Expect a cracker when Billa O’Connell takes to the stage for the Cork Opera House 160 gala celebrations, writes Colette Sheridan
WHEN Billa O’Connell, affectionately known as Billa, takes to the stage of the Cork Opera House as part of the 160th anniversary gala celebrations, the evening will be redolent of fond memories for this Cork man.
Born, raised and still living in the Lough, the 85-year old entertainer starred in the long running variety shows, Summer Revels and The Swans, and played the dame for many years at the venue. He has also done some straight acting.
He picked up the theatre bug when, as a young lad, he sold programmes in the Fr O’Leary Hall on Bandon Road, now owned by UCC. He appeared in pantomimes at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall on Morrison’s Island and also appeared on the stages of the Fr Mathew Hall and the CYMS.
Billa’s ambition was to play the Cork Opera House. Stepping in for Ignatius Comerford, who was ill, it was while rehearsing the dame in a production of Sleeping Beauty, that Billa’s dream was scuppered. The venue went on fire on December 12 1955.
“I thought it was the end of the world. I was working in Thompsons, driving a van at the time, for seven pounds and four shillings a week. I was booked for the pantomime at 15 pounds a week, double the money.”
Later, Billa took his rightful place on the new stage of the Cork Opera House, appearing in ‘Tops of the Towns’, representing Beamish & Crawford where he worked as a sales rep for 30 years. Actor and director Michael Twomey was so taken with the talent show that he started Summer Revels, which lasted for 21 years. Billa’s comic sketches were written by Frank Duggan, Twomey’s sidekick in the Cha and Miah act on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ television.
Billa, married to former dancer Nell Cotter, with whom he has six children, is the proud grandfather of 19 children and great grandfather of five children. The couple met on the set of Cinderella when Billa was playing an ugly sister and Cotter had the starring role. “We fell in love. I married Cinderella. I don’t know if this has ever happened anywhere else.”
Looking back, Billa says that working with his good friend, Paddy Comerford, in no less than 33 shows, was the main delight of his stage career. “Paddy sent for me before he died. The Bishop of Cork, Dr John Buckley, said it was only right and proper that I was the last person to speak to Paddy.”
Billa’s funniest memories are tied up with pantomime. He remembers Comerford playing an ugly sister “with his thin face and foxy ringlets. Then there was me pushing Cinderella across the stage telling her she was going to no ball. A young girl stood up from the third row behind the orchestra and shouted ‘leave her alone you fat fool.’ That child stopped the show. The orchestra fell about laughing. She was really into the spirit of it. I love children. Whenever I played the dame, I used to bring hundreds of children along with me. I had them on my side before I started.”
Billa has no regrets that he kept on his day job and only acted in his free time. “Being a full time actor would have been too risky. You’d be depending on your phone to ring for your livelihood. I had a good job at Beamish & Crawford with a company car and a salary. And I had a very good sideline.”
Billa has long retired from acting on stage but is still involved in show business in a peripheral way, “working around the county at concert shows, presenting acts.”
He probably needs this as he admits he’s not happy unless he has a microphone in my hand.” But he remembers how he would “die a death before going on stage. The nerves were terrible. I’d go into corner. I know the Memorare backwards. I have a true faith and would be lost without God.”
But why put yourself through such agonies in the first place? “Because for me, the stage is a drug. There’s the feeling when you come off it that’s pure elation and you’re over the moon. I wouldn’t sleep on the nights that a show went down well. I’d be on such a high.”
Over the past 30 years, Billa has entertained the people of Cork for every All-Ireland homecoming and has been an entertainment manager for acts including Josef Locke, Eamon Kelly and Dermot O’Brien.
Conferred with an honorary MA from UCC in 1996 for his contribution to Cork’s cultural life, he was honoured with the freedom of the city two years ago, and performs a monologue at the Opera House gala night.
It recalls that fateful night in 1955 when Billa’s dream went up in smoke. But thankfully, the story eventually had a happy ending.
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