By the late 1950s, the era of cine-variety was ending. Artistes were demanding higher fees, overheads had risen and television had delivered the deathblow to the overall viability of the enormous operation.
Despite the exceptional place that the Royal held in the affections of Dubliners, business dwindled, running costs rose and, with deep regret, the Theatre Royal closed it doors for the last time on June 30, 1962, with a Royale Finale.
Before the year was out, the massive building had been razed, and an office block known as Hawkins House stood on the site of this Art Deco gem. Today it houses the Department of Health.
In 2023, it was announced that a Dublin street will be named Theatre Royal Way, “to remind all who pass of the nights when showbusiness reigned supreme on this corner of Dublin city.” The campaign for the street has been led by Conor Doyle, a godson of Jimmy O’Dea and Ursula Doyle, and it makes Dublin the only city in Ireland or the UK with a street named after a theatre.
In 1960, the Ellimans met their first major setback since Maurice’s second cinema, the Coliseum on Redmond’s Hill, burned down in 1912. It concerned Ardmore Film Studios, which Louis and two partners had set up two years earlier to produce Irish films.
Ardmore wasn’t the first attempt to produce films in Ireland — nor was it the first failure. Until the advent of talking pictures, Irish-made films had largely been produced by individuals who involved themselves for Irish glory. Some of these films were reasonably good, but with only a local market they were rarely profitable. The coming of talkies, with their far greater costs, put paid to the efforts of most Irish filmmakers until 1936. Then, according to a newspaper report of January of that year:
At last, Ireland is to have a film industry of its own! This morning, the Irish International Film Agency gave a trade show at the Capitol Cinema of The Luck of the Irish, the first of a series of Irish films to be produced by Donovan Pedelty, who is Paramount’s representative for Great Britain and Ireland. At the end of the trade show, the following telegramme was received from Donovan Pedelty in London.
PLEASE TELL THE AUDIENCE THAT THIS IS NOT AN ORDINARY TRADE SHOW STOP IT IS AN INAUGURATION CEREMONY STOP BY THIS TIME NEXT YEAR THERE WILL BE IN OPERATION A CONTINUOUSLY ACTIVE IRISH FILM INDUSTRY EMBRACING EVERY ASPECT OF ISLAND STOP THIS IS THE START OF IT STOP WE ARE THE PIONEERS AND THIS MORNINGS AUDIENCE ARE ITS GODFATHERS AND ITS GODMOTHERS IN ITS BAPTISM STOP I AM DRINKING A TOAST IN LONDON TO THE CHRISTENING OF A NEW ERA IN IRISH ART OF WHICH I AM PROUD TO SHARE PARENTAGE WITH YOU
The Luck of the Irish was an Ulster comedy, featuring Richard Hayward, Nan Cullen, Niall McGinnis and Kay Walsh. According to the critics:
The film had no traces of stage Irishism, the humour being essentially Irish, and when it is shown in Saorstat [Irish republican] cinemas it will become a big surprise to many, south of the Boyne, to find how closely akin we are in our mental outlook to those of the six counties.
Despite this auspicious beginning, the attempt to establish an Irish film industry went nowhere. Twenty-two years later, Louis Elliman, who had invested modestly in some of the early Irish productions, tried to realize the dream of Irish film production by establishing the Ardmore Film Studios on 35 acres in Bray, Co. Wicklow, in partnership with Emmett Dalton and Ernest Blythe.
Dalton, commissioned into the British Army during World War I and into the Irish Army from 1920 to 1931, as well as a former First Clerk to the Irish Senate in the Irish Free State, had moved on to become a film distributor and producer. He had directed several film production companies, been a sales supervisor for Paramount Pictures and UK representative for Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. Blythe was chairman of the Abbey Theatre.
They and Louis saw Ireland as an ideal place to produce major films, from both the scenic and economic standpoints. Their longstanding ties with British and US filmmakers would, they believed, spur Irish efforts, and Ardmore would become the cornerstone of an Irish film production industry.
With insufficient funding to produce indigenous films, the partners planned to serve foreign film companies at Ardmore. They would use the profits to make Irish movies with world appeal, and so help halt Hollywood defining Irish cinema culture.
They invested £250,000, a sum more or less matched by the State, mainly a loan of over £200,000 approved by Deputy Prime Minister and Industry & Commerce Minister Seán Lemass. (By coincidence, Lemass had been a classmate of Jimmy O’Dea, and O’Dea had been best man at his wedding in 1924.)
