The Theatre Royal

In 1938, the Ellimans acquired Dublin’s Theatre Royal. The building was just three years old, but it was the third Theatre Royal built on the site at 138 to 144 Pearse (then Hawkins) Street since 1821. The largest movie palace in Ireland and the second largest in Europe, it was big even in comparison to cinemas and theatres in the USA — larger than Oakland’s famed Paramount and seating the same number as the famous Chicago Theatre. Photos of the Royal don’t do its towering bulk full justice. During one of his appearances there, US comedian Bob Hope described it as “some garage.”

Built by J. E. Pearse, managing director of the Theatre Royal Company Ltd., this third Theatre Royal opened on September 23, 1935, with a variety show on stage and two film shorts on screen, followed by a dance. Among those attending were “Michael MacLíammóir and Hilton Edwards, Mr. Elliman of the Metropole Cinema…”

Its architect, Leslie C. Norton, gave the theatre a stylishly Art Deco exterior, facing it in plain travertine marble with four black vertical bands topped by lights, separating the three large windows over the main entrance and marquee. The panels on either side were sculpted to symbolize Eire — a Celtic Warrior to the left, the Celtic Muse of Imagination to the right. The cornice was surmounted by four giant carved masks representing Comedy, Tragedy, Drama and Burlesque.

The Art Deco theme stopped at the façade. The theatre’s elaborate interior was based, in the proud words of the opening night’s programme, “on authentic details from the Alhambra at Granada in Spain.”

The Royal’s patrons entered a vast vestibule, from which broad staircases led upward, left and right, to the Royal Circle (with its 1,000 seats), the Royal Circle Bar, and to the Upper Circle.

The Stalls (with their 2,000 seats), the orchestra pit and the stage were accessed from the vestibule. Doors on either side of the proscenium led down to a Submarine Bar, extending across the width of the building, and named for its basement location below the level of the River Liffey. Special pumping equipment was used to prevent it flooding at high tide. On the first floor, the Royal Circle Bar incorporated a cocktail bar, and on the second storey there was a Grill Room.

Maxie enjoyed telling the story of himself and Aga Silvester in the Grill Room. Silvester, good humoured and good company, was a senior representative for Warner Brothers. He and Maxie got on well, and Silvester would often drop by the Royal to visit. One time, he found Maxie eating in the Grill Room, and joined him at the table. Suddenly, Maurice appeared at the restaurant entrance. ‘Here comes the Guv’nor,’ said Silvester. ‘Here, eat this!’ said Maxie, pushing his plate of non-kosher food in front of his companion. Silvester gladly obliged!

The Royal’s bar was run by Charles Farrar, universally known as ‘Charles of the Royal.’ An American barman who’d learned his trade in the cocktail bars of Milan, Lucerne, Monte Carlo and Rio de Janeiro, he arrived in Dublin just in time for the Royal’s 1935 reopening, and stayed on for decades. He was ultimately honoured by the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild Exhibition at Dorland Hall in London.

The Royal’s projection room, stage, lighting, dressing rooms, property rooms and exits were all well-equipped and modern, built to service both screen and stage, and for much of its life featured live entertainment as well as films. The theatre had a Compton 4 Manual/16 Rank theatre organ with Melotone, which was operated by Alban Chambers, The orchestra pit was built on an electric lift and ascended to stage level at the touch of an electric button.

The auditorium, with its 40-foot-deep stage and large screen, seated almost 3,600 people, in seven separate areas: the Stalls, Orchestra Stalls, Royal Circle, Grand Circle, Centre Circle, Upper Circle, and three boxes on either side. It mostly ran combined cinema and variety shows but was also a venue for major touring acts. It had its own dancing troupe, the Royalettes (modelled on New York’s Radio City Music Hall the Rockettes) — a company of 24 dancers, whom Babs de Monte and Alice Delgarno directed through hundreds of spectacular performances.

Alongside the enormous theatre was a site once known as the Winter Gardens, where the old Royal’s audiences had partaken of tea and triangular sandwiches amid potted palms and gentle fountains to a tinkling piano until the building was demolished in 1934. Rebuilt as the Regal Rooms by the time Maurice bought the site, it was a restaurant and ballroom where “at any and every o’clock… when you want Coffee — or an after Theatre Snack — when Lunch is a matter of moments — when Dinner is to be a sumptuous meal — for all such times, one Place — the Regal Rooms.”

