7. Our Dublin Theatre— the Star, later the Empire Palace

One of the more surprising ventures of the Findlater family was our 85-year old involvement in the raffish world of music halls and variety theatres. The involvement seems to have started with John, who in the late 1870s was bankrolling George West, the owner of the Grafton Theatre and Hotel in South Anne Street. The connection between the two in fact extended beyond the theatre. George West was involved in the building of several houses in Moyne Road, now Dublin 6, and in 1878/9 John advanced him £600 [over £40,000] towards their completion; later the number of houses grew to five with continuing advances; and in 1879 £100 [€11,000] plus interest at 5.75 per cent towards the erecting of seating, boxes and stage at the Earlsfort Skating Rink.

The music hall tradition in Ireland had begun in song-and-supper rooms and singing saloons where guests were entertained by travelling musicians while they ate. The next stage was the evolution of ‘free-and-easies’, as they were called, which were less pub-like, concentrating on entertainment—mostly quite risqué, such as in Henry Jude’s in Grafton Street, where students from Trinity (including no doubt Adam, who graduated in 1876) and the medical schools beat the spoons flat in appreciation of the Fulton sisters’ can-can dances.1 The Grafton Theatre was more upmarket; and it also allowed smoking in the auditorium but separated the bar. Its bright interiors and colourful sets, with the top entertainers, attracted a mixture of working class and the more raffish gentry.2

The second half of the 19th century was a trough period in Irish and British theatre. In an age when an audience of 1,800 was described as ‘small’ producers had to appeal to popular taste.3 This meant melodrama, spectacle and showmanship. As an historian of the Abbey Theatre put it ‘burlesque, operetta, musical comedy, melodrama, frivolous comedy and farce occupied most of the London theatres’, and Dublin was no different.4 By the 1890s there were three legitimate, officially-patented theatres in Dublin—the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street and the Gaiety in South King Street both subsisted on warmedup versions of British hits presented by touring companies while the Queen’s Theatre in Brunswick (now Pearse) Street took a slightly higher ground. It specialised in patriotic melodrama in which ‘a mythical land of blarney and blather, [was] peopled by patriotic heroes of exclusively aristocratic descent, betrayed by villainous informers and mourned by impossibly innocent colleens’.5 The Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (1820–90), who had been extremely popular in London, was the master of this genre. (It is not surprising that audiences who enjoyed this style found The Playboy of the Western World hard to take.)

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Dan Lowrey 1879–92

The best known, and most popular of the Dublin music hall proprietor/managers were the two Dan Lowreys. Dan Lowrey the first was born in Roscrea in 1823. His parents then emigrated to England, By the time he was thirty he owned a tavern in Liverpool where he also entertained his patrons with songs and stories in addition to serving food and drink. Some time later Lowrey returned to Ireland and opened the Alhambra in Belfast before coming to Dublin in 1878 to purchase the site of an old military barracks in Crampton Court in Temple Bar. This had also been the site of a tavern, and the so-called Monster Saloon Music Hall. On Monday 22 December 1879 his Star of Erin opened to the public.6 This was a genuine music hall, charging admission (as opposed to the ‘free-and-easies’ which provided entertainment free and made their money from the sale of drink). Licensing regulations prohibited Lowrey from putting on plays, or even sketches involving two people, but he could provide music. The entertainment provided was quite broad, and strictly for men only.

In 1881 Dan assigned the running of the Star of Erin to his son, also Daniel, who changed the name to Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall. John Findlater funded the enterprise through a mortgage on the properties; the decorations etc cost £121 [€20,000], S. H. Bolton the builder received £414 [€43,700] and new ‘sittings’ were supplied by James S. Lyon of High Holborn, London. John kept Daniel in funds by various cash advances to meet specific bills. It seems to have been quite a job keeping both George West and Daniel solvent. In 1882 John was picking up the costs of George West’s dishonoured cheques and paying the costs of the assignment of Daniel Lowrey’s insurance policies.

In 1889 the theatre’s name was changed again, to Dan Lowrey’s Palace of Varieties. In July 1890 Dan senior died at the age of sixty-six in his cottage in Terenure and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Dan, or Daniel, the second continued to run the music hall, despite continuing sniping from the official patent-holders, notably Michael Gunn who made strenuous attempts in the late 1880s to have the Star closed down on the grounds that it was infringing his patent. The entertainment was cheerfully lowbrow: there was the male impersonator Vesta Tilley, the Christy Minstrels, and Mr and Mrs Johnson ‘unclothing in the flickering limelight of La Studio’, there was ‘the daring young man on the flying trapeze’ (or at least there was until one appalling night when John Lilly of Leeds leapt from rope to rope 25 feet above the stage and missed the bar of the trapeze. He crashed to the ground, cracking his skull. He died soon after being carried to Mercer’s Hospital). Occasionally there were boxing matches, with the popular Jem Mace, ex-Champion Bareknuckle Fighter of the World.

