The great highlight of our Sunday School year was the Anniversary Concert. When I was a boy growing in my old home town of Box Hill the Sunday School Concert was one of the highlights of the year.
The Sunday School Anniversaries were held in the Box Hill Town Hall. The singing of religious songs in the great Sunday morning, afternoon and evening programmes celebrated the Sunday School Anniversary.
The Sunday School Anniversary was always held in two parts. There were the Sunday programmes held over two Sundays morning, afternoon and night, and then during the week there was the Sunday School Anniversary Concert. This programme was altogether different and was designed to be humorous and entertaining with every members of the Sunday School, its teachers and parents involved in old fashioned, home made fun.
For months each class would prepare an item for the concert and various groups of teachers and older students would work out musicals, comedy sketches, solo items and the special big finale. We would practise in our Sunday School hall behind the Box Hill Church of Christ in Court Street. I remember one such practise when one of the young teachers had a birthday and as a surprise, people had purchased a birthday cake for him. Their error was to buy the birthday cake not at Box Hill’s premier cake shop, which was Moyes Bakery run by my mother, but our opposition down in Whitehorse Road called Peters Cake Shop. I do not think I ever went into Peters cake shop in my life and I do not know much about the people that ran it. They were probably good people but up at our cake shop people always told long and exaggerated stories about the opposition. Stories that included half a mouse being found in a meat pie and cockroaches in a sponge. On this night someone had purchased, just before closing time, a birthday cake for the young teacher and the owners of the cake shop had iced his name on the top of it in lovely fresh icing “Happy Birthday Wally. 1952”.
With great joy the practice came to a halt. The cake was brought out with candles burning and everybody wished Wally “Happy Birthday”. He made a little speech and then went to cut the cake. In spite of the fact that he had a sharp knife from the church kitchen he could not penetrate the icing on top. It was hard, hard as a board. Wally tried several times to cut the cake and then broke the blade of the knife.
Amid a great deal of laughter a second knife was obtained and a furious attack was made on the top of the birthday cake. The icing was rock hard. And then someone with eyesight better than the rest called out what they could see faintly on the top of the icing. Everybody crowded round. Some of the fresh icing which declared ‘Happy Birthday’ was wiped off. There underneath was the faint outline of the words ‘Merry Christmas’. The cake had been a leftover from Christmas, re iced and re issued as a birthday cake. At that time we broke through the icing and it was hollow! There inside the hollow shell of the icing was the dried up mouldy remains of what was once a Christmas fruit cake. We had been had! In absolute disgust someone broke a piece of icing and threw it on the floor and crushed it beneath his boot. Another person pulled off a bit of cake and put it down the back of a girl’s dress. Soon people were grabbing handfuls of mouldy cake and throwing it at each other and the cake quickly disappeared under a mass of laughing and shouting young people. Eventually the instant battle ceased and we noted the mess all over the Sunday School hall, and this on a Saturday night just before the morning Sunday School classes.
Gradually peace reigned. The group decided that they were going to gather together all the remains of the cake and take it back up to Peters Cake Shop, where they intended to deliver it back to the shop from which they had purchased it. That night they stuffed the pieces of cake through the cake shop door lock and through the brass flap for letters in the bottom of the front door. I volunteered to stay behind and clear up the floor. It was late at night and everyone left leaving the chairs and tables stacked up ready for me to give the floor a good sweeping with a stiff straw broom. I discovered that the straw broom was not enough to remove the ground in icing that was by now all over the floor. I tried for a long time with a dry scrubbing brush to clear out the ground in icing but the wooden boards would not give up their white stains. Looking at all the chairs stacked on the tables and at the wide clear floor with its ground in icing an idea came to mind.
For years I had wanted to turn on the fire hose that lay folded in an iron basket at the side of the hall. Running out the hose I turned the big round brass handle and the hose quickly filled into a long hard sausage of water. It spurted out of the narrow nozzle of the fire hose and it took all of my effort to keep the nozzle pointing at the ground. It certainly forced the pieces of icing out of the cracks but in doing so wet the walls half way up and every table and chair in sight.
I do not know why I had ever taken the bottle from the men’s toilet into the Sunday School hall but I think it was in an effort to scrub out the icing. But somehow or other the black triangular bottle marked “Phenol” was knocked over by the force of the water and its ugly smelling black stain quickly spread onto the wet floor. I realized I had to wash out the concentrated phenol. It frothed into a white milky colour as I turned the fire hose onto it, but eventually I managed to wash the phenol across the wooden floor and out the side door of the hall. I then turned the round brass handle of the fire hose off and carefully re folded the hose, lying on top the long red brass nozzle.
The hall smelt terrible. It was worse than ten Melbourne city council public toilets put together. I closed the door that Saturday night and went home assured, however, that the smell would go away and the floor would dry out by the morning.
