As the Everyman in Cork marks 120 years, John Daly looks back at some of the milestones in its eventful history as a venue at the heart of the city’s cultural life
WHILE ladies of a certain maturity are generally allowed a degree of circumspection when it comes to admitting their true age, this is clearly not the case with the Everyman Theatre. As the proud grand dame of Cork culture for 120 years, the iconic structure on MacCurtain St has witnessed a veritable history of Cork and the State itself from behind its gracious stained glass windows down through the decades.
Hollywood royalty, Irish theatrical legends, jazz superstars, and literary giants have all passed within its timeless Victorian elegance, and delivered some of Ireland’s greatest cultural works to generations of enthralled audiences. An institution whose roots link into all stratas of Cork society, the Everyman is embedded within the soul of the city — a place of artistic expression and happy recollections still thriving well into its second century.
1850: When music halls had a bad reputation
Music halls began in the late 1840s as basic add-on structures to local taverns when landlords discovered that customers drank more if songs were part of the entertainment. As the decades passed, these entertainment halls became ever larger constructions, often dwarfing the pubs, and with the added novelty of food — another incentive to hold the crowds for longer. Patrons at tables surrounded the stage, with the performers introduced by a ‘chairman’ who sat adjacent to the stage.
Usually a local wit possessed of a clever turn of phrase, he called the crowd to order by banging a hammer, and then announcing the acts with the maximum of exuberance and verbosity: “Ladies and gentlemen, I beg your silence for the greatest, most adept, uniquely talented...” and on and on. When the evening’s entertainment stretched to multiple acts, it was designated a ‘variety’ show.
1895: An Everyman inspired by Yokohama
The Everyman was designed by Richard Henry Brunton from Aberdeen, who spent much of his life in Japan where he designed over 30 lighthouses around the country’s coastline. Such was his fame as an engineer, he became known as ‘the father of Yokohama’, before eventually returning to London where he specialised in theatre design.
Originally occupied by a private house owned by a Mr John O’Connell, the theatre was designed to incorporate a stunning Victorian interior, ornate boxes with elaborate Moorish design, and a magnificent proscenium arch and original glass and steel canopy on what was then King St. Illuminated by gas and electric jets of different colours powered by two dynamos in the basement, each section of the raked auditorium had its own bar fitted with mirrored walls and decorated ceilings. Above the boxes were large oil-painted panels by the Cork artist Samuel Wright representing music, dance, fancy, and folly in the shape of lively though decorously draped ladies.
1897: Opening night’s assurance of prosperity
Easter Monday night 1897 saw the opening of the much-heralded Dan Lowrey Palace of Varieties, a sister theatre to the then Empire Palace in Dublin — later the Olympia. Prices ranged from £1 for a box to 6d for a seat in the gallery, with the original entrance from St Patrick’s Quay.
With the orchestra playing Rossini’s ‘Semiramide Overture’, the opening night’s acts included the Tiller Girls Dancing Troupe and Professor Jolly’s world-renowned Cinematographe, possibly the first time moving pictures had been seen in Cork. After a glorious opening night, the new theatre was lauded as “without question the prettiest, most commodious, and best equipped place of entertainment in Ireland”. The next morning’s Cork Examiner declared: “The Palace Theatre of Varieties entered on its career with every assurance of prosperity.”
1900: Ladies nights with a cuppa
Given the notorious reputation of many music halls as dens of inequity where alcohol and lewd behaviour dominated, Dan Lowrey sought to appease the city fathers that his house of varieties was above reproach. He introduced a special ladies night where each woman was presented with a cup of tea on a tray at the interval — a development that softened considerably the local Canon of the City’s usual hardline stance on such entertainment.
The ecclesiastical change of heart was also helped by the theatre having the blessing of His Royal Highness, and that any ‘showing of bare limbs’ was strictly limited.
1912: A young man called Chaplin
With the help of his older brother Sydney, the 23-year old Charlie Chaplin got his break in showbusiness with Fred Karno’s comedy company in 1906.
Karno was initially wary of the “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster who looks much too shy to do any good in the theatre”. However, within a year, the irrepressible Charlie was one of the troupe’s star performers in a hugely popular sketch called ‘Jimmy the Fearless’. When the troupe played Cork in 1912, Chaplin unveiled his latest sketch, ‘The Inebriate Swell’, to sustained applause and was lauded as “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here”. Less than a year later, Chaplin arrived in Hollywood and began his ascent to becoming one of the world’s biggest stars. Other greats of the era also played at the MacCurtain St theatre, including Laurel and Hardy and George Formby. Eugene Sandown, the world’s strongest man, also appeared at the Palace — giving rise to the city’s famous trademark and slogan: Murphy’s Stout is Good, No Doubt!
