written and submitted by Phil Foster
I had the great pleasure of working with Bud Abbott on many shows between 1972 and 1999. Some of them were big productions such as “Man of La Mancha” and some were entertainments for seniors’ homes or at the intermission at a dance.
We shared the best actor at the East Kootenay Drama festival in a production of “The Bespoke Overcoat” in 1974 and performed sketches from “Beyond the Fringe” for whoever would watch. Bud was the consummate volunteer but would not always think through what he had promised.
In 1985 he was asked by the Royal Canadian Legion, of which he was a prominent member, to perform for their Diamond Jubilee. Bud was a great actor but putting shows together was not his forte. He called a meeting of a group of his actor friends and informed us that he had promised a show for the Legion and the date was less than a month away. The script was one put out by the Canadian Legion that was to be performed by the Canada’s top actors and singers in Ottawa on the same day, as we were to perform. It called for music, lights, costumes the works. Bud had assured the Legion executive that he could pull it off in a month.
The performance was to take place in the Cranbrook Legion not at the Studio or any other performing arts facility. Directing and producing were not Bud’s strengths. Rehearsals were somewhat unfocussed and as the date approached the show was looking more like Dunkirk than D-Day. Bud’s strength was that he was able to persuade good people to be part of his projects and after a very shaky dress rehearsal we all stepped up to the plate and hit home runs on the night. I remember placing the lyrics to songs in strategic hidden spots on the set and humming some of the chorus numbers, whose lyrics had not stuck in my brain. The bottom line was that the audience of veterans loved the nostalgia of the songs and gave us a not so well deserved standing ovation along with certificates of appreciation. Bud, of course, was the star of the show and had once again put in a great performance that inspired the rest of us to do the best we could.
The best part of this production was the after party at the Legion. The Legion is where the veterans tell their war stories. After a couple of drinks our quiet, but wonderful pianist, Bud Dunlop told us his World War 11 story. He had joined the Merchant Navy as an ordinary seaman in the early part of the War when he was nineteen and was assigned to a ship on the North Atlantic convey route. These ships were under constant attack from German U boats and suffered terrible losses.
During his first voyage the captain addressed the crew and asked for a volunteer to play the piano for Sunday morning services. The captain mentioned that any volunteer would be excused one watch duty a week meaning that they could sleep in. Bud Dunlop could not play the piano but as a nineteen year old he needed his sleep so he impulsively put up his hand and was the only volunteer.
He had a week to learn to play the piano. Bud did know that he had a good ear for music so he found someone on the ship that could read music and punch out the notes for Sunday’s hymns, which he memorized. He could not play the accompaniment but at least he could thump out the hymn tune. Fortunately for him there was a force nine gale on his debut Sunday and many of the crew did not turn up for the service and no one could hear the piano anyway over the roar of the wind. He had another week to learn some more notes. The piano was an upright with caster wheels that could not be locked. The North Atlantic was never calm. Most of his energy was taken up trying to stop the piano careening across the deck and wiping out his fellow seamen.
He served in the Merchant Marine for four years and none of his ships were torpedoed. At the end of his time he came out a very accomplished piano player. This story reminded me of Dave Brubeck, the famous jazz pianist, who had a similar experience in the US army. He was a classically trained pianist but spent his war playing for dances and accompanying singers entertaining the troops. By the end of the war he had done his ten thousand hours and became a world-class jazz musician.
It was the other Bud’s turn to tell us his war story. Elinor Florence, who wrote and extensive piece on Bud’s wartime experience in the Fleet Air Arm had interviewed Bud Abbott two years before he died. The article made specific reference to his participation in the raid on the German battle ship Tirpitz on April 3, 1944. His story that night was much more humorous. It was about his training with the Royal Air Force in 1941 when he was twenty.
Soon after Bud volunteered he was posted to an airfield for basic training and flight training. After the Battle of Britain, when Britain lost 1,542-air crew, there was an acute shortage of pilots so Bud was assigned to pilot training.
