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A Gang Show is a theatrical performance with a cast of mostly youth members of Scouts and Guides. Some Gang Shows also permit adult members of Scouts and Guides to join the cast. Adult members of the two movements and parents help out behind the scenes. The aim of the shows is to give young people in Scouting and Guiding the opportunity to develop performance skills and perform in a close to professional theatrical environment. Opportunities are also often afforded to young people to work backstage, in front-of-house roles and as musicians in musical items and in the pit band.
The production teams and cast, all volunteers, participate in many hours of planning, writing, composing, choreographing, building stage scenery/props, making costumes and rehearsing for several months before the actual performances. In order to reach the required performance standard for a Gang Show, a high level of commitment is needed from all involved in the production as well as support from their families. A typical Gang Show would require participants to attend between 15 and 30 rehearsals in preparation for the performances.
In addition some Gang Shows are organised in the manner of a typical Scouting/Guiding activity with the participants perhaps grouped into patrols, or attending special Gang Show camps, awaydays and activities in order to develop and enhance team cohesion.
Performances take place in theatres, schools, community centres – anywhere with an appropriate level of services for the show to function. Performance runs range from one day up to two weeks, and tickets are available to the general public. In the best examples, Gang Shows are an excellent shop window for the Scout movement.
While a Gang Show is always a performance by 'amateurs', the show attracts costs similar to a professional production, despite the huge amount of volunteer hours put in. Many shows are lucky enough to have the support of local businesses through advertising and sponsorship. Others have to do all the fundraising themselves.
Gang Show format
The format of a Gang Show is essentially a revue or variety show; song, dance and short comedy sketches are the most common items. The number of items varies (commonly ranging between 12 and 25): some are stand-alone, others are a series of songs conforming to a chosen theme, or a running gag.
A typical show will include a big opening number, some comedy sketches, several musical items with a mix of group and solo work, dance numbers and a grand finale sequence. Some of the material is well-known, other material is original to Gang Shows, sometimes even penned by the young people themselves.
The show's format was created by Ralph Reader CBE, the original Gang Show producer, who went on to write much material for Gang Shows, sketches musical numbers and Pageants including the signature tune On the Crest of a Wave. Other "standards" Reader wrote include Strolling, Great Great Game, Gee, It's A Wonderful life, A Touch of Silver, Three Cheers, Show Time, Together, and The Scout Hymn. (Many of Reader's songs were written for the time and were very creatively presented. Many songs can be a vehicle for modern reinvention however, and in order to be relevant for a modern presentation some sketches and songs and orchestrations require some adaptation to be suitable in today's more politically correct times. Most shows retain one or two as their 'signature tune' (e.g. Together, Birds of a Feather).
In 1931, Ralph Reader, then a Rover Scout who was trying to make his mark in theatre in the USA and London, was asked to write a Scout based amateur variety show to help raise money for a swimming pool at Downe Scout Camp (now a Scout Association National Activity Centre). Rehearsals commenced under Reader's direction on 25 May 1932 (his 29th birthday).
Initially the show did not have a title, but during a rehearsal break, Reader recalled later, he asked a cast member if everyone was ready to which the response was "Aye, aye Skip, the gang's all here". The first production, under the title The Gang's All Here ran between 30 October and 1 November 1932 at the Scala Theatre in central London.
Despite the fact that the show was not a sell out, enough money was raised to fund the swimming pool and the show was well received. Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, approached Reader and persuaded him to produce another show in 1933. This show was produced with the title The Gang Comes Back and ran for a week.
A tradition had been born and Reader continued to write and produce the London Gang Show. In 1934 the show became known as The Gang Show and the song Crest of a Wave was performed for the first time, becoming over the years the Show's international anthem.
In 1937 the London Gang Show achieved the distinction of being the first amateur production to have a Royal Command Performance (an honour that was repeated in 1957 and 1964). A feature film called The Gang Show, starring Ralph Reader and The Gang, premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, London in April of the same year, and in New York in December 1938.
When the Gang Show started in London in 1932, Reader decided that the cast should be organised as a Scout Troop; an arrangement which persists only in a few shows now. Members of the first Gang Show Troop wanted an identifying feature, with somebody deciding on a red scarf or necker. The red scarf has become a worldwide symbol of Gang Shows, and to distinguish one show from another, an insignia in gold thread (UK: the initials GS in Ralph Reader's handwriting shot through with the show's name - AUS: usually a design related to the masks of comedy and tragedy and incorporating the show's name) is embroided into the point of the scarf. Ralph Reader was originally called "The Holborn Rover" and was with the 4th Holborn Group whose scarf/necker was red one half and green the other half. Ralph chose to have the "gang show" scarf red to be part of the 4th Holborn.
Members of Gang Shows in the United Kingdom traditionally were only allowed to wear the scarlet scarf if they were a nationally recognised Gang Show that had met the minimum requirements of the scheme. However, the Scout Association reviewed the National Recognition Scheme and has since removed the requirement that a show must be nationally recognised to wear the Red Necker; however, it remains a traditional symbol of a recognised Gang Show and is worn by most shows throughout the country. Gaining National Recognition allows a show to call themselves ‘Nationally Recognised’ in their programme, posters, advertising, and so on.
In 1972, the London Gang Show Fellowship was founded by Reader, so current and former members of the London show could keep in touch. This membership was later expanded to anyone interested in the Gang Shows and Ralph Reader.
Gang Shows around the world
Since the first Gang Show in London, productions have been organised in many countries around the world including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Whilst they are all individual in their character, they all share the general ethos of Reader's original concept and have some common elements, often including a finale performance of Reader's Gang Show 'anthem', Crest of a Wave.
In 1958 Ralph Reader was invited to Chicago to produce and direct the first Gang Show ever held in America. He returned to Chicago the next year to guide Chicago’s second Gang Show. British-born Ralph Reader actually first came to Chicago in 1920 as a teenager and began his stage career there. Some Gang Shows and other shows are held in the United States, but they are not common.
Although not the oldest in existence, the Harpenden Gang Show holds the distinction of being the world's longest continuously-running Gang Show, with a performance every year since 1949. The oldest Gang Show still in production is the Glasgow Gang Show, which, with very few exceptions, has run every year since April 1936.
On the Crest of a Wave has become the signature tune for many Scout Gang Shows throughout the world and is usually performed at the end of a performance. On the Crest of a Wave was written by Ralph Reader for use in the original London Gang Show and has hand actions associated with it that vary from show to show. Many Gang Shows choose only to sing the chorus (traditionally twice, the first time with gusto, the second time part-quiet and staccato, part with gusto once more) but there are also two verses.
A Touch of Silver (sometimes referred to as "Silver on the Scarlet"), written by Ralph Reader and long serving Brisbane Gang Show producer Hugh "Kirra" McKee, is used as the signature tune of the Brisbane Gang Show and may be sung by any Gang Show which has achieved its 25th season.
- Ralph Reader tells the history of the Gang Show
- The Lyceum Theatre and the Melvilles
- IMDb: The Gang Show (1938)
- List of UK Gang Shows
- National Star Scout Show
- Australian Gang Shows
- Gang Shows in New Zealand
- Chicago Council's 1959 Gang Show souvenir program.
- Reader, Ralph This is The Gang Show, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd [London], 1957
- Reader, Ralph Ralph Reader Remembers, Bailey Brothers and Swinfen [London], 1975