Bert Pearl (1913-1986)
Pearl, Bert (1913-1986)
Bert Pearl was born Bert Shapira in Winnipeg. His ambition was to be a brain surgeon. He became a radio superstar.
Bert played the piano. His musical talent gave him the means to earn and save money to continue his medical education. In his first year, he had already won a scholarship. But job opportunities were few and the pay was not great. His search for work took him to Winnipeg’s first radio station CKY owned by the Manitoba Telephone System. Program Director Herb Roberts hired Bert for a variety program which featured a number of local artists. The experience whetted Bert’s interest in broadcasting, and in 1935 he moved to Toronto which was becoming the hub of network broadcasting in Canada. Within a year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation replaced the under-funded Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, and more money became available to hire performers to program a 12-hour-a-day coast-to-coast network.
In 1937, CBC Regional Program Director GeorgeTaggart was given the assignment to come up with a Monday-through-Friday half-hour variety program that would fill the period 1.00 to 1.30 PM E.S.T. His tight budget permitted only four musicians. To “lead the band”, and as Master of Ceremonies, 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 served his apprenticeship with CBO Ottawa and had been moved to Toronto,. became the show’s first regular announcer. George Temple was appointed producer. This, then, was The Happy Gang.
The program was launched June 14, 1937, and was carried by CBC or private stations in every city or town reached by the network . The Happy Gang was a winner and its future assured. Before the radio season began in September of 1938, the talent budget had been increased to add one more performer. Bart Pearl and Bob Farnon auditioned a young chap that Bert had heard singing on another radio show and who carried an accordion almost as big as himself. Eddie Allen was not only a good musician but a fine romantic singer. Eddie got the job, and a nucleus of five musicians carried the show for several seasons.
However, changes did occur. Saxophonist Cliff MacKay replaced Bob Farnon when he left for the armed forces in 1941; Hugh Bartlett from CBU Vancouver, replacing Herb May when Herb departed for Hollywood, became a curator of terrible jokes and added his voice to the lyrics of some novelty songs. Trumpeter Bobby Gimby, after leaving Mart Kenney’s band in 1942, came on board to replace MacKay who had died in a traffic accident in Europe. But the budget was ultimately boosted to add some more members. Over the years, the Gang was augmented by vibraharpist Jimmy Namaro, pianist Lloyd Edwards, reedman Bert Niosi and his brother, bassist Joe Niosi. Les Foster relieved Eddie Allen from playing his accordion when Bert Pearl headed for California and Eddie succeeded him as M.C. Regina-bred announcer Barry Wood replaced Bartlett.
Three other significant changes took place. The theme that opened and closed the show, a parody on the 1917 song “Smiles”, was replaced with an original song – “Keep Happy With the Happy Gang”. At the beginning of WWII, to accommodate a new news broadcast at one o’clock, the Gang’s starting time was moved to 1.15. Thirdly, the site of the program was moved from the CBC’s studios on Davenport Road to a converted concert hall on McGill Street (off Yonge) which could accommodate a sizable audience. While a few hundred people got to hear and see the Gang, millions more across Canada invited them into their homes and their hearts every day – two million of them.
The Happy Gang broadcasts were done “live” (contrary to some assumptions that they were “pre-taped” - tape recording had yet to be invented). The program was introduced with the sound of a “double-knock”, performed by Blain Mathe while holding his violin close to the microphone. A falsetto voice asked “Who’s there?” (answer) “The Happy Gang!” (a hearty voice) “Well – come on in!”- followed by the opening theme and the announcer’s introduction and a hand-off to “That slap-happy chappy, the Happy Gang’s own pappy – Bert Pearl”.
But, slap-happy Bert really was not. Bert took a serious approach in conceiving and presenting 195 programs a year, many of which were geared to Canadian holidays, seasonal pastimes and special events. Generally, the format of the program was a recipe for happiness - cheerful ditties, songs of love, familiar light classics, ballads and instrumental novelties, all laced together with good humor. Bert knew what people wanted to hear and he gave it to them. But the zeal, the fervor, the spark came from Bert.
For twenty-two years, The Happy Gang brightened the lives of Canadians from coast-to-coast, leading the national ratings for most of its run. Thirteen of those years took their toll on Bert, and in 1950, after recovering from a bout of nervous exhaustion, he decided to go for a change of scene – to Hollywood, no less.
In his years in California, Bert played many roles. Among them – musical co-coordinator and writer of special material for the Jimmy Durante and Giselle MacKenzie television shows, and writing lyrics for guest stars Bobby Darin, Jimmy Rodgers, Jane Powell, Ray Bolger, The Diamonds and for the stars of Bonanza. As a pianist, he was booked into top Hollywood Clubs.
But Bert took time out on special occasions to return to Canada. In 1975, there was a Happy Gang reunion concert at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, and in 1978, a tour of Saskatoon, Regina and Lethbridge. Their final performance as the Gang took place in Toronto at the ACTRA Awards.
In 1982, the Province of Manitoba gave Bert Pearl its highest honour - The Order of the Buffalo Hunt. He was also made an honorary citizen of the City of Winnipeg. The Blood Indian Band named him Chief Happy Voice in the Sky.
Bert Pearl died in hospital in Los Angeles in 1986.
Bert had never achieved his boyhood ambition to become a brain surgeon. But he did have just what the doctor ordered to tend to the blues and the down-hearted.
Written by J. Lyman Potts - July, 2005