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Bert Pearl delivered great music with good humour as CBC Radio’s premier band leader

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Bert Pearl was chosen to lead The Happy Gang for a daily CBC radio variety program in 1937 and was a national star with the act for 20 years. (Photo: Western Development Museum)

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During my Junior High School years in Calgary, I would come home for lunch and listen to a musical variety show called “The Happy Gang” with my Mom Bessie and Sister Marcia.

It was Monday to Friday midday radio for the three of us, the same way the Ed Sullivan Show was must-watch TV for our entire family on Sunday nights.

This CBC Radio Toronto production began June 14, 1937 and ran through 1959.  It was a mainstay during the Golden Age of Radio and well into the 1950s, with some 2 million daily listeners in its heyday, confirmed the Canadian Encyclopedia. 

The leader of the Gang was Bert Pearl, a talented Canadian Jewish pianist.

Bert Pearl was born Bert Shapira, to parents Boruch and Dina, in Winnipeg, Manitoba on February 2, 1913.  After he attended Aberdeen School and St. John’s High School, he registered in the University of Manitoba’s pre-med program.  He won a scholarship in his first year, but needed to find work to continue his studies.  He was hired at CKY, Winnipeg’s first radio station, owned by Manitoba Telephone System.  His immediate success as a performer earned him more radio opportunities in Toronto, quickly emerging as the Canadian broadcasting hub. 

Bert Shapira didn’t become a brain surgeon, but Bert Pearl did become a radio star.

Before The Happy Gang, Pearl played in CBC orchestras in Toronto under Jack Arthur, Percy Faith and Geoffrey Waddington.

In the History of Canadian Broadcasting as reported by the Canadian Communications Foundation, CBC’s Regional Program Director George Taggart was tasked in 1937 with developing a half-hour weekday program to fill the 1-1:30pm Eastern Standard Time slot.  “His tight budget permitted only four musicians.  To ‘lead the band’ and as MC, Taggart’s choice was Bert Pearl.  His fellow musicians were trumpeter Robert (Bob) Farnon, violinist Blain Mathe and organist Kathleen (Kay) Stokes.  Herb May, who apprenticed with CBO in Ottawa, became the show’s first regular announcer, with George Temple the producer.  They became ‘The Happy Gang.’”

They recorded around 200 shows per year – nearly 4,900 programs, always live with in-studio audiences.  Tape recording had not been invented.  The show ran on the CBC or private stations in every city the network reached.

Air time was filled with skits, comedy routines and music; violin arrangements of classical and traditional tunes played by Mathe; pieces of music from Kay Stokes’ theatre-organ repertoire. There were ballads and light songs sung by Pearl, and also by accordionist Eddie Allen, known as a romantic singer who joined the Gang in 1938.

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CBC radio reported that “The show adhered to a rigid formula”, spearheaded by a very serious Pearl.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Who’s there?

It’s The Happy Gang!

Wel-l-l-l, come on i-i-i-i-n!

It opened with the sound of knocking on a door (as Blaine Mathe sidled up to the microphone and double knocked on the back of his violin) followed by a falsetto-voice question, ‘Who’s there?’  The response, ‘It’s The Happy Gang!’  then Bert Pearl replied, ‘Well – come on in!’.  The show’s opening and closing theme was initially a parody of the 1917 tune Smiles. It was replaced with the original song Keep Happy With The Happy Gang, sung by the whole group and written by Pearl. The announcer would then intro and hand-off to ‘That slap-happy chappy, The Happy Gang’s own pappy – Bert Pearl.’

“Among the songs most familiar to Happy Gang audiences were Shut the Door and You’ll Get Used to It. There’ll Always Be An England was sung daily during World War II”, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. 

The Happy Gang Book of War Songs, compiled by Bert Pearl, was a very popular songbook with sheet music published in 1941. Pictured is Part One of a two volume set. (Image: tredwellsmusic.com)

The complexion of the group changed over the years with sax player Cliff MacKay replacing Farnon, who joined the armed forces in 1941; Herb May departed for Hollywood and was replaced by CBU Vancouver’s Hugh Bartlett. 

Bobby Gimby, a trumpeter, replaced Mackay who died in a traffic accident in Europe. (Gimby attained great fame as composer of the 1967 Canadian Centennial theme.) CBC with a more generous budget, kept expanding the show with extra talent, adding vibraphonist Jimmy Namaro, pianist Lloyd Edwards, bassist Joe Niosi and his brother, reeds player Bert Niosi.  When Pearl moved to California, Les Foster joined on accordion and Eddie Allen took over as MC.

Bert Pearl aspired to a career as a brain surgeon, but instead his genius was expressed in his joy of the piano and crafting harmonies that entertained devotees of The Happy Gang for over forty years. (Photo: mhs.mb.ca)

The show ran for 22 years and was immensely popular with Canadians from coast-to-coast. Pearl led the Gang for 13. The program achieved almost two million daily listeners, according to the  Canadian Encyclopedia.

But the years of pressure-cooker performances “took their toll (on Pearl) and in 1950, after recovering from a bout of nervous exhaustion,” he moved to Hollywood, California. He became music coordinator and wrote for the TV variety shows of Jimmy Durante and Giselle MacKenzie (a fellow Winnipegger).  He also wrote lyrics for Durante, Ray Bolger, The Diamonds, Jane Powell, and Bobby Darin and worked in clubs as a pianist.

Pearl never abandoned Canada, performing in a reunion concert at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1975, and concerts in Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan and Lethbridge, Alberta in 1978.

In 1982, he received the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, Manitoba’s highest honour and became an honorary citizen of the City of Winnipeg. He was also named Chief Happy Voice in the Sky by the Blood Indian (Kaini First Nations) Band. Bert Pearl died in Los Angeles, California 45 years ago next month, on June 17, 1986. 

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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