THE balloons are blown up and piled in their basket in the centre of the dance floor, ready to be hauled to the ceiling for release as the climax of the evening after the funny hats, paper streamers and the palais-glide. Tonight is to be carnival night with Ivy Benson and her All Girls Orchestra.
The sharp sun of late afternoon slants acutely through the windows of the West Park Pavilion, St Helier, like a forgotten spotlight. It glows on a strip of wood-block floor and some faded end-of-season paintwork. Ivy is in the shade on the bandstand, shaping an elaborately chorded Lady Be Good at the piano, a big smile across her left shoulder for us, photo call style, as we walk in. "Just tinkling" she says, and she bobs up an comes chirruping off the stand and across the floor, both hands held out. She is tiny and pert in a knee-length dress, a Forces’ favourite of the Forties, startlingly still girl-like in figure. We sit in a corner of the ballroom and talk about afternoons at the Mecca and garrison theatres and shady agents and the changing fashions in dance music. But most of all we talk about GIs.
How many of her girls married GIs last year? Ivy ticks off names on her fingers "Five marriages last year,"she says "and so far this year it’s two marriages and two engagements." The American serviceman may not be able to buy his fun with nylons and chocolate nowadays, as he could 25-years-ago but for Ivy’s girls he’s still got every other uniform beaten out of sight. "They’re very fast workers" Ivy says. "Who the girls?" "The GIS".
Some of these romances have all the unlikely drama and frantic urgency of the ones in the old wartime films which were weepy with 24 hour honeymoons and stage door farewells. Ivy remembers the torrid affair of the piano player and a guy names Skip. "We were playing Stuttgart. Suddenly in the middle of a number, she shouted "Ooh, there’s Skip" and jumped off the stand, vanished into the crowd and I never saw her again."
have the sad comedy of all those old jokes about the fast talking Texans,
whose ranches and oil fields turn out to exist only in lines learned
from the Hank Jansen-Micky Spillane school of Romeos. "I had one
girl with stars in her eyes over her GI she was going to marry and he
had a wife and two children in Mississippi.
Ivy was a clerk in Montague Burton’s in Leeds in the late 30s adding
to her 18s a week by playing a clarinet or saxophone in other people’s
dance bands for only 7s 6d a night. The meanness of the play offended
her Yorkshire spirit and she was not encouraged by the Musicians Union
resentment of the girl players. The start of the war, when the bandstands
were suddenly stripped of male musicians, gave her the chance she needed
to form her first band. "But even then Mecca wouldn’t buy me as
a band. They hired the five
at five guineas a week and me, as band leader at £6 19s," but the
work was regular and soon she had a bigger band with a regular radio
There has never been another girls dance band either in Europe or America, which has lasted like Ivy’s. Marriage is the first reason why the band is seldom composed of the same girls for longer than six months at a time. The line-up in Jersey of 12 musicians and two singers had four girls who had been with the band for six years, but few stay for more than one year or two. The constant factors which keep Ivy in business are her own professionalism, her girls musicianship and the sustained deliberate appeal to the armed forces.
The band’s link with the Services was established almost from the start. "The rule was that an artist who did six weeks entertaining the troops wouldn’t be conscripted for war work. At least, that was what Jack Hylton told me. But it didn’t always work. One of my girls still got put into a factory on a capstan lathe."
Ivy talks about the 40s and early 50s with clear memory and obvious pleasure, but without any excessive relish of nostalgia, always insisting that dance music is a business for her. The girls have come and gone, along with the jitterbug, jive and samba. Her music pad now has the pop world’s top thirty as well as the swing of her early days. But she touches the nerve ends stingingly all the same. She recalls shows in makeshift theatres in the Middle East.
"All those tin huts. I remember on particularly because of the bats. We used to open in the pitch dark. We’d play a fanfare and then all the lights would come on. There’d be this terrific sound and then, zoom-zoom-zoom, all you’d see were the bats flying round the girls’ heads."
The highest fee that entertainers could charge for troop shows was 10 guineas. Ivy spent most of her first 10 years as a bandleader playing to servicemen. "I’ve never regretted it. I’d got a tremendous following in England when all those boys came back home."
young waiter delivers some coffee. He is extra polite. "He’s in
love with one of my girls," Ivy says. "Oh it happens all the
Everywhere we go." Immediately she is reminded again of servicemen and their enthusiasm for her girls. "In the War office there used to be a chart who showing who the most popular entertainers were with the troops. No matter what anyone else might tell you, it was my band that was right up at the top."
Since the war she has played in a dozen countries, but never yet lost a musician to any foreigner except an American. "Strange isn’t it?" she asks, sounding as if she has never given a thought to the traditional appeal of the affluent GI to the English working girl. "No Germans or Swiss. Funny, isn’t it? Of course, you’ve got to remember that my girls speak English. It’s a real even at an American service base abroad when we arrive. All the German girls are interested in is getting to the States." Here and there, in conversation, an American nasality intrudes in Ivy’s voice.
Her girls are well off nowadays, paid between £30 and £38 a week. Most of them drive cars. Boy friends take them out a great deal, buy them presents and pay for their meals. They save money. Mostly they are in their late teens and early 20s , easy mannered in self-confidence, living far too instructive a life to evince any girly, girly sweetness, collectively or on their own. Ivy says she lists no rules for them to follow, but they know what kind of behaviour would cost them their jobs. "I won’t have any drunkenness on the stand or arriving late. And they’ve got to be clean."
All through the years girls write to her, telephone her and travel to see her, asking to join the band. They are often as young as 15 or 16, and alarm her by their readiness to travel long distances on their own. "I try to persuade them to wait a bit, unless they’ve been recommended to me or I know their parents. But they still come from all over the place. They young ones are so sure of themselves these days." She does not pretend that she has never had promiscuous girls, or drinkers, but says she is surprised she had not had more problems of delinquency than have come her way over the years. "I’ve only had one girl who was pregnant before she joined. It was a few days before I realised. I had to send her home right away."
The band is capable of a splendidly brassy sound; as Ivy says "Just as strong as any men’s band." Musically the girls are clearly entirely earnest, absorbed while they are playing and able to manage a full bodied In the Mood as well as a tricky Puppet On A String. A dark, solemn clarinetist says she chose the band in preference to a scholarship in English.
Recounted about 1966 Summer Season at St. Helier, Channel Islands; unknown publication.