A showman who kept a generation entertained
Joe O'Shea looks back at the legacy of puppeteer Eugene Lambert
Published 24/02/2010 | 05:00
The sad news of the death of puppeteer Eugene Lambert will be especially poignant for those who grew up with the classic RTE children's TV show Wanderly Wagon.
From 1967 to 1982, the adventures of Rory, O'Brien, Grandmother and Judge captivated Irish children and made Lambert a household name.
Lambert, who was 82, played the child-like O'Brien and was the main puppeteer and ventriloquist for characters such as Judge the dog and Mr Crow.
The long-running series also gave a start in the business to a young Neil Jordan, who wrote some of the early episodes, and featured a stellar cast of Irish acting talent, including Frank Kelly (who also wrote for the show), Bill Golding and Nora O'Mahony.
Eugene Lambert, who died suddenly on Monday night at his home in Co Dublin, was best known for the still-popular show (a special DVD collection has sold over 40,000 copies).
But his enduring passion was his own, family-run puppet theatre and museum in Monkstown, Co Dublin, which he established in 1972 in the back garden of a newly purchased family residence.
"It was what he always wanted to do, to have a theatre of his own," said his granddaughter Emily Tully yesterday.
'Entertaining children was his life; he was still working away, he was never the sort who was going to retire and he was actually planning to do a few appearances with Judge."
Ms Tully, whose mother Paula Lambert was the voice of children's TV puppet Bosco, says the move to Monkstown was made for practical as well as artistic motives.
"They were originally living up in Finglas, on the same road as Bono's family, and there were my grandfather and grandmother squeezed into a regular two-up, two-down with 10 kids.
"So the move to Monkstown was a really big deal; it allowed them to set up the theatre -- he had the workshop there and the family finally had a bit of space".
The Monkstown house gained an additional family member in the early 1970s when the Lamberts' close friend, the children's author Patricia Lynch, moved in for a long stay after the death of her husband.
Emily, who grew up "surrounded by puppets", remembers the Lambert home as a slightly surreal but magical place.
"You would be sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea and somebody would come in and say: 'has anybody seen the Cyclops?'
"The answer would be; 'yes, it's over there next to the Hansel and Gretel house'.
"Those were the kind of conversations you had all of the time, kids everywhere, puppets, sets, it was all a bit mad but great fun".
Mr Lambert was originally from Sligo, where his father was the county librarian before dying at the age of 36. Eugene was just 15 at the time and had to leave school to start work in the local Denny's Bacon factory.
His mother Eileen took over her husband's job (family history says she was the very first female county librarian in Ireland) and young Eugene grew up surrounded by books and fascinated by puppetry, ventriloquism and mime.
He made his first puppet when he was eight, and had trained himself to be a skilled ventriloquist by 12.
Eugene's family were often unnerved by his uncanny ability to "throw" his voice from under chairs and behind doors. But they were reassured by a regular visitor to the family home, Abbey Theatre director Lennox Robinson, that it was a "habit he'll soon grow out of".
Starting out as a ventriloquist with a dummy called Charley, Lambert worked during the day as a refrigeration engineer for the Denny company in Sligo and spent his free time performing in variety shows across the west and the midlands in the '50s.
Together with his wife Mai, he moved to Dublin in the early 1960s and worked again in refrigeration while saving every spare penny to set up his own puppetry theatre.
A link with Finglas remained; former neighbour Bono was a regular visitor to the Monkstown theatre with his young children, as were Pat Kenny and musician Liam O'Maonlai, who all had birthday parties for their children there.
Another famous fan was Michael Jackson, whose enduring fascination with puppets brought him on a visit to the theatre in 1992, when Eugene and Judge sang happy birthday to the late King Of Pop.
Jackson returned twice to the theatre and on his final visit, brought his children along for a private show.
"My grandfather really loved meeting Michael Jackson and would always stand up for him; we all had to be very careful what we said about Jackson if he was around," said Emily Tully.
"I think he is probably up in heaven now, saying: 'Don't worry, Michael, I always stood up for you!'"
Emily said her grandfather remained a showman at heart.
"He would go down to visit my aunt in Kilkenny and he always brought along Judge because he would always be asked to do a little turn in the pub down there.
"He loved it, people always stopped him in the street, they thought they knew him well. And after about five minutes, they did."
Eugene Lambert is survived by his wife Mai (they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this summer), eight children, 15 grandchildren and five great-great children.