THE CANADIAN ARMY GYMNASTICS DISPLAY TEAM

As recalled and recorded by Major (Ret’d) Jerry Kasanda, OMM, CD (edited, embellished and added to by Ken MacDonald)

 

The display team was formed shortly after the establishment of the Army Physical Training Staff (APTS) in early 1950’s. One of its roles was to provide publicity for the Canadian Army and thus enhance the campaign to recruit new personnel for military service.

The original team consisted of members of the Physical training Wing of the RCS of I, supplemented by several other PTIs attached to various units located in Camp Borden. It was a demanding job in terms of unpaid (?) overtime, since most of the training took place after normal duty hours and the displays were performed during weekends and holidays. For single guys like myself the travel was quite enjoyable, just as was the applause we received from the audiences after every performance – which had greatly enhanced our team spirit. For the married members of the team it was quite a sacrifice, for they had hardly any time left to spend with their families.

                                         THE GRANDSTAND SHOW AT THE CANADIAN NATIONAL EXIBITION - 1955


             Standing on the sloped ramps on the left and right side of the stage is the Army PT Cadre display team whose team members are shown below.

                 The star of the show was Ed Sullivan (of TV fame) and Marilyn Bell (of Lake Ontario fame) who swam laps in the small pool in front of the stage.

 

PT CADRE DISPLAY TEAM CNE 1955

                               Back L-R: Willard; Clark; Pearson; Cardiff; Schamehorn; Grant; Lilley; Travis

                       3rd L-R: Isbister; Christenson;----------? Foster; Ricketts; Smith; Savage; Bezaire

                       2nd L-R: Lavigne; Nickerson; Carriere; Bergeron; Nicks; Vermaat; Dugais; Folk

                       Front L-R: Brister; MacDonald;  Babin; Grindley; Gillanders; Johns; Doucet; McArdle; Dionne

 

ARMY SUMMER DISPLAY TEAM 1956

 

Standing L-R: George Lilley; Bob Spence; Roy Whiteside; Nick Procenko; Jack Savage; Mike Mercredi; Jim Brister;

Fred Smith; Ted Hudson; Frank Pendock

Kneeling L-R: unknown; Joe Kyrytow; Ken MacDonald; George McIntosh; Jack Kennedy; Hammy Hamilton; Paul Graham

 

 

THE GRANDSTAND SHOW AT THE CANADIAN NATIONAL EXIBITION - 1957

One of our most satisfying experiences was, without doubt, our team’s participation at the 1957 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

Bob Hope, at that time one of the most popular comedian, was the Master of Ceremonies and the main star of the Grandstand daily shows.

The 1957 Canadian National Exhibition Grand Finale.  With all performers assembled on the stage, Bob Hope [at the microphone] cracked his last few jokes.

In the background, from left to right are the Canadian Air Force, Navy and Army Gymnastics Teams.

 

Our team performed twice a day, in front of the grandstand toward the end of the program. We started with a fast running maze followed by sword swinging to music, tumbling, chair tricks and vaulting over the high horse as our finale. It is no exaggeration when I say that the applause given to our team (as we lined up in front of the stage after the last vault), equaled that which was given to Bob Hope at the end of the show.

 

Sgt Jerry Cassidy (*) sailing through the air during his final vault over the high horse during the Canadian Army Gymnastics Display at the 1957 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

 

Watching are L-R: Front –  Buz Bezaire;  Fred Smith; Paul Graham; Rheo Lavigne(?);  Jack Kennedy;   Roy Whiteside;   Joe Kyrytow; George McIntosh and Rear – Bob Spence; Ted Hudson (?); Wally Berryhill(?); George Lilley; Bill Grant; Mike Mercredi.

