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Max Geldray

Oldest member of the Goons

Thursday 07 October 2004 00:00 BST

Max van Gelder (Max Geldray), harmonica player: born Amsterdam 12 February 1916; twice married (one son); died Palm Springs, California 2 October 2004.

Max Geldray was a fine harmonica player who could take a joke. He was a staple of the Goons' radio comedy show, where he was referred to as "Conk" because of his smartly groomed hair.

In the episode "Drums Across the Mersey" (1957), Harry Secombe as Neddy Seagoon exclaims,

Gentlemen, the last item in our auction today is this valuable, attractive one million pounds! What am I bid for one million pounds? [Silence] What, what, what, what, what? It's worth twice that, it's not enough. Very well! We'll auction Max Geldray.

This was a cue for Geldray to play a standard with the BBC Dance Orchestra. Perhaps because of his links with comedy, his skills as a musician were not appreciated as much as those of his fellow harmonica players Larry Adler or Tommy Reilly.

He was born Max van Gelder into a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1916. Aged 16, he was taking refuge in a music shop from a storm when he became fascinated with a chromatic harmonica, where the notes could be raised by the push of a button, and he decided to form his own harmonica ensemble after seeing the group the Harmonica Rascals. He found seven willing players and they became Max Geldray and his Mouth-Accordion Band.

When the band broke up, four of them, including Geldray, toured the UK on a variety tour as the Hollander Boys. Then Geldray went to Brussels in search of bookings and played solo in the restaurant Le Boeuf Sur La Toit for a year. Returning to Holland, he worked with a dance band in The Hague.

Eventually he secured a residency at the Ostend Casino, which had an A-list clientele. He befriended many jazz greats and then joined Ray Ventura's band in Paris. From time to time, he played there with the guitarist Django Reinhardt, but, with the advent of the Second World War, he felt he would be safer in England. During the war, he made several broadcasts for the BBC and was part of the entertainment for Princess Elizabeth's 16th birthday party at Windsor Castle.

As a serviceman, Geldray was caught in a bomb blast during the landings at Normandy. Remembering the field hospital, he said, "The place was silent. The way the wounded stared out at the world was the most frightening of all." When, in 1945, it was safe to return to Amsterdam, Geldray found that his parents and one of his sisters had been killed by the Nazis. He returned to Ray Ventura's orchestra in Paris.

In 1951 Geldray joined a new BBC radio series, Crazy People, which a year later became The Goon Show. He was the oldest cast member. Much of the humour came out of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe's wartime service. In one episode, Milligan says that Geldray can only play the harmonica if he is torpedoed, naturally a cue for sound effects. The musical interludes in the programmes came from Geldray and the Ray Ellington Quartet, and in 1957 Geldray made an EP of jazz standards, Goon With the Wind (in 1989 he published an autobiography with the same title).

He found that working with the three manic comedians (Bentine left early on in the series' run) had its drawbacks. One night, on tour at the Hippodrome in Wolverhampton, Sellers interrupted Geldray's performance with the words, "Sorry, sir, but I have to tell you something important. There's no danger, mind you, but there is a fire drill next door."

The Goons were loyal to Geldray and, in 1958, when the BBC proposed to drop him from the next series, Sellers said he would not participate if they did. He won the day. Although Geldray was given the occasional line, he was no actor. He did represent the Goons' team at a tiddlywinks championship in Cambridge in 1959.

The attempts to transfer the Goons' anarchic humour to television were never satisfactory. Geldray appeared in three of their 1956 programmes The Idiot Weekly Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred.

In 1961 he was offered cruise work on the liner Queen Elizabeth sailing to the United States. Impressed by Los Angeles and following the collapse of his first marriage, he decided to emigrate. He worked with Sarah Vaughan and Billy Daniels and often played casinos in Reno, Nevada. In 1962 he met a divorcee, Susan, and after their marriage sold clothes in a department store, then worked as the regional sales supervisor for the Christian Science Monitor.

Geldray returned to the UK in 1972 to take part in The Last Goon Show of All, a televised radio broadcast to celebrate the BBC's 50th anniversary. The show was hampered by a weak script and by then the humour had been overtaken by shows themselves influenced by the Goons, such as Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The actor Graham Stark, who frequently appeared on The Goon Show, knew Geldray well and says,

Max and Susan stayed with me when he made The Last Goon Show of All. He knew I loved jazz and we would sit listening to those wonderful Toots Thielemans records. It is said that Max never became a legendary player because he was so associated with the comedy but I don't think that's true. It was more that he didn't want to do anything that was populist, as he had very high standards.

Geldray later moved to Palm Springs to look after his wife's father and played jazz in a local bar. He continued to play his harmonica until 2002.

Spencer Leigh

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