The new tour that brings you behind the scenes at the Everyman Theatre

The Everyman Palace Theatre has seen a lot in its 120 years. As it opens its doors to public tours, Marjorie Brennan gets a sneak peek into the workings of this iconic Cork institution.

I am standing under the wrought-iron and stained-glass canopy outside the Everyman Palace Theatre on Cork’s MacCurtain St as the rain pelts down, thankful for shelter in the almost biblical torrent.

Generations of Corkonians and assorted visitors, from sailors to soldiers, priests to politicians, have sought respite of a different kind in this historic venue, escaping from their cares and worries through the medium of entertainment, whether a music hall act, a Charlie Chaplin film, or in more recent years, a play or panto.

The theatre has had three different incarnations in its existence: Variety hall, cinema, and theatre. Now it is offering the public a peek behind the stage curtain, with a tour that gives an insight into what has kept this grand old dame of Cork cultural life going for 120 years.

We gather in the lobby of the theatre — which in daytime is a quietly different beast from its bustling night-time guise — and are greeted by our tour guide, actor Damien Punch, ably abetted by fellow thespian Jimmy Bray. Both are kitted out in the garb of the ‘everyman’ who frequented the theatre back in its early days — flat cap and braces included.

Punch tells us the Everyman is the oldest purpose-built theatre in Cork, and the oldest in Ireland outside Dublin. The venue opened on April 19, 1897, as Dan Lowrey’s Palace of Varieties — Lowrey’s legacy is remembered in the presence of Dan Lowrey’s pub next door, still frequented by actors and audiences alike. The tradition of music halls such as the Palace grew from large saloons which would host singalongs. When the publicans discovered that people drank more when there was singing and music, the venues got bigger.

The Palace was built on an old coal store, opposite a large disused quarry, and was considered to be something of a ‘low’ house. A large part of its clientele was made up of soldiers from the nearby Victoria (now Collins) Barracks. The train station just up the street also brought hordes of sailors from the naval base in Queenstown (Cobh) looking for entertainment.

There were numerous bars throughout the building catering for this clientele’s substantial thirst — the drinking habits of modern audiences can be discerned in the fact that now there is just one. While there is a certain etiquette to be observed while attending the theatre today, back then it was a far more relaxed affair, with drinking, eating, smoking, and joining in with the chorus all part of the fun. Tour participants are treated to a rousing rendition of the traditional sea-shanty Haul Away Joe to get them into the spirit of the times.

We are guided from the lobby out towards MacCurtain Street and the ‘pit’ entrance, further down from the current entrance, where the original wrought-iron canopy stood, protecting the more refined audience members from the elements as they descended from their carriages directly into the theatre, from what was then known as King St.

Damien tells us how, in 1957, a Midleton dairy van crashed into the canopy. As (bad) luck would have it, around the same time, a lorry crashed into the Olympia Theatre canopy in Dame St in Dublin, which would have been the Palace’s sister theatre. What remained of the two canopies was put together to make one canopy, which is now at the Olympia, and in which one can make out the words Palace Theatre in the wrought iron.

A little bit of Cork in Dame St, Dublin, not that they would ever admit that

- says Damien.

As we go back in and enter the auditorium, the ornate Victorian surroundings means it isn’t hard to imagine the city’s denizens carousing against a vaudevillian backdrop of variety acts and dancing girls. I am roused from my flight of fancy by Damien calling out to one of the tour participants just as he is about to get settled into one of the seats in front of the stage. No, not B9, he warns, that is the ghost’s seat. I shouldn’t be surprised of course — no historic building would be complete without its resident apparition.

The theatre was designed by Scottish architect Richard Henry Brunton, who had spent much of his life in Japan, designing lighthouses. Elaborately decorated boxes flank both sides of the stage. These vantage points are quite awkwardly placed; Damien explains they were not for seeing the stage but rather for being seen.

Now we have Facebook, Instagram; back then you had these boxes

- he says.

One of the many popular acts who appeared at the height of the Palace’s variety days was Marie Lloyd, known as the Queen of the Music Hall. We are treated to a performance from the Everyman’s own ‘Marie’ who sings one of the risqué numbers which guaranteed a full house wherever she went. Other performers who drew the crowds included Sandow the world-famous strongman, whose signature act was raising a horse overhead with just one hand. He went on to appear on poster ads for Murphy’s stout, featuring the famous slogan: Murphy’s Stout Makes you Strong. Charlie Chaplin, whose films would later draw thousands to the theatre, also appeared on stage there as a child performer.

As we head out towards the back of the building and climb the stone steps up to the balcony, we pass the original Patrick’s Quay entrance, where ships would have once moored as sailors disembarked for the night’s entertainment. While the balcony was termed ‘the Gods’ by patrons, technically it doesn’t qualify as such, being just a second rather than third tier. “In Cork, even if we’re one tier short, we have to be as good as the rest,” laughs Damien.

In its original incarnation, there would have been no seats in this tier, just benches, and up to 800 people could be crammed in.

The introduction of silent films was a sign of things to come for the Palace. At first, short silent films accompanied by musicians shared billing with the variety acts but when talkies arrived in the 1930s, the Palace’s fate as a music hall was sealed. The Palace acoustics were perfectly suited to cinema and it became known as ‘The house with the perfect sound’. Theatre was all but gone but there was at least one live show a year so the palace could retain its bar licence. The Palace became the city’s leading cinema for some time. Damien gives an example of how big a draw ‘the pictures’ were, telling us that in 1961, over 60,000 tickets were sold for the swords and sandals epic Ben-Hur — Cork’s population at the time was 97,000.

Damien explains how technology would again change the direction of the Palace in the 1980s, when video recorders became a staple in every household. While cinemas developed multi-screen omniplexes to compete, the fact that the Palace was a listed Victorian building meant it could not be retrofitted in this way. Ultimately this turned out to be a blessing for the city’s architecture, as well as its cultural life. The Palace came back to life when a group of amateur performers who had come together to form the Everyman Theatre Company in the 1960s took over. It reopened in March 1990 with a performance of The Brother, Eamon Morrissey’s one-man show based on the works of the writer Flann O’Brien.

We are joined on the balcony by a spectral presence, as it appears the theatre’s longest-standing resident, the ghost from seat B9, has been roused by our rambles.

A kindly and helpful soul, she guides us from the balcony through another magic door as we wind our way down a narrow corridor which is home to the theatre’s two dressing rooms. Originally, there were eight dressing rooms in the venue but a fire in the 1920s claimed six of those. Down another stairs, lined with pictures of performers, we reach the poster wall which, as the name suggests, has posters of productions staged in the venue through the years. As we peek in backstage, preparations are under way for the production of Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle. Visible at the side of the stage is an exposed wall covered in scribbled signatures — actors and crew leaving their mark.

While actors are traditionally a superstitious bunch, Damien informs us of another superstition of which I was unaware. “Originally the people who did the knots and rigging backstage were off-duty sailors and they would give instructions to each other through whistles, so if you whistled, someone could drop a fly [a curtain with an iron bar at the end of it] and do some serious damage. So, that’s why it’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre.”

And with that nugget of information, it’s through another door and we are back where we started, in the lobby. We all join in for one more round of Haul Away Joe before this particular production takes a bow and we head back to reality.

It has been a privilege to get such a fascinating insight into an iconic Cork institution, whose staying power deserves every celebration. I’ve also learned a lot, not least that, friendliness of this particular ghost notwithstanding, I will be avoiding seat B9 in future.

Behind the Scenes tour at The Everyman runs May 1-September 28, lunchtimes Wednesday and Saturday, tickets, €10; everymancork.com

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