It has been 60 years since the curtains last fell at the Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street and, although the building has since been demolished, stories of its heyday live on in Dublin.
This is largely down to Dubliner Conor Doyle, the godson of Irish actor and comedian, Jimmy O’Dea. “Jimmy O’Dea was my godfather and my aunt, Ursula Doyle, who was Jimmy’s second wife. Ursula was onstage from the age of around six and toured all over England, then later worked in the O’Dea company with Maureen Potter and all that crowd from the mid 1940s, doing pantomimes and summer reviews in the Gaeity and the Royal.
“She married Jimmy in 1958 and he died five years later, there was quite an age gap between them. So, Ursula had this big apartment on Pembroke Road with a room filled with their memorabilia. When I’d visit, she’d take me into this huge Georgian room packed with stuff and she would tell me about them. It was a time capsule, there was stuff going back to 1916 and the Civil War.”
Families, friends and future romances would all flood into the Theatre Royal, which was also patronised by such Hollywood elite as Judy Garland, Nat King Cole and Sean Connery and Irish stars like Noel Purcell, Peggy Dell and Eamon Andrews.
When his Aunt Ursula died over twenty years ago, Conor inherited everything, donating much of the treasure trove to the theatre archives in Pearse Street Library and to the National Library. What remained with him was a passion for maintaining the memory of the theatre, which he claims really kicked off ten years ago, when he made a series of episodes for the northside community radio station, Near FM.
“People started sending me stuff; photographs, posters, autographs. I started to do talks and then, about seven years ago, we created the Theatre Royal concerts”, he explained.
Dublin’s very first Theatre Royal is thought to have been located in Smock Alley in the 17th century but there have been a number of iterations since. “Ones cropped up in different places, I even found a programme for a Theatre Royal on the northside, on Abbey Street. In 1820, the first Theatre Royal in the Hawkins House was built and they had to pay a licence to the royal family for the name, like a tv license.
“It’s hard to imagine somewhere like it now because there’s no theatre here with 4,000 seats. The Bord Gáis is beautiful but it only has 2,000, so you’d have to combine it with the Gaeity and the Olympia”, Mr Doyle said.
In the last Theatre Royal, built in 1935, attendees could expect a singing variety performance, including a show, a full-length film and a singalong which Mr Doyle described as “karaoke before there was karaoke”.
The show would change on a weekly basis, with everything from dance routines, music and gags all starting from scratch. “It was tough going for the performers, script writers, set designers, carpenters and the wardrobe department, especially during the war. However, in the late ‘30s and into the war, it was a permanent job and any job was a miracle to have back in those days. Noel Purcell used to say it was cheaper for families to go to the Royal for heat after the coal ration ran out.”
Reflecting on the decline of what he considers to once have beeen “the heart of the city”, he suggests that such a sanctuary became less necessary as times changed, the television came in and many migrated out of the city and into the suburbs.
For the past number of years, Conor Doyle has been leading the campaign to permanently remember this glamorous piece of Dublin’s history, by having the new pedestrian street across the Hawkins House site called “Theatre Royal Way” after the three Theatre Royals, which stood on this same site.
A celebration for the 60th anniversary of the theatre will be held in the National Concert Hall on Friday, June 10, at 1:05pm in the John Field Room, where singalongs, photography and a trip down memory lane will be guaranteed.