April 15, 2009

13. From A to Z (May 1946 - January 1947)

The A to Z Cabaret trio in Batavia, 1946
(L-R:  Nico Vredevoogd, Han Samethini, Mieke van Dusseldorp)
Photo courtesy of Janine van de Lee, daughter of Mieke van Dusseldorp

Batavia in May 1946 was a capital city in name only, the seat of a renascent but feeble colonial government possessing little effective power.   Most of Java lay under the control of Indonesian nationalist forces, and even where Dutch soldiers advanced inland to reassert Holland's authority, guerrillas infiltrated behind the lines to conduct ambushes and sabotage operations.  This made road travel beyond secure perimeters prohibitively dangerous for military entertainers.  Added to the difficulty of getting about was the wide dispersal of Dutch garrisons, outposts, and combat units in the field, not only on Java but on the neighboring islands.  Reaching these scattered audiences was no job for a sizable dance orchestra such as Samethini had led in Bangkok.  This was work for a light troupe able to hop on anything that could roll, float, or fly and put on a series of energetic shows with little more than talent and raw ingenuity.

Nico Vredevoogd
Han Samethini Collection


 To create such a troupe was the mission of Nico Vredevoogd, a keen entrepreneur with a passion for music and cabaret.  Hailing from Groningen, he had ventured out to the East Indies in the early Thirties, setting up business as a textile importer and clothier.  His original motive for emigration might have been commercial, but his heart became captivated by the beautiful emerald land he found.  To his fellow transplanted Groningers, Vredevoogd was a particular benefactor, creating special radio programs in the unique Gronings dialect, but every listener within range of the Batavia station could hear him performing on NIROM broadcasts as a singer and lute player.  He'd been equally assiduous as a POW entertainer during the war, writing material for a cabaret given at Tjilitjap camp on Java before being shipped north to work on the Burma Railway.  On this voyage he crossed paths with Samethini (they were both aboard the Harugiku Maru, where Nico must have heard the uplifting accordion recital on the miserable sea voyage to Singapore).  Given the postwar task of organizing a touring cabaret for AMACAB Welfare, and knowing Samethini's abilities, Vredevoogd sought him out immediately upon hearing of his arrival in Batavia.  Together they looked to find a third member to complete the troupe, a female vocalist who would add richness and balance to the act.

Mieke van Dusseldorp
Photo courtesy of Janine van der Lee

The role was landed by a young army secretary, Mieke van Dusseldorp, who lived in the Menteng district with her mother and two sisters.  Before the war, they had lived on a dairy farm beyond the southern outskirts of Batavia. It was a prosperous enterprise with 75 cows that lay within sight of the majestic volcanoes Salak and Gede. In December 1941, before leaving to join the army, Mieke's father spoke to her frankly about the difficult times ahead: "Mia, I can't do anything for the family anymore. Your mother has had a sheltered life and there are things she can't do, so you have to take care of your mother and sisters." It was a trust Mieke kept during their years of separation, while her father worked as a POW slave laborer on the Pakan Baru Railway in Sumatra. The Japanese initially permitted the family to remain on the farm, but ultimately they confiscated the property and the Dusseldorp women were moved to Batavia. There they eked out a living by making and selling such small items as they could. The war's end brought relief from Japanese oppression but not from hardship, and Mieke was glad when the military offered her a job. She recalls:
After liberation I turned 20. I needed money and went to work at the hospital, but that didn't last long. I couldn't handle it. All the people were like skin and bones. It was awful. I went to work for the army, as an administrative employee in the intelligence department. In the morning a truck would come and pick me and several other girls up and take us to work. They would provide meals and in the evening we would go to a big hall for a dance with the military men. It was all very proper, of course. Afterward the truck would come and take us home. I thought it was wonderful! Work and pleasure, and I made money too! After the extremely boring and poverty stricken years, I wanted to have some fun. [ ]

Though she welcomed the opportunity to sing in Vredevoogd's show, Mieke drove a shrewd bargain for her services:

When I was asked to join the show and to do service for the army, they asked me what I wanted in return. I said food for my family and friends. Not long after that a truck full of canned goods pulled up to the house at Tosariweg. The truck was met with enthusiasm. All that food made us feel rich! [ ]

In June the fledgling troupe, naming themselves the A to Z Cabaret, established quarters in the Dusseldorp house for a period of intensive rehearsals. The family had already taken in twenty homeless Dutch refugees and consequently the dwelling was extremely crowded.