* Before a tour to Europe, Jerry Kasanda changed his name from “Kasanda” to “Cassidy” in order to protect his relatives in communist controlled Czechoslovakia from any persecution, should he ever be taken prisoner of war. Upon his return to Canada, he reverted to his original name “Kasanda”

 

One of the teams ready to perform at a Sports Festival in Toronto in the 60’s

  L-R: Unknown; unknown; Bill Richardson; Joe Kyrytow; Ron Partridge;Dennis Bradley;

           Willy Weiler; Gil Oram; Al Calvin; Jerry (Cassidy) Kasanda.

 

Our shows usually included individual tumbling routines, “chair tricks” (which involved individual balancing on, or synchronized group vaulting over specially fortified chairs), individual routines on various gymnastic apparatus, balancing on a “bongo” board, a running maze or synchronized club or sword swinging to music. The show always concluded with vaulting over a high horse as an impressive finale. In addition to the gymnastics display, our team also performed numerous swimming displays, which included “battle swimming” i.e. swimming and jumping into water from various heights while dressed and wearing full “battle order” equipment. Many of our members also participated in numerous swimming, diving and gymnastic competitions and always won a few medals.

 

Rehearsing chair tricks

 L-R: Ken MacDonald; Gil Oram(?); Jack Savage; Harry Mayne; George Lilley; Jerry Kasanda; Tom Goodison; unknown.

 

Battle swimming”demonstration -  jumping  into water from the pool gallery wearing packs and weapons.

 

In the late 1950s, most of the original members of the Borden-based team were transferred to various bases across the country, where each of them organized their own local Gymnastics Display Team. During the 1967 centennial celebrations, the top performers from these local teams were drafted for duty on a Tri-Service Display Team, which toured Canada and performed dozens of displays in all major cities between Halifax and Victoria.

It would take another book to describe all my experiences during my 25 years of active involvement in several Army Display Teams (Borden 1955-1958,1965-1968 and 1978-1981, Winnipeg 1958-1960 and 1963-1965 and Chilliwack 1972-1974 – so I will recall only some of the most interesting occurrences.

One of our most exciting displays occurred when our team made a weekend trip to the northern Ontario pulp mill town of Kapuskasing to perform during their 1956 Sports Festival. Our first display took place at the local lake where we demonstrated various “battle swimming” practices.  Dressed in full “battle order”, including personal weapons, we were jumping off the top of our equipment truck that was parked at the edge of the dock, a combined height of about 15 feet. After surfacing, we then had to swim about 50 yards to the shore on the other side of the bay. The lake at the dock was about eight feet deep with a very muddy bottom. To avoid getting stuck in the mud, it was essential to start treading water as soon as our feet hit the water surface.  

Because he had contacted poison ivy, Ken MacDonald  was delegated our duty lifeguard and watched carefully that everyone surfaced and began to swim across the bay. The last man to jump was Rheo Lavigne. After Rheo jumped and went under water, Ken noticed a lot of air bubbles coming up to the surface – but no Rheo. So he quickly dove in and found Rheo stuck in the mud up to his knees. Fortunately, Ken managed to free Rheo and help him to surface before both of them ran out of air. Rheo nonchalantly swam to shore to a loud applause confirming that the spectators were quite impressed. 

During our lunch time, we were invited to enter the swimming and diving competitions that were to be held in the afternoon in their local outdoor swimming pool.  We sort of suspected that they were primarily interested in getting our entrance fees. In order not to disappoint them, we accepted the offer. The only disappointed ones were their local athletes, because the members of our team “cleaned up” almost all the medals.

At the end of the competition we offered to put on a “clown diving” show. After a few dives, the local athletes joined in and had a good time trying to imitate our crazy theatrics. And so what could have been a PR disaster turned out to be lots of fun for everyone.


Our entrance into the pool:

Ken MacDonald entering the water and George Lilley in pursuit

Jack Savage doing a dive, Jerry Cassidy in line followed by Ken MacDonald and George Lilley


 

  Ken diving, Jerry waiting. Tom Goodison shaking out water below.


George diving, Tom waiting followed by Jack and Ken.

