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William Henry Ralph Reader CBE (25 May 1903 - 18 May 1982), known as Ralph Reader, was a British actor, theatrical producer and songwriter, best known for staging the original Gang Show, a variety entertainment presented by members of the Scouting Movement, and for many years leading the community singing at FA Cup Finals.
Reader was born in Crewkerne, Somerset, England, the son of a Salvation Army bandmaster. He was orphaned by the age of eight, and brought up by aunts and uncles. Joining the Scout Movement at the age of eleven, he began his theatrical career by putting on Scout Shows as a Patrol Leader in the 2nd Denton and South Heighton Troop in Newhaven, Sussex. His first job was as a delivery boy for a relative's greengrocer's shop in Seaford. He would be taken by his employer to Brighton to buy supplies, and then visit the Hippodrome theatre, where he saw many of the music hall stars of the day. At 14 he became a telegram messenger and at 15, an office boy at a cement works.
In 1920 he moved to the United States of America, working in various menial jobs, while acting in and directing off-Broadway shows. At the age of 21 he choreographed his first Broadway show and the New York Times wrote "Watch Ralph Reader". Returning to England, he continued producing and choreographing several West End productions, notably variety performances at Drury Lane and at the Hippodrome.
In 1932, still active in Scouting, he anonymously staged his first all-Scout variety show at the Scala Theatre, London. Entitled The Gang's All Here, the production featured 150 Boy Scouts largely from London's East End, performing sketches, songs and dance numbers. The three performances were well received by both the public and the critics. The following year The Gang Comes Back at the Scala played to capacity houses, with hundreds turned away, and the public and press began referring to "The Gang Show". In 1934 that became its official title. Reader acknowledged that he was the producer of the shows. Besides the Gang Shows, in 1936, Reader wrote and directed a dramatic "pageant" called "The Boy Scout" with a cast of 1,500 Scouts at the Royal Albert Hall. In the same year, he wrote and played the lead in a feature film called "The Gang Show" which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, London in April 1937. In November 1937 "a bunch of Boy Scouts" as one writer described them, became the first amateurs to appear at a Royal Variety Performance. They shared billing with Gracie Fields, George Formby and Max Miller.
Through the pre-war Gang Shows, Reader became friends with Air Commodore Archibald Boyle, the Deputy Director of RAF Intelligence. A performance of the 1938 London Gang Show was attended by the German Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who invited Reader to visit the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany. Boyle persuaded Reader to become an Intelligence Officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, although the diplomatic situation had deteriorated before he could take up von Ribbontrop's invitation. On the outbreak of war, Boyle sent Reader to France for undercover work, in the guise of running a concert party, for which some former Gang Show members were specially recruited into the RAF. The show was entitled "Ralph Reader and Ten Blokes from the Gang Show", and besides allowing Reader to complete his intelligence tasks, had a very positive effect on morale.
On returning to England, Reader was ordered to expand the Gang Shows, while his visits to RAF stations allowed Reader to monitor "subversive propaganda" which was a particular concern of the RAF high command at the time. Reader eventually raised twenty-four RAF Gang Show units and two female WAAF units with a total establishment of nearly four hundred serving personnel. The RAF Gang Shows toured nearly every theatre of war, from Iceland to Burma. By 1944, Gang Show units were estimated to have travelled 100,000 miles and entertained 3,500,000 servicemen. Some of those who served in the RAF Gang Shows would later become well known entertainers, such as Peter Sellers,Tony Hancock, Dick Emery and Cardew Robinson. For his services to the Royal Air Force he was awarded an MBE (Military Division) in 1943.
After the war Reader set up his own production company, Ralph Reader Limited, which revived many shows that he had produced prior to the outbreak of war in 1939. The first post-war performance of the Gang Show ran for three weeks at the Blackpool Opera House and broke that theatre's box-office records. He also recommenced producing the London Gang Show in 1950, and also went on to write more songs and musical plays for the Scout Association. He continued to produce the Gang Show annually until 1974, and his association with it continued until his death.
He published an autobiography, It's Been Terrific in 1953, with a second volume, Ralph Reader Remembers, in 1974. He was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1957 "for services to the Boy Scouts Association". In the 1970s he was appointed to the post of Chief Scout's Commissioner, and in 1975 was awarded the Bronze Wolf, the only distinction of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, awarded by the World Scout Committee for exceptional services to world Scouting. He died in 1982, one week short of his 79th birthday.
Following his death, The Ralph Reader Memorial Fund was established with contributions from friends, colleagues and members of various Gang Shows. It continues to "assist deserving individual members of the Scout and Guide Movements under the age of 20 years. Grants may be given towards the costs of camp fees, Scout and Guide uniform, travel to Scout or Guide events, career training, convalescence after an illness, or any other purpose."
In May 1984, a stone bench was unveiled in his memory outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London, by the Royal Air Force Gang Show Association, in commemoration of his wartime entertainment work. In 2000, a blue plaque was placed on his birthplace at 12 Court Barton, Crewkerne, and on 8 October 2011, a further blue plaque was unveiled on his childhood home in Heighton Road, Denton, Newhaven.
On the Crest of a Wave,
In My Dreams I'm Going Back to Gilwell,
No Show Like A Gang Show,
We'll Go On And On,
Where Do We Go From Here?,
Nobody Wants To Know,
It's A Wonderful Life,
A Touch of Silver,
These Are the Times,
It's Gonna Be Warm,
Make Friends With People,
Everybody Must Have Someone,
Troubles Rolling Down The River,
You Can't Go Wrong If Your Right,
Published works by Ralph Reader:
Good Turns for Scout Shows - (1933),
Oh, Scouting is a Boy - (1950),
It's Been Terrific - autobiography (1953),
This is the Gang Show - guide to producing Gang Shows (1957),
Ralph Reader Remembers - autobiography (1974),
The Blue Squadron (1934),
Splinters in the Air Force (1936),
The Gang Show (1937),
Derby Day (1952),
These Dangerous Years (1957)