‘They’re behind you!” No they’re not. They’re beside you. That’s, of course, if you’re sitting at the bar in Mulligan’s front lounge, number 9 Poolbeg Street. So, what are THEY? They are eight silk programmes from the Theatre Royal dating from the turn of the century 1899/1900. The first Theatre Royal lasted from 1821-1880 (burnt to the ground); the second Theatre Royal stood from 1897-1934 (demolished) and the third Theatre Royal was in use from 1935-1962 (demolished). Stage anecdotes from the three Theatres Royal that stood on Hawkins Street follow with dates signifying which one they refer to. Mulligan’s was known as the unofficial theatre bar because of its proximity to the theatres all of which stood on the same site.
Sixty years ago, Thomas Colven, the stage carpenter of the Theatre Royal, which stood opposite Mulligan’s, gave an interview in which he spoke about the appearance of Judy Garland at the venue.
The interview was given to the Irish Times and published on 30 January 1954.
Colven was 74 at the time. He began his career in 1899. His apprenticeship included stints at Covent Garden and Drury Lane in London, the Wintergarten in Berlin, the Hansa Theatre in Hamburg and the Follies Maraine and Alhambra in Paris.
He said the most challenging task ever put to him was to make an 11 foot metal Christmas tree to seat twenty members of a choir.
His work in the Theatre Royal brought him into contact with some of the greatest performers of the first half of the twentieth century. He had conversed with Caruso, Count John McCormack, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Gene Autry for whom he made a special box to hold his huge white cowboy boots.
Colven spoke also of Judy Garland who appeared at the Theatre Royal in the first week of June 1951:
‘She was so nervous that I had to build a special wooden block on the stage to stop her from walking over the foot-lights.”
During her week-long engagement in Dublin, Garland established a strong connection with Mulligan’s which is detailed in Mulligan’s – the grand old pub of Poolbeg Street by Declan Dunne, on sale May 2015.
A small, nostalgic exhibition – so informal it didn’t even have an official opening – came into being yesterday at Dublin’s Theatre Royal.
On show in one of theatre’s foyers are playbills, programmes and pictures of the stage folk, you, your fathers and forebears rushed to see. They touch on dates here and there in the 130 years’ history of the three playhouses that have stood on the site in Hawkins Street.
Before them there was a meat market there, and later the headquarters of the Dublin Society before it became the R.D.S.
Then the buildings were used as a poorhouse for a few years till 1820, when Henry Harris, a former manager of the old Crow Street Theatre, leased the property and started to build the first Royal.
It stood until 1880. In that year fire destroyed the theatre in which had played such notable actors as Edmund and Charles Kean, Tyrone Power, Charles and Fanny Kemble, Dion Boucicault, and Sir Squire Bancroft.
Six years alter coaches and cabs were again carrying theatre-goers to Hawkins Street, this time to the Leinster Hall, which gave way only a year later to the Theatre Royal and Opera House.
Great names from the playbills of that period are Henry Irving, Nina Boucicault (who died only last year) Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, Ellen Terry, F. R. Benson and Lily Langtree.
Change of heart?
Then came vaudeville and the bioscope with its flickering up-to-the-minute newsreels.
‘They were called “bar chasers” those days,’ Louis Elliman reminded me. ‘Soon as they came on everyone went into the bar and stayed there till they heard a bell announcing the next live turn.’
Top of the bill for the week of the Rising, I noticed was a ventriloquist called Arthur Prince. Across the room from that bill is a mezzotint [a print-making process] portrait of Ellen Terry with a bullet hole through it – one of the casualties in a disturbance in the Winter Gardens in 1922. When Fergus O’Ryan was going through the exhibition, he dug out the spent slug from the back of the frame.
Leaving this framed and docketed history, I went around backstage to talk with a man who remembers much of it – stage carpenter, Tommy Colven who has worked in the Royal for the past 52 years.
‘Changes?’ said Tommy, ‘of course there’s been changes, and every one of them for the better.’
Tommy served his time to straight carpentering in Dublin. He went to the Royal in 1899, and after a short while,he was sent off to study his new job at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Then back to Hawkins Street where he’s been ever since, except for a year or two in the ‘thirties when the theatre was being rebuilt.
At 71, he still builds all the theatre’s stage sets single-handed.
