Dance Collection Danse is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Navy with a virtual exhibition about the musical revue “Meet the Navy”. Initiated in 1943, the purpose of the show was to entertain service personnel in all of Canada’s armed forces while also promoting recruitment efforts and maintaining public morale and goodwill.
Rehearsals were held at Toronto’s Hart House and, after a successful year-long national tour that covered over 16,000 kilometres, the production headed overseas in the autumn of 1944 for performances in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. “Meet the Navy” had an extended run at London’s Hippodrome from February 1 to April 7, 1945 including a command performance for the royal family. As the Allies pressed forward liberating Europe, the navy performers crossed the channel to entertain troops in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam and finished their tour in Oldenberg, in occupied Germany, in September 1945. Most of the troupe, which included a 30-piece orchestra and 75 performers, as well as administrative and support staff, remained overseas to make the motion picture “Meet the Navy”, which was released by British National Films in 1946.
One performer who did not remain with the cast to make the film was dancer Blanche Lund (née Harris), a member of the WRCNS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service), commonly known as the “Wrens” after the British acronym. While in Oldenberg, Blanche contracted polio. As it began to take hold of her legs, doctors told her she would never dance again. In the end, polio was just a minor set back for the spirited and talented Blanche who, with her husband Alan Lund, enjoyed a fruitful career as a dancer before and after her illness. It is through Blanche’s photographs and memories that this virtual exhibit is possible.
Blanche Harris and Alan Lund grew up in Toronto and met in the early 1930s, when they were around 11 years old, while participating in an amateur talent contest; Blanche had been booked there by an agent named “Dirty Shirt” Chapelle. The contest was held between the burlesque acts at a club on Queen Street near the Hippodrome (where City Hall now resides). Alan won first prize and Blanche second. A few years later, they were both successful at getting roles in a show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre called Thumbs Up. Consummate pros from an early age, they began to rehearse outside of their regular schedule in the Harris family dining room and their lifelong partnership began. Trained in ballet, tap and Spanish dance, the pair soon began performing as Lee and Sandra and were booked for weeks on end in clubs in Montreal, much to the chagrin of Blanche’s mother who wasn’t too pleased about her daughter leaving “Toronto the Good” for the sights and sounds of “The Main” in Montreal. They performed three shows a night and danced tap numbers as well as ballroom routines.
It was at Montreal’s Sandovar Club that Capt. Joseph P. Connolly, director of Special Services for the Royal Canadian Navy, spotted the pair and invited them to join the Navy’s new show. Ready for the adventure, Blanche went off to complete basic military training in Galt, Ontario, and Alan joined other navy lads training at HMCS York in Toronto. With the necessary military know-how under their belts, they were off to rehearsals at Hart House. The show consisted of songs, skits and dances. Headliners included comic John Pratt, actors Robert Goodier and Lionel Merton, Balalaika orchestra conductor Ivan Romanoff, basso Oscar Natzke and, of course, the Lunds (Alan and Blanche were married in 1944). The show was directed by Hollywood’s Louis Silvers and choreographed by Larry Ceballos, who had worked primarily on Broadway. Other performers included Barbara Davis (later Chilcott) and Billie Mae Dinsmore, who had both trained with Toronto dance teacher Alison Sutcliffe and had performed in many plays in the city. Louise Burns, a well-known Toronto teacher, also danced.
The show was a success during its Canadian tour especially with the inclusion of the hit song “You’ll Get Used To It”. Written by an “enemy-alien”, the good-natured song became a bit of an anthem in Canada during World War II. Its origin lies in a musician named Fritz Grundland, also known as Freddie Grant. Grundland was born in Germany in 1913 where he studied music growing up; he was admitted to the London School of Music in 1934, shortly after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. Grundland became part of London’s musical theatre scene and was busy writing hits such as the ballad “How Can You Buy Killarney?”. He was still in England when war broke out in 1939 and was quickly taken to a temporary internment camp with other German nationals until he could be transported to a new camp in Farnham, Quebec. It was here that he put together a musical revue with other internees and wrote “You’ll Get Used To It” about life in the camp. The song was adapted by John Pratt for his own war time revue; he used it again in “Meet the Navy”.
While the majority of the cast was busy making the “Meet the Navy” film in 1946, Blanche was on the slow road to recovery from polio. Part of her regimen was a daily swim. She was determined that when Alan arrived home from England, she would walk to meet him … and she did. She moved on to doing five minutes of daily ballet barre exercises and gradually made her way up to thirty minutes, then an hour. Eventually she was able to dance for five or six hours a day and once again perform with Alan. The couple were well loved by London audiences and returned for several command performances for the royal family. When television came to Canada in 1952, the Lunds made regular appearances on variety shows. Alan would also make a mark on the Canadian theatre scene as artistic director of the Montreal company Les Feux-Follets and of the Charlottetown Festival, in addition to directing several grandstand shows at the Canadian National Exhibition. Alan died in 1992. Blanche continues an active life in Halifax and this past summer reconstructed the opening chorus of “Meet the Navy” for the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. She set the work on the company La Baie en Joie, an Acadian dance company based in Saulnierville, NS. Among the dancers was her grandson, Mackenzie Waterman, whose dancing, Blanche describes, as being just like his grandfather’s.
This exhibit displays photographs from the DCD Blanche Lund Electronic Archives as well as a “Meet the Navy” souvenir program from the DCD Flea Market Collection. A couple of photos also come from the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. Audio clips are from an interview with Blanche Lund conducted by Amanda Hancox and Sheila McCarthy, performers who, early in their careers, had worked with the Lunds at the Charlottetown Festival.
"Meet the Navy" Movie Excerpt
Gallery Slideshow, Cherry performed by Harry James Orchestra
"Meet the Navy" Program Slideshow, Bell Bottom Trousers performed by Jack Leon and His Band
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