A good deal of the comedy took off the upper classes, not always benignly: there was Champagne Charlie, of course, and ‘Two Girls of Good Society, Too wise to wear a Ring’ as the buxom Leamar sisters sang. More pointed was the ditty sung by the Great Macdermott about the Parnell divorce: ‘You want Home Rule for Ireland, And you can’t Home Rule yourself ’. A great favourite was his

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sketch of the scene when Kitty O’Shea and Parnell were caught in a bedroom together, spoken in a finicking upper-class accent:7

‘Heavens! Wot a situation! Hardly time to draw on one’s gloves! No chance of avoiding detection, no way to save the lady’s reputation–no way, no way-Oh yes, fthank Goodness there is one! A happy, happy, fthrice happy fthought!–The Fire-Escape! the Fire-Escape!

It was indeed a merry jape
when Charlie Parnell's notty shape
went scorching down the Fire Escape!'

The 1892/3 reconstruction

In his new year address to the city in 1892 Daniel Lowrey announced plans for the reconstruction of the Star. He also declared his intention to update the acts by including sketches and dramatic items, and he resolved to secure the rights to produce opera and short musicals. Adam was on hand to help put the finances together in order to attract the kind of stars the theatre needed. The borrowings were again secured on the properties in Crampton Court.

The architect for this project was James Joseph Farrall, one of the top names in commercial building. Farrall acted as advisor to leading banks and business groups, including Findlaters for the design of some branch houses. According to Watters and Murtagh, Farrall was a wealthy man who took a keen interest in the investment opportunities in the Star. However, as we shall see, within two years there was to be a falling out between Adam and Farrall* due to the mess in the construction of the theatre in Belfast.

The board of directors of the new company, the Star Theatre of Varieties Company (Limited), was: Adam in the chair; John J. Farrall, architect; Thomas Ritchie, wine merchant; and Daniel Lowrey, managing director. For his interest, Lowrey received £19,000 [€2.2m]; of this £14,000 was in cash, and £5,000 in deferred shares. He further agreed to accept no interest on these until a dividend had been paid to the buyers of ordinary shares, although he did receive a salary as managing director. Out of the cash Lowrey received, he had to pay off all debts and mortgages on the premises (amounting to over £7,000). ‘My father was a fool in business,’ says Norah Lowrey. Her story is that the Lowrey family was against the sale to the syndicate, but that Daniel was blinded by the lure of the big money and sold his birthright for a seat on the syndicated board.8

The new-look Star, which now seated 1,600 people, was ready for the Dublin international season, Horse Show Week, and was opened to the public at a cost of £3,000 [€370,000]. On Saturday 20 August 1892, the invited guests who attended the grand re-opening admired the many changes that had been made.

* Farrall was a nephew of architect John McCurdy to whom he had been articled. McCurdy was Adam’s father-in-law. Farrall, who died in September 1911, was described in the Irish Builder as ‘friendly and genial. Socially a very popular personality, he was much sought after at all social functions as the possessor of a magnificent baritone voice, an accomplishment he used with delightful taste and cultured skill.’

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Compliments slip from the ‘Star’

The stalls, pits and galleries had all been extended and the partitions that separated the bars from the auditorium had been removed on all three floors. The whole interior was now more open and spacious. The ‘Hebes’ serving the drinks wore new high-necked gowns, while the doormen and attendants were dressed in dark gold-braided uniforms with brass buttons. The special souvenir programme, advertising the celebrated burlesque actress Kate Stanley as topping the bill, was printed on pink silk.9

Daniel was now a popular Dublin character. His name was a byword in Dublin, even inside Trinity. The goodwill of the College was one of his great assets. Infinity Variety records:

On the night following a Rugby match, especially if the College won, team and followers would descend upon The Star to celebrate and Dan, on the lookout for mischief- makers, often prowled through the House disguised in an old coat and tweed cap. The students’ favourite sport was ‘prigging’–swiping mirrors, jugs, tankards, juggler’s balls, wigs, greasepaint, notice boards, ‘right under the nose of Dan’–trophies for their rooms. Norah relates ‘we had a very comfortable lounge in the theatre, with nice armchairs, carpet, a fire in winter and a coal box. One night my father noticed five students leaving with a hunchback amongst them. He said: ‘Just a moment, Gentlemen!’ and found the coal box in the hump. This was going too far. He decided to call the Police. They pleaded, he gave in, gave them a severe telling off and let them go. Years later a clergyman appeared in his office. ‘I was the hunchback’ he said, ‘you were kind to me that night, Mr Lowrey, and saved my career.’10

Cinématographe 18951 11

One of Dan Lowrey’s great talents was the ability to predict what novelties would prove attractive to his audiences, and so it was with the advent of cinema in Dublin. The motion picture finally became a reality when Auguste Lumière of Lyons, France, patented his first projection machine for the large public showing of celluloid film on 15 February 1895. He called the whole contraption Le Cinématographe. Thanks to Dan and Adam’s efforts, the very next year the cinématographe arrived at the Star Theatre in Dublin less than two months after it

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was first seen in England. Unfortunately, the first night was not a success. The audience sat expectantly, but for a long time nothing happened. Then, periodic sparks of light lit up the screen, but nothing could be made out. For a brief moment, the image of two prize-fighters graced the screen, but then the machine broke down.

