Thursday 22 February 2018

The final curtain call at the Royal

Elvis may have snubbed a stint at the largest venue in Ireland or Britain - but many more A-listers knew they hadn't made it until they played at the Theatre Royal. Thomas Myler, author of a new book on the venue, charts the history of the Dublin theatre

Theatre Royal, Dublin
Theatre Royal, Dublin
Last night of the Theatre Royal Hawkins Street Dublin 1962 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection) Staff and performers. 30th June 1962 Noel Purcell

Thomas Myler

When Elvis Presley was honourably discharged from the US army as a sergeant in March 1960 after serving two years in Germany, there was a rush by promoters all over the world to sign him for tours. The most celebrated popular-music phenomenon of his era, Presley had originally burst on the entertainment scene in January 1956, when he recorded his first album for RCA in their Nashville studios, and he would go on to have a succession of hits. Now, free from army duties, he was back where he left off - and a bigger attraction than ever.

Stories were circulating that he might do a short British tour culminating in several shows at the London Palladium. Louis Elliman, who ran the Theatre Royal in Dublin, the largest theatre in Britain or Ireland with a capacity of nearly 4,000, estimated that Elvis for a week would be worthwhile. Most visiting artistes played the theatre for a week - some, like Judy Garland, for two weeks.

Elliman contacted Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a former carnival barker, in Los Angeles and suggested playing the Royal whenever he was free. "We would be very interested indeed in having Elvis, Colonel," said Elliman. "The Irish would love him. What are your terms?"

"£10,000," said Parker, taking the eight-inch Cuban cigar from between his clenched teeth. "It's good value."

"I'm afraid £10,000 a week would be beyond our budget, Colonel. We'd never justify that at the box-office."

"You've got me wrong, bud,' Parker exploded. "Not £10,000 a week. £10,000 a performance!"

End of conversation. Negotiations also broke down for a British tour, unquestionably because of Parker's demands. Presley never performed outside America, with more than enough concert, movie and recording commitments to keep him busy at home.

If the Royal missed out on Elvis, the long list of famous artistes who did perform on its expansive stage reads like a who's who of entertainment - Yehudi Menuhin, Bob Hope, Margot Fonteyn, Nat King Cole, Bill Haley and his Comets, Arthur Rubinstein, Maurice Chevalier, the Three Stooges, Count John McCormack, Judy Garland, James Cagney, Danny Kaye - the list goes on and on.

It was said in the entertainment world that if international stars had not appeared at the Royal in Dublin, they had not made it internationally. The theatre was a 'must' stopover - and the managements/agencies dared not disagree.

Danny Kaye was certainly one of the most popular visiting performers. Well-known here for his movies and records, he packed the Royal for a week with two shows daily, resulting in a huge demand for tickets. There were long queues in Hawkins Street and around in Poolbeg Street. Postal bookings were so heavy the management had to employ extra staff to cope.

At the end of his show on opening night, sitting on the edge of the stage, he looked at his watch, saw it was 11pm and warned the audience: "You know, the last buses will be leaving shortly." But when there were calls for "more, more", he told the orchestra to go home and continued with his show.

Towards the end of the week, letters started to arrive in his dressing room from grateful taxi drivers. They explained that Kaye's shows resulted in the best week they had ever experienced, taking patrons to their homes, many great distances, after his final midnight curtain. "A big, big thank you from the taxi drivers of Dublin, Mr Kaye," said one letter-writer, wistfully adding: "When are you coming back?"

Bestselling author and broadcaster Deirdre Purcell was a regular Royal-goer.

"We sure got value for our admission ticket at the Royal," she recalls, "with a Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or a Charlie Chaplin film, a variety show, which frequently included a complete one-act play, comedy sketches, Jimmy Campbell's live orchestra, an audience-participation quiz with a prize of half a crown, and in the interval, everybody's favourite, Tommy Dando on the Compton organ."

The local artistes were household names like Cecil Sheridan, Noel Purcell, Frankie Blowers, Jack Cruise, Mickser Reid and others. Compères Eamonn Andrews and Eddie Byrne got their start on the Royal with the quiz show Double or Nothing. Then there were the Royalettes, that glamorous line-up of 12 high-stepping chorus girls modelled on the Rockettes, the resident group, then and now, at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

The Royalettes would often recall the sheer hard work that went into their routines under the direction of choreographer Alice Dalgarno and costume designer Babs de Monte. As well as the afternoon and evening shows, the girls, with an average age of 19, had to rehearse the following week's production, which would have completely different routines and consequently new steps.

Although ultra demure by today's standards, the Royalettes had a pleasantly sensual cachet in a post-war society where public sexuality was frowned on. Part of the mystique was their good looks and unattainability. Boyfriends were strictly off-limits and they were required to recite a decade of the Rosary in the dressing room.

There were no less than four Theatre Royals. The first was built in 1662 in Smock Alley, now Exchange Street in the Temple Bar quarter. The building, under its original name Smock Alley, is now a cultural venue. The other three Royals were built between 1821 and 1935, all in Hawkins Street.

On the night of June 30, 1962, the Royal closed for the last time. A few days later, the demolition workers moved in and soon the famous old theatre was a heap of rubble. The 12-storey Department of Health now stands on the site.

Several reasons were given for its demise, such as the arrival of TV, the booming showband scene and the spiralling cost of visiting artistes. But other people, like the comedian and Royal stalwart Cecil Sheridan, felt it was greed that prompted the new owner, the English impresario J Arthur Rank, to sell to property developers.

"No, it's not TV or anything else that's brought an end to the grand old theatre, a landmark in Dublin," said Sheridan. "It's a matter of how much money you can make out of a square foot of property. If only the Royal had survived, it would have made a most splendid venue for rock concerts and the like. But in the end, it was greed, greed, greed that did it."

Showtime at the Royal by Thomas Myler, published by The Liffey Press, is available priced at €19.95

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