Sisters serenaded the troops
The letter dated Nov. 19, 1942 reads:
Dear Miss Lovatt:
Please send us measurements for both of you at once.
• Size of shoes (Roomy)
• Measurements of waist, hips and bust ...
Marjorie Lovatt fingers it carefully. The letter from ‘Big’ Bill Campbell is yellowed, dogged-eared, creased with deep folds, kept carefully amongst everything else she’s saved.
Sent a few weeks after the allies invaded northwest Africa, the missive from a booking agent in London was Lovatt’s ticket to stardom.
“You had to do six weeks of war service work. Everybody had to,” says Lovatt, who was tasked with driving a milk delivery truck.
“Milk delivery was very important.”
Known as “the Canadian milk girl” to her customers in Derby, England, Lovatt reluctantly drove her route even after she had a close encounter with a German bomb.
The letter from London meant the singer and her sister Joyce, 17, had been hired by Campbell for a variety show destined to tour and play throughout Europe.
For Lovatt, then 19, it was a dream come true, and a way out of rainy, dreary England, and those weeks of compulsory war service.
“We really thought we’d hit the big time,” she says.
To wiggle out of her milk route, Lovatt sought a doctor and related, weeping softly, how the bomb that dropped a few metres from her had made it impossible for her to drive a truck.
Armed with a letter from the doctor absolving her from war service, Lovatt and her sibling set out on a three-year-long adventure that would see them serenade soldiers throughout the war.
For the sisters, it was also making the best out of circumstances.
The Lovatts arrived in England in 1936 to visit their mother’s father, who was ill.
While there, their mother became pregnant – a boy. Then came the war.
The war forced the family to stay put because there was no way mamma Lovatt was putting her precious children on a boat to Canada while the Germans targeted the North Atlantic.
The Lovatt sisters began their singing act performing for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), an organization set up in 1939 to keep up the spirits of British armed forces during the Second World War.
After ENSA, the duo, who sang Western ballads on banjolele and guitar, were hired by the Canadian Legion, and finally the United Service Organization or USO to entertain American troops.
While listening to a CD copied from scratchy live recordings, Lovatt giggles gleefully. She can hear herself yodel, sing the song called Embraceable You – which melted soldiers’ hearts – and sways as she hears herself tag-team through foot-tapping ditties with her equally talented sister.
Paid 15 pounds a week, the Lovatt sisters were responsible for maintaining their instruments and sewing the own costumes.
Lovatt fashioned gowns out of curtains while travelling through England, Holland and Belgium, and crafted faux boots that could be worn over their shoes for that perfect Prairie cowgirl look.
Now 89, Lovatt’s trailer in Maple Ridge is filled with keepsakes from the war. She’s saved every photograph she took with her box Brownie camera, programs from the shows she performed, notes from soldiers, even sticks of “grease-paint” - makeup she purchased in London that was hard to get during the war.
From one box, she pulls photographs of other performers. There’s a burly, oiled muscled man who thrilled crowds with acrobatics, another photograph of show driver Dave on a Dutch beach, and a German Shepherd puppy given to her by the troops. She named the puppy “Jeep.”
Lovatt and her sister were snapped peering into German dugouts, warned not to step too close because they were mined.
“Oh, here’s my St. Christopher medal,” says Lovatt, holding a tiny round disc in her palm that’s inscribed with OLAU2193 to identify her in case she died.
Lovatt, who performed shows daily at the height of the war, had some close calls. She lost two boyfriends in battle.
“You can’t say we didn’t work hard,” says Lovatt.
“We were thanked after every show we played. I think people often forget about all those who spent the war entertaining the troops.”
Besides the boxes of memories and photographs, Lovatt managed to chronicle every army, navy and air force camp she visited during the war.
Those notes she scribbled secretly in tiny, leather bound diaries – two dark blue and one maroon notebook, just three fingers wide, that list the places she visited during from 1943 to 1946.
The sisters weren’t allowed to write down where they were going, Lovatt was determined to remember and hid the notebooks carefully in her purse.
“They checked my suitcases, but they forgot about my handbag,” she says with a naughty grin.
She remembers a rehearsal in 1945 for the last show she performed for the USO well. The Lovatt sisters were in London rehearsing with Fred Astaire when sirens warning that dreaded German ‘Buzzbombs’ were set to fall.
Colloquially known in Britain as the Doodlebug, the strange tearing, rasping sound, like a two-stroke motor-cycle, got closer as Lovatt grabbed her purse and sister.
She didn’t have time to shove military-issued plugs into her ears. She pushed her sister to safety and dove under a table with the American Broadway star just as the bomb exploded a block away.
She couldn’t hear for half an hour. When the coast was clear, Lovatt and Rita Hayworth’s two-step partner crawled out.
Lovatt turned to Astaire and said: “No one is ever going to believe that we were under the table together.”
• Remembrance Day ceremonies take place in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows on Friday Nov. 11.
They take place in Maple Ridge from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Memorial Peace Park (11925 Haney Place). A parade, starting at 10:45 a.m., will leave from the Royal Canadian Legion to 224th Street, to the cenotaph in Memorial Peace Park.
In Pitt Meadows, a ceremony at the cenotaph in Spirit Square (12007 Harris Road) begins at 10:30 a.m. to commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces and of civilians in times of war. The ceremony includes a procession, speeches, and a two-minute observance of silence. in memory of those who have lost their lives.