The Three Debs
The Musical Marsh Sisters in Wartime Halifax
In 1936, the recently widowed Flora Marsh (nee MacQuarrie) and her family of four teenaged children moved from Sydney, Cape Breton, to Halifax. The children grew up in a household rich with music, their mother a talented pianist from a musical family. Flora’s daughters Doris and Mary inherited their mother's passion for music and performance. When World War II broke out, the family was living on the western end of Morris Street (later University Avenue). Doris, age 19, and Mary, 21, were working as secretaries, but it was through music that they played a role in the war effort. As Doris recalled in her memoirs:
[A]n enterprising local man realized that [the] great influx of service personnel needed some sort of entertainment. This man, Hugh Mills (known as Uncle Mel) proceeded to organize "Concert Parties," consisting of amateur singers, dancers, comedians and instrumentalists, who voluntarily gave their talents to entertain the troops who were waiting to go overseas.
My sister Mary and I were recruited to join a chorus of young ladies and our director, Lois MacGregor, trained us to give a pretty nice performance of choral numbers, solos, duets and trios. I was lucky enough to be part of the trio and we went on to sing as a trio all through the war and also were featured on a coast-to-coast radio show called "The Three Debs" for a year and a half.
Mary managed The Three Debs, with Doris Marsh, Janet MacPherson, and Grace Buck (later replaced by Genevieve Lockervie) as singers. The trio’s biggest break came when the war ended and their Concert Party was asked to tour Europe and entertain the Canadian troops waiting to be shipped home. According to Doris, it was the “experience of a lifetime.” The trip even started out with a bang:
We departed Halifax about mid-July 1945 and were to board the Ile de France which was tied up at the piers in the harbour. The van was to pick us up at our homes around 6:00 p.m. and I was already and waiting with my two duffle bags packed and dressed in my army uniform. I was seated by an open window finishing up my supper when BANG, Mother and I were nearly blown off our chairs by a terrific blast that shook the house. We didn’t know what to think, but soon the phone rang and I was told that I would be picked up on time and that the blast came from the ammunition dump [Magazine Hill] across the harbour. It was blowing up in one or two departments, but they hoped to contain it. You can imagine how excited I was about going to Europe, but also how I hated to leave Mother there with the possibility of the town blowing up!
Doris did board the ship and it moved to the mouth of the harbour where it was deemed safer in the event of further explosions. In the morning the Ile de France set sail for Scotland with about 1200 people on board, many of them musicians. Their Concert Party was one of seven that toured Europe and performed for Canadian troops. Their group was called the Halifax Heralds, after their sponsor, and included eleven musicians and performers from the city. Doris described the show as “like a revue with lots of patter between each number. We worked hard, but enjoyed it.”
The Three Debs roved Europe with the Halifax Heralds. They first toured parts of England, then were sent to Belgium, Holland, and finally northern Germany.
Sometimes we played in an auditorium, sometimes in a hospital ward, often in a barracks or recreation room and more than once we stopped by the side of the road and played on the tailgate of one of the trucks when we encountered a group of Army people or, as on one occasion, a large group of Jewish children who were resting on the roadside and were being taken to the airport to be flown to the States where they would be adopted. All had lost their parents in concentration camps.
After 100 shows and more than five months of performing, Doris and her fellow performers travelled back to North America on a very crowded Queen Elizabeth along with 12,000 troops, often having to sit on the floor on lifejackets, for lack of seating. They found themselves in thoughtful, sober company – men returning home after having been gone for two to five years, separated from family and friends. From New York, a troop train took them to Halifax where they were reunited with family in time for Christmas.
Doris Marsh’s wartime musical adventure captures the excitement of the times and reveals the importance placed on entertainment to maintain troops' spirits. The volunteerism of many amateur but talented performers helped ease the stresses and strains of war for many both at home and abroad.