Sunday 18 March 2018

The final curtain call for Mr Show Business

Myles McWeeney recalls the ultimate 'can-do' man

Fred O'Donovan, who died at the age of 80 last weekend, was for many years 'Mr Show Business' in Dublin. Hiscareer in radio, variety, theatre and film spanned 50 years during which he gave gaiety and laughter to hundreds of thousands of Irish people.

One of six brothers, Fred O'Donovan grew up in Dublin's Fairview, and in 1945, at the age of 15, ran off to join the RAF.

Cathal O'Shannon, his childhood neighbour and friend who went with him, recalls: "We were both completely taken by the romance of flying, so we went to Fairview Church and got copies of our baptismal certificates which we altered to make it look like we were 18.

"We took the train to Belfast and signed up thinking we'd be flying Spitfires in no time. In fact, our feet never left the ground. The RAF had an excess of air crew at that late stage of the war, so we emerged from the RAF unscathed and un-promoted."

As a young man Fred had been a fine athlete, particularly at sprinting. His pace, according to his brother Bill O'Donovan, a former RTE radio producer, was honed by racing from orchards after scrumping apples

A skilled boxer too, while serving in the RAF he fought an exhibition bout with Marcel Cerdan, a famous French Algerian world champion middleweight known as the 'Casablanca Clouter'. Fred came second.

He also represented the Air Force and Combined Services in both hockey and soccer.

At the end of the war Fred was sent by the RAF to France to help find and bury the bodies of missing airmen. Through this work he contracted TB and was sent to a sanatorium in Moira, Co Down. The illness put paid to a nascent professional football career -- days before he learned he had TB, he'd been offered a contract by Arsenal FC.

While in Moira, he took a BBC course in radio production, and when the legendary American singer Paul Robeson came to do a concert for the servicemen, Fred produced the show and got severely bitten by the showbiz bug.

Still ill, he was transferred, first to Davos in Switzerland, and subsequently to the Adelaide hospital in Dublin, where he met his wife Sally, a nurse from Scotland, the love of his life.

Fred not only survived, he thrived. Armed with his BBC radio producer certificate he arrived back in Dublin in 1953 determined to break into radio. It wasn't easy, but after a brief flirtation with selling cuckoo clocks and delft, he got his break when Janus Advertising asked him to produce a sponsored 15-minute radio show for Irel coffee.

His brother Dick, who worked in the Department of Posts & Telegraphs, wrote the script. It was the first of more than 500 radio shows he produced, and at one stage he had 12 sponsored programmes a week running on Radio Eireann.

In 1956 he amalgamated his little radio studio in Henry Street with that of British TV star Dublin-born Eamonn Andrews. He subsequently became Managing Director of the greatly expanded leisure and theatre group, Eamonn Andrews Studios.

Over the years he devised and produced hundreds of productions in Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, including the famous and much-loved Christmas pantomimes featuring Maureen Potter and Maureen's summer variety show, Gaels of Laughter.

He devised and produced Jurys Irish Cabaret and took it on tour in America, thus paving the way for the success of Riverdance.

He also staged shows for Bing Crosby, Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan in Ireland, and produced an annual show for Frank Patterson in Carnegie Hall in New York and the National Concert Hall in Dublin, of which he became founding Chairman in 1981. In that year he also became Chairman of the RTE Authority.

He was a showman to his fingertips. When he was running the Adare Festival in the early 1990s he drafted in the Irish Army to provide live cannon fire outside the performance marquee for the climax of Tchaikovsky's spectacular 1812 Overture.

Fred O'Donovan was not an actor, but he was as seduced by the smell of the greasepaint and, particularly, the roar of the crowd as much as any of the great stars like Peter O'Toole, Siobhan McKenna, Jackie McGowran, Vernon Hayden and Peter Ustinov who trod his Gaiety Theatre stage. He was a huge nurturer of Irish talent, and many, if not most, of today's Irish showbiz stars got their start and heaps of encouragement from him.

In business Fred O'Donovan was the ultimate can-do man. Someone who worked closely with him when he was Chairman of the National Concert Hall remarked to me that Fred never acknowledged obstacles in his path, however mountainous they seemed to colleagues.

He believed there was always a way around to get what he wanted done. He was a hugely affable man with a real twinkle in his eyes and a ready grin. Behind the easy-going manner, however, there was a core of steel, and he expected everyone who worked with him to go that extra mile, just as he did.

He also had firm ideas about how things should be done, and was a pro-active Chairman of RTE.

Cathal MacCabe, former Head of Music in RTE, recalls that when he was producing the Larry Gogan Show on Radio 2 an edict came down from the chairman that there wasn't enough Irish-produced music being played and henceforth one hour of the show had to be exclusively homegrown.

For some reason, Fred's great friend Charles Haughey dissuaded him from writing his memoirs. However, over the last few years of his life his daughter, Sally Ann, managed to persuade him to record some memories of his full and busy career.

I asked her which memories gave him the most satisfaction.

"I think he believed his most important achievement was his founding with Professor Austin Darragh of the Conquer Cancer Campaign, which later became the Irish Cancer Society," she told me.

"The second would be the foundation of the Gaiety School of Acting, of which he was a board member right up to his death.

"Finally, managing to get a preservation order for the Gaiety Theatre, which was threatened by development in South King Street, made him really proud. He always said he was so pleased the people of Dublin would now have forever the enjoyment of the theatre he loved more than any other building in the city," Sally Ann said.

"In the end he just wanted to go, but what was great was that right up to the end he was still cracking jokes and teasing people, the same old Fred."

Fred O'Donovan is survived by his wife Sally, three daughters and a son and by his brother Bill.

Irish Independent

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