The Russian Imperial Singers, Jewish musicians who performed dressed as Cossacks, featured in the spring 2015 issue of The Cable. Now meet the Younkman Czardas Band. PIPPA REID, 3rd cousin of Nat Younkman, describes her exciting family discovery.
One afternoon in 2007, my daughter Rachel called. She knew my elderly mother was visiting me. "Turn on the computer," my daughter said, "click the link, then hold on to your chairs."
I did as she suggested, my 95 year old mother in front of the screen and me behind her. Suddenly in front of us came an announcement over a wobbly black and white film: "Younkman and his famous Czardas band playing..."
We held on to our seats!
We were watching and hearing my mother's father's cousin and his band from a 1938 recording – a magical link with our family tree.
We experienced three minutes of absolute joy as the ghostly faces of our relatives looked straight at us. Nat Younkman (looking like my mother's father's third twin), a showman swaying his body and smiling broadly as he led the band, Millie his wife (Madame Ludmilla), her beautiful sweet voice loud and clear ringing out from 70 years ago, sitting next to Pamela her daughter, who was playing the mandolin, and her other daughter Dorothy at the piano.
They were all in Russian costumes and their main instruments were huge balalaikas, mandolins, violins and clarinets.
Then a dancer sprang into action with a traditional Russian 'knees bend-legs out-jump up and spin around' dance and the musicians went wild. So did we!
This piece of film was a large part of the jigsaw in my research of this familybalalaika band that I had been working on since 2006. They had been playing in this country from the 1930s till the 1950s, with a short stint abroad with Ensa (the Entertainments National Service Association, which provided entertainment for British troops during and immediately after the Second World War) when they had to wear army uniform.
The Younkman band’s page in the programme for the Leicester Home Life Exhibition in the now-demolished Granby Halls in 1949.
From the Les Whittaker collection
I have since found out Nathan (Nat) Younkman was born in Russia around 1891, probably in present day Latvia. He emigrated to Britain in the early 1920s and lived mainly around the Manchester area, though for some time he lived in south London. His British wife Millicent (Millie) sang in the band under the stage name Madame Ludmilla and also made the group's costumes. Their two daughters Pamela and Dorothy also featured.
My researches started and on the way I found a few coincidences that made me smile.
When I first googled Younkman Band I found mention of them in Holidays at Home in The Second World War by Chris Sladen. My mother had previously told me about people spending a week locally in huts (for her it was Sudbury, part of the north-west London suburb of Harrow) like a holiday camp where there were activities and entertainment. Chris Sladen was very helpful about where I could find more information about the Younkman Band, which he had written about very briefly in his book.
Then I contacted a range of organisations and publications. There was Equity, the arts and entertainment union to which I belong, which put my letter in its magazine. There was the Water Rats, the show-business charity (I found out I had gone to primary school in Chiswick with the Chief Water Rat at that time, Kaplan Kaye, whose father Davy Kaye had been a musical hall entertainer as a one-man band).
I wrote to Metro magazine covering Glasgow, Newcastle Manchester, Liverpool, to the Jewish Telegraph, which covers the same area, and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.
I found venues at which the band played: Empire Theatres, holiday camps, pier theatres, and pleasure gardens including Clacton, Eastbourne, Hastings, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Southsea, Middleton Tower Holiday Camp near Morecambe (now a housing estate!), the Home Life Exhibition at the Granby Halls in Leicester, the Ideal Homes Exhibition at Birmingham. Hammersmith Odeon, London, (now the Apollo) where my now 93-year old aunt, my mother's younger sister, remembers seeing them perform and going backstage with her father to meet her Russian relatives.
A postcard of the band in performance, against a glorious Russian backdrop
From the Les Whittaker collection
One newspaper article recounted how Younkman and the band were walking down the pier and he had invented a dance called the 'Bumps-A-Daisy'.
"There were three hundred dancers at the Pier Pavilion dance on Wednesday night when a gloriously happy time was spent with Younkman and his Band providing a first-class programme. During the evening Younkman introduced the new dance 'Bumps-a-daisy' which the company soon picked up and danced with gay abandon after Miss Dorothy Younkman and Mr Lawrie Page, members of the Band, had gone on to the floor to give a demonstration. The dance is of the Lambeth Walk and Chestnut Tree type with bumps as added movement."
They did numerous BBC broadcasts: Alexandra Palace throughout 1947/48, BBC Forces programme (1943), Melody Hour Music for the Housewife, Bingley Hall Birmingham,
I wrote to the BBC which said that, although there were no recordings left, as I was ex BBC it would send me playlists and members of the band at that time.
The band's repertoire ranged from Russian and Gypsy melodies, waltzes and folk songs, to the favourites of the time, including Does Your Mother Come From Ireland?
Band members in 1943 were Nat and Millie Younkman, (Millie's stage name was Mdlle. Ludmilla described as Anglo-Russian crooner), Dorothy and Pamela Younkman (daughters), Marie Gold, Lou Harris, William Grayson, Sally Seenor, Edward Long, Vera Jessop, Norman Dawson, Harry Alexander, Ernest Harris, Jack Walker and Maxim Diggan and previously Arsene Kirilloff (Russian baritone) Alexander Wolfowsky and Enrico Bertocchi (operatic tenor).