After consultation with the Lumière brothers, the cinématographe was booked again for the first week in October 1896, and this time everything ran smoothly. Seven thousand people thronged through the doors at Crampton Court and Sycamore Street for the first week of the pictures. The Freeman’s Journal summed up this new wonder:

This very wonderful instrument produces with absolute correctness in every detail animated representations of scenes and incidents, which are witnessed in everyday life. To those who witness the exhibition for the first time the effect is startling. The figures are thrown upon a screen erected in front of the audience—the effect is so realistic that for the moment one is almost apt to forget that the representation is artificial. When the train comes to a standstill the passengers are seen hurrying out of the carriages, bearing their luggage, the greetings between themselves and their friends are all represented perfectly true to life and the scene is an exact reproduction of the life and bustle and tumult to be witnessed at the great railway depots of the world. The representation of the sea-bathing was also wonderfully true to life. The audience witnessed the bathers jumping into the water and the spray caused by the plunge rose into the air and descended again in fleecy showers.

Reconstruction 1897

On 1 January 1897, from his office at Sycamore Street, Daniel Lowrey issued what was to be his last address to the public:

Since the time when, seventeen years ago, I took possession of its site and year by year have striven—and succeeded too—in raising it from the slough in which it then in the eyes of the public stood to the proud position it now occupies–a financial colossus patronised by the elite standing in the very front rank of the foremost theatres and now it has been a matter of notoriety that the accommodation of the theatre is now inadequate for the enormous patronage. I intimated my intention of having it enlarged to double its present capacity and having a grand main entrance from Dame Street. Already the work of rebuilding is greatly advanced, and when the Star Theatre is reopened, the eyes of the public will also be opened to the finest amusement palace inside or outside London. A structure of beauty worthy of the city of Dublin and of the generous support with which its citizens have always upheld my efforts in catering for their healthy enjoyment.

I remain, Faithfully yours, Daniel Lowrey.12

Reconstruction began and was hoped to be completed by Horse Show week six months later. The new design was by R. H. Brunton, the noted theatre architect. The change was to be radical: not only was the capacity to be greatly

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The Olympia by Pat Liddy, Dublin Today (1984)

enlarged and the name changed from the Star to the Empire Palace, but the whole theatre was to be turned round. The new stage would now be situated at the Dame Street end instead of at the Sycamore Street end. This is the Olympia Theatre as we know it to-day.

However, financially Lowrey was in trouble, as he now had to finance the theatre in Cork, and his share of the Empire in Belfast and the Empire Palace in Dublin. He thus mortgaged all his leases and properties including his home, Roslyn Park in Sandymount. Everything rested on the success of the new theatre.

In September 1896 Adam announced that H. E. Moss of the Moss and Thornton Group* had joined the board of the Star Theatre Company Ltd, with a view to gaining early access to fresh artistes coming to London. For a charge of £100 [over €13,000] per annum Lowrey was to have the benefit of a London office. It was agreed that the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Belfast and the Cork Palace Theatre of Varieties would each subscribe one-third of the cost.

The new Dublin theatre re-opened as the Empire Palace on 13 November 1897 to great acclaim. At the gala opening in 1897 Charles Coburn was top of the bill. He had two hits which kept him going for years, the first ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’, a political song, and the other, which he bought in 1891, became one of the most famous music hall songs of all time, ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’:13

As I walk along the Bois de Boulong with an independent air,
You can hear the girls declare, He must be a millionaire.
You can hear them cry and wish to die
You see them wink the other eye,
At the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.

Irish Society14 spoke of the new theatre’s ‘brilliant interior’ under electric chandeliers, and noted the auditorium ‘opulent in curves of neo-baroque’, the ‘immense proscenium’, and the mirrors, summing it up as ‘a place of satin and gold’. Seating accommodation was provided for 1,664 persons, with large vacant spaces on each floor available for standing where room could be found for at

* Moss Empires Limited was founded in December 1899 and celebrated its jubilee in 1949. It was founded by Sir Edward Moss and the first board members were Richard Thornton, Oswald Stoll (later knighted) and Frank Allen. Stoll Moss Theatres are now London’s leading theatre operators.

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least 650 people, giving a total accommodation in the house for at least 2,300 people.

