While the 1930s were a time of turmoil at home, the Ellimans’ business continued to prosper — and this at a time when young children could be seen in the streets of Dublin without shoes. Maurice’s interest was in film more than live entertainment, but when Dublin’s failing Gaiety Theatre was offered him in 1936, he paused for thought.
The Gaiety, on South King Street off Grafton Street and close to St. Stephen’s Green, was at the time 65 years old. Designed by architect C.J. Phipps in the manner of a traditional European opera house with a handsome Venetian façade, it had been put up in less than seven months in 1871 by two brothers, John and Michael Gunn, owners of a music shop in Grafton Street near Tangier Lane. They had bought up a number of houses on South King Street, and demolished them to make way for the Gaiety, which opened on November 27, 1871. Its double bill on that opening night featured She Stoops to Conquer and the burlesque La Belle Sauvage. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was guest of honour.
The newly opened Gaiety of the 1870s had a tough market to break into. The Theatre Royal, the Queen’s and Dan Lowry’s (the Olympia) were already firm favourites with Dubliners. Instead of developing Gaiety repertory to perform drama, opera and musical comedy, the Gunns invited visiting companies to perform. The Gaiety’s 1871 opening notice read:
When Michael Gunn died, his widow sold the Gaiety to the Dublin Theatre Company, and it was from them that Maurice bought it in 1936, after convening a family meeting.
Entertainment was changing, and Maurice had sons to lead the business into a new era. A generation later, at the beginning of the 1960s, when Louis confidently asserted that “the Beatles won’t last,” the only two third-generation Elliman sons in Dublin (Geoff’s Edward and Bertie’s Max) were barely bar mitzvah, too young to take the business through the next essential change.
For the 1930s and 40s, however, there was Louis — a man intimately in touch with his time of glossy Hollywood stars, spectaculars, extravaganzas and lavish productions. Maurice made him the Gaiety’s managing director. Louis, 33, put his film distribution company into the hands of Jack, 27, and Bertie, 19. Geoff, 16, was office boy.
Louis’s talents were in production and management. With his quiet but effective manner and great powers of imagination, he threw himself into selling live entertainment at the Gaiety. He believed firmly in extravagant publicity, and held himself responsible for every show he produced, while giving full credit to all those who worked with him.
Dublin’s longest-established theatre still in continuous production, the Gaiety has been managed by many, but according to A Brief History of the Gaiety Theatre:
The two [managements], which probably left the most enduring mark in the 20th century, were the Louis Elliman Group from 1936 to 1965, and Éamonn Andrews studios from 1965 to 1984… It was ‘Mr. Louis’ who instituted the home-produced — as distinct from imported — Christmas pantomimes. It was also under Louis Elliman that the Dublin Grand Opera Society established its two annual seasons, now continued by Opera Ireland. These replaced the regular visits of the celebrated Moody Manners Opera Company, the Carl Rosa Opera and the O’Mara Opera Company, when operatic touring ceased around mid-century due to prohibitively rising costs.
A portrait of Louis still hangs in the Gaiety’s foyer, presented to him when he retired.
During World War II, when the staple product of West End successes came to an end, Louis Elliman invited Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLíammóir, founders of Dublin’s Gate Theatre Productions, to give spring and autumn seasons of plays each year. Many regard these as ‘the boys’ best work,’ for the Gaiety had the space and the technical facilities to give real scope for MacLíammóir’s rich scenic and costume designs, and Edwards’s dynamic staging. Among their Gaiety successes were Shakespeare’s Richard II, Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, Maura Laverty’s perennially popular Liffey Lane and Tolka Row, and MacLíammóir’s own romantic comedies Where Stars Walk and Ill Met by Moonlight. His quintessential The Importance of Being Oscar began its nine years of international touring at the Gaiety in 1960.
Louis knew it was essential to bring overseas shows to the Gaiety, but he was also insistent on fostering local talent. It was he, together with his brother Maxie, who persuaded Jimmy O’Dea and Harry O’Donovan, with their manager Vernon Hayden, to move from the Olympia Theatre to the Gaiety, with great success for both the theatre and for the O’D Company. O’Dea and O’Donovan were already favourites with the public, who knew them well from their summer shows and winter pantomimes at the Olympia Theatre with Noel Purcell, Tom Dunne, Jimmy Wildman, Connie Ryan’s Emerald Girls and a young newcomer, called Maureen Potter.
Finally convinced to make the move, the O’D Company found a home at the Gaiety for the 27 years between 1937 and 1964. Jimmy appeared not only in his company’s own two shows there each year, but also in a series of successful in-house productions — among them, Finian’s Rainbow. It was here that the popular team of Jimmy O’Dea and Maureen Potter matured. And here that Maureen O’Hara made her first-ever stage appearance in 1939, when she won the Dawn Beauty Contest.
Louis’s talents as a producer soared with his management of the Gaiety. 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 introduced local Musical and Dramatic Societies into the Gaiety, and it was largely as a result of his enthusiasm that the Dublin Grand Opera Society was established on February 14, 1941. Its aim was to “foster native talent and lay the foundations of a national school of opera, evocative of the Irish spirit, to provide the city of Dublin with performances of a high standard.” In 1944 a patronage scheme to finance the Society was inaugurated at a public dinner in Dublin, where Irish tenor Count John McCormack declared:
“We should get the best talent available and bring it to this country as an encouragement and example. Let them show us what they have to give to grand opera, and let them see what we have to give, and, no doubt, in this way we will learn a lot and they likewise — and in the end grand opera will benefit.“
With Life and Annual Patrons contributing to a fund, and receiving vouchers for two free seats at the Gala Opening Night on each of the Society’s two seasons, Irish opera was launched. It was to build a repertoire of over 30 different operas and a wardrobe of over 2,000 costumes. Today, the two opera seasons are run by Opera Ireland, whose website notes: “It is important to highlight the priceless encouragement and ongoing support given [opera in Ireland] by the Gaiety’s owner Louis Elliman.”
With its excellent acoustics and favourably disposed management, the Gaiety was a frequent venue for many other companies, too, on Dublin’s flourishing opera scene. The Rathmines & Rathgar Musical Society had two annual seasons there, as did the Dublin Musical Society and the Old Belvedere Musical and Dramatic Society. The Dublin Grand Opera Society had three. In the early days of her career, Australian coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland sang with the Dublin Grand Opera Society.
With World War II limiting travel, Louis ran the Gaiety during the war years with local talent — and they stayed loyal to the theatre after the war. In Louis’s 1953 pantomime of Cinderella, he had Michael MacLíammóir and Milo O’Shea appear as the ugly sisters, part of a cast that also featured Jimmy O’Dea, Danny Cummins, Maureen Potter, Maureen Toal and Vernon Hayden. MacLíammóir won critical international acclaim for his appearance in Louis’s one-man show, The Importance of Being Oscar.
With the end of the war in Europe, international opera stars, too, returned to the Gaiety. Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles, Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi and Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano all performed on its stage, and Luciano Pavarotti made his debut there in Rigoletto.
In his autobiography, MacLíammóir described the Gaiety as “a place of breadth and dignity” and Milo O’Shea wrote that “Dublin without the Gaiety would be a city bereft of an important element of glamour and excitement.”
Despite its national and international success, the Gaiety under Louis always belonged to the family. Its directors’ box, remembers Valerie, was never sold. It was kept available for the family whenever they wished to attend a performance. And several Elliman sons were involved with its football team.
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