Other members who came and went were Al Beal, Bob Shepard, George Hartshorn, Lawrie Page (aka I. Stranitza), Anna Lampe, Madam K. Ourinaova, G Bernstein, Pop Wolkowsky, Hymie Ivanoff, Dolly Medvedev, and Reg Sargent.
From the Sunday Independent of July 1933. The paper describes the orchestra as “Younkman’s famous Czardas band, on this week’s Theatre Royal programme.”
From the Peter Page collection
Here is a fine review of one of the band's performances (echoed many times by other papers):
BIRMINGHAM EMPIRE THEATRE JANUARY1935 AND MARCH 1936 (via Max Tyler Historian, British Music Hall society):
"They not only give a fine and authentic rendering of gypsy airs but also of the latest dance numbers. Their interpretations of the latter are of particular interest owing to the unusual instruments employed. The majority of these are of foreign origin essential for the presentation of gypsy folk songs; in fact except for the drums, piano and piano-accordian the instruments are all stringed. One of their most enjoyable features is the speed with which they switch from fiery and languorous gypsy music to foxtrots and waltzes – thus catering for all musical tastes. Younkman is a grand showman and exploits every angle of stage craft in the presentation of his band. This talented and versatile combination have every quality that makes for success – gorgeous costumes, exhilarating music and splendid singing."
Among responses I received was one from, Peter Page, whose father was Ivan Stranitza (English name Laurie Page), bass balalaika player in the band, who is mentioned above.
He sent me really old photos of the band, naming some of the musicians. Then I got an email from Edgar Wille, a long-time fan, who named Sam Blumenthal, violinist, Enrico Bertocchi, who sang with Ludmilla, George Hartshorn, percussionist, married to Phyllis Coleman (accordian), Alexis Beloff, clarinet, and Ivanoff, the dancer, who apparently when not working with the band ran an East End fish and chip shop.
I got replies from Canada, from a lady called Naomi Wakan, who I found out is a writer and storyteller (I also work in storytelling, as does my daughter). Like me, she is related to Younkman through her mother's father's cousin. Her grandparents were called Avram Cohen ("not necessarily correct") and Itka Popple (on Younkman's side). They moved to Southend- on-Sea from Russia and ran a boarding house for musicians, theatrical folk and Jewish refugees. They had a photo of Tolstoy on their wall!
They moved to Manchester when the war started.
She wrote recently to me: "I remember the embroidering of the costumes. The patterns were on some kind of tissue paper and when the embroidery was done, the paper was removed. I used that method 15 years ago for a fabric piece I did, remembering Millie sitting there embroidering the orchestra's costumes.
"They gave my twin and me a little Russian folk doll that we christened Sonja. I longed to dance with them. Later I studied flamenco, remembering their flamboyant folk costumes.
"We are related to them in a similar way – my mother's father's cousin was Nat.
"My island is 20 minutes by ferry to Vancouver Island which is, in turn, 1½ hours by ferry from Vancouver.
"There used to be a retired doctor and his wife living on our little island and the wife, Ruth Garson, was related to Isaac Rosenberg [the great East End poet of the First World War and artist]."
Naomi's twin sister Ruth Artmonsky is also a published author and is a design historian based in London.
The daughter and granddaughter of Bob Shepard emailed with delight at seeing the photos. Her father was with the band in Ensa in Egypt and Berlin and she often saw them in England in the summer season.
I also received a couple of replies from carers of former musicians who were now living in care homes.
The programme for a performance at the Eastbourne Winter Gardens, probably around 1933.
From the Peter Page collection
A lady emailed me from South Africa. She had found photos of Younkman and his band from her late father's collection. He had served with the South African Air Force in World War Two, including in Pomigliano and Campomarino in Italy.
The photos were probably from when the band had played for Ensa. Off I wrote to the Ensa archivist. The band had played at the Ensa Garrison Theatre in Cairo in 1946.
At almost the same time, I had two very exciting replies, one from someone Googling online and one through the Jewish Telegraph.
I had been told the Younkman family moved to Manchester and that some of the family hadchanged their name to Youngman or Young. A letter arrived from Muriel Young from Glasgow. Her husband was related to the band. Was I interested? Was I interested!!
I called her straight away and found out she had a daughter, Phillippa, named after her father, born in June (like me). Some months later we all met up and although they did not have many stories about the band, Muriel said she used to play with Millie and Nat Younkman’s daughter Pamela when young and would love to meet her (unfortunately we never managed to achieve that for her).
I got talking to my old school friend in Ealing about it and she said: “I know Muriel, I know Phillippa, I share a simcha hat with her cousin who lives here in Ealing – I know the whole family.”
I often spoke on the phone with Muriel about ‘developments’ and I am glad I was able to give Muriel such enjoyment about the connections. Muriel has sadly now died, but I still keep in touch with ‘cousin’ Phillippa as we both get on really well and were both delighted about being ‘distant’ family.