He learned to fly on a de Havilland DH: 82 Tiger Moth as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan – the largest aviation training program in the history of aviation. The pilots were expected to be fully combat ready in six weeks. The Tiger Moth was a First World War bi-plane with a top speed of about 180 mph. Bud managed to learn to take off and land this ancient flying machine within the six week period and was duly assigned to a fighter squadron at an airfield in the south of England. On arrival the squadron leader suggested that he take up one of the Hawker Hurricanes for a test run. This was equivalent of passing your driver’s test on a Smart Car and then being asked to drive a Grand Prix Ferrari. The Hurricane had a top speed of over 350 mph.
Bud was given an hour of instruction in the Hurricane and taken up for a flight around the airfield before being invited to take the fighter for a spin - solo. Taking off was like being on the front of a rocket and he reached cruising altitude within minutes. He pushed the throttle until the plane was reaching maximum speed of over 300mph. This was thrilling for twenty year old.
He lost track of time and after less than an hour in the air he looked out of the window to see, on his starboard side, a series of large lakes. His geography of England was minimal and navigating was not part of his pilot training but he could not remember there being such large lakes in the South of England. It was at this point that he noticed the fuel gauge hovering dangerously near empty. He had heard of the Lake District and vaguely remembered that it was somewhere near the Scottish boarder – a long way from London.
He had reached Northumberland and he did not have enough fuel to return to his home airfield. He looked around for a suitable landing area and spotted a field that looked promising. He brought the fighter down on a bumpy, rutted field full of scared sheep that fled to the perimeter of the field. Bud pushed back the cockpit, to see an astonished shepherd staring at him. As soon as Bud started to ask the man his whereabouts the shepherd ran for all he was worth.
Bud wandered down a lane adjacent to the field in his full flight gear but there were no indications as to where he was. All sign posts had been removed as had milestones. This had been a deliberate act to confuse the Germans in the event of an invasion. It had worked. Bud had no idea where he was. He wandered into a small village, where once again, all signs had been removed. He eventually found what had been the post-office and he persuaded the post- mistress that he was not a Luftwaffe pilot and she allowed him to call his squadron leader.
“You are where?” his irate commander yelled down the phone.
“Not sure sir. The lady here won’t tell me. She is under strict orders not to tell foreign airman her location.”
“You are not a foreign airman. Put her on the phone.”
After a few minutes the post-mistress gave the squadron leader her location and she passed the phone back to Bud.
“There will be fuel with you in about two hours. You are responsible for re-fueling and returning to base. What were you thinking Abbott?"
“I wasn’t sir.”
The fuel truck arrived and the aircraft was ready to fly. Just one problem the field was not big enough to take off. There was a five-foot hedge in the way. Bud had to persuade the farmer to chop down the hedge - yet another four hour delay. When he finally took off it had been twelve hours since he left his base and his reception on his return was frosty to say the least. There was no damage done and he had logged a few hours more flying time.
The surprising thing for me that, given his lack of navigation skills, Bud was assigned to Fleet Air Arm where he had to land on Aircraft Carriers in the middle of the ocean.
I asked him how he managed.
“Not a problem. You just fly around until you spot a ship that looks big enough to land on and hope that it’s one of yours.”
Bud was not only a good actor but also a great storyteller. He told the story much better than I recall it here – some forty years after his telling.
The Royal Canadian Legion Diamond Jubilee
May 1985, The Royal Canadian Legion
We’ll Meet Again
Soldier Bud Abbott
W.D. Air force Elizabeth Ross
Wren Maggie Foster
Civilian Sue Leonard
WAC Jacqollyne Keath
Civilian Charlotte Stewell
Army Sgt Peter Davidson
Sailor Rob McDonald
Soldier Kim Lutz
Airman Les Myers
Soldier Phil Foster
Director Bud Abbott
Producer Phil Foster
Pianist Bud Dunlop
Guitar Jim Cameron