My mother housed everyone who needed a bed and food, and we had people living everywhere, even on the patios. We accepted that as normal, as so many people had nothing except the clothes on their backs and lice.

On the plus side, the dwelling had electricity and running water. Room was found for Samethini in the garage, and over the next several weeks "Niek, Miek, and Sam" hammered out the content and format of the coming performances.  The standard A to Z show would consist of twenty-six songs, split into two sets with an intermission between. Nico, as conf√©rencier, would sing with Mieke, tell jokes, and tie the pieces together with narration.  He also wrote lyrics.  Among his works was a song celebrating the mystery and beauty of the Burmese jungle, whereby he artistically transformed memories of horror into a glorious fantasy. Han created compositions to be played on the piano and accordion with many humorous flourishes.   Still more material came from the repertoire of Wim Kan, used with his permission and probably acquired by Vredevoogd during their association at Nakhon Pathom.  The balance of the act would be filled with traditional songs from Holland and other European countries.

Han Samethini caricature by Lex van den Berg
Batavia, July 17, 1946
Han Samethini Collection

A to Z Cabaret inter-island tour
Batavia, Makassar, Surabaya, Denpasar
July - August 1946
(Click map to enlarge)

The A to Z Cabaret debuted in Batavia on July 11, giving a series of shows in the city before embarking on an inter-island tour. They started with a nighttime flight to Makassar, Celebes on July 25, aboard a PBY Catalina flying boat. Conditions in the unpressurized cabin were highly unpleasant for passengers accustomed to tropical lowlands, Mieke's trench coat scarcely sufficing to keep her warm through 768 miles of frigid, high altitude air. Arriving soon after daybreak on the 26th, they posed for a photo before heading to their first gig, a morning performance for hospital patients. Then it was on to the afternoon and evening performances, the latter given at Makassar's Harmonie Club. This was a comparatively well mounted effort staged with all the support the local government could muster, including the participation of the Maros Welfare Band. The following evening they performed at the Military Club. A notable personality here was radio producer Bert Garthoff, who ventured into the entertainment realm by singing a pair of songs. Garthoff had begun his career with NIROM, and it was he who had delivered the famous sign-off in the dark hour of capitulation, "Farewell until better times."

Consolidated PBY Catalina in Dutch service

Morning arrival in Makassar after a cold, uncomfortable nighttime flight.
(L-R) Nico, Mieke, Han and two unidentified Dutch soldiers

Han Samethini Collection

Closeup from the same photo 
Han Samethini Collection

From Makassar the trio flew to Surabaya.  This must have been a bittersweet homecoming for Han. The city rested securely in Dutch control, held by the Marines and troops of the Royal Dutch Army's  X-Brigade, but no amount of military power could restore the old life and spirit of the town he had known. Of all his immediate family only his mother remained to greet him. A photo of their reunion shows Emma looking drawn and weary as Han clasps her shoulders firmly in affection and support.  The cabaret gave at least several performances in Surabaya and its environs, but documents preserved in Han's private papers record only two shows. The first was staged in the Marine Brigade staff mess hall on August 5. Here follows the review published in the brigade newspaper:

To celebrate the birthday of Princess Irene a cabaret evening was organized in the Brigade Staff mess hall by the A-Z Cabaret of AMACAB Welfare.

This spirited trio brought an evening of real relaxation with sparkling songs and chansons, giving no hint of the fact that they are amateurs. There was Mieke, charming and gifted with a dark voice. And her partner, who brought us to the place where his songs were born. The Thailand camps and the Burma Death Railway inspired him to songs of life. The third in the trio, Sam, used his entire face and hands and feet in accompaniment, tossing out hilarious ad libs to the great acclaim of the audience.

This troupe, which does not pretend to be great artists in any way, which does not use costumes or sets, is really something. Their approach to cabaret is excellent. The A-Z troubadours perform especially for soldiers at the front and they do this as a hobby.

The evening in our Darmo mess hall was a hit on every front.

