The Irish Impresario who went to Hollywood

The impresarios’ club is small, and it was even smaller in the early part of the last century. In Ireland, from the 1930s to the 1950s, its major figure was Louis Elliman.

Louis followed his father Maurice into the entertainment industry. Maurice had ventured into early cinema in 1910 when Louis was seven. One of almost three million East European Jews to flee the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, Maurice had reached Dublin in 1892, aged 20 and penniless. He found his niche in the entertainment world, and became, in the words of the Dublin Evening Mail, “the father of the Dublin film trade.”

The Bioscope

Succeeding him, Louis turned the business his father had begun into an empire. Expanding into live entertainment, he found in himself a talent for creating theatre, music and revue. With Dublin’s major theatres and concert halls under his management, he brought to Ireland leading lights from the worlds of theatre, dance and music, giving Irish audiences entertainment equal to any found on New York’s Broadway or London’s West End.

Right: The bioscope: a hand-turned machine that projected moving pictures. Maurice acquired one in 1910, along with canvas tent and screen. His first screening was the funeral of Britain’s King Edward VII on May 20, 1910.

When World War II closed the sea lanes and foreign stars stayed away, he nurtured native Irish talent, many of whom later became known worldwide. By the time the world was once more at peace and international stars returned to Ireland, Louis was, in the words of The Irish Independent, Ireland’s Mr. Show Business. Over 30 cinemas countrywide were under Elliman management, along with Dublin’s Metropole, Royal and Gaiety Theatres, and he was soon to open Ardmore Studios, bringing film production to Ireland.

In 1950, Louis made a three-month business trip by ship, plane and rail to both coasts of the USA and to Australia, where he was feted, wined and dined by the major studios — Paramount, Rank, Universal — and partied with the stars. A carbon copy of his 250-page journal of the trip survives, and is reproduced here.



Any artiste or band that failed to play Dublin’s Theatre Royal really hadn’t made it.  From the late 1940s through the 1960s, it was a ‘must stopover’ on any trip for the US and British industry’s stars.

They came from the movies — Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Maurice Chevalier, James Cagney, Danny Kaye, Gene Autry, Toy Rogers, Tom Mix, Nat King Cole, Frankie Vaughan, Paul Robeson, George Formby, Anna Neagle, the Three Stooges, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Guy Mitchell, Allan Jones, Jimmy Durante, the Mills Brothers, Max Miller, Ramon Navarro, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Robert Donat, Betty Hutton, Tommy Steele, Gracie Fields, Dirk Bogarde, Vera Lynn, Stewart Granger, Diana Dors, Dickie Valentine and Donald Wolfit… They were classical artistes — Margot Fonteyn, the Bolshoi Ballet, Yehudi Menuhin, Artur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Sir Thomas Beecham, Joan Hammond, Jussi Bjorling and Lauritz Melchior… And they were big bands — Joe Loss, Geraldo, Stan Kenton, Billy Cotton, Harry Roy, Ambrose, Mantovani, Henry Hall, Jack Jackson, Johnny Dankworth, Ray Noble and Jack Hilton…and even Bill Haley and his Comets… and they filled the Royal’s 3,850 seats to capacity.

How did provincial Dublin become so important an entertainment destination?   It was largely under impresario Louis Elliman.  The Royal was three years old and the second largest entertainment venue in Europe when the Ellimans acquired it in 1938.  From the start, Louis produced elaborate stage shows and showed movies there daily.  Through World War II, he nurtured homegrown talent.  After it, he began bringing international stage and screen stars to Dublin, as well.

The entertainment business launched by Louis’s father, Maurice, in 1910 by then comprised of the Theatre Royal and the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, as well as over 30 cinemas across Ireland.  (Acquired by the Rank Organization in 1946, the cinemas remained under Elliman management.)  While the business was a family one, Louis was its undisputed star, outshining even his formidable father.  Charismatic, modest, patriotic, loyal, and with an unerring sense of what would succeed in entertainment, he was an influential figure in both Ireland and the entertainment world.

