Ghosts, Glitz and Glamour: A Brief History of The Olympia Theatre, Dublin
When you’ve lived in any place for a long period of time you become immune to what it has to offer and start to take its beauty and individuality for granted. Parisians don’t gasp in awe at the splendour of The Eiffel Tower as Dubliners don’t take the wealth of Georgian architecture, Traitors’ Gate, or the arch at Christ Church Cathedral to their hearts and appreciate their beauty, history, and how they helped to shape the world we live in today.
Just like Parisians, Londoners or New Yorkers – or the inhabitants of any major metropolis the world over – we can be found scoffing in the streets at the tourists who gaze upon our pathways with fresh eyes and see the beauty we mistake for the banal on a daily basis.
The Olympia Theatre is one of those opulent spectacles that we Dubliners are guilty of taking for granted despite the joy it has pumped into our collective hearts for over one hundred and thirty years and counting.
Though artistic endeavours date back as far as 1855 on the site the history of The Olympia Theatre is widely acknowledged as commencing with the opening of The Star of Erin music hall in 1879. The theatre went through numerous name changes before settling on The Olympia Theatre in 1923.
The music hall played service to the popular Irish and international Vaudeville acts of the day. However, the interior of the theatre was radically different from the one we are familiar with today. Up until 1897 when the theatre was completely rebuilt and became The Empire Palace Theatre of Varieties, access was via Crampton Court (which now services entrance to the upper levels of the theatre) and the stage was just above the front lobby as we know it today on Dame St.
The Star of Erin hosted the first screening of a cinematic film in Ireland on April 20th 1896, showing the early works of the Lumière brothers. These screenings had a profound effect on James Joyce and his sister who went on to open the Volta Electric Theatre, Ireland’s first cinema. Joyce also reflected music hall culture within his writing, including passages of Ulysses.
Of course it wouldn’t be Ireland without a conspiracy theory, or better yet a catholic conspiracy theory, as it is alleged that the first use of cinematic projection in Ireland was in fact the apparition of the Blessed Virgin in Knock in 1879, beating the French fathers of cinema by five years.
The great stars of the ages such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Marcel Marceau continued to grace the boards at the Olympia Theatre as the years turned. In 1952 Laurel and Hardy spent two weeks on stage receiving rave reviews for their comedy routines.
In 1974 disaster struck during rehearsals for West Side Story when parts of the roof and stage collapsed leaving the future of the theatre in peril and close to being demolished, but in true showbiz style the show continued as staff converted the safe portions of the building to house performances.
Olympia matriarch Maureen Grant – Maureen of Maureen’s Bar and former stage accomplice of Josef Locke – has been working in the theatre since 1949 and remembers the day the ceiling fell all too well, “There was a big crash and the ceiling came down and the boxes came straight down onto the first six rows where the orchestra used to sit and all their equipment was smashed never in your life did you see the escape they (the orchestra) had they were only gone two minutes when the roof came down.”
Following a colourful campaign to save The Olympia from closure, public feeling grew so strong that people lined up outside the box office to donate money to save the building. Eventually Dublin City Council stepped in thanks to the weight of public support, placing a preservation order on the building and contributing to the cost of refurbishment which eventually cost £250,000.
Maureen Grant on ghosts
“Charlie Parker” says Maureen Grant with a sigh that thunders “Holy Mother of Jesus”, “When I started here in 1949 I heard the story of the ghost but I never believed it and never had any reason to believe it.”
But that all changed when Mrs Grant entered the theatre following a day double jobbing at The Dublin Horse Show “A car was a novelty in those days and one of the guys from the Number One Army Band also played in the orchestra here and he gave me a lift, but he was a bit of a boyo you know.”
Having avoided the none too subtle advances of the stereotypical musician Maureen Grant found herself dealing with the unwanted advances of a second man – only this time from beyond the grave – as she freshened up before her second shift of the day.
“I was standing in my bra and pants and as I turned on the tap the door opened. I said ‘Who is that?’ No answer so I closed the door, thought it was the breeze or something, and the next thing is the door goes bang, my smock came off the door and my tips went flying. I got really scared and fucked my coat on and ran into the café as I was with nothing under my coat.”