At the dinner for selected guests on the night prior to the opening Adam, as Chairman—whose more moderate unionist views were to evolve later— said that ‘the first toast they would honour in that new theatre was the health of her Gracious Majesty the Queen (applause). Long might she reign over the Empire, and might all her palaces be gorgeous as that one (loud applause).’ The Dublin Daily Express report continues:

The Chairman said that at least Dublin had one theatre which was a credit to the city and one which marked a new era in theatrical Dublin (applause). It was not many years ago when the music hall to a large section of the respectable citizens was the name of a place where they should not go, where they could not bring their friends, and, in fact, the name of a place where, if they went at all, they ought to slip in by a side door (laughter). The Empire, however, now opened into Dame Street; it reared its head proudly with the large theatres that were opening in the city, and would rival that new and gorgeous theatre that was being erected on the site of the old Theatre Royal (applause).15

The Olympia in the 1970s

To handle the enormous audience, the management introduced the new ‘queuing’ system. On 14 November 1897, The Irish Times published the following letter from the acting manager of the theatre:

Sir, The Police authorities have resolved to co-operate with the Directors of the Empire Palace Theatre in enforcing the queue system at this theatre. The directors trust that this system, which has proved most beneficial to the public elsewhere, will receive the support of the public of Dublin.

The system was enforced and on 16 November 1897, the Dublin Daily Express reported its success:

Last night the Empire Palace Theatre in Dame Street was opened to the public and the first performance was received with the utmost enthusiasm by a crowded audience.

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From the Irish Figaro, November 1887

What is known as the queue system of admission was adopted in Dublin for the first time, and not withstanding the great crowd of people who assembled in Dame street, desirous of gaining admission, there was no disorder or crushing, the admirable arrangements made by the police preventing any inconvenience. The people readily perceiving that the new system has been adopted to promote their comfort, fell in with the idea at once, and took up their places in double lines along the footpath, entering in rotation as the cue was given from the various entrances. In this way all were admitted more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case, and no confusion whatever arose.’

Despite this success, queuing did not become widespread until the last years of the First World War, when the German U-boat campaign provoked food and other shortages.

Playing ‘God Save the Queen’ 1897–8

Another innovation, the decision to play ‘God Save the Queen’ at the close of each performance, received considerably less support. We have seen how Adam and his board changed the name of the theatre from innocuous ‘Star’ to the more committed ‘Empire Palace’, and how in his speech at the opening dinner Adam had specifically connected Queen Victoria and the British Empire with the new theatre. With hindsight it seems clear he and his colleagues misread the mood of Dublin theatre-goers, who were by no means as royalist as their counterparts in Belfast or London. To nationalists ‘God Save the Queen’ was no more than a ‘party tune’, as they called it. The letters to the Editor in the Daily Independent * (bought by William Martin Murphy in 1905 and changed into the Irish Independent) tell the story:

Sir, I . . . must protest against this innovation which I can consider as little less than an insult to many Nationalists who wish to partake of a night’s amusement at the Empire. Many of my friends who attended the Empire on the opening night have informed me of their resolve not again to enter the theatre until the practice of playing ‘God Save the Queen’ is discontinued. I am sir, yours faithfully. A Nationalist

Sir, I refer to the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at the conclusion of the performance. The advertisements and posters on the dead walls say nothing about this item, but when a person is about to go home at the end of the programme this air is pro-

* The Daily Independent was founded by Parnell in 1891, merged with the anti-Parnellite Daily Nation (owned by William Martin Murphy) in 1900 and relaunched as the Irish Independent in 1905.

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duced by the new orchestra. I do not know who is responsible for the innovation, but certainly Dublin got on well enough hitherto without it, and if the theatres in Liverpool and Manchester can do without it there is no reason for its introduction in Dublin. Yours faithfully, Gallery.16

The opposition continued into the new year, 1898, when on 1 February the Herald ran the heading: ‘The Empire Theatre and the Introduction of Party Tunes’:

The playing of party tunes at the Empire Theatre has given rise to a great deal of resentment in the city and we have received several letters of protest in regard to the offensive innovation.

The management were not planning to step down, and nor were the nationalists going to.*

On the same day the Independent printed another letter on the subject:

Sir, May I suggest a way out of the difficulty with the Empire? It is that on the first strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘Rule Britannia’, some Nationalist present lead on with ‘God Save Ireland’ or the ‘Wearin’ of the Green’ or ‘The Boys of Wexford’ or ‘Who Fears to Speak of ‘98’ etc.—all present who sympathise to take up the strain, and so drown the obnoxious English party tune. The practice could be discontinued on the cessation of the cause, to be renewed if necessary. It would also give an opportunity of hearing National songs to those who have no other means of hearing them. TJR.

Daniel Lowrey dies, 1898

On 16 August 1898 Daniel Lowrey died from a brain tumour. Newspaper obituaries mourned the passing of Lowrey. As the Irish Figaro wrote: ‘It is generally agreed that he was the father of the profession’.

Lowrey was buried on the very same day that the Duke and Duchess of York visited Kingstown. As chairman of Kingstown Commissioners, Adam had to present the royal couple with an address, which he did, in the pouring rain. As they left to drive into Dublin to meet the Lord Lieutenant, he had to race across to Sandymount to attend the funeral.

