Panto queen's career spanned eight decades
Published 08/04/2004 | 00:11
MAUREEN Potter, Ireland's Queen of Comedy, started out in showbusiness at the tender age of seven.
It was the prelude to a glittering career in which the diminutive Dubliner captivated audiences both at home and abroad with her wit, her acting ability and the magical quality that set her apart as a very special performer.
She was also a comedian at a time when few women trod the boards in that capacity and she paved the way for many who now endeavour to follow in her footsteps.
Born in Dublin in 1925, the daughter of James Benedict Potter and Elizabeth Carr, she was already attending dancing classes in the CYMS in Philipsburgh Avenue before she started at Fairview National School. She became a member of Connie Ryan's Kiddies, a troupe of youngsters who appeared in pantomimes and revues at the Royal, Capitol, Queen's, Olympia and Gaiety.
She later recalled: "My first professional engagement had been at nine, in the Queen's, where I was paid the princely sum of seven shillings and sixpence. I remember making my Confirmation and rushing to the Queen's for the first matinee."
Maureen left left school at 12 after auditioning for British impresario Jack Hylton and later admitted: "Education, perhaps, is something I missed by going on stage so early, but there is little else I really missed.I think I had a better childhood than many kids today who appear so confused with our modern society. They are told everything so young that the sweet mysteries of life seem to have vanished before they leave school."
She was summoned to England by Hylton to join his famous big band as a juvenile speciality artiste.
To get in, she told a white lie about her age (only children over 14 were allowed to tour) but no one discovered it and she toured the Empire theatres of Britain and many large theatres on the continent.
The tour visited Germany in 1938 and she recalled: "The British papers were screaming for people to get out and come home. So we had to come home, but not before Hitler came to the show with Goering and Goebbels.
"It was very funny. Hitler didn't come backstage after the show but the other two did with their wives. Goering looked like a caricature, with huge bundles of medals like salad dressing over his chest, and they had their fattish, dumpy wives. We all got a wreath in commemoration of his visit. I brought it back home but my mother threw it in the bin."
Her long-lasting association with comedian Jimmy O'Dea started in 1935 when he saw her in a play in Bray and immediately engaged her for the pantomime that year in the Olympia.
The only time she failed to win over an audience happened on her return to Ireland when she sang 'Ireland, Mother Ireland' wrapped in a green flag at a cinema-theatre in Dublin. "I got boohed off the stage. This reaction quickly taught me to respect an audience and never to treat one lightly."
From 1939, she appeared in almost every O'D Productions pantomime and also in their summer shows and tours - among which the Belfast Grand Opera House remained an important date despite the war.
Her first solo comedy was in 1942, and in 1948 came her first comedy duologue with Jimmy O'Dea as Biddy Mulligan's daughter. Later, they performed a series of duologues as two Dublin "wans", Dolores and Rose. In 1952 she was one of the ugly sisters in 'Cinderella'. She had roles in several films, including 'The Rising of the Moon' and 'Gideon's Day', both for John Ford, and 'Ulysses' and 'Portrait of the Artist', both for Joseph Strick.
One of her best screen performances was in the RTE television series 'Me and My Friend' with Rosaleen Linehan. They played two unmarried women in a bed-sit, Maureen's character "just a little bit past it", as she said at the time.
In spite of her engagements in pantomime, revue, musicals, films and television, Maureen Potter is probably best remembered outside Dublin for her long-running radio programme, 'The Maureen Potter Show', produced by Fred O'Donovan and largely scripted by her husband, Jack O'Leary, who was also responsible for most of her solo items and parodies.
In 1965 she began starring in the hugely successful 'Gaels of Laughter' at the Gaiety, which ran for 18 summer seasons.
When asked about her appearances in straight plays, she always spoke as if it were a privilege to be invited to perform in Shaw or Sheridan or O'Casey or Johnston. But she gave memorable performances as Mrs Candour in 'The School for Scandal', Lion in 'Androcles', Katie in 'The Informer' and and Maisie Madigan in 'Juno and the Paycock'.
In 1984, Dublin Corporation conferred her with the freedom of her native city, and to everyone she was the quintessential Dub. As she told the Gaiety audiences nightly: "If you liked the show tell your friends, and if you didn't, spare your breath to cool your porridge!"