Kevin O’Kelly of RTÉ News reported its official opening on 12 May 1958. Louis commented: “Opening a film studio is something very, very new in this country and really we don’t know how to open it, whether we should cut a ribbon, give somebody a key…” Seán Lemass said the studios were of “national importance” and described Ardmore as a very significant development for the Irish film industry, aiming to employ Irish staff and train them in the film industry’s complicated processes. Click here to listen to the RTÉ News report.
Construction work was still in progress on site at the opening. Visitors that day got to see American director Fielder Cook at work filming the drama “Home is the Hero.”
They had three sound stages and a well-equipped recording theatre. The first film made at Ardmore was Home Is The Hero, on which 130 artistes and technicians worked. It was one of four films produced there that year. The next year saw the making of only two (Sally’s Irish Rogue and This Other Eden), but, in 1960, the number shot up to eight, and it seemed that the studios would succeed.
This modest measure of success, however, proved Ardmore’s downfall. Irish enterprise threatened established British studios. British exhibitors with studio interests refused to exhibit Ardmore productions. With overheads rising and would-be producers and distributors frightened off, Ardmore failed.
The glory-days of the Ellimans, as both a business and as a large united family, were ending. Maurice had died of peripheral vascular disease on March 2, 1952, eight years earlier, six years after the merger with Rank. Monica, Hymie’s eldest, who was six when he died, remembers him:
…coming to London for medical treatment and staying with us while he received it. There was still rationing in those days, and he and the uncles usually arrived with packages of meat, unobtainable in post-war England. I remember thinking it odd to bring meat as a gift.
As ill-health beset first Maurice and then his children (he was survived by only six of his nine sons and two of his three daughters), they turned to the brother who had sidestepped the family business and become a doctor.
Wendy, Hymie’s younger daughter, recalls:
Our dad, who practiced as a family doctor in Nether Street for half a century, became very literally a ‘family’ doctor. The family checked with him what their doctors advised, and he was actively involved in the medical care of Bertie and Jack through their long, debilitating illnesses. Both died in 1971. After that year, he was a sadder, quieter man.
In its September/October 2008 edition, Film Ireland Magazine wrote:
Maurice Elliman, whose cinema and theatre empire grew from the modest Theatre de Luxe to include the opulent Theatre Royal, was one of many Jewish entrepreneurs who became movers and shakers during the early decades of cinema and film, spanning from Eastern Europe to Hollywood, and from producers such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer to actors including Groucho Marx and entertainers such as Harry Houdini.
Maurice, in death as in life, remained a public figure. His funeral cortège had an official Garda (police) motorcycle escort, with attendance at his funeral so large that traffic lights along the route to the cemetery were switched off, and the intersections controlled instead by the Garda. The Republic’s president, Seán Thomas O’Kelly, was represented at the funeral by his ADC Colonel O’Sullivan, who stood alongside the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alderman Andy Clarkin, executives of newspapers, insurance companies, the fire brigade and every branch of the theatre and cinema industry. All Elliman cinemas and theatres were closed that day.
Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Rabbi Zalman Alony and Reverend I. Gluck officiated, paying tribute to the man described by the media as “father of the entertainment industry in Ireland.” Beyond that, as his family, the community and his business associates knew well, Maurice had been a force for goodness, a gentle, kind and honourable man with a great capacity for love.
By the time Maurice died, the business mantle had long since passed from him to Louis. Louis was a capable, creative and hardworking administrator, a man of taste and discernment with a flair for the big spectacular, who made an indelible mark on Dublin theatre under his nom de plume T.R. Royle. He had amply filled his father’s shoes, but the urge to build was gone. Neither Louis nor his brother Abe had children to inherit the business. Maxie, Bennie and Teddy were dead and childless, other than Bennie’s estranged daughter, Angela. Jack and Hymie had made their lives in London. Rosie, Henny and Queenie had never had a significant role in the business. Bertie, then 35, and Geoff, then 32, were the sole heirs to the empire Maurice had built and Louis had inherited, and expanded.
Louis’s era was ending, but for the 13 years between his father’s death and his own in 1965, he continued to run the business with skill and verve.
In 1953, a 23-minute, two-reel film, Return to Glennascaul (Glen of the Shadows), was nominated for an Oscar as Best Short Subject. Widely known as Orson Welles’s ghost story, it was far less widely known that the film was produced by T. R. Royle, aka Louis Elliman, and Micheál MacLiammóir.
