The man who set the stage

From the Irish Press, 12 October, 1951

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.

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Tyrone Power

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.

Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving in 'Olivia'
Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving in ‘Olivia’

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.

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F. R. Benson

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.

Living history

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.

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Tommy Colven

‘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.

MacALLA

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