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The Christmas Panto – Isobel Smyth

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Isobel Smyth

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Sweet wrappers crinkled and mingled with sounds from the orchestra pit as the musicians warmed up. Over the public address system, stragglers were instructed to take their seats and the chatter lessened as the audience anticipated curtains-up at the Gaiety Theatre’s Christmas Pantomime.  Listening to the last minute tuning of instruments I was momentarily transported back to Christmas time 1963 and the smell of heavy make-up, uncomfortable stiff costumes and the tense wait in the wings for our cue to gambol onto the stage of the Gaiety Panto ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’

As a child performer and member of the Oulton School of Dance I remember sharing the Gaiety stage with some of the biggest names in Irish theatre at the time, such as – Jimmy O’Dea, Maureen Potter, Cecil Sheridan (The Parody King) and Danny Cummins who played various comic roles. Milo O’Shea was another great comic actor and Vernon Hayden was the villain complete with dramatic stage make-up, flowing black robes and menacing laugh. Alice Dalgarno and Babs deMonte looked after choreography and costume design, while the high kicking dance troupe, The Royalettes, enthralled audiences nightly with their energetic dance routines.

Jimmy O’Dea was a legend in his own lifetime. He was born in 1899 at Lower Bridge Street across the road from the old Brazen Head Inn. He came from a large family, his mother Martha being his father’s third wife. The O’Dea family owned a toy shop in Lower Bridge Street. They would have been considered comfortable in a time of terrible poverty. Although, Jimmy was apprenticed to an Optician and later opened his own practice on Sth.Frederick Street in 1921, he couldn’t shake off his great love of the stage and in 1927 he left his practice in the care of his sister and became a professional artist. He began performing in the Queen’s and the Olympia, and then moved to the Gaiety Theatre.

Together with scriptwriter Harry O’Donovan he formed O’D Productions and Jimmy’s favourite role ‘Biddy Mulligan, the pride of the Coombe’ was created by an encounter on Henry Street when a woman came out of a pub in Moore Street, shouting at a man behind her…’Go along outa that, you bowsie.’  The story goes that O’Donovan and O’Dea exchanged glances and Biddy was born in the heart of Moore Street, a lady of the Liberties, who lived in the Coombe and sold her wares at St.Patrick Street corner!

I was six years old when Jimmy O’Dea performed in his last Gaiety Christmas Panto – ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ in 1963. By then he had developed health problems.  After the finale and last curtain call I stood in line with the rest of the child performers to be presented to the great Jimmy O’Dea. I gazed in awe, at this little man with the garden gnome face and twinkling eyes they called     ‘The King of Comedy’. He sat in a big armchair surrounded by laughing friends and fellow performers and smiled kindly at us children but through my childish eyes he looked old and tired.  Months later in the summer of 1964 Jimmy O’Dea performed in ‘Finian’s Rainbow.’  It would be his last stage performance.

The 1964 Christmas Pantomime was ‘Sinbad The Sailor’ and Milo O’Shea replaced the ill Jimmy O’Dea. I was a miniature Grenadier Guard complete with a tall Busby hat and shiny uniform buttons, bringing up the rear of a line of marching soldiers. Jimmy O’Dea had been in hospital for weeks and I’ve memories of subdued cast members and hushed voices as news spread of his death at Dr.Stevens’ Hospital on January 7th 1965. He was sixty five years old and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery.

In true theatrical form, life at the Gaiety went on and over time another generation of hugely talented artists like Brendan Grace, Twink and June Rogers performed in front of the footlights to the delight of audiences young and old.  My mind returned to the present when my grandchild’s small hand gripped mine as the house lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up the overture. I watched the heavy curtains rise and experienced the same tingling rush of childish excitement as the vibrant, colourful, scene of another Gaiety Pantomime was revealed to an eager audience.

‘The world is a stage; the stage is a world of entertainment!’

About the author

(c) Isobel Smyth, December 2011.

Isobel Smyth although born on the Southside of Dublin crossed the Liffey when she married a north county Dublin man and has lived by the sea for over 30 years. She has always been an avid reader and dabbled in writing for pleasure. Participation in a Creative Writing Course some years ago awakened an interest in short story and memoir writing and she has had some success with stories submitted to magazines and local competitions.

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
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