Upon entering the café Maureen Grant was shocked to learn that it couldn’t have been the handy work of the orchestra boyo as he was sat at a table with his wife the entire time she’d been absent. A series of strange occurrences then unfolded in the Olympia, with light switches turning on lights they weren’t wired to and then a baby started to cry.
“It was getting worse and worse and worse and eventually we brought in the medium, and I spent three and a half hours going around with him. We went to all the places that the things used to happen.”
“The minute we walked into the toilet he (the medium) was startled and said ‘I’ve the answer before we begin this is where the crying baby is. It’s a boy and his second name is Parker’ The staff had already christened the baby ghost Charlie (it’s better than Casper) so it became Charlie Parker. But he wasn’t content with haunting the toilet anymore and he moved in here (Maureen’s Bar) to the tills.”
Ghost Parker became more physical in Maureen’s Bar (or maybe it was the drink); glasses started to fly from behind the bar and smash on the ground and the coins in the till started to jump up and down on a regular basis “We’ve it on the camera” says Mrs Grant referring, “The girls here get scared out of their lives regularly.”
Then staff began to see a pallbearer walk up and down the centre isle “He still goes around” says Grant “but he’s harmless. He’s a friendly ghost” But if Maureen Grant gets her own way the pallbearer won’t be the last ghost to haunt The Olympia Theatre. She will. “I want to die here” she tells us, and she knows just where she’s going to spend eternity; in a box on the left hand side overlooking her favourite place in the world – the Olympia stage.
Roaming around an empty Olympia theatre you are first struck by the silence, then the illuminated beauty of its ornate classical design, and eventually its size, as suddenly you realise exactly how intimate a venue it really is. This intimacy is rammed home further still when you take to the stage and feel the oval layers or ruby seats rush towards you. It’s an optical illusion, but it feels like you could lean out and touch an outstretched arm from the lower circle or the boxes on either side. It’s only then that you get a glimpse of understanding why musicians and actors love the Olympia so much.
It’s little wonder then that many artists have chosen to record live performances at The Olympia. Tom Waits recorded what is perhaps the definitive version of The Piano is Drinking (Not Me) in March, 1981. Kris Kristofferson recorded a live set for the special edition of his 2009 album ‘Closer to The Bone.’ However R.E.M. took it one step further in 2007 when they set up camp in the venue for working rehearsals of what was to become their 14th studio album ‘Accelerate’ and recordeda 39-track double album entitled ‘R.E.M Live At The Olympia’ in Dublin between June 30th- July 5th.
“R.E.M. where here for about a week and a half” recalls the Olympia’s Noelle Fox “They were rehearsing for their new album at the time and they decided that as well as private rehearsals they would do live rehearsals. That was a big deal to R.E.M. fans here and worldwide.”
“It was amazing to see that creative process live on stage. Stipe had his notes written down and on his laptop, and he was changing the lyrics, experimenting with ideas saying ‘no, that’s not good/yes, this is better’. It was amazing to see something so raw and to witness this huge band putting themselves on the line like that.”
“Tickets were only €50 and they were only available from the box office – no online, no phone numbers, no nothing, just walk into the box office. People came from all over the world for the five nights. The tickets are real collectable now.”
With a capacity of just 1240, the venue is the perfect setting to catch acts on the way up, riding the crest of a hit debut album or breakthrough single. Kodaline’s three-night sold-out stint in the venue last year is a perfect recent example of experiencing a band before the (inevitable) backlash begins, while HAIM’s remarkable, surging popularity in Ireland probably reached a watershed moment when they performed in the Olympia back in March with the sound of over 1200 screaming fans heralding the groups move from cult status to mainstream proposition.
Similarly, Le Galaxie’s midnight headline show last Christmas felt like a celebration and a farewell wrapped in one, with the mixed emotions of willing them on to success and knowing those sweaty club performances that caused you to fall in love with them in the first place were probably no more.
Bigger venues beckon for HAIM and Kodaline, but for the hardcore fans who’ll follow them for the next decade or so these shows will be the ones they cherish the most. The shows when they were their band, not the world’s.