Jerry is exiting the water.

 

Our final performance took place that evening in the local Legion Hall. Our Sergeant Major, Jim Grindley came up with a brilliant  idea,  namely that  each of us buy one of their Kapuskasing Sports Festival Commemorative shirts wear it under our PT sweaters and when we line up at the end of the vaulting display, we remove our sweaters and reveal a  Kapuskasing Display Team. The show included our regular tumbling and chair trick routines but there was a problem with the high horse. The room was small, which gave us a very short run up for our vaults. In addition, the ceiling was quite low and those of us who did a somersault, hit the ceiling with our feet and came down crashing on the mat. As we lined up at the end of our somewhat lousy performance, we did not expect much of an applause. However, our Sergeant-Major’s idea about the shirts paid off. As we pulled off our sweaters, revealing the Kapuskasing shirts, we received a standing ovation and a thundering clapping of the hands.

The Unveiling

     L-R: Ken MacDonald; Paul Graham; Rheo Lavigne; Jack Savage; Bill Grant; Jerry Kasanda; Tom Goodison;

   Frank Pendock;  George  Lilley; Harry Mayne. In front Jim Grindley.

 

Another situation that required the intervention of our duty lifeguard occurred during our demonstration of  “battle swimming” for the Barrie TV station.  It took place at the Notawassaga River where it crossed Highway 90 near Angus, Ontario. 

We were jumping off the bridge in full  “battle order” demonstrating the “abandon ship” drill practice and diving deep under water to avoid an area engulfed in burning oil.  Our young Lt. Harry Mayne dove so deep that he got entangled in the weeds and required the assistance of our duty lifeguard to make it to the surface.

One of the most humorous incidents occurred during an Army Day display at Camp Borden. At every performance we had a truck, which carried our equipment, and most of us used it to change to our PT clothing and kept there a spare uniform. The final vault, a daring swan dive over the high horse, was performed by Jack S., who refused to wear any kind of underwear under his gym pants. During a “straddle vault” over man sitting on the high horse, as Jack split his legs, he also split his pants, exposing his shiny behind. Undisturbed by a loud “aaawh” from the audience, Jack peeled off from the line of his team mates, doubled over to the equipment truck, and wearing his spare pair of pants returned to the line-up – just in time to perform his swan dive to a roaring applause from the cheering crowd. At that moment we all knew that it was not his swan dive but his split pants that “stole the show”.

 

By the way, there were several other instances that our display “stole the show.” For example, our Winnipeg team was tasked to prepare a physical fitness training display as part of the 1959 Army Day celebrations.

The Winnipeg Gymnastics Display Team

Our show started with a carefully rehearsed feature we named as “Old timers PT”. Since it was designed for entertaining the spectators, everyone wore a large black “handlebar” moustache and a funny looking PT dress of the early 1890s. That performance drew a roaring laughter and the loudest applause than any other part of the display.

Old Timer's PT

 

During one of the CFL playoff games in Winnipeg, our Lipsett Hall Gymnastic Team was invited to put on a display during the inter-mission. Our show consisted of the usual tumbling routines, chair tricks and vaulting over the high horse. The tumbling part was concluded with an impressive “crash pyramid”. This exercise requires a trampolette and a perfect timing and co-ordination

 

The crash pyramid before the crash

 

One team  member would take a run toward the pyramid, creating the impression that he would dive over it. Then just before the take off, he would clap his hands as a signal to the team members to extend their arms and crash under him as he dove or executed a somersault over them. Quite impressive, if the timing is right on, but also quite dangerous if it is not, as shown in the two pictures that follow:

Good timing

performer somersaults over the collapsing pyramid

 

Poor   timing

performer  dives into the pyramid as it crashes  under  him

going   through   the  pyramid and   is   buried  in  the  middle   of   his  crashing  teammates

.

The “crash pyramid” was then followed by our vaulting over the high horse. When we lined up after the last vault, the applause was louder than that given whenever a "touch down" was scored during the football game. 

