Meet Me at the Metropole

In August 1914, 18 months after Maurice opened his Theatre De Luxe, World War I erupted in Europe.  It was well underway, trench warfare raging on land and the Battle of Jutland about to be fought at sea, when Ireland plunged into its seven years of Troubles. 

In April 1916, in what became known as the Easter Rising, forces fighting to free Ireland from British rule seized strong-points across Dublin, and set up their headquarters on its main thoroughfare at the General Post Office building on O’Connell Street.

The General Post Office building

They held out for a week until British troops bombarded them into submission.  British field guns at Cabra, Phibsborough and Prussia Streets and artillery aboard the gunboat Helga, which sailed up the Liffey, killed 450 people and injured 1,500.

The British gunship, Helga

Dublin’s Jewish community kept its collective head firmly down during the Troubles, though many of its members quietly supported the IRA and the First Dail. A few individual Irish Jews were active in the struggle and rose to prominence: Robert Briscoe (later, Lord Mayor of Dublin) fought alongside Eamonn de Valera and successfully ran guns into Ireland from Germany at the behest of Michael Collins; Michael Noyk, a Lithuanian-born solicitor, was famous for defending captured Irish Republican prisoners . There were no Jewish deaths, either deliberate or accidental, at the hands of the IRA. One Jewish woman, however — Sarah Medalie, born in Tsarist Russia and resident in Cork — fell victim to the Black and Tans in December 1920, when the British attacked Cork.

The shattered city centre

IRA headquarters were on O’Connell Street, and much of the city centre was destroyed in the fighting.  Among the Rising’s many architectural casualties were the General Post Office, the Four Courts, the Custom House and several hotels — one of them, the Metropole.   Maurice saw an opportunity and in 1919 bought the choice city-centre site at 37 Lower Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) on which the Metropole had stood for £30,000,

With a £39,000 government rebuilding grant offsetting part of the £100,000 construction cost, Maurice formed the Metropole Restaurant and Cinema Company along with shareholders Alderman P.W. Corrigan, G. Nesbitt, Patrick Ignatius Wall and Aubrey V. O’Rourke. A well-known architect, O’Rourke was commissioned to design the building with H & J Martin as its contractors.

The gracious, modern building that Maurice erected less than a decade after entering the entertainment business first opened its doors to the public on February 9, 1922. It entrance level accommodated a luxurious 1,000-seat cinema, stores, and a grill room and bar. On the floor above was a restaurant that served afternoon tea, table d’hôte and á la carte meals. Above this was another bar and a vast balconied dancehall, balconied, with a lower-floor lounge which had its own service bar and kitchens. The cinema’s grand circle was surrounded by a row of Corinthian columns and the domed ceiling above it was decorated with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The proscenium stretched 30 feet, between stage and orchestra.

The Metropole 1923

Considered Dublin’s very first ‘grand cinema,’ the Metropole was the pride and joy of the expanding Elliman family.  (Maurice and Leah’s 12th and last child, Teddy, was born months before its launch.) Its facilities and location immediately made it a popular meeting-place, with ‘Meet me at the Metropole!’ rapidly becoming a catchphrase among Dubliners.  A generation later, Bertie’s daughter Maureen remembers, the Metropole was still a meeting-point.

Abe, 24, was appointed the Metropole’s general manager. Once he dealt with its teething problems, the venture prospered under him.  It quickly won a deserved name for perfect projection of the best available films (Abe’s brothers Maxie, 17, and Bennie,15, joined him as projectionists), as well as one of Dublin’s most fashionable venues for dinner-dances and civic functions.  The family often used it to entertain visiting film stars.  At the height of its popularity, it employed more than 200 people.

Abe Elliman

The opening feature screened at the Metropole was Peck’s Bad Boy, starring Jackie Coogan, shown daily from 3.00 to 10.30 p.m.  Admission to the Stalls was 1/3d and to the Grand Circle, 2/4d.  Erwin Goldwater moved from the Carlton Cinema to conduct the Metropole’s Cinema Orchestra, and Phil Murtagh directed its Dance Orchestra from 1931 to 1956. Singer and pianist Peggy Dell joined the orchestra there in 1939 and was resident pianist in the Georgian Room for the next 11 years. In February 1929, the Metropole was the first Dublin cinema to introduce advance booking for Sunday night performances.

