The Theatre Royal— a palace of cine-variety

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), Volume 21

In its day, the façade of the Theatre Royal was considered to be a fine example of art-deco style, but its impact was lost in a west-facing aspect on Hawkins Street. Architectural commentators said that the atmospheric ‘Moorish’ interior motifs jarred with the art-deco exterior. (Irish Arts Review)

In its day, the façade of the Theatre Royal was considered to be a fine example of art-deco style, but its impact was lost in a west-facing aspect on Hawkins Street. Architectural commentators said that the atmospheric ‘Moorish’ interior motifs jarred with the art-deco exterior. (Irish Arts Review)

The Theatre Royal’s short 27-year lifespan (it opened in 1935) is testimony to the rapid social change and revolution in entertainment that took place during the last century. The same site had played host to the ‘first’ Theatre Royal (burned down in 1880), the Leinster Hall (built in 1886) and the Theatre Royal Hippodrome (demolished in 1934).

Cine-variety

The interwar years in Britain and Ireland saw the introduction of the frequently overlooked hybrid entertainment form known as ‘cine-variety’. In the pre-television era cine-variety was a package put together by the owners of new entertainment venues—increasingly cinemas at that time—to woo fickle audiences and maximise box-office revenue. A stage show and a film were included for the one ticket price. The third Theatre Royal, with seating for 3,850—which made it the biggest theatre in Ireland and one of the largest in Europe—was built with this entertainment package in mind.

The template for the Theatre Royal’s cine-variety had been laid down by the Paramount film company at the Capitol Theatre in Prince’s Street, and by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) when they opened the Savoy Cinema in O’Connell Street in 1929. Paramount had introduced a troupe of the John Tiller Girls for their stage show at the Capitol in 1927, while the opening of the Savoy saw the introduction of the Compton theatre organ to Ireland. The Theatre Royal’s presentations would include an electric Compton, a troupe of dancers and a film, and would provide a platform in Dublin for some of the best local and international variety performers and Hollywood stars.

The cinema element of the anticipated cine-variety format at the Theatre Royal was dealt a blow by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The war restricted the availability of American films. This, however, gave impetus to the live stage shows at the Royal and other Dublin venues, including the Queen’s and the Gaiety, with resulting opportunities for many local amateur and professional variety artists. It was during this period that the Royal earned the great affection of Dublin audiences by helping to dispel the threat and gloom of the Emergency with lively and humorous revues, sketches and pantos. Many of these were written by the talented Cork scriptwriter Dick Forbes.

The Royal’s permanent dance troupe, the ‘Royalettes’, c. 1940s—Babs de Monte, who, along with Alice Delgarno, trained them, is fourth from the right. (Wade Collection, Gilbert Library)

The Royal’s permanent dance troupe, the ‘Royalettes’, c. 1940s—Babs de Monte, who, along with Alice Delgarno, trained them, is fourth from the right. (Wade Collection, Gilbert Library)

Recruitment pageants and concerts

Above the theatre’s portico, three Portland stone statues by the sculptor Lawrence Campbell represented Éire and, according to one description, ‘a warrior and the Celtic muse of imagination’. Together with its size, these features may have been an indication of the theatre-developer’s hopes that the Irish government would deem the venue worthy of events with a national dimension. This duly came to pass during the war, when the government, recognising that popular entertainment venues could be used to galvanise national solidarity, used the Theatre Royal to stage a number of recruitment pageants and concerts. The first and most successful was The Roll of the Drum in 1940, and this was followed by Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and Signal Fires. A military tattoo, Trumpet Call, again featured in 1953 as part of the An Tostal tourism festival initiated by Minister for Industry and Commerce Seán Lemass.

Just a year after it opened, in 1936, the Royal passed into the control of the Elliman family. The Elliman patriarch, Maurice, a Latvian-Jewish refugee, had built the Metropole and DeLuxe cinemas in Dublin, creating a successful entertainment business with substantial interests. One of his sons, Louis Elliman, took a leading role in devising the Royal’s stage shows. He was concerned to establish a permanent dance troupe for the theatre and he achieved this goal with the help of two professional dancers, Alice Delgarno from Aberdeen and the Londoner Babs de Monte. The troupe was given the name ‘The Royalettes’ in 1943 and they remained popular with audiences until the theatre closed (front cover).

During the war years Louis Elliman’s production company, T.R. Royle Productions, helped foster the careers of Noel Purcell, Peggy Dell, Cecil Sheridan, Mickser Reid, Harry O’Donovan, Danny Cummins, Vernon Hayden, Jack Cruise and many others. Jimmy O’Dea, who had his own company, also featured regularly. Noel Purcell was one of a number of Irish artists who made a successful transition from variety theatre to the screen. The film Captain Boycott was retained by public demand for four weeks in 1947 in a cine-variety bill that saw Purcell on both the stage and the screen. The performance, on 9 November 1958, of the major Hollywood star Jimmy Cagney in Louis Elliman’s specially devised show Shake hands with the Irish, to coincide with the filming at Ardmore Studios of Shake hands with the Devil, encapsulated for the Royal’s audiences the career progression of local artists like Noel Purcell. The climax of the evening came when Cagney delivered a memorable performance of his show-stopper, Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The boxer Jack Doyle and his film-star wife Movita featured as a comedy and musical double act in the Something in the Air series of shows written by Dick Forbes in 1944. The staging of boxing matches at theatres in central Dublin, one of which featured Doyle in the Theatre Royal Hippodrome in the early ’30s, followed a precedent set at the La Scala (Capitol) Theatre in 1923. Boxing fixtures, the cowboys Tom Mix, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, together with on-stage presentations of circuses, all contributed to an eclectic mix of entertainments intended to maximise box-office revenue at the theatre.

T.R. Royle Productions continued to present stage shows at the theatre after it was taken over by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation in 1946. Films did not outshine the stage shows at the theatre, as blockbusters were reserved by the Rank Organisation for their other cinemas in the city, chiefly the Savoy. In the post-war period American stars began to feature at the Royal, among them Judy Garland, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Danny Kaye. Ms Garland endeared herself to many when she sang to crowds in Poolbeg Street from her dressing-room window. Danny Kaye’s performances in 1952 were particularly popular with Dublin’s taxi-drivers for the many encores he performed after the last buses had departed for the suburbs.

Jack Doyle and his film-star wife Movita featured as a comedy and musical double act in the Something in the Air series of shows written by Dick Forbes in 1944. (Wade Collection, Gilbert Library)

Jack Doyle and his film-star wife Movita featured as a comedy and musical double act in the Something in the Air series of shows written by Dick Forbes in 1944. (Wade Collection, Gilbert Library)

Victim to the changes in fashion

The variety form of entertainment, with which the Theatre Royal had become synonymous, fell victim to the changes in fashion of the middle of the last century. The advent of rock ’n’ roll, with Bill Haley and The Comets in the film Blackboard Jungle, the revolution in comedy represented by Spike Milligan and the Goon Show’s absurdist, ‘off the wall’ humour on BBC radio, and the rise of television were some of the factors that sounded the death-knell for the Theatre Royal. Strikes, rising overheads and increasing artists’ fees pushed the venue over the limit of financial viability. The Rank Organisation decided to sell the theatre and realise the value of the site and it closed in July 1962.  HI

David Devitt was recently awarded a master’s degree in design history and material culture at the National College of Art and Design.

Further reading

D. Inkster, Union Cinema’s Ritz: a story of theatre organs and cine-variety (Sussex, 1999).

P.B. Ryan, The lost theatres of Dublin (Wiltshire, 1998).

P.B. Ryan, Noel Purcell, a biography (Dublin, 1992).

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