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'Playing live always adds a bit of magic to the show'

The Grand Opera House panto is hugely popular over the festive season. And it is the live band which strikes up a magical chord for the audience. Ivan Little meets the men behind the music

He's been an unsung hero of Belfast's biggest pantomime for a long time before May McFettridge became the star of the show but, only months after deciding to bring the curtain down on his 35 Christmas runs at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, veteran musician Gerry Rice got the news that turned his world upside down.

For after seeking medical advice about pains in his back, the well-known saxophone and clarinet player was told he had bowel cancer.

"I thought they were talking about someone else," says 74-year- old Gerry, a founder member of the legendary Witnesses showband. "I hadn't been feeling that unwell. And my health wasn't the reason I decided to quit the pantomime. I'd just felt it was the right time to go."

He'd also given up his 22 year residency with his Gerry Rice jazz quartet at the Europa Hotel, but before he could really relax into a quieter lifestyle, the cancer bombshell exploded in October.

He says: "I was having trouble with my back and doctors at first told me it was wear and tear, but I was sent to the hospital for a scan and it showed I had a tumour which was cut out within a few weeks through laparoscopic surgery. Then they told me the prognosis is good."

It was music to Gerry's ears, so to speak, because he'd been dreading chemotherapy treatment which he feared would be worse than the surgery.

Proving that you can't keep a good man down, Gerry has already returned to small-time gigging again and a few days ago he was back at the Opera House to catch his colleagues in Aladdin, the first panto he'd ever seen from outside the orchestra pit.

Gerry admits it was a hard decision to retire from the band.

"Pantomime is fun but it is hard work too," he says. "Nowadays they are doing 12 shows a week and that is tough. I was exhausted.

"I played in the first panto after the Opera House re-opened after many, many years in the wilderness," says Gerry. "The first star was Frank Carson in Aladdin in 1979."

Gerry saw bad times as well as good times during the panto seasons at the height of the Troubles. One show was due to open with Liverpool comedian Tom O'Connor in the starring role in the early 1990s but the IRA brought the house down - literally - with a huge bomb.

The cast and a small team of musicians re-located with a scaled down version of the panto to the La Mon House Hotel at Castlereagh. "There were lots of bombscares down the years," says Gerry. "They used to tell us to leave everything and get out. But I couldn't go without my instruments.

"I remember shivering outside for hours on end though occasionally we would end up in the pub, purely to find ourselves a bit of warmth, of course."

In the old days the panto band consisted of up to 12 musicians but now there are just five players.

However, that's more than can be said of many pantos nowadays here and across the water where the music is on tape.

Theatre enthusiasts insist that live music is a crucial element to the experience of a show, the very essence of panto. And Gerry agrees: "It adds a little magic to any production."

It also gives much needed employment to musicians who rely on live work to earn a crust.

The Opera House is the must-play Christmas venue for musicians here and Gerry says: "It's a great building to play in. The acoustics and the stage are great. It's a very special place. The audiences love the pantomime and the people and the reactions never change.

"I know some people who have grown up watching pantos and they still come along with their adult families because it is part of their Christmas tradition.

"You will also find some folk who insist on sitting on the very same seats every year," says Gerry, who was 10 when he caught the music bug from his father who taught him how to play wind instruments.

At the age of 16, Gerry joined the legendary Jimmy Compton Jazz Band and Northern Ireland's late great blues and jazz singer Ottilie Patterson cut her teeth with them before joining the Chris Barber band in England.

Gerry later joined Dave Glover's showband and helped set up the Witnesses showband in Belfast, but he had left by the time they played in front of Elvis Presley and his entourage, including his wife Priscilla in 1969, when they visited a hotel in the Bahamas they were playing in.

Gerry was a regular on the cabaret circuit in Belfast before the Troubles decimated the scene in the Seventies so he jumped at the offer of work at the Grand Opera House pantomime.

And now, even though he has departed, the family links with the Opera House go on in the shape of Gerry's son Brian who has been the drummer in the band for 26 years - but he owes it all to a rabbit, not his father.

Brian explains: "John Wilson was the drummer before me but he was also touring as part of John Anderson's Jive Bunny group who had a number of big hits at the time. And that left a vacancy at the Opera House which I filled."

He had never seen a pantomime from the auditorium before, even though he'd been in the orchestra pit virtually every year from the age of 14. "All I wanted to do was to watch the band, not the actors. I sat behind the drummer, Malcolm Neill, and took in everything he was doing. Occasionally, he used to let me do the bumps and crashes during the show."

Like father (and grandfather), like son, Brian had started off playing wind instruments but he eventually plucked up the courage to tell his dad that he would prefer to play the drums which didn't go down well, though Gerry eventually mellowed.

Brian says he loves the panto even though it is tiring. "My brothers constantly point out that I do four hours work a day but you start early in the morning to prepare, you do a matinee and then you hang about for the evening show. "The concentration levels can slip during such a long stint because there is a danger that you could drift off to think about other things."