Reporting the opening of the Metropole, the press enthused that Dublin had every reason to be proud of its new entertainment centre.  Built by Irish people with Irish money and material, it would prove a lasting tribute to their enterprise and genius, and was fully worthy of its place on the capital’s main thoroughfare.  After praising architect O’Rourke, ‘who is responsible for the creation of this beautiful edifice.’  It continued:

The cinema itself is the last word in comfort for patrons.  Apart from exquisite furnishings and decoration, an ample curve in the ground floor ensures that those sitting in the rear have a perfect view of the screen, and the orchestra enclosure, being on a suitably low level, will not interfere with the vision of those seated immediately behind the musicians.  The entrance and the booking hall are roomy and well-designed and there is a spacious lounge, which in itself is an important item in these times when people are disinclined to risk their health in a street queue.  The Metropole is not only elegantly furnished, but it is well heated by a hot-water radiator system.  The vital matter of ventillation has been carefully considered and provided for in a system of purified air.  The entire air of the cinema can be replaced in six minutes, and the air in summer can be cooled.

The Jewish community in Dublin was beginning to prosper.  The same month that the Metropole opened, Dublin’s Empire Theatre presented a new play, entitled The Irish Jew.  Written for Broadway by Tipperary-born Irish nationalist and director-actor-scriptwriter John McDonagh (brother of Thomas, the executed leader of the 1916 uprising), it told the story of an Irish Jew elected Lord Mayor of Dublin.  Its luminous cast included Jimmy O’Dea, Frank Fay, Harry O’Donovan, Fay Sargent and Esther Warnock.

On Easter Monday night in 1922, two months after the opening of the Metropole, the adjacent La Scala Ballroom (later, the Capitol Theatre) held the first Cinema Dance.  But as cinema expanded and its influence grew, there was increasing concern about its moral impact.

‘There is something unclean’ in films, opined one regular cinema-goer.  ‘Pictures shown of American and English life are unsuited to this country and have the effect of corrupting the morals of young people’ was another view.  Ireland’s Public Health Committee nominated a committee of Censors of Cinematograph Films to serve until October 31, 1922.

Despite such concerns, the development of cinema was by now unstoppable, with motion pictures set to move ahead into a new realm.  From the early 1920s, the infant film industry was abuzz with the prospect of ‘talking films.’  The cost involved was enormous; production, direction and acting would all have to undergo radical change; and there was considerable doubt whether the viewing public would accept talking films.

While the major studios hotly debated talkies, Warner Brothers (founded in 1918 by Jewish immigrants from Poland and, at that time, a small studio on the verge of bankruptcy), obtained Wall Street backing shortly before the Crash, and began producing films with sound.  The sound comprised vocal groups and orchestras and was somewhat crude, but it worked.  In 1923, a year after the Metropole opened, the first movie with fully synchronized sound was screened in New York City.  Still cumbersome, it took several more years until the introduction of a sound-track on film solved the difficulty of synchronizing lip movement.

October 1927, Warner Brothers brought the first feature-length talkie to the viewing public with the release of The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson famously called to the orchestra: “Wait a minute!  Wait a minute I tell yer, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! “

….marking not only the arrival of the talkies, but instantly killing off silent cinema.  Although there were still production companies which believed talkies were a gimmick that wouldn’t last — and were, in any case, suited mostly to musicals — by the early 1930s, talking pictures were a global phenomenon.  With the arrival of three-colour Technicolor in those same years, film was ushered into its halcyon age.

Maurice was in no hurry to change to talking pictures.  Reequipping his cinemas for sound would be costly, and force the disbanding of his large cinema-pit orchestras.  Dublin’s audiences thus saw their first all-talking picture at the Capitol Cinema, which neighboured the Metropole and was leased by Paramount Pictures.

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