| 8.8°C Belfast

From Judy Garland to Ruby Murray, why the Royal's Variety heyday is still sorely missed

Close

Hugely popular: Ruby Murray

Hugely popular: Ruby Murray

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

Hugely popular: Ruby Murray

Dublin is a dynamic city, with new tram-tracks being laid, buildings going up and buildings coming down. And it's gratifying to think that a major building which will soon be under the wrecking ball is one voted by environmentalists "the worst building in Dublin", "an eyesore", and "a monstrosity".

This is the concrete tower block already half-decayed and propped up with scaffolding, in Hawkins Street, adjacent to Poolbeg Street and the Liffey, which was once the site of the Theatre Royal.

The Royal, closed in 1962 and demolished in 1963, was one of the finest theatres in Europe - it could hold nearly 4,000 people.

But property developers were laying waste to Dublin's classical heritage and variety shows were beginning to cost too much.

So, J Arthur Rank, who owned the theatre, sold it off and it was demolished.

Yet the Theatre Royal is a deposit of memories for older Dubliners who still recall it, and the journalist Thomas Myler - for many years associated with the Evening Herald - has put together a wonderful collection of stories evoking those memories, Showtime at the Royal.

An amazing array of artists and performers featured at the Royal over the years, from Count John McCormack to Nat King Cole; from Billy Furey (who was "blacked out" - the curtain was brought down on his act - when his gyrations became too sexy) to Judy Garland, Gracie Fields, Margot Fonteyn, Roy Rogers (and his horse, which "danced" on stage), Bob Hope, Paul Robeson, Maurice Chevalier, Vera Lynn, Bill Haley, and so many more.

Irish singers like Ruby Murray, Carmel Quinn, Patricia Cahill and Bridie Gallagher were hugely popular, although Bridie, with her lovely Donegal lilting, was matched in an act with the gyrating Billy Furey, which was one of the least suitable pairings in showbusiness.

Sinatra never performed at the Royal, and thereby hangs a tale. He was booked to come in May 1950, at a low point in his career - a British tour was going badly and losing money - when it was disclosed that he had just left his wife, Nancy, and was accompanied by the beautiful movie star Ava Gardner.

Louis Elliman, a great man of the theatre who ran the Royal, ruled that the singer couldn't be seen to be escorted by his girlfriend, when he had just abandoned his wife. And though Sinatra's manager pleaded with 'Mr Louis', as he was known, Elliman held firm. Not in Catholic Ireland! (Although Elliman himself was Jewish.) Many years later, in 1989, and again in 1991, Sinatra finally did perform in Dublin (at the 02, latterly), though by then Ava had long left him, and there had been two more wives.

There was a glamorous troupe of dancing girls called 'The Royalettes'. As Deirdre Purcell said, when launching Showtime, any guy who had dated a Royalette enjoyed high status in Dublin. The average age of a Royalette was only 19, and they were held to a disciplined regime. The choreographer Alice Dalgarno made them practise, practise, practise until they hobbled home with blistered feet - and they often did seven shows a week, too.

There was also a priest who used to visit backstage to ensure that the girls said the Rosary regularly, so as to keep them in a virtuous state of mind, and to rebuff any "impure thoughts". As the front stalls often attracted male clients with distinctly impure thoughts, it's suggested that some of the girls appreciated the protection of their devotions: though some slipped across to the pub at the times of prayer!

The names that passed through the Royal were big stars in those days: Eamonn Andrews, Noel Purcell, Cecil Sheridan, Jimmy O'Dea, Max Miller, Jimmy Durante, Eileen Joyce. The Mills Brothers, whose numbers included I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, could fill the auditorium many times over. Some of these stars, such as Donald Peers - son of a Welsh miner who never heard his son sing, because his strict Methodist faith forbade variety shows - would receive up to 3,000 fan letters a week.

How many of the Top-of-the-Bill names would strike a chord now? Tommy Trinder, Ben and Bebe Daniels, Jimmy Campbell, or The Three Stooges probably don't mean a lot to a contemporary public. Will the big stars of today just seem like faded, uncertain echoes 50 years hence?

Ah, sic transit gloria mundi…

Yet some of the big acts remembered make you realise that there's nothing new under the sun. How similar in situation storyline is Brendan O'Carroll's droll Mrs Brown's Boys to the popular act Old Mother Reilly? Arthur Lucan played another comical old biddy, while his wife Kitty McShane played Mother Reilly's daughter, Kitty - and in its time, it, too, was considered a hoot.

Thomas tells a lovely story about Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr being in the audience for a Gene Autry show.

Afterwards, the songwriters visited Autry in his dressing room and showed him the draft of a song they had written. He liked it and took it back to America with him. And that's how South of the Border became an international hit, covered by so many singers since.

When the monstrosity that replaced the Royal comes tumbling down, it is due to be replaced by something "environmentally more sustainable", with multi-purpose use - apartments, shops, cafes. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a small theatre could be included as a tribute to the great theatre that brought so much pleasure to so many?

Belfast Telegraph