The Regal Tipica Orchestra at the Royal’s Regal Rooms

Furnished, lit and decorated in the height of taste, its tables agleam with silver and starched linens, the Regal Rooms exuded quiet luxury and was known as one of the smartest and most cosmopolitan rendezvous in Ireland. It was at the Regal Rooms that Jimmy Campbell, later musical director at the Theatre Royal, was introduced to Dublin, directing the Regal Tipica Orchestra at dinner dances. He became “a Dublin favourite, both on account of his entertaining personality and artistic versatility.” He went on to train “from local Irish talent, fine orchestras… for both the Theatre Royal and the Regal Rooms, which represent the pick of Irish musicians.”

Maurice was in charge when the Ellimans first took over the Royal and the Regal Rooms, but he was soon succeeded by Louis as producer of live entertainment. When World War II broke out a little over a year later, the Royal’s manager, John McGrath, a reserve officer in the British army, was called up. Maxie, who was managing the Corinthian Cinema on Eden Quay, came to the Royal to replace him.

The Ellimans maintained the Royal’s policy of Cine Variety — elaborate live shows as well as screening movies — even though the supply of first-run films in these years was meagre. They also began bringing leading international stage and screen stars to Dublin. Over the years, the Theatre Royal became a routine venue for performers touring the international circuit. Among the international celebrities and megastars attracted to the Royal by the Ellimans were the Three Stooges, Gracie Fields, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, George Formby, Evelyn Laye, Vera Lynn, Stewart Granger, James Cagney, Maurice Chevalier, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Gene Autrey, Tom Mix, Slim Whitman, John McCormack, Josef Locke, Isaac Stern, Bill Haley, Diana Dors and Dickie Valentine.

Gene Autry and his horse Champion appeared at the Royal in August 1939, and proved the biggest box office draw of the year — surpassing Tom Mix and his horse Tony who were there a few months before him. Autry’s success was so great that the Royal’s stage door in Poolbeg Street was besieged each night by his fans — to whom Autry sang encores from the window above the stage door.

Gene Autry with members of the Elliman family
Photo from the Liam O’Leary Film Archive, National Library of Ireland

Louis cabled the President of Republic Pictures:


Others brought to the Royal by the Ellimans included the Street Singer Arthur Tracy, Jack Doyle and his film star (first) wife Judith Allen, Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, Cheeky Chappie Max Miller, Jimmy (Schnozzle) Durante, Florence Desmond, the Mills Brothers and the Nicholas Brothers. Albert Sandler brought his orchestra, as did Mantovani, and the Carl Rosa Opera Company performed there in 1940.

John (Jack) McGrath from Roscommon managed the Theatre Royal until the outbreak of World War II, when he joined the war effort. A veteran of World War I, he had remained a reserve officer. Captured in northern France after the rescue boats left Dunkirk in June 1940, he became senior British officer in a camp for Irish-born POWs whom the Germans hoped to win over — and ended up in concentration camp when German Army Intelligence found he was undermining their scheme.

During his years at the Royal, McGrath kept a star-studded autograph book. Some extracts:

To Mgr McGrath The Most Understanding Friend An Artist Need Hope For. Here’s Hoping We Have The Pleasure Of Returning To Theatre Royal Under Your Most Satisfactory Management.
Sincerely, NICHOLAS BROTHERS, FAYARD and HAROLD, Jan 2, 1937
To Mr. McGrath With much appreciation S. RACHMANINOFF 1938

As the European conflict intensified and shipping lanes were threatened, there were shortages of almost everything, even in neutral Ireland. The foreign acts stopped coming, and the Ellimans stepped up their nurturing of Irish talent. Local actors, writers and producers bloomed. Dick Forbes, Noel Purcell, ‘Parody King’ Cecil Sheridan, Jack Hylton’s Band with Peggy Dell, Maureen Potter, Eddie Byrne, Jack Cruise, Pauline Forbes, Harry Bailey, Al Sharpe, Hal Roach, Frankie Blowers, Sean Mooney and Paddy Crosbie were among dozens of nascent Irish stars who rose during the war years, and kept Irish theatre alive. But Louis and Maxie were not infallible. One star at least later thanked them for turning him down at Tuesday morning audition, and so forcing him to England where he went on to great success…