With the reopening of shipping lanes after World War II, in 1950 Louis took a three-month business trip to New York, Australia and Hollywood, with his wife Ettie and his friend Solly White. He met with studio heads — MGM, Paramount, Fox, Universal, RKO —with film and stage actors and entertainers, and with many of the industry’s movers and shakers.   Returning to Dublin, he put together a 250-page record of his remarkable trip.

In part, pedestrian (packing, air travel), in part, epicurean (luxury meals, clubs, hotels, parties) and, in part, sheer Holly glamour, it is all matter-of-factly related.  The journal is reproduced on this site, with people and places pictured where possible (many thanks to Wikipedia and other online sources) and references explained.   It is a rare inside glimpse of Hollywood during its Golden Age.

Ireland’s Mr. Showbusiness

Traffic lights were switched off through central Dublin and a Garda (police) escort was detailed to control the vast crowds who accompanied Louis Elliman on his last journey — just as they had for his father before him. Together with Louis’s family and most of Dublin’s Jewish community, dignitaries and personalities from every walk of life escorted, in Maureen Potter’s words, “this great and lovable man, this friend in need” to the Jewish cemetery at Dolphin’s Barn on November 15, 1965.

Among them were Dublin’s Lord Mayor Eugene Timmons, Commandant Jack O’Brien representing Ireland’s Taoisach (President) Seán Lemass, and MP Bobby Briscoe representing the nation’s President Éamon de Valera. The hundreds from Ireland’s the entertainment world included actors Noel Purcell, Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLíammóir, Abbey Theatre director Gavriel Allon, the Dublin Grand Opera Society’s Colonel Bill O’Kelly, Catholic Stage Guild chaplain Father Cormac Daly, and Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union Cinema & Theatre Branch vice president Frank Robbins, together with representatives of Equity, the Dublin Theatre Festival, the Cork Film Festival, the Gaelic League, the Theatres and Cinemas of Ireland, the Variety Club and the Cinema and Theatre Benevolent Society of Ireland.

“My endearing memory will be of a man whose word was his bond, and who has gone to rest with far more on the credit side of the Book of Life than many of us can hope for,” wrote Noel Moran in The Irish Independent. “Mr. Elliman followed in the footsteps of a great man, his father, and jealously guarded the good name of our people,” declared Herman Good, president of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation. Louis’s headstone reads: His kindness and gentleness will always remain in our hearts.

Louis Elliman, felled at age 62 by a coronary occlusion, “could reasonably be described as the greatest Irish theatrical impresario of the first half of the 20th century, and…a key figure in Irish cinema,” says the Historical Dictionary of Irish Cinema. He was “a super showman,” declaimed The Irish Times, “a very influential person in the Irish entertainment field…[who] from behind the scenes, has made generations of Dubliners happy,” and his death was “a profound loss.” The Irish Independent named him “Ireland’s Mr. Show Business,” and others hailed him as “a significant historical presence in national life…a national figure and a dominant Irish icon.”

More than 50 years since his death, some believe that Louis still frequents the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin’s South King Street, which he bought in 1936 and managed until his death, almost 30 years later. “He’s usually seen in the boardroom or by the fireplace in the dress circle bar, where he liked to sit,” recalled 88-year-old George McFall, Gaiety stage manager for 48 years, to The Irish Times in 2017. “There had been so many great performances on the Gaiety stage that they had to have left something of themselves behind.”

The Beginning

Louis was born on February 28, 1903, at 42 Aungier Street, Dublin, third child of Maurice and Leah Elliman in a family that by 1923 was to number nine sons and three daughters.

Louis (front right), 12, with parents, Maurice and Leah, older siblings, Abe and Rosie,
and younger brothers and sister, Maxie, Bennie, Jack, Hymie and Hennie, 1915

Patriarch Maurice, who started life in a village near Kovno in Lithuania, had reached Dublin 11 years earlier, aged 20, one of close to three million East European Jews who fled the Tsarist pogroms. He had walked from Kovno to Hamburg, then sailed to Liverpool and on to Kingstown (later, Dún Laoghaire). In 1910, after trying his hand at peddling door to door, running a boardinghouse and managing a grocery, he found his calling in the infant technology of film.