In part, Glennascaul was a thank you from Welles to long-time friends and collaborators MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, who directed the film. He had begun his acting career in the 1930s at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, which the pair founded in 1928 (James Mason, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Michael Gambon were others who first trod the boards at the Gate). It was also inspired by the haunted land of Ireland itself, “haunted,” he said, “because there is no land so overcrowded with the raw material of tall tales. That’s what this is then, a tall tale.”
Scripted by Edwards, Return to Glennascaul is a traditional old-fashioned ghost story. It is narrated by Welles, who plays himself. He is driving back to Dublin on a dark, stormy night when he sees a stranger on a lonely stretch of road, struggling to start his car. He picks him up, and, as they drive, the man tells of how he had picked up two women on the same road some time earlier, dropped them at their manor house, Glennascaul, and gone in for a drink. Forgetting his cigarette case there, he returned to find the house deserted and in ruins. He learns that the mother and daughter who owned it had died years earlier.
Louis also contributed decisively to many associated charities and organizations.
Impressed by the Variety Club of Great Britain, which raised money for underprivileged children and to several of whose events he had been invited, Louis — with his brother Abe, Maurice Baum and eight others — decided to create a branch in Ireland. On August 7, 1951, Variety Clubs International in the US constituted the Variety Club of Ireland-Tent 41 by charter, in affiliation with all Variety Clubs’ existing Tents. (A decade later, the Variety Club of Israel-Tent 51 was chartered — with social activist Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe, at its head.)
The Tent’s purpose was to provide a roof under which:
picture, theatrical, amusements, sports, radio, television and allied entertainment industries, wherever situated, may associate in friendly relationship and by such association support worthy charitable projects.
Louis was Tent 41’s first Chief Barker (president), a position to which he was reappointed in 1953, 1958 and 1962. Maurice Baum served as Chief Barker in 1956. The Baum family, like the Ellimans, had fled Tsarist Russia and become pioneers of modern entertainment. The Baum grandparents left Telz, Lithuania, in 1882 and settled in Manchester, UK. Their son, Jack, was part of its early cinema industry, selling films, shorts and newsreels — and later, with his son Maurice, running popular theatres and music halls. In 1936, Maurice left an England, hard hit by the Depression, for Dublin, and found a job managing its new Rialto cinema — the first of many cinemas he ran in Ireland during the next three decades. He also founded National Film Distributors in Middle Abbey Street, which specialized in importing continental films. He did business with the Elliman family and knew them all well .
In May 1962, Louis (then Irish Chief Barker for the fourth time) brought the World Variety Club Convention to Dublin, under the chairmanship of Jack Cruise. Some 900 people from the US attended, 150 from the UK and scores more from Canada, Mexico and Latin America. They included Variety’s Chief Barker Edward Emmanuel, International Chief Barker Elect Rotus Harvey, Billy Butlin and Jimmy Carreras.
Among the Convention functions held between May 15 and 19 were a reception by President Éamonn de Valera, a garden party at the US Embassy in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and presentation of the Variety Heart and Humanitarian Awards on the stage of the Theatre Royal, compèred by Éamonn Andrews. Variety’s highest honour, the Golden Heart Award, was given to 73-year-old religious worker Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary. (For more about Variety in Ireland, see https://varietyireland.org/about-us/about-variety/)
In 1953, Louis became first chairman of the newly created Council of the
Cinema and Theatre Benevolent Society of Ireland. Frank Robbins was vice chairman, and Abe Elliman was trustee. Louis also served as president of the Irish Film Society for its 1963/4 season. The Society exhibited their programmes monthly at Saturday matinées at the Theatre de Luxe.
1954, the Cork Film Festival was launched — and still runs annually. Louis was involved in its early planning, advising and encouraging its director, Dermot Breen. He was a regular at the festival during the remaining 11 years of his life, and on its 10th anniversary, his name was included in a select list of international patrons.
Louis Elliman (right), chairman of the Society of the Theatre and Cinema Benevolent Society of Ireland, presents President Eamonn de Valera (left), a patron of the Society, with two volumes of The History of Motion Pictures by Terry Ramsey and Mark Quigley Jr. at Aras an Uachtarain in 1965. Society vice chairman Frank Robbins stands in the centre. (Irish Photo Archives)
By 1963, Louis was considering retirement from Odeon. Abe had died two years earlier following a cerebral haemorrhage, and Louis suggested to Geoff that he could be a candidate. Geoff was managing director of Amalgamated Cinemas and virtually independent. The Royal was no more, Ardmore had failed and Louis gave scant encouragement. Geoff did not put forward his candidature. On November 15, 1965, Louis was tying his shoelaces when he suffered a coronary occlusion and died instantly. He was 62. With his death, the 50-year Elliman role in Ireland’s entertainment industry effectively came to an end.