The year 1940 saw the large and colourful production, Roll of the Drum, whose cast included 200 Irish soldiers. It ran for three weeks and broke all existing records. It was scripted by Dickie Forbes and produced by T.R. Royle, aka Louis Elliman. A successful team, Louis and Forbes went on to create a series of weekly variety shows. The first, launched in 1941, was Hullabaloo. Integral to this and most of their other shows, were the much praised Royalettes led by Babs de Monte and Alice Delgarno, with Jimmy Campbell and the Theatre Royal Orchestra. Their 1812 Overture, played with full effects, all but raised the roof.

Maurice was in the habit of going to the Royal on Monday afternoons to see the stage show.  One Monday, he was stopped at the Royal Circle entrance by a very young, very enthusiastic usher, who asked for his ticket. When he told the youngster he didn’t have one, he was refused admission.  Maurice introduced himself as Mr. Elliman to the boy, who responded: “That may well be, sir, but I still can’t let you in without a ticket!” 

From whom, Maurice gently asked, were these instructions?  “From the chief usher,” replied the boy.  “Why don’t you get the chief usher on the house phone and ask him whether I could be an exception?” said Maurice. 

Within minutes the chief usher arrived, and explained to the boy that Mr. Elliman was indeed the exception to the strict rule.   Maurice shook the boy’s hand, congratulated him on doing his job, and entered the theatre.

Double Or Nothing, with Eddie Byrnes as quizmaster, was introduced at the Royal in 1943 and quickly became favourite. Byrnes had made his first stage appearance eight years earlier as a pantomime dame. After a number of small roles at the Gate and Abbey Theatres, he joined the Royal, where he became known for his sleek compèring and his role in Dick Forbes’s three very successful Nedser and Nuala sketches — Mother Machree, Happy Returns and Out of her Census. Louis released him from his contract in 1946 to star in Ria Mooney’s Red Roses For Me in London. His performance was praised and led to a film career which included a role in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Éamonn Andrews replaced Byrnes as quizmaster of Double Or Nothing. When Joe Loss and his orchestra appeared at the Royal, he and Andrews became firm friends, and Loss helped Andrews develop his career.

Noel Purcell and Pauline Forbes were also launched in the Nedser and Nuala series. Purcell never failed to entertain with song, monologue and comedy, which led to a successful film career, from Captain Boycott in 1947, to his powerful performance as the caring rabbi in the children’s musical drama, Flight of The Doves, in 1971. He was dominant among Captain Ahab’s crew in Moby Dick (1956) and highly visible as a gamekeeper in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), both films directed by John Huston.

Dublin-born singer and pianist Margaret Tisdall, better known by her stage name Peggy Dell, came back to Dublin as soon as she completed her contract with Jack Hylton and became a Royal regular.

Alongside the human Royal favourites, the Compton organ was a major draw. Played over the years by Alban Chambers, A. Gordon Spicer, Norman Metcalfe and Tommy Dando, it was featured between the stage show and the film. The words of the songs it played were displayed on the cinema screen, and patrons would sing enthusiastically along.

Louis believed in advertising, and his films and stage shows were widely promoted. The industry’s favourite advertiser was Jack Plant, who would travel the length of O’Connell Street, dressed as a cowboy or Indian astride a horse, or as a clown amid balloons. He was without inhibitions, and regularly stopped traffic on Dublin’s streets.

On the streets outside the theatres, it was not only the advertisers who entertained. A number of street characters flourished there, as well, several becoming well known. Outside the Gaiety was Rose the flower seller. In Duke Street, there was a woman who played the harp (she was still there in the mid-1950s, remembers Maureen, and her playing “was terrible — but that didn’t matter!”), a man inexplicably named Pound Note and another called Johnny Forty Coats. Part of the scene outside the Theatre Royal, was Cyclone Billy Warren, a black Dubliner who had once been a sparring partner of heavyweight world boxing champion Jack Johnson, and now sold newspapers. His friendship with Maxie Elliman guaranteed him his pitch and thus his sustenance.

Presentation from the Irish Actors’ Equity Association. LEFT TO RIGHT: Ursula Doyle, widow of Jimmy O’Dea, Louis, …

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