The next morning I was late getting to Sunday School and as I arrived I wondered why it was tables and chairs with boys and girls sitting round them were placed all along the front footpath out the front of the church. When I arrived all the doors and windows were open trying to give the building a good airing. The phenol smell was so strong no one could enter the hall. A number of people asked what happened, and with a look of absolute blankness I was just as mystified as everyone else.
But the Sunday School hall was the scene only for the practices for our Anniversary Concerts. The concerts themselves were held in the Box Hill Town Hall.
It was always a challenge for us to make sure our Sunday School Anniversaries surpassed those of other years. The programme was always the same: every class produced an suitable item. For example the kindergarten girls with frilly little dresses and sausage curls would sing and dance to the song “On The Good Ship Lollipop”. The little boys from the kindergarten would be made up with black faces and spiky hair and sing:
“Ten little nigger boys went out to dine,
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little nigger boys sat up very late,
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little nigger boys travelling in Devon,
One said he’d stay behind and then there were seven.
Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks,
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.”
And so on, in the terrible story of the diminishing nigger boys. I am surprised, looking back on it, how this song was accepted whereas in these days we would be charged by the Anti Discrimination Board with racism.
I can remember the primary school girls tap dancing to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” as Judy Garland look alikes.As we grew older the boys in my class produced a number of special items. Our particular specialty was shadow plays. The curtains were half closed and a huge screen made of double bed sheets was set up. A powerful light on the stage was shone upon this screen and between the light and the screen we would act out a certain drama. The audience would see only the shadows of the exaggerated events. There were many bloody murders that took place behind the shadow screen. On one occasion we set up a boxing ring and had a boxing contest with the shadows of the victors and the vanquished.
On another occasion the shadow sheet happened to be the curtain outside the operating theatre of a hospital. Against the curtain some poor man due to have his operation was wheeled and the doctors went to work with hammer and saw and brace and bit and gradually from the man’s stomach produced, as his intestines, long rows of sausages. Then the doctors would announce that he had found gall stones and he would drop ball bearings into an empty tin can. A little bit more work and he would remove the man’s heart still bleeding. A sponge would be held up declaring that this was the man’s bladder and then the doctor would wring the sponge, wet with water into the bucket. The sound effects and the shadows had the audience in fits of laughter.
So successful were our shadow plays that we were often asked to repeat them. I can always remember the night we had a strong man at a circus lifting huge weights. The idea was that the weightlifter would gradually lift weights, struggling to pick them with great effort increasing until he could lift up a huge bar bell weighing 500 lbs. While he was taking the applause a small boy would come on and pick up all of the weights together and walk off carrying them all. However, on this night something went wrong. Before he was able to lift all of the weights the muscle man had to pump up his chest. We had a man suitably dressed in a leopard skin and underneath his costume was a car tube concealed around his chest. A hose ran down the leg of his trousers to a couple of men who were stationed by an air compressors brought from a local garage. At a given signal they were to turn on the air compressor, the air would come up the hose and into the car tube and we would see the man’s chest expand.
For some reason on this night the signal to the men to turn off the compressor was not given and the car tyre grew bigger and bigger. The man’s chest began to expand to a dangerous size. His costume began to tear and then on the screen an awesome sight as the man’s muscles began to force their way through his skin until eventually there was an dreadful explosion, the muscle man staggered back and collapsed with a burst car tube flapping around his bare stomach. The appearance of the man’s stomach bursting with such a “bang” shook people in their seats.
In between these items various individuals sang solos, recited poems, played banjos and did tricks. In one of these three men would walk on stage: the first would pour himself out a drink, the second would open his mouth and gargle and the third would spit it out over the audience. Duets would be sung and I will never forget the vision of Ruby and Ron gazing into each others eyes as they sang “Garden of Happiness Just Made for Two” or two little girls scrubbed and polished sitting at a piano to play the duet “Sleighbells”. The grand finale consisted of all the older young people and the teachers in a great musical composed by Mrs. Ruby McCreddin. Every year she would take some musical and we would give an abbreviated version. I can remember “Brigadoon” with all of us marching in kilts. And “Oklahoma” and “Gypsy Serenade” with the haunting song “O play to me Gypsy, the moon’s high above”.
However the finale that stands out in my mind was the night we did a series of Italian numbers. The son of the minister was an organ grinder with a portable organ and a little monkey on a string. He brought the house down as he got his words mixed up and sang:
“I’m a funny little monkey grinder
With my organ on a string.”
That broke up the house and ended the grand finale.
They were happy days as I used to sing the tunes that were later going to feature in the Sunday School Anniversary Concerts as I walked up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No. 55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only a village where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.