar too, if you had crabs on your
bottom!" Bob replied.
Bert Pearl's face immediately drained of
blood. He began to sputter and choke. He gesticulated toward
Bob. "Why on earth did you say that terrible thing on the
air?" he whispered. Of course, everybody broke up howling
with laughter and rolling around on the floor. Poor Bert
was beside himself. Then announcer Herb May got on a chair
and turned the hands of the studio clock back to the correct
time. But poor Bert had a dreadful time getting back to
continue the show. For days he was in shock. He would never
know for sure if those bastards were going to play another
trick on him.
At the same party a musician who had been
a member of the Toronto Symphony when it performed at the
Royal Festival Hall during the Commonwealth Festival of
the Arts in 1965, remembered a couple of British musicians
visiting the Toronto players in the Performers' Lounge and
asking Principal 2nd Violinist Clifford Evans whether the
famous story about Bob Farnon and Bert Pearl had actually
happened. Cliff, who had never met Bob, turned to me and
asked if I knew the story. "Yes, it certainly did happen,"
I replied, amazed that anyone in Britain would have heard
the story. I always thought it only to be a local Toronto
musician's tale. When I queried the visitors how they had
heard about it, their enthusiastic reply was "News like
that travels fast. Everyone in the United Kingdom loves
The Guv'nor and wants to know everything he does, whether
true or false."
Another story told at Floyd Roberts' party:
In the early 1980s when Bob Farnon came
to Canada to conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra
in Ottawa, someone organized an Army Show reunion. Some
twenty-five friends and colleagues from across the country
including Floyd and myself met and dined in the lounge of
the Arts Centre, then enjoyed the all-Bob Farnon music concert.
Floyd Roberts and I shared a room at the Chateau Laurier,
one of Ottawa's finest hotels.
Afterwards a number of us were driven to
the home of a wealthy orchestra patron to meet old friends
in the orchestra and enjoy an after-concert party. One of
the guests we were happy to meet was His Excellency Edward
Schreyer, Canada's first Canadian-born Governor-General.
To our delighted surprise His Excellency displayed an amazing
knowledge of Farnon's work and reputation, citing certain
"highly intelligent" arrangements of songs Bob had recorded,
such as A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square and
I've Got You Under My Skin, as well as his particular
voicing of strings, which the Governor-General understood
to be a conundrum to most renowned American, Canadian and
At 2 am, after a full day, I returned to
our hotel room and no sooner had gotten into into bed when
the door opened and Floyd, followed by Bob carrying a large
bottle of Chivas Regal were invited to sit down to share
some of The Guv'nor's bottle. Did anyone sleep that night?
Not on your life. Bob regaled us with wonderful stories
of the world famous singers, movie stars and musicians he
had worked with during a fabulous career.
The rest is history.