.

Jerry “standing in” for a display team at Lipsett Hall 1959


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We also faced the risk of injury during some of the more difficult routines on   gymnastic apparatus, particularly during vaulting over the high horse. “Pounding off the beat board” during the vaults over the high horse  caused  severe  “Achilles tendon” pain and shin splints, particularly in my case, since with my 80+ kilograms, I was the heaviest member on our team. (No, I was not fat or overweight – I just had a very heavy bone frame with lot of muscles attached to it). During our performance at the 1957 Canadian National Exhibition, Butch Goodey, our Sergeant Major, had to spend considerable time after our afternoon show, massaging my calves with “winter green” and taping my ankles so that I could take part in our evening show.

Major Bob Firlotte, our Commanding Officer, used to “pep up” his commentary preceding my final vault (see the picture above) with “.... AND HERE COMES SGT CASSIDY, WEIGHING OVER TWO HUNDRED POUNDS....”

In those days, we did not have the luxury of using soft, foam rubber pads, like those now available for the landing pits for pole vault or high jump – we were landing from a considerable height onto a single layer of canvass mats (look again at the picture above).  That caused a lot of jarring of the spine, even if the landing was perfect.  In case of a missed vault it could mean a sprained ankle, dislocated shoulder, slipped disc in the spine or a broken arm. Many of us are paying for it now, in our old age, with sore knees or aching backbones.  In addition to the ones mentioned previously, I suffered quite a few personal injuries during my activities as a member of the Army Gymnastics Display Teams, some of which merit mentioning in these memoirs.

 

During a practice on the high bar, my hands slipped and I flew away, landing  beyond  the  last mat,  and “conked out” when my head hit the hard wood  floor.  When I woke up, I was  laying in a hospital bed, with a doctor leaning over me asking what happened. I couldn’t remember anything except my name and that I was a member of the P.T. staff in Camp Borden. It took over a week before I completely regained my memory.

One of my most infamous injuries occurred during our performance at the Maple Leaf Gardens Stadium in Toronto. Our last vault was a “straddle vault knock-off” in which George Lilley was to perform straddle vault while I was sitting on the horse facing the take-off board. As George bounced off my shoulders doing the splits, I was supposed to roll backwards off the horse and do a back somersault after landing. I missed my timing on the roll back and instead of landing on my feet, I landed on my head so that my back somersault became a back headspring, the only one ever performed by anyone.

When I got up “counting stars,” blood was dripping from my mouth since I had bit my tongue. I managed to wobble to the team for our final line up and then supported on each side be my teammates made it to the dressing room. Then a quick trip by ambulance to the Sunnybrook hospital, where I  was kept  for a few days for observation.

I believe my lack of co-ordination in this routine trick was caused by the beating my head and body took in a pyramid that we performed immediately prior to the vaulting. In this pyramid Ken MacDonald was doing a handstand on the heads of two others fairly high in the air. Someone below them flinched and Ken dropped straight down hitting my head . .  with his head. Neither of us was seriously hurt, merely dazed and a bit befuddled. We both "soldiered on" and did our vauling with the above result.

The only good thing about this accident was that I was given as much ice cream as I could eat, in order to keep the swelling of my tongue under control.

I am sure that any member of the gymnastics teams referred to above would agree with me, that it was not always just fame and glory.  As already mentioned, membership on the team required personal sacrifice in terms of many hours of unpaid (!) overtime but also carried a risk of being injured.   We were not eligible for a risk allowance like, for example, the parachutists, but we carried on without complaining, because we just loved the job.

OTTAWA SPORTSMAN'S SHOW   24 Mar-1 Apr 1961

        L-R  Rick Brough; Bill Richardson; Ron Partridge; Joe Kyrytow; Dennis Bradley; Unknown Female Performer;

        Bob Firlotte; Willy Weiler; Gil Oram; Al Calvin; Harry Mayne