At the subsequent AGM of the theatre company, shareholders noted that the chairman surprisingly made no reference at all to the late managing director.

‘I would not refer to this matter at all’, wrote one, ‘but for the extraordinary attitude of Mr Findlater who, in his opening speech, did not make a single reference to the departed dead, but calmly moved the adoption of the report and statement of accounts without saying anything concerning the personality of the individual who in the main provided the citizens of Dublin with such a splendid music hall. This silence on the part of the chairman did not, I am sure, please the majority of the shareholders

* The ‘party tune’ remained a source of contention. In 1915 Peadar Kearney, the composer of our National Anthem, turned a fire hose on the orchestra and, as Pat Liddy puts it, ‘washed them out of the pit for playing the British anthem’. See Dublin Today Dublin: Irish Times 1984 p 145

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who, bearing in mind what Mr Lowrey had done for the theatre, naturally expected to hear some words of eulogy respecting him and of the great loss the company had sustained by his untimely end.’

Adam had good reasons to be unhappy with Lowrey. He and Lowrey and Farrall had built the new theatre in Belfast at great expense, only to find that large numbers of the audience could not see the stage with the result that the theatre had to be pulled down and rebuilt. Lowrey’s feeble declaration that ‘he could never understand plans’, was hardly adequate explanation for this expensive debacle.

Theatre patents 1898

As we have seen, music halls, where the commodious drinking and smoking areas were separated from the auditorium, had fully-equipped stages, and were in constant dispute with the licensed theatre holders (i.e. the Theatre Royal, the Gaiety and Queen’s) as they introduced dramatic skits, sketches, opera items and so on into the fare.

But it was not only professional theatre that the legitimate patent-holders attacked for breaching their monopoly. In 1898 a determined effort was made to curtail amateur performances as well. Relying on an Act of 1786 the proprietors, led by the redoubtable Gunn family of the Gaiety, announced that they intended to proceed against any public theatrical performance other than in their theatres. There was of course a storm of protest, during which Adam made the shrewd point that a licence to do something was not the same as a licence to prevent others doing the same. It was a shield, not a sword.

Adam’s friend and fellow Kingstown Commissioner, Alfred Manning, wrote to the Irish Daily Independent on 20 January 1898:

Sir, Having seen an advertisement in your paper threatening legal proceedings against any persons giving theatrical performances, surely the time has come when the public of Dublin and suburbs should at once get such an absurd old-fashioned law changed. Are the commissioners and public of Rathmines, Kingstown, Pembroke, and Blackrock going to sit still and be bullied? The short-sighted selfish policy of endeavouring to stop amateur performances is not only unwise, but quite intolerable in 1898.

It appears that the licence holders did not stop at public advertisement, but actually wrote threatening letters to well-known amateur actors. At a meeting of the Town Commissioners of Kingstown, Adam informed them that

some of the best known amateurs, who were in the habit of performing in the Town Hall, and giving the public so much amusement, had received certain letters calling upon them to desist from such performances, under pain of having to pay something like £300 [€37,000] for each performance. That action to his knowledge had resulted in one case in a great deal of injury to a very deserving charity. No town in England situated like Kingstown was hammered in this way. The Town Hall was a place dedicated to the amateurs of the township, who would in turn amuse the residents and the general public.

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No doubt as a result of the general protest, the licensees drew in their horns, and the following year, Kingstown put on an amateur pantomime called Julius Caesar that received excellent reviews.

On 4 February 1899, the Saturday Herald sketched in the background to this new production:

The worthy folk on ‘the coast’ look forward to the annual production of the amateur pantomime in Kingstown with the same certainty as they expect the east winds, the Horse Show, or Christmas itself. And when it comes it brings not only good cheer, but it ushers in a week of social gaiety and downright amusement. The Kingstown amateurs are unique in a way. They write their own plays, paint their own scenery, design their own dresses and arrange their dances. Few professional undertakings could accomplish more than this.

Kingstown is perhaps the one town in Ireland that can boast an active dramatic association. Last year the amateurs there produced in the most creditable fashion a burlesque entitled ‘Christopher Columbus’, and now the same company of players announce an original pantomime to be presented on the 8th inst., which will be a skit on the life and times of no less a person than Julius Caesar. As noted, the most striking feature of the production is that all the work, from the designing of the dresses to the arrangement of the ‘business’ and the painting of the scenery, are by the amateurs concerned in the affair.

Julius Caesar opened a few days later and proved to be a very successful undertaking, as we can see from the Saturday Herald’s review:

This very attractive amateur pantomime is doing tremendous business in the Town Hall, Kingstown, since the opening night, and this is all the more satisfactory as the profits go to a deserving charity. For the last two or three nights the hall has been so densely crowded that over one hundred people were reluctantly refused admission each evening. Certainly nothing in the amateur line has been so well produced before. The scenery nightly receives rounds of applause, the dresses are superb, and the dialogue sparkles with wit; so that it is no wonder the Dublin and Kingstown public, who are always quick to recognise merit in a performance of the kind, are supporting it so enthusiastically. By special request, the management have agreed to give another matinée on Saturday next at 2.30.