After the show, we asked one of the members of the cabaret about the general reactions of the audience. The answer was, "At the start an audience can be difficult, but once we get going we have their attention. We didn't have a tough audience in this mess hall, and we were wondering why it can't always be like this...."

  Review published in Ik Sal Handhaven, weekly paper of the Marine Brigade in Surabaya
 Circa August 5, 1946
Han Samethini Collection

A bittersweet homecoming
Han and Emma in Surabaya, August 1946
Han Samethini Collection

The second show was an afternoon performance given for soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment (II-5RI). The name of the suburb or kampung (village) where they were deployed is not mentioned, but the Bataljonsniuews review, and the photo showing Han Samethini wearing a sidearm, make it clear that this was a "hot" sector:

Tuesday afternoon last week, the A-Z Cabaret gave a performance at the front line, organized by Welfare.

Among our men, an audience not dressed in evening clothes and in a combat zone, the company gave us several very pleasant hours. The songs, the piano music, the accordion, the show, everything was appreciated. Both performers and audience broke into laughter during the performance. Twenty minutes into the show there was a brief interruption as the order came down to man the guns. In this way the artists got to experience a bit of front line action, albeit not of the perilous kind. The stage was put together neatly. The piano, although looking ancient, was well tuned. Even the fact that a roof tile had to be fished out of the piano did not harm the music. It was obvious, a thing we need to consider, that an experiment was underway. Well, it certainly succeeded. Keeping in mind that this is not a professional company, we admire their efforts all the more. We never knew that so much could be made of an old song like Annemarie. We thank Mieke, Nico and Sam for the pleasant hours that brought us back to Amsterdam, Burma, and the desert. In short, somewhere different from where we are now. We hope we can welcome this company once again into our midst, and wish them much success in their work for the army. It's a pity the mess wagon got stuck in front of the blown bridge. We call that bad luck. So we'll keep the mess wagon on ice until next time.
Posing for a photo "at the front" with officers of II-5RI
Samethini stands front and center, wearing a sidearm
Han Samethini Collection

Shield emblem of II-5RI
Infantry regiment deployed to Surabaya as part of X-Brigade
Het Depot

Review published in Batalionsnieuws II-5RI, circa August 11, 1946
The mascot at upper right is Wimpie Welfare, symbol of the Welfare Service
Han Samethini Collection

After Surabaya the next stop was Bali, the island famous for its exquisite natural beauty and the unique architecture of its Hindu temples. There Han and Nico found a warm welcome from the soldiers of the Gadja Merah, ex-POWs like themselves. It was a rapport they enjoyed with no other audience. The A to Z gave its first show in the main city of Denpasar on August 7, which was reviewed in the newspaper Bali en Lombok Bode:

On Wednesday evening the A-Z Cabaret gave its opening night for Bali in the lobby of the Bali Hotel. A full house enjoyed several hours of old fashioned pleasure with the well known Vredevoogd and Samethini, familiar faces to the Gadjah Merah from their POW years. As familiar as they were onstage, it was even more pleasant to be introduced to the third member of this cabaret, Miss Mieke van Dusseldorp. "We are not talking about art here, whether with a small or a capital A", Vredevoogd commented modestly. But this "art without an A" delivered to Denpasar one of her most enjoyable evenings. We need not wish this company success on their tour among the outlying camps. Their success is guaranteed in advance.
The success of the outpost shows is a matter of conjecture. Presumably they were given in very primitive conditions. Material from the Bali leg of the tour is scant, but the temple photo below suggests the trio did a bit of sightseeing.
Balinese Hindu temple
Han Samethini Collection

 Gadja Merah soldiers on patrol in Bali

Emblem of the Gadja Merah
Bali-Lombok Brigade
Het Depot

The troupe then returned to its starting point, Batavia. In September the A to Z became a quartet with the addition of singer Leo Morein, who had worked with Vredevoogd in prewar NIROM shows.  So far as can be determined from the press cuttings saved by Mieke - the cabaret's unofficial and perhaps only chronicler - all shows during the remainder of 1946 were given in West Java.  The most prominent of these were the revues Lente Overal (Spring Everywhere) and Het Lachende Land (The Laughing Land).

