Remembering The Magical Theatre Royal
The Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street in Dublin city centre began its life as the Albany New Theatre in 1820. In August 1821, King George IV visited Dublin. During his brief visit, he and his entourage were invited to spend a night at the new theatre. In consequence, the Albany received a royal patent, and changed its name to the ‘Theatre Royal’. Over the next thirty years, the theatre experienced a number of financial difficulties, and was forced to close for a brief period in 1851. However, before the end of the year, it re-opened. It also acquired a new manager, John Harris, who had previously been in charge of the Queen’s Theatre. The famous actor and playwright Dion Bouccicault appeared for a month long run in 1861, when he played Myles na Coppaleen in his play ‘The Colleen Bawn’. Disaster struck on February 9th 1880, when the newly installed gaslights sparked a fire that burned the theatre to the ground. The cast had been preparing to stage a matinee performance of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, to aid famine relief during the ‘Land War’. The fire claimed one casualty, theatre manager Francis Egerton, who died attempting to fight the flames. A short notice appeared in the Freeman’s Journal of February 9th; “It is with the most profound sorrow we announce that the noble Theatre Royal, which has so long been one of the glories of Dublin was reduced to ashes last night”.
Work began on a new theatre some five years later, and on November 2nd 1886, it re-opened as the Leinster Hall Theatre. The new theatre staged many notable performances, including two concerts by Dame Nellie Melba in 1893. Despite its popularity as a city music venue, it struggled financially. Matters came to a head in 1895, when it was forced to close down. It was subsequently redesigned and redecorated by the renowned theatre architect, Frank Matcham, and re-opened as the second ‘Theatre Royal’ on October 13th 1897, with the financial backing of a number of prominent Dublin businessmen.
The theatre now had an audience capacity of over two thousand. It also appointed a new manager, Fred Mouillot. Fred Mouillot attracted many of the most talented stars of the time. The Theatre Royal presented large charity concerts, which often included full choirs and 100 piece orchestras. The theatre became famous for both operatic and musical comedy. In 1904, Edward VII attended a state performance there. When Fred Mouillot died in 1911, his business partner David Tellford took control of the theatre. David Tellford introduced many Music Hall acts, including in 1906, a group called ‘The Lancashire Lads’. One of the ‘Lads’ turned out to be a then unknown young Charlie Chaplin!
Classic theatre, ballet and opera figured prominently in the Theatre Royal from its inception in the 1820s, right up until the 1960s. Tragic actor Edmund Kean appeared as Richard III in July 1822, and a young Sir Henry Irving also appeared in Hamlet. In the cmid-19th century, Italian opera proved very popular. Jenny Lind appeared in La Sonnambula in 1848. Grisi and Mario sang Italian opera in 1855, and in the following years Dublin audiences were treated to many famous opera singers. In the 1920s Count John McCormack regularly performed, singing a variety of Greig, Mozart and Schubert, as well as popular Irish folk songs. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Theatre Royal also operated as a cinema, Unfortunately, the Great Depression and a serious influenza epidemic led to diminishing audiences. The theatre was forced to close down in 1934.
The third Theatre Royal was officially opened by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass on 23rd September 1935. It was then the largest cine-variety theatre in Britain or Ireland, with an audience capacity of 4,000. It was designed in an art deco Moorish style by Leslie Norton, and housed the Regal Rooms Restaurant. The new Theatre Royal cost £250,000 to build and had a staff of over three hundred people. Its weekly wage bill was £800. This would approximate to £11 million in today’s prices, and the wage bill would be over £35,000. It was now owned by the Dublin Theatre Company, and run by Mr. Louis Elliman. The theatre now had a resident 25-piece orchestra under the baton of Jimmy Campbell. From the beginning, the sheer size of the building made it difficult for the Royal to remain economically viable. The policy adopted at first to confront this problem was to book big overseas stars to fill the theatre. These included Gracie Fields, George Formby, Max Wall, Max Miller and Jimmy Durante. Despite the all-star atraction, these shows rarely made a profit.
Alice Delgarno and Babs de Monte ran the ‘Royalettes’ dancing troupe, which soon became synonymous with the Theatre Royal, and regularly received standing ovations. Alice choreographed the dance routines while Babs looked after costumes and lighting. During the Second World War, severe shortages forced Babs de Monte to become ever more innovative. She even created stage make-up from a mixture of glycerine and red ochre! Wartime travel restrictions also forced Louis Elliman to rely on native Irish talent to fill the vast theatre. As a result, Jimmy O’Dea, Harry O’Donovan, Maureen Potter, Danny Cummins, Alice Dalgarno, Noel Purcell, Micheál MacLiamóir, Cecil Sheridan, Mixer Reid, Vernon Hayden, Paddy Crosbie and Jack Cruise became household names. Many other regulars became firm favourites including Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne, who regularly appeared in the ‘Royal Panto’, described by theatre critic John J. Flanagan as the most spectacular pantomime ever staged in Dublin.
Jack Cruises’s character, ‘John Joe Mahockey from Ballyslapdashmuckery’ was a firm favourite with Dublin born singer and accompanist Peggy Dell, who returned to Ireland in 1940, and appeared in numerous variety shows as both a band leader and solo performer. Tommy Dando appeared there from 1950, becoming something of a legend, as he rose dramatically from beneath the stage, playing the theatre’s Compton organ!
The Theatre Royal first staged a circus in January 1939, when veteran cowboy Tom Mix came to town for a show dubbed ‘Dublin’s Greatest Circus’. In 1948, the Kayes Brothers Circus appeared there, as did Chipperfield’s Christmas Circus in 1949 and 1950. The Theatre Royal also hosted a number of boxing contests, the first of which took place back in 1908, when Tommy Burns easily defeated Jem Roche of Wexford in a world heavyweight contest. Galway’s Máirtín Thornton suffered the same fate at the hands of British champion Bruce Woodcock in a contest that lasted all of three rounds in 1945. Afterwards, rumours were rife that Thornton had thrown the fight deliberately! In 1933, an Irish amateur boxing team scored a number of notable victories against a world class German side. Films of famous fights were also flown to Dublin, and shown just a few days after they occurred. As a result, Dublin audiences saw the World Middleweight title fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilo, just six days after they had fought their bout in Chicago in 1958.
During the 1950s, a number of touring stars appeared at the Theatre Royal, including Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Harry Bailey, James Cagney, John Mills and Dirk Bogarde. Cowboy star Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger also appeared at one stage. In July 1951 Judy Garland appeared for a series of sell-out performances. The American star received tremendous ovations every night. She even sang from her dressing room window to hundreds of people who were unable to get tickets. The theatre critics dubbed her “The America’s Colleen”. She drew the largest crowds at that time and her popularity was only surpassed by the Irish visits of President John F.Kennedy in 1963 and Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Carmel Quinn, a popular Irish-American entertainer also made her singing debut at the theatre during the early 1950s. The Theatre Royal hosted a number of popular music acts from the mid-1950s until its closure in 1962, including Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray. Ray and Frankie Vaughan also appeared for a six-night run in 1959. Backroom managers, Phil Donohue and Phil Clarke, were responsible for the theatre’s ‘clean material policy’. On one famous occasion, they abruptly halted Billy Fury’s performances for making ‘rude gestures with his microphone’ by bringing down the stage curtain on his act!
Increasing overheads and the popularity of nightly television for many Dubliners saw audiences drop off dramatically in 1960 and ’61. People were moving out to the new Dublin suburbs and tastes were also changing rapidly. The curtain finally came down for the last time on June 30th 1962.