As the Irish Figaro noted, it was not surprising that this play was a success as it had in it ‘all the elements of popularity’: ‘The words are full of fun, and there is plenty of movement in the action of the piece. The music also is above the average.’’17

True to form, a member of the family was in the midst of the action. Adam’s brother, Herbert, who was still an active twenty-five year-old sportsman, performed the part of the aged high priest of the Druids. The Dublin Lantern commented that Herbert ‘should have scored better for his singing of “Gold, Gold” which, by the way, is the best song in the pantomime, but appears to be lost on the audience.’ The recorder concentrated on his appearance: ‘We are now intro duced to Mystorus, High Priest of the Druids, (Herbert S. Findlater) who reveals

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Herbert as Mystorus in ‘Julius Caesar’. The
previous year (1898) he played Sir
Marmaduke Pointdextre in the Gilbert and
Sullivan operetta ‘The Sorcerer’.

Herbert, solicitor and sportsman,
in the late 1890s.

the future to the Royal family. He is very impressive in his snow white garb, and with his solemnity of expression.’18 Although the amateurs seemed to have won that day, the struggle between the legitimate theatre and its boisterous rivals was to continue. (Indeed the patentees took their monopoly so seriously as to impede for some time the establishment of the tiny Abbey Theatre, whose recondite programme could hardly have been a serious threat to the commercial theatre.)

Arthur Griffith and the city of dreadful knights

Adam’s stance on the ‘God Save the Queen’ question was not forgotten by the nationalists. In August 1903, Arthur Griffith, a constitutional nationalist, and later President of Dáil Éireann 1921-2, wrote in his United Irishman:

Sir Thomas Brown, it will be recollected, is the little tobacconist in Dunleary who was rewarded with a Knighthood for deserting the principles he professed at his election time. The circular is printed on foreign paper. This evident design of Adam Findlater should meet with some recognition from the powers that be. For years past Mr Findlater has been begging for a knighthood and there is no reason on earth when Brown of Dunleary has received one that Mr Adam Findlater should be considered ineligible.19

And in September he continued on the same theme:

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Mr Adam Findlater—he is still unknighted—cheerfully set out some years ago to ram his political opinions down the throats of the people who were wont to patronise the Star Theatre. He ordered the orchestra to play the British national anthem at the conclusion of each performance and he changed the ‘Star’ into the ‘Empire’, with the gratifying result that the shareholders’ dividend dropped from 17 per cent. to just nothing at all.

Maybe Adam would have liked a title—it would have been natural for someone of his character and determination to strive to achieve such an honour. In what looks now like a deliberate attempt to attach the Irish great and the good to the Empire, so many had been honoured that wags now called Dublin the ‘city of dreadful knights’. His cousin, Billy Findlater, now Sir

Evelyn Thompson, who married Herbert in 1904, as Lady Olivia

William, twice president of the Incorporated Law Society, had been knighted in 1897; as had Adam’s successor in the chair of the Kingstown Town Commissioners, manufacturing and pharmaceutical chemist Thomas Robinson (1900). Adam’s cousin, Malcolm John Inglis (1900), chairman of Heitons and in the chair of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce on the occasion of the visit of Queen Victoria in 1900 had one; and Robert Gardner (1905), first president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and married to Adam’s aunt, had one; Horace Plunkett (1903), founder of the co-operative movement had one, as had numerous others.* Some, such as William Martin Murphy actually turned down the honour—an event which put King Edward VII’s nose out of joint as he waited with the sword at the Irish International Exhibition in Ballsbridge in 190720— and it is said that John Jameson considered that his name was greater than any knighthood.

Motor racing 1903

After the initial experiments in 1895 cinematograph shows became a regular part of the evening variety performances. In 1903 the world-famous Irish Gordon Bennett Race was filmed by the Mutoscope and Biograph Company. John

* For example: seed merchant Sir James Mackey, builders’ provider Sir Maurice Dockrell and baker and confectioner Sir Joseph Downes. Baronetcies for Sir William Goulding, Sir John Arnott, Sir Henry Cochrane (who was on the board of Findlaters), Sir James J. Murphy, steam ship owner, Sir Richard Martin, timber importer, and senior of the lot distiller Sir John Power.