1919: When Spanish flu brought the curtain down
The ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic, which raged from July 1917, is estimated to have killed 40m people worldwide, and infected some 800,000 people in Ireland. It went on to eventually take more than 23,000 Irish lives . It raged across the country, bringing culture, politics, and normal life to an abrupt halt — including Dan Lowrey’s Palace of Varieties. An entry in the theatre’s engagement book for February 24, 1919, reads: ‘Closed. Influenza epidemic, by order Public Health Committee.’
1921: Invention during the civil war’s dark days
After the First World War, the Civil War saw the arrival of the Black & Tans to the city during a period of extreme political upheaval. Dick McGrath, manager from 1912-33, recalled the difficulties of getting artists to Cork: “On one occasion when the train service was dislocated, I collected all the artistes contributing to my programme at Limerick Junction, and conveyed them on a devious route to Cork as the bridges on the direct road had been blown up.”
As the 1920s progressed, McGrath witnessed the decline of vaudeville first hand: “The ranks of the vaudeville artists were rapidly thinning, railway fares became almost prohibitive, and the costs of running a live show and maintaining a house staff were daily mounting up. Gone, alas, was the excitement that charged the air every Monday morning when a group of artistes assembled on the stage for rehearsal.”
1930: Talkies and the big screen
With the arrival of the ‘talkies’ the Palace became a cinema in 1930 — promoting itself as “the house with the perfect sound” via its state-of-the-art Western Electric projector and sound system. The Palace joined the city’s magnificent array of cinemas: The Pavilion, the Savoy, the Ritz, and the Lee during Cork’s golden age of the picture house. No Saturday matinee was complete without Hadji Bey’s Turkish Delight at the interval, followed by tea in Thompson’s or the Savoy, where waitresses in starched linen uniforms served silver-plated tea services and buttered cakes. The Palace closed as a cinema on June 4, 1988, with the film, Trains, Planes and Automobiles.
1990: The dawn of a new era
The classic structure reopened as a theatre in 1990, when it was purchased by the Everyman Theatre Company. The company, which had been presenting top-quality plays at a variety of venues around the city since 1963, took on the challenge of saving the listed building for its original theatrical purpose and re-opened it as the Everyman Palace. Dan Donovan, one of the founders, noted the sense of civic duty and volunteerism that goaded many cultural endeavours into life around Cork all those decades ago.
“When I think back, people committed to all sorts of things during their free time for the general good. I think all those kinds of ideals have gone out the window, and society has suffered a great loss with the departure of that attitude.”
Declaring himself a ‘proud survivor’ at 91, Dan sees the continued success of the theatre as testament to the thriving cultural spirit of the city: “The Everyman stands as proof of a dream of taking a tired old cinema and fashioning it into something culturally worthwhile that continues and thrives to this day.”
1993: The day the music died
Rory Gallagher played his final gig in Cork at the Everyman relaunch party in November — just a few doors down from where he lived after his family moved to Cork from Derry.
Topping the bill at the November gig, nobody would have believed they were witnessing the final hometown performance of the man everybody knew simply as Rory. Herbie Hancock and Ginger Baker are among the other music legends to have graced the venue’s stage in recent years.
2005: Hollywood comes to town
Hollywood star and Oscar nominee Ed Harris, pictured above, made his European stage debut in a new Neil LaBute play, Wrecks. Playing a man reminiscing about his recently-deceased wife, Harris added his name to a roster of acting greats who have trodden the theatre’s boards, including Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, David Suchet, and Steven Berkoff.
2009: To have and to hold
September saw the first ever wedding ceremony in a theatre in Ireland performed on the stage of the Everyman. Stephanie Coleman and Gerard Murphy took centre stage to tie the knot, watched by a full house of 200.
It was the country’s first civil marriage to be held in a theatre since new rules allowing public buildings to be used as wedding venues were introduced in 2007. “I performed on the Everyman stage as a child with the Monforts,” said Stephanie. “We’ve always loved the Everyman so we decided we would like to get married there.”
2016: A return to its silver screen roots
In hosting portions of last year’s Cork Film Festival, the Everyman harked back to the halcyon days of the festival and its MacCurtain St roots.
With its programme of film and theatre, music and comedy, the Everyman has a justifiable claim to the title of Cork’s most important cultural venue.
Over the next few months, it will continue its events to mark the past 120 years. Here’s to the next 120.
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