Program for Lente Overal
Han Samethini Collection

C.A. Govers, entertainment reporter for Het Dagblad, wrote this particularly effusive article describing The Laughing Land:

It is under this title that the A-Z Cabaret presents its new program.  This time we were unwilling to wait until the company made their appearance in the city's theater but instead attended an elaborate performance "somewhere" in Batavia.  Somewhere at a place where everything that was needed wasn't there.  No decor here, no spotlights, yes, not even a podium.  Only a colored piece of cloth covering the piano with a small flower on top, a small table, and a chair.  That is all they have to work with.

However, we are convinced that they could have done with far less, because what Vredevoogd and his troupe present us in this new program, and especially the manner in which they present it, made any decor superfluous.

The company sings every song, a total of 26.  And what songs!  One depicts life in a sunny glow, making everybody roar with laughter, while the other touches a chord of our deepest feelings.  There are songs that make us view the future with high hopes, others that teach us lessons and serve as examples.  Every song, in its own genre, presents something positive.  Can we yearn for something even more beautiful and better than that?  Do we, after all this, still need to recall the merits of this exceptional performance of every member of the cabaret?  Of Miek van Dusseldorp, who superbly complements the totality of the performance; of Sam on the piano, who, silly as always, takes care of all the interludes.  Of Morijn, who, with his "Lapper  Chrispijn," achieves great success?  And particularly of Vredevoogd himself, who is capable of transmitting the song from heart to heart?  This program ought to be seen by everybody, and in particular the budding youth which, in these times, has a need to see something worthwhile and constructive.  Whoever misses this also misses out on an evening full of intense joy and an exemplary art form.  Art that only A-Z can bring you in The Laughing Land.

 Samethini performing in The Laughing Land
Caricature by J. Chevallier
Han Samethini Collection
The A to Z Cabaret quartet
(L-R) Nico Vredevoogd, Han Samethini, Mieke van Dusseldorp, Leo Morein
Han Samethini Collection

 Caricature of the quartet by J. Chevallier
Han Samethini Collection

The tour's absurdities were not always scripted.  Incidents that seemed humorous in retrospect included flights on overcrowded aircraft filled with people, cargo, and even livestock.  Mieke particularly remembered traveling on a bomber pressed into passenger service.  The plane was so crammed that she had to lie prone in the only available space, a gunner's position. Nor were the performers' private lives as happy as the songs they sang.  Mieke's parents greatly disapproved of her participation in the cabaret and told her so in the harshest terms.  And for all the outward hilarity of his onstage persona, Han was grieved by his separation from Anna and Margie.  He corresponded with his enstranged wife by mail and most likely sent her what money he could.

 Entertaining the East Indies
Caricature by J. Chevallier
Han Samethini Collection

Mieke and Han
Han Samethini Collection

Toward the end of 1946, Han received a seemingly sincere offer of reconciliation from Anna: she promised she would return to him if he got back his old clerical job with BPM in Balikpapan.  He therefore requested extended leave from the army, permission being granted in December.  Mieke understood the emotional cost of this decision, having become fast friends with Han during their months of touring together.  She too was a creative personality, an artist as well as a singer.  With the help of illustrator J. Chevallier she created a scrapbook of Samethini's entire musical career, a collection of photographs, press cuttings, and artifacts enlivened with original caricatures.  This she presented to Han as a farewell gift, her tribute to a beloved colleague and soulmate.  She probably never imagined that in years to come this scrapbook would be carried across oceans, continents, and decades to become the kernel of his biography.

Han's final performance in Batavia was a solo piano concert given at a small club on Jambu Lane in Menteng, the very neighborhood where the A to Z Cabaret was formed.  It was attended by grateful representatives of the military and municipal welfare services.  Nico spoke in praise of his partner, calling him a "piano maniac" and "devourer of octaves".  When the last note had been played and the audience broke into extended applause, Samethini was given a bouquet of fuchsias.  These flowers are now withered and faded.  Crisp and vivid still is Mieke's drawing of Han at the piano that evening: intent on his art, smiling as his fingers glide across the keys, the born musician sublimely at one with his instrument.

Samethini's last performance for the A to Z Cabaret in Batavia
Circa January 14, 1947
Illustration by Mieke van Dusseldorp
 Han Samethini Collection



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