Concert parties

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The term Concert Party seems to have been invoked a number of times in different contexts and at different times. Many of the forms made their appearance in the South African context over the years.

The concept of a "Concert Party"

According to F.C.L. Bosman (1980: pp. 185), the basic notion of what were sometimes referred to as concert parties (or concert companies) seems to have emerged in the 1860s, during a rather subdued period of local theatrical entertainment, inspired by the growing prevalence of musical and choral societies and so-called "vocal and instrumental concerts" in Cape Town at the time. This occurred as part of the entertainment activities of the local garrison, as well as that of a number of professional and amateur companies, and more often than not the events were led by local music teachers. From this practice there gradually emerged the more ambitious practice of Literary and Musical Entertainments, events which usually included oratoria and cantatas as well as the occasional dramatic work in their programmes. Thus a range of so-called concert parties, both amateur and professional, would ultimately come into being, many of them a variation of the newly introduced Christy's Minstrels format of light entertainment - a form which would almost come to dominate theatrical entertainment in the region between 1863 and 1873.

In contrast, Wikipedia[1], describes a concert party as the collective name for a group of entertainers popular in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, functioning as travelling shows of songs and comedy, often put on at the seaside and opening with a Pierrot[2] number. Thus perhaps something rather different from - and more specific than - the open notion entertained by the performers earlier in 19th century.

This particular tradition lasted from the 1890s until the 1950s, and similar concert parties were formed by several countries' armed forces during the First and Second World Wars. For example, during the Second World War, the British Armed Forces' concert party became known as the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), later succeeded by the Combined Services Entertainment (CSE). In South Africa the tradition, initiated inter alia by the South African Women's Auxilliary Services , led to the formation of the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit in 1940 under the leadership of Major Myles Bourke.

As other forms of entertainment (particularly television) replaced variety shows in general, concert parties largely died out during the 1950s.

Concert parties in South Africa

19th Century

As noted above, the basic notion of the form would dominate theatrical entertainment in the Cape Colony between 1863 and 1873, and the first such example mentioned by Bosman (1980, p. 187) consists of a series of three Grand Concerts and Entertainments put on in the Theatre Royal, Cape Town, during March of 1863 by a visiting company largely made up of musicians and singers, including J.F. Finlayson, Mr Bowmer, Madame Bowmer, Miss Whitfield, Mr Horton, Mr Schilling. The programme typically included selections from Il Trovatore ("with Scenery, Chorus and Effects") and Mr and Mrs Bowmer's "Dialogue Entertainment, in Two Parts" called Retaliation or Tit for Tat. The third concert on 31 March had a similar piece by the Bowmers called The Widow's Strategem. They also performed in Stellenbosch, Wellington and Worcester. The events were not a great success and the company soon after disbanded, some of them (e.g. The Bowmers and The Finlaysons (Mr Finlayson and Mrs Finlayson) going it alone for a while.

Other concerts and concert companies named by Bosman (1980, p. 242-3) in this context include performances by the Poussard-Bailey Company, the D'Arcy-Read Company, the Miranda-Harper Company, and the many Christy-style companies (see the discussions under Minstrels).

World war II

During the early years of the World War II the South African Women's Auxilliary Services (SAWAS)[3] organised voluntary "concert parties" and other forms of entertainment at the various military camps in the Union. From this would come the idea of having a formally organised entertainment unit for the Union Defence Force (UDF)[4], which became known as the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit.

The Unit created a number of such concert parties, based on the British example, during the war years, deploying them at home and abroad. Among them were the Springbok Frolics, the Gypsies, the Crazy Gang, the

This activity and the many performers who had gained experience in the process, would have an enormous impact on the entertainment industry in South Africa after the war.


F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp. 185-6,

Neville Phillips. 2008. The Stage Struck Me! Leicester: Troubador Publishing Ltd.

Swift, M.1974. "The Union Defence Force Entertainment Group in South Africa (World War II)". Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, [S.l.], feb. 2012. ISSN 2224-0020. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 24 May. 2015.

Ivor Markman. "South African Women's Auxiliary Services"[[5]]

Percy Tucker. 1997. Just the Ticket. My 50 Years in Show Business. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Temple Hauptfleisch (ed.). 1985a. The Breytie Book: A Collection of Articles on South African Theatre Dedicated to P.P.B. Breytenbach. Johannesburg: The Limelight press.[6]

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