Then a most amazing email came from Dean, who told me his father Les Whittaker had been the band’s pianist and arranger from the late 1940s to the 1950s. I spoke to him on the phone and then with great excitement went to visit Les and his delightful wife Olive (who had been a dancer) in Leicester. His photographs and memories filled in a huge amount of the jigsaw. His daughter Linda put some of them up on the Flickr photo-sharing website.
I asked Les about life with the band.
1. When and how did you join the band and how old were you? What kind of bands had you been in before?
“Istarted my career with Archie's Juvenile Band at 14 then, in late 1944, transferred to the army to train as a wireless operator and was eventually sent to Egypt/India/Iraq before being demobbed in 1947.”
Les returned to Hull. At this time Younkman was looking for a pianist and was asking people for recommendations. “A stage magician who knew me passed on my address to Younkman.” Resting during his first Christmas at home in years, he got a telegram from Younkman asking him to meet him at the Grand Theatre Blackpool. And so their association began.
2. What was Younkman like to work for?
“Younkman was always very personable and sociable, always very smartly dressed and always wore a trilby, he always treated people with respect. He was very good at conducting the band and during gigs always involved the audience. He did this by asking what words they wanted to know in Russian; the audience would shout out and he would give the Russian translation. Apparently a favourite was ‘sausages’. Younkman started his career as a drummer in Riga, Latvia.”
3. How was the band's repertoire chosen?
“During Younkman's time on the road he had collected a lot of music, kept in manila envelopes and in theatrical skips. Younkman used to decide what to play during a gig. Sometimes he would ask me to choose the music, enough to last for a gig of about two hours in length. Often they would let the audience have a list of their repertoire and the audience would shout out what songs they wanted to hear. Younkman and I used to trawl the music shops for new material.”
If it was for a radio broadcast the shops used to let them have it for nothing as in this way the shops could get new music out over the airwaves, otherwise they would have to pay for it.
4. How did Younkman find his musicians? Were they here or did some come over from Russia with him?
“Some of Younkman's musicians came with him from Russia; others were recruited in this country. Musicians used to advertise in Performer [the musicians’ magazine] and Younkman would pick them up from this. He always used to advertise himself in this and often had many replies to this from musicians looking for work. Otherwise it was all word of mouth recommendations.”
5. You were their pianist/arranger. How long did it take to arrange a tune and for the musicians to learn before they performed it?
“ It depended on the difficulty of the piece of music. Dance music was read at sight and so was easy to pick up, it just depended on how Younkman wanted it played. Classical or opera pieces took longer to rehearse and get ready for gigs due to their complexity, also ballet music.”
6. What music did you/the band like to play most of all?
“The band could play all types of music. We enjoyed all different genres and just enjoyed playing. Sometimes the band personnel was changed depending on the tour/residency/gig as not all of his musicians for example could play classical/opera/ballet music but were fine with dance numbers.”
7. Which venues did the band particularly like to play?
“We all liked their seasons at Middleton Tower as it meant we could live at home or at the holiday camp rather than travelling round or in digs. We were in one place from May to October! On two occasions we played the music for a local circus which was a different challenge, playing for acrobats and animal acts.”
8. When did the band finish? Do you know what happened to the musicians when the band finished? Did they still sing and play elsewhere?
“I left to work in London in 1952. Younkman died in 1957 so that is probably when the band finished. As far as I know everyone got alternative employment. I only very rarely came across any of the band members after I left the band. I often played piano accordian in a trio for the larger London Lyons Corner Houses.”
9. What was the best thing about being in Younkman's Czardas Band?
“The best thing about playing in the band was the enjoyment of playing the music, the colleagues I worked with and the extensive knowledge of music I gained from looking after Younkman's collection of music. Often on the back of sheet music were adverts for different kinds of music/musicians, which led me to different areas of music. I remember that we all looked after each other's backs and supported each other and enjoyed good friendships. We were constantly learning the business.”
10. Was there anything unique to this band?
“The band was unique because at that time we were the only band playing that kind of music. We also had our Russian dancer (who actually came from London's East End). I also remember being part of two televised performances with Younkman for the BBC at Alexandra Palace.”
Nathan Younkman died in September 1957 and his wife Millie in April 1973. I found their gravestones In Manchester Jewish cemetery. They look very new and are well cared for so family are still around. On Nat's stone there is a musical design with the words: “Oh my beloved daddy”.
The last known relatives I know of are their daughters and granddaughter: Pamela Dermont (Alexander Dermont) and her daughter Rosalind Dermont now Diguadio, and Dorothy Baker (Leonard Baker).
The band on stage. Les Whittaker, on the far left, was the band’s pianist from 1944 to 1952 (with a break for war service).
From the Les Whittaker collection
You can see the wonderful recording of the band performing by going online to:
Glorious pictures from the collections of Les Whittaker and Peter Page can be seen at:
We are grateful to seeks2dream, owner of those flickr pages, for permission to use the photographs accompanying this article.