Like the other musicians, Brian has a huge range of other strings to his bow. He's a lecturer who plays from time to time with the Ulster Orchestra and other musical ensembles around the province, though a recent highlight was to play in sold-out concerts by the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland at Carnegie Hall in New York. His father's place in the pantomime band has been taken by Belfast sax and clarinet player Kevin Lawless, (who just happens to be this writer's son-in-law.)

Kevin is a part-time musician and a full-time civil servant who manages to combine his two jobs, putting in a day's work at his desk before heading to the Opera House.

"I start in the office early in the morning and it is a punishing schedule," admits Kevin. "But I am thrilled to be getting my break in the Opera House. I have played here regularly with musical societies but this is the big one, my dream come true."

Kevin fell in love with the clarinet at primary school and at the School of Music he took up the saxophone.

He plays with all sorts of jazz, rock and traditional Irish bands and was the musical director on a recent UK-wide tour in a Carpenters tribute show.

He's no stranger to pantomime either, having played for six years in the band in the annual production staged by the Belvoir Players in south Belfast. "That is a fantastic show for all the community and it has always been one of the big moments in my year," says Kevin.

Bass player Al Carver has been in the pantomime band at the GOH for 14 years. He was only 17 when he first deputised in four shows for another musician during Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, starring Britt Ekland, in 2000. "I'd only seen my first panto at the Opera House a year earlier and I was transfixed by the band. I could never have imagined I would be playing with them so soon and that 12 months later I would be doing a full run."

Al is a full-time musician who plays with one of Northern Ireland's busiest wedding bands, BackBeat, and he looks forward every year to the panto.

"The band members are a great bunch and the camaraderie and the banter are brilliant," he says.

In recent years the orchestra pit at the Opera House has steadily been reduced in size, with the space used to install more and more rows of seats to accommodate the massive demand for tickets.

But it's said that the extra revenue which is generated helps in turn to pay for the musicians for whom opportunities for live work are becoming more and more limited in theatres and even on television.

The profile of the musicians on programmes like the X Factor has been lowered down the years, though on Strictly Come Dancing the singers and band are a big feature of the show.

Like Gerry Rice, the trumpet player at the Opera House, Al Wallace, was part of a much bigger panto band in his first shows there over 30 years ago when the line-up included two saxophones, two trumpets, two keyboards, a trombone, a guitar, bass, drums, and percussion.

Al's love of music started in the Boys' Brigade when he was a bugler and he studied the trumpet at the Belfast School of Music and became a teacher before turning full-time musician 20 years ago.

He was a member of the popular Belfast band Apartment and he works extensively for the BBC and at the Opera House playing in shows with Northern Ireland's large number of musical societies.

Al laughs at friends who think he's on easy street with the pantomime, pointing out that the demands on musicians, and actors, are immense, with two shows, six days a week from the end of November to the middle of January.

It's all a far cry from his youthful introduction to pantomime. "I wouldn't have missed going to see the Christmas show at St Finnian's Church at the top of the Cregagh Road. It was brilliant but this is completely different."

For this year's musical director in Aladdin, Mark Dougherty, pantomime is a way of life.

The former Riverdance musical director has written the scores for as many as four shows in Northern Ireland in any one year and has also worked in panto in Glasgow with TV star John Barrowman.

In Northern Ireland, the number of pantomimes and Christmas shows appears to be increasing every year. And with cuts to arts budgets threatening to cause horrendous problems in 2015 for theatre administrators, the reality is that without the profits from pantomimes, other productions throughout the year might never see the light of day. And that's no laughing matter.

They’re behind you! The famous faces of Christmasses past who graced the stage...

Not only are Christmas pantos a rite-of-passage for most youngsters, for the stars themselves they also represent a milestone in their careers, taking them from household name to genuine pop culture icons.

And the Grand Opera House has seen more than its fair share of celebs treading the boards over the festive seasons.

Scouse television host and comedian, Tom O’Connor, proved a big hit when he came to town in 1991 for the big Christmas show alongside May McFettridge, as did fellow light entertainment veterans Cannon and Ball in 1998.

Meanwhile, Anne Charleston — better known to soap fans as matriarch Madge from Aussie series Neighbours — was a favourite with crowds when she came to Belfast for a production of Aladdin in 1995, alongside late entertainer Rod Hull and Emu.

There was even a touch of Hollywood glamour in 2001 when Bond girl and Swedish sex siren Britt Ekland jetted in to take on the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Former Emmerdale star and Strictly Come Dancing sensation Lisa Riley also won new fans over when she appeared as the Genie in Aladdin in 2002, while Eastenders’ Dirty Den — aka Leslie Grantham — visited the following year for Dick Whittington.

And singer Linda Nolan — of the Nolan Sisters fame — also ensured there were plenty of bums on seats when she visited in 2005, to star in Snow White. Poignantly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer — the same disease which killed her sister Bernie last year — just weeks after completing her run at the Opera House.

More recently, the well-known names who have starred in the panto season at the Grand Opera House have included Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph, who played the Wicked Queen in Snow White in 2010. Last year saw Seventies television star Lorraine Chase on the billing for Sleeping Beauty. This followed on from the previous year’s star turn in the production of Cinderella from none other than cultural icon, Basil Brush.

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