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Motor–racing, 1903 style

Gordon Bennett was the millionaire owner of the New York Herald and the Commercial Cable Company. His great wealth had been amassed by his father, a Scottish immigrant who, in 1835, founded the newspaper. As Bob Montgomery records in his history of the Gordon Bennett Rally: ‘This was an important first for motor sport, in that it was the first occasion on which an official film record was made of a motor race anywhere in the world.’21 The film was processed in a tent near the course immediately after the race and shown that very evening in the Empire Palace Theatre, as the posters recorded: ‘Edison operators have achieved the most marvellous success in the annals of animated photography; the operators only arrived from the course at 5 o’clock last night and . . . produced the intensely exciting race . . . to-night and until further notice Edison’s Irish Pictures will show a complete reproduction of The International Motor Contest . . . from start to finish.’ The speed trials were held in Phoenix Park. The race took place on 3rd July 1903 and was won by Michael Jenatzy, a Belgian driving a

four cylinder Mercedes. His average speed was 42.9 mph. He held the world record as the first man to reach the staggering speed of a mile a minute, achieved in northern France in 1893.

So far so good, but two days later disaster struck. The Dublin Daily Express22 reported the story:

During the past week the management of the Empire Palace Theatre have been occasioned keen disappointment and considerable financial loss in consequence of being unable to exhibit the photographs taken in the Phoenix Park on Saturday last during the progress of the motor speed trials . . . The photographers were successful in obtaining three splendid series of pictures, showing the different races, and the competitors taking part therein at different intervals. The photos were in every detail graphic and correct illustrations of the cars at the starting point, running neck and neck at full speed at the most dangerous positions, and as they swept by the winning post. . . . The negatives of the photos were sent on Saturday evening last by letter post to London, in order to have them properly developed. They were carefully put up in a

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tin box, and parcelled in strong wrappers, firmly secured with twine. Inside a note was enclosed stating that the films in the box were perishable, and were not to be opened except in a dark room. Every precaution was used to ensure that the films would be protected from the light, and that they should reach their destination safely.

In some unaccountable manner, however, the boxes containing the films and the wrapping in which they were placed parted company, and, after the lapse of three days, the label, twine, etc. were delivered at 68 High Holborn, London, and the negatives at Cope street, Dublin. As a result of the unwarrantable tampering which has been perpetrated by some officious individual the negatives have been rendered absolutely worthless. Through the destruction of these instantaneous records not only has the Empire Company been subjected to a large financial loss, but the general public has been deprived of the opportunity of witnessing the only reproduction possible of a series of races which attracted a large amount of interest at home and abroad.23

One of the young and intrepid reporters at the Gordon Bennett race was twenty- three year old James Joyce who recorded the cars’ joyous return to Dublin in a story entitled ‘After the Race’.* He had previously interviewed the French competitor in Paris on behalf of The Irish Times.24

The theatre AGM 1905

Despite Arthur Griffith’s reservations, from 1900 to 1904 the theatre was recording commendable profits, according to the Irish Investor’s Guardian. These averaged £3,300 [€400,000], and this despite some criticism of the quality of the fare. In May 1900, for instance there was a scathing attack in the Irish Playgoer, and in the following issue it concluded:

It is all very well to have the ‘circus form of entertainment’ on all the time at such halls as the Alhambra, or the Empire London, where they make a speciality of such turns, but what we want here is variety, and we have not been getting it. I would respectfully suggest that our principal ‘hall’ be renamed ‘The Empire Theatre of Monotonies’—it would be more appropriate.’

In 1905 the annual report had to disclose a decrease in profits from £2,915 to £963 [€110,000]. The report stated that a sum of £884 [€103,000] had been appropriated by the late manager and that the defalcations occurred during the short period at the close of the present year. It continued, ‘he was held in the highest esteem by everybody, and his default at the time was never considered as he had been connected with the Empire management for several years before being appointed manager.’ The shareholders’ meeting that ensued was a bumpy one for Adam.

On 20 September 1905 the twelfth ordinary general meeting of the shareholders of the Empire Palace Company was held at 36 College Green. The agenda

* In 1909 James Joyce returned from Trieste and spent some two and a half months setting up Dublin’s first cinema, the Volta at 45 Mary Street, which was backed by a group of Trieste businessmen. However the diet of continental films was not to Dubliners’ tastes and after a few months the Italians sold out.

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was to receive the report of the directors and the statement of accounts for the year ended 31 May, and to declare dividends and the other ordinary business of a general meeting. Adam presided, and there was a large attendance of shareholders. As the following letter to The Irish Times25 makes clear, this meeting caused quite a controversy which, by a few timely concessions, Adam quite adroitly kept below boiling point.

Sir, For the first time since the inauguration of this company the directors met the shareholders yesterday behind closed doors. The Press was excluded, and the shareholders were informed the directors would send a statement for publication. The report, which appears in your issue of today was, I presume, received from the secretary, although it is not marked ‘communicated.’ That report, so far as it deals with the statements of the chairman, is correct, but the concluding paragraph viz., questions asked by shareholders as to the general business of the company and the deficiency in the accounts of the late manager—very inadequately represents what took place. For the benefit of shareholders who were not present, I think it well to state shortly what took place at the meeting.