Louis, he decided, was to be a pharmacist like his mother’s brother. “When I was thirteen, I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” Louis told The Irish Independent in October 1964. So he was taken out of the Synge Street Christian Brothers School (presciently near the birthplace of playwright George Bernard Shaw) and “apprenticed to a chemist In South Richmond Street. I put in eight long weary years there. That was in the days before unions, and I slaved away from 9 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. for a few shillings a week.”

Louis, third from left, back row, in his late 20s, with his father Maurice and six of his eight brothers

Formalizing his qualifications at the National University of Ireland, he graduated in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1924, and “like so many other Irishmen before me,” went to London, where he found a position at the Piccadilly branch of Boots the Chemist.

The pull of cinema, however, proved stronger than pharmaceuticals, and in London Louis moonlighted as his father’s representative, developing contacts with film offices and distributors. Maurice soon acknowledged that his son was the best salesman in the business. First National Pictures (later to merge with Warner Brothers) was the vehicle on which Louis rode back to Dublin and into the family business.First National had been set up in 1917 by an association of independent US theatre-owners largely to rival Paramount, and had since expanded from distributing films to producing them. In 1929, when it moved into Ireland, Louis returned to Dublin as its branch manager.

Two years later, he married Dublin-born Ettie Robinson, and the year after that, aged 29, opened an independent film distribution company, Louis Elliman Ltd. From offices in Abbey Street, it handled films from emerging British companies — Associated British Film Distributors and British Lion — and from America’s Republic Films Ltd., whose stable of stars included John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Louis’s marriage to Ettie Robinson, on the steps of Dublin’s Adelaide Road synagogue, 1931

Building an Empire

It was the mid-1930s and Louis “had spent a miserable day in Belfast trying to do business. There were only a few first-run cinemas there and they wouldn’t buy my junk. I said to myself: ‘Someday, I’ll put up a decent release-cinema in this so-and-so town.’ On the way to the Dublin train, I saw this site vacant, and on impulse got the lease on it. I went to London to raise the money and within three months, I was ready to build the Ritz.”

It was this impulse that enabled the Ellimans to move into live entertainment and transform Louis from businessman to impresario. In 1936, a month before the Belfast Ritz was due to open, Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre came onto the market. Maurice, who, by then, owned five Dublin cinemas (among them the luxurious Theatre de Luxe on Camden Street) and “whose flair for cinema locations and films seemed unfailing,” according to The Irish Times, had always stayed clear of live talent. Louis, however, convinced his father that the family should acquire the Gaiety, bought himself in with funds raised by selling the unopened Ritz, and became its managing director. Two years later, the family acquired the Theatre Royal, the second largest theatre in all Europe, which, under Louis, soon became “the premier entertainment venue in the land.”

With his talent in production and management, his quiet but effective manner and his great powers of imagination, Louis threw himself into live entertainment and made an indelible mark on Dublin theatre. A capable, creative and hardworking administrator, a man of taste and discernment with a flair for the spectacular, he was intimately in touch with his era of glossy Hollywood stars, spectaculars, musicals, galas, lavish productions and extravagant publicity. He held himself responsible for every show he produced, while fully crediting all those who worked with him. “He applied to the theatre the technique he used when buying films,” relates The Irish Times. “His capacity for envisioning a setting, for getting that something extra out of it, and for staying on his feet without sleep for hours was immense.”

At the Gaiety, Dublin’s longest-established theatre, which he managed from 1936 to 1965, Louis’s talents as a producer soared. Showboat, The King and I and The Golden Years (the story of Percy French and his music) were among many successes that he produced, starring Mai Devitt, Josef Locke and Dickie Forbes. He instituted the Gaiety’s home-produced Christmas pantomimes; under him “the Dublin Grand Opera Society established its two annual seasons, now continued by Opera Ireland;” and he donated the theatre, its equipment and staff to WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organization) for their annual fundraising concerts.

At the Theatre Royal, he staged two performances a day — a live show and the latest movie. Under his nom de plume T.R. Royle, Louis produced a weekly revue at the Royal, sometimes writing part of it himself. “They used to call me Captain Blood Pressure,” he smiles.