Saturday 16 February 2019

Cabaret!

For over 23 years there was only one show in town. Now, Tony Kenny reveals what really went on at Jury's Cabaret ...

The longest-running show on an Irish stage was the Jury's Irish Cabaret which ran for more than 40 years in Jury's Hotel Ballsbridge. For a long time I've wanted to set the record straight about what we did. I can tell you lots about it because I appeared in that show six nights a week for 23 years.

I'm reminded because I still get letters now from around the world from the people who came to those shows. I say from around the world, but 99pc of the people who came to see the Irish Cabaret in Jury's were Americans.

It was the best show in town, because when it started there simply wasn't a venue in Ireland with the facilities where Americans could be entertained.

It wasn't cheap either, around $50-$70 a ticket, but for that visitors got dinner and the best show money could buy in terms of lights and costumes.

Originally it was two and a half hours with an interval, but that was later changed to 90 minutes with dinner.

Critics often accused the Jury's Cabaret of being about leprechauns and shillelaghs but we never had any of that stuff.

However, being for Americans who felt they had come home, Ireland was like Disneyland and there were certain things we had to deliver.

They asked to hear 'Danny Boy' and 'Galway Bay'. And we gave it to them. The show was a template and we stuck to it.

The gas thing about Americans was they didn't hang around.

"You know in Ireland when it comes to chucking out time the bar men have to scream and shout: "Time gentlemen, please." Not with Americans. The moment the curtain came down in Jury's each night, the Americans would file out to their coaches outside.

The next morning the same tourists would be milling around their hotels at 6.30 having had breakfast waiting for the same coaches to pick them up.

I came to Jury's having done 'Jesus Christ Superstar', and panto in the Gaiety for director Jimmy Potter, brother of Maureen Potter, who persuaded me that joining the Jury's Irish Cabaret would be good exposure.

Jimmy was right, over the 22 years I must have played to millions of people -- not counting the tours we did of the US every second year.

Working in showbiz it was a godsend to get regular work in Dublin doing the show for six months each year.

I joined in 1981 and soon got into a regular routine each night of leaving home in Portmarnock each evening at 5.30pm and heading for Ballsbridge.

The other big star of the show was Hal Roach -- undoubtedly the best comedian this country ever produced.

We had a little bit of rivalry in that, because Hal was the comic, he couldn't finish the show which closed with a musical finale. That meant that sometimes Hal would stretch his 35-minute set to 55 minutes.

My wife Joan, who worked as a choreographer on the show, remembers me sometimes coming home, joking that I wanted to kill Hal, but we had huge respect for one another.

Having worked in America himself, Hal knew what the Americans visiting Ireland wanted at our shows in Jury's, and often gave me helpful suggestion about my act.

Something the two of us used to enjoy was going out and meeting the tourists after each performance. This was unheard of in the US, where entertainers were treated like royalty and never mingled with the crowd. I'm still getting sent pictures of Hal and myself taken backstage in 1984 from people we met.

One of the weirdest nights we had in Jury's was on 9/11. All the transatlantic flights had been cancelled and the Americans in the audience had no idea if they would be able to get back home. The whole place felt eerie.

We spoke to management and it was agreed that the manager of the venue would go out and talk to the crowd.

It was a speech I will remember for the rest of my life in which he told them how, as Irish people, we couldn't sympathise enough with them and their country over what they were going through, but asked if we could put on a show for an hour and and a half which might let them forget their anxieties.

Then we had a minute's silence before the curtain went up.

That night every dancer, singer, myself and Hal pulled out all the stops to deliver the show of our lives.

Of course there were off nights in the 23 years I was there -- I can remember a dancer once slipping off the stage and into the lap of a stunned tourist.

Famous faces who came? I didn't take names but attendees included Richard Branson, Alex Ferguson and Max Bygraves, who wept because I sang a song his mother sang to him as a child. He sent me a lovely letter afterwards.

The guest who made me most nervous was the late journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman who arrived one night to review us for a newspaper.

I was pretty terrified about the review but when I got the paper the next day his article was hugely complimentary. I found out later this might had been because Jonathan was taken with one of the dancers in the show.

Even more welcome was a National Entertainment Award I got in 1998 for my work in the cabaret.

I left the Jury's Cabaret in 2004 because my voice was tired and I wanted to pursue other projects in the US. But it was one hell of a show the Jury's Irish Cabaret.

in conversation with ken sweeney

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