Saluting the pantos of Cork, past and present

In her weekly column, Theatre Nights, Jo Kerrigan salutes this year's pantos and also reflects on pantos of the past
Saluting the pantos of Cork, past and present

Rehearsing for ‘The Swans In Crosser’ panto at Fr O’Leary Hall, Cork, in 1957 - a reader contacted us with more information on this photo

NANNY Nellie’s Adventures in Pantoland must come to an end this Sunday, January 9, but we owe the Opera House a great big vote of thanks for somehow staying open and spreading the festive cheer despite all that the pandemic has thrown at us.

We bet they are already planning next year’s show!

And if by any chance you couldn’t get to see Aladdin at Everyman this year, don’t worry. Their resident genie has worked his magic to create the Everyman Digital Panto, which you can view at home!

It is digitally available until Jan 23, and tickets are only €10! Wouldn’t that be a nice weekend treat for the whole family? See https://everymancork.com/events/digital-panto-aladdin/.

Speaking of panto, we have unearthed more about a certain production of The Sleeping Beauty – or, The Panto That Never Was, since it was scheduled to open at the Opera House on St Stephen’s Day, 1955, before the famous fire there intervened.

Charlotte O’Byrne wrote to say she was one of those Tiny Tots who were actually rehearsing on stage on the night of the fire.

“As a Tiny Tot, I appeared in principal roles for many years, and so was there the night we lost our beloved theatre,” she said.

Michael Nolan, a friend of Charlotte’s, and a keen researcher of the event, adds more detail: “The Opera House always closed for pantomime rehearsals in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and opened with a matinee on St Stephen’s Day. Rehearsals were in progress on that terrible night.

“On the main stage itself, behind the safety curtain, around 24 Tiny Tots were rehearsing their ‘speciality number’ under the direction of Eileen Cavanagh. Charlotte O’Byrne, soloist, was leading the Tots in the Christmas Alphabet song and tap dance number.”

At the same time, the main principals were rehearsing under director James Stack in the large circle bar area behind the theatre’s dress circle, explains Michael. “The cast members were the first to notice smoke billowing, and immediately sent word to Miss Cavanagh to get all the children out of the theatre as quickly as possible.

Charlotte O’Byrne as a Tiny Tot in the 1950s.
Charlotte O’Byrne as a Tiny Tot in the 1950s.

“Bill Cunningham, stage doorman for many years, was in his office and helped the kiddies down the steps which led to the exit on Half Moon Street. Miss Cavanagh’s dressmaker, Maureen White was working upstairs and was one of the last to leave the burning building by the stage door.”

Charlotte O’Byrne also throws light on another piece of Cork theatrical history. “You mentioned in your Theatre Nights column that MacBrien was the pseudonym of two Corkmen who together wrote pantos for most of the local halls around the city in the 1940s and ’50s. One was Finbarr McCarthy from Ballinlough but you couldn’t remember the other.

“Now, McBrien were the scriptwriters for all the old Opera House pantos from as far back as 1945, and they were Michael O’Brien and Finbarr McCarthy. Michael was a manager in Cross’s Garage.”

And they didn’t stop at pantos.

“In 1953, they scripted the first Up Cork at the AOH on Morrison’s Island, with the great Ignatius Comerford playing Dame Maggie Murphy. They also scripted for pantos at other local halls.

Charlotte adds: “Another great scriptwriter was the late Paudie Harris, who penned many pantos for the Fr Matthew Hall and AOH. He wrote all those great ‘Swans’ shows - of which there were approximately 25 - down through the years with astounding success.”

Last week, The Echo archives produced an image from that time (above) that delighted Charlotte.

She adds that scriptwriter Paudie Harris is standing on the extreme right of the picture with the script in his hand, doubtless ensuring nobody misses the really good Cork jokes. Ah, she says, isn’t it nice to remember the good old days? It is indeed. And can anybody identify any of the rest of the cast in that Swans picture? Or recall going to one of those hugely popular shows over the years?

Email us if you do: jokerrigan1 @gmail.com or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork).

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