Reliving Grand Bend’s good old days

Babes of the Bend recalls music and lifestyle of the early 20th century

Babes of the Bend: A Musical Comedy
Based on events in Grand Bend between 1915 and 1945
Grand Cove Caddyshack
Friday, October 3 – 7 p.m.
Saturday, October 4 – 7 p.m.
Sunday, October 5 – 2 p.m.
Tickets – $7.50 each, available to non-Cove residents starting September 1 at the Caddyshack Mon & Fri 1-3 p.m. or Call Jo Dabrowski at 519-238-5156

Photos and story by Casey Lessard

Photo textures courtesy

Grand Bend has its share of babes, and if you ask the folks at Grand Cove, a lot of them live in the retirement community at the town’s north end. Babes of the Bend is the Cove’s latest musical theatre production written and directed by resident Doreen Newell.
“I’ve always been interested in light theatre and after doing the Fred and Ginger show last year, I thought it would be nice to do something that reflected the community this time,” Newell says. “It brings in the beach and the main street. It has a little bit of historical background, but it’s so farfetched now that there is no history left in it except that it is set in Grand Bend.”
Even still, Newell consulted local historian Dorothy Graff, who grew up in Exeter, where her father owned the canning plant.
“A whole pile of us used to come over to Grand Bend to the dance hall,” Graff says. “It was 5 or 10 cents a dance. Eric McIlroy had the dance hall when I was there. The thing that I remember the most was when I’d walk up the stairs it had a big sign that said ‘Gentiles Only.’
“The air force was based at Centralia and Clinton and that’s how I met my husband Jack, who was at Centralia graduating as a pilot. I was 15 and he was 20. He told me to come back when I grew up and I did. I went into nursing training at St. Joe’s in London.
We kept in contact with one another and when I graduated we got married.”
Graff’s local knowledge helped guide Newell’s sense for what was happening here in the time during and between the two world wars; Newell also brought her experience growing up in England’s Channel Islands.
“Although it was a sort of sad time in England and we were getting the Blitz and the bombs and that around us, we still had the Americans and the soldiers around us, coming in and dancing with the local girls at the salons,” Newell says. “I can remember how the Londoners used to come up to where I lived and they were always singing. They sang a lot of the songs that we have in the play. I’ve tried to get the real feel of Grand Bend, but not promote the sadness of war, and show there was a happy side to the war era.”
One of the challenges to recreating the era was finding music true to the time.
“You can’t buy any sheet music from that era to any large extent,” Newell says, “so we’ve had to rely very much on memory and old discs that we’ve got and that sort of thing, and Sylvia the music director has been absolutely fantastic. You can go to her and sing her a song and she’ll work with you and be able to get it on the keyboard.”
“It is a lot of work,” Sylvia Rees says, noting she does this type of recreation work through manual dictation, “but when you know what the end product is going to be, that spurs you on to do it.”
The music will be familiar to most audience members, even though some of it is more than 100 years old.
“It’s a very wide spectrum of music because it goes from the early part of the century up and past World War II,” Rees says. “We have the Victorian Era, which would have been called top music at the time; Betty Boop music from the early 1920s; Irving Berlin ballads; well-known dance numbers; music from the early through Duke Ellington jazz, and some patriotic stuff for WW2 and then big band music.”
Newell did take some liberties in recreating a local fixture, abolitionist Strawberry Desjardine.
“When the air force was here, half of Grand Bend was dry and the other half was wet,” says Graff, “so there used to be a lot of bootlegging on one side and Strawberry Desjardine was a very religious lady who used to go around and bang on the doors and talk about not drinking. Doreen’s got her yelling and hollering. I don’t know that Strawberry ever did that.”
Not that Graff had to worry about facing Strawberry’s wrath herself, she notes.
“We really didn’t drink much, but we had a lot of fun. There was always a gang that came every year and we had a grand time. You can’t help wanting to relive that.”
“The reason it’s good for Grand Cove is they can identify with the people and identify with the music,” Newell says. “They sing along. They can come and laugh at their neighbours; whatever they want to do. To sing and be together like that keeps you well. It keeps you happy.”
Getting good representation from the Grand Cove community was critical to making this play work, Newell says.
“It had to be a creation where whoever came forward in the community could get in it. You can’t say when people come, ‘Oh come on. You’re 71. You can’t go in it. Or you’re 80 and you can’t go in it.’”
As a result, the average age of the cast members is 69, including eight men and many women.
“A lot of people have been interested because we’ve used music from the era that they know. It was good music at that time. And let’s be honest, old ladies love to dress up.”
And Newell expects audiences will love it, too.
“People are going to come out, and they are going to laugh. They are going to have a really good evening out for $7.50.”