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.