‘I’d like to have someone help me,’ he said, ‘but the young lads nowadays won’t have anything to do with stage work. They don’t like the hours. They couldn’t rely on getting away to their football matches and dances.’
Even when there isn’t a big job on hand, Tommy is in the theatre up to nine o’clock most nights in case anything gives way during the show. Actually that never happens: Tommy’s goo good a craftsman for that, but he stays around just in case.
And when there’s a rush on, he often stays on the job till 12 or 1 in the morning. But it’s a grand job, he says, if you’ve got the taste for it.
John Martin Harvey was one of the most-well known actors in Britain and Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He performed several times at the Theatre Royal, which stood opposite Mulligan’s. Harvey is mentioned in the novel Ulysses by James Joyce who frequented Mulligan’s.
In 1906, Harvey performed in the Corsican Brothers to great acclaim. The Freeman’s Journal, 8 November, 1906, gave it a favourable review telling readers that ‘Martin Harvey still reigns a chief favourite with the playgoers of Dublin’.
However, a reviewer, writing under the pseudonym, Jacques, for the Irish Independent, was not so kind:
The drama resembles the law – it can take no account of intentions, however good.
To expect the public to put down their money for butter and accept margarine without complaint would be both irrational and inequitable.
The ghost that appeared at the close of the first act came near to precipitating disaster on the entire play. This spook didn’t walk, it crept, and bravely strove to get under the limelight, and the limelight dodged, and the falling curtain saved the situation.
One of the greatest actors of the English stage, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, became a good friend of James Mulligan, owner of Mulligan’s (1875-1931).
Tree toured widely and founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1904. One of his grandchildren was the film actor, Oliver Reed.
Tree and his daughter, Viola, appeared in plays at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, in November 1904. One of these was a command performance before King Edward and Queen Alexandra.
A silk banner on which the programme is printed is preserved behind a glass mount in Mulligan’s front lounge.
The actual programme itself, which was handed out to audience members, was described in detail in a report in the Freeman’s Journal, 27, April, 1904:
The souvenir programme for Thursday night –”command night” – at the Theatre Royal has been issued. The cover in peacock blue is printed with silver lettering with the Royal arms, and except for the customary satire on the Union – the rose, thistle, and shamrock growing on the one tree- is excellently designed, the curving lines being graceful in form. It is neatly knotted with silk ribbon, which enriches the appearance of the cover. The inside contents are nearly printed. There are first-rate portraits of King Edward and his Queen. In front is a photograph of the find frontage of the theatre. The cast is printed in two columns in large and clear type, and the pieces, as already announced, are “Richard II” the first act of “Trilby” and the first act of “The Last of the Dandies”. Photographs of the company are also given and are artistically grouped. The programme was designed and printed in Dublin.
Tree’s daughter, Viola, appeared in ‘Trilby’. A report by ‘The Bystander’ of her personality appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on 2 May, 1904, and was less than flattering:
As a child, Miss Tree wilfully expressed her disinclination to go on the stage; and being once asked by a friend if she meant to be an actress when she grew up, answered, with a pout, ‘No, I mean to marry’.
One day she requested her father to give her a pony. ‘But I can’t afford one, dear,’ he replied gravely. ‘Then, do be quick and learn to act better,’ retorted the little maiden, ‘so that you might be able to buy one.’
Miss Tree’s unusual height makes her a distinguished figure wherever she goes, though in manner she is disposed to be reserved and somewhat silent. A story is told that once at a party, a stranger from the country asked Sir Frank Barnard, ‘Who is the shy six-footer?’ ‘Oh, one of the Trees,’ he promptly replied.
One of the previous owners of Mulligan’s, James Mulligan, was known to have a very strong connection with the Theatre Royal, which stood opposite the premises. He ran the family business from 1875 until this death in 1931.
Among papers found in Mulligan’s, one is a playbill announcing the appearance of a world-famous magician, Louis (Ludwig) Döbler. The notice dates from August 1842 when Döbler performed at the Theatre Royal.
This suggests, but does not prove, that there may have been a connection between the premises and the Theatre Royal going back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Döbler was an Austrian engraver-turned-magician. He first applied electricity to magic, opening his act in spectacular fashion by using concealed wires to ignite simultaneously the turpentine-soaked wicks of the 100 candles that lit the stage.