Dignitaries and personalities from every walk of life attended Louis’s funeral, one of the biggest ever held at Dolphin’s Barn. Bobby Briscoe represented President Eamonn de Valera and the Taoisach (president) Seán Lemass was represented by Commandant Jack O’Brien. Lord Mayor Timmons attended, along with representatives from Equity, the Dublin Theatre Festival, the Gaelic League, the Cork Film Festival and the Theatres and Cinemas of Ireland.
Tributes poured in. Maureen Potter remembered Louis as “this great and lovable man,” and proposed that the Gaiety be renamed the Louis Elliman Theatre. Respects were paid by Frank Robbins, vice president of the Cinema & Theatre Branch of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union; from Gavriel Fallon, director of the Abbey Theatre; from Father Cormac Daly, chaplain of the Catholic Stage Guild; Colonel Bill O’Kelly of the Dublin Grand Opera Society; Noel Purcell; Hilton Edwards; and Michael MacLíammóir.
Noel Moran wrote in The Irish Independent:
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.
Herman Good, president of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation, asserted: “Mr. Elliman followed in the footsteps of a great man, his father, and jealously guarded the good name of our people.” Louis had de facto replaced Maurice as head of the family, and his death left a yawning gap. Bertie, already ill when Louis died, followed his brother six years later, the same year that Jack, too, died. Henny, like her mother incapacitated by a stroke, died in 1981. The remaining three, Hymie, Geoff and Queenie, stayed close, despite Hymie being in London.
In 1966, the Gaiety, jointly directed by Jack, Bertie and Geoff, was sold to Eamonn Andrews Productions. This was a last traumatic parting for the family, though they took comfort in that the Gaiety would remain a theatre and that its manager, Joe Kearns and his staff would keep their jobs.
Geoff continued running Amalgamated Cinemas, from his office a 7 Eden Quay. On the floor below, Bertie, then halfway through his eight-year battle against cancer, ran his own company, Elliman Films, which was sole distributor for Walt Disney Films in Ireland.
Max joined his father’s business when he finished school in 1967. Despite a future made uncertain by Bertie’s declining health, it was, remembers Max, a happy office.
My father was known as ‘the Boss,’ and he addressed the staff — secretary/PA Una McCarthy, salesman Kevin Brown, logbook clerk Sean Flanagan, dispatch manager Tom Greeley and switchboard operator Marie Canning — as Mr. or Miss.
Una McCarthy was 19 when she began working at Elliman Films. She recalls:
I started at £5 15s a week, which was put up to £6 after six months. During my interview with the Boss [Bertie], I remember thinking: “I hope I get this job. I like this man!” And I was right. He was a great boss. It was a very pleasant office to work in and we all got along well.
Unfortunately, the Boss became ill. It was a very sad time. After his operation and follow-up treatment [in London], he returned to work. He invited all his staff into his office and gave us the good news that he’d received the ‘all clear,’ which we greeted with a round of applause. He then cracked open the champagne, and there we were sipping champers from an assorted lot of tea cups!
Whenever the ‘big wigs’ came over from London, I would go into the Waldorf Hotel and borrow matching cups, and as soon as they left, I’d taken the finery back!
The Boss’s brother Jack visited Eden Quay several times. On his first visit, I remember nodding to the Boss in the direction of the Waldorf, and he turned to me and said: “No, the cups we have will do him.”
Bertie died in 1971, aged 54. His brother Jack, 62, died in London the same year, after a long, distressing decline from vascular disease.
Una remembers that:
Following the boss’s death, things were never the same again. After several months and a lot of aggro, I terminated my employment in a Very Vocal manner! The next day, Mr. Geoff offered me a job, and that’s how I went to Amalgamated, where I was very happy. The only reason I eventually left was a serious problem within my family.
The thing that always struck me about the Elliman family was, despite the fact that these were wealthy, successful businessmen, they never lost sight of their origins, and had that wonderful common touch which I believe endeared them to so many people. They were the epitome of good manners. They were gentlemen in every sense of that word. I’m so glad to have known them.
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