There were three questions dealt with (1) The deficiency of the late manager; (2) the purchase of wines, etc., for the bar; (3) the remuneration paid the directors. In reference to the first, the chairman very judiciously conciliated the meeting by admitting that the directors had omitted to obtain any security from the late manager, and while not admitting personal liability, stated he and his co-directors were considering how an arrangement could be made which would take the loss off the shoulders of the shareholders. Had he not done this the shareholders had arranged I should move an adjournment of the meeting to take the opinion of counsel on the subject, and I have little doubt it would have been carried.

(2) The question of the management of the bars was very fully discussed, and the opinion expressed that while not objecting to the firm which at present supplies goods to the bars, the shareholders considered that some one of themselves, in whom they have confidence, should have a voice in those purchases, and that two directors of Findlaters should not be selling to the directors of the Star Theatre, represented by themselves and Mr Armour. Upon this question the chairman was also conciliatory, and offered if the shareholders selected one of themselves for a seat on the Board he would be co-opted. The third question, the remuneration of the directors, would never have been raised had the chairman at an earlier period made the statement he did yesterday, that his fees amounted only to £300, a sum which I, for one, do not consider excessive.

For the first time in the history of the Star a number of shareholders came up from the country, attended the meeting, and expressed their opinions. The meeting of the Committee of the Shareholders will be held at once, the selection made as suggested by Mr Findlater, and the name adopted by them will be forwarded to him.

Yours, etc

Loftus Walshe, Chairman of Shareholders’ Committee.

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The elephant at court

After years of pursuing the music halls for infringement of their patent, the legitimate theatres, notably the 2,000- seater Theatre Royal, had decided that if you can’t beat them, you’d better join them. Their shows became increasingly like music hall and variety. In 1906, for instance, among the attractions was a song and dance troop called ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’ whose main claim to subsequent fame was that one of the lads was Charlie Chaplin.26

In March 1906, Adam had the opportunity to turn the legal tables on the Theatre Royal. He sought an injunction to restrain it from presenting two particular entertainments advertised on the grounds that they infringed the patent. Mr Blood KC, acting on behalf of Adam and the Star (Empire) quoted a regulation which specified that no exhibition of wild beasts or dangerous performances were to be permitted on the stage. He submitted that two of the Royal’s performances infringed this.

An elephant’s day in court. Evening Herald, 5 March 1906

The first was a new sensation called the ‘Globe of Life’ where a motor cycle was ridden at the speed of forty miles an hour inside a glass globe. The second was the introduction of an elephant onto the stage. According to counsel for the Theatre Royal, however, the ‘Globe of Life’ had been successfully paraded in many establishments and no accidents had ever ensued. Secondly, the elephant in question was not wild, but tame, and therefore not affected by the regulation. In fact, counsel credited this animal with more than the usual share of elephantine wisdom, and claimed for it a most distinguished past. The elephant had, apparently, been exhibited all over the United Kingdom, and had mixed in the highest society. Indeed, the elephant’s counsel produced a photograph of him in Windsor Park, and another describing him as having been ridden by the Prince of Wales, his present majesty. The Dublin Daily Mail takes up the story:

The enormous animal stood outside the court in evidence, followed by a huge retinue of adults and juveniles, which had grown in volume as he made his progress

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The Empire Palace Theatre, Dublin, tug-of-war team who won the British Isles Tug-of-war competition outright in 1911. Adam in the centre.

along the line of the Northern Quays. Entering the courtyard by the entrance from Chancery Place, the monster proceeded along quickly until he halted within earshot of the court where his character was subsequently to be attacked by counsel as that of a ‘wild beast’.

Taking his stand to one side of the passage leading from the main buildings to the coffee-room, the Lord of the Jungle did his best to dissipate prejudice by looking benignly on his surroundings and appearing the embodiment of all the virtue that a quadruped of his proportions should possess.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, his avoirdupois prevented him from being treated as an ordinary ‘exhibit’, and handed in and marked in the usual way, but at all events, he was in personal attendance to see that judgement should not be given against him through default.

For over an hour he submitted himself to an examination–not in the orthodox way of witness by one counsel at a time, but by hundreds of scrutinising eyes, all bearing at once upon his points. Apparently he came off with flying colours and proved himself a counter-attraction to the argumentative proceedings inside which were to determine whether he was to be respited from his stage labours for a while.

Before the case had concluded he had established his popularity with the crowd, and when it became known that the injunction against him had failed, the elephant turned his head indifferently as if to say, ‘I told you so,’ and his trainer climbed into position on his back and galloped gaily off; the huge animal, as one might playfully imagine, feeling satisfied that he left court without a stain on his character. 27

The patented theatres, having failed to stop the music hall, resolved instead to join in their success by increasingly promoting ‘hippodrome’ or circus seasons. Despite this hotting up of competition for audiences, a new manager turned things round at the Empire, and we read in the Irish Investor’s Guardian on 19 September 1908 that financially, the company were doing well:

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There was a further improvement in the trading result of the past year’s operations of this Company, which, considering the counter attractions of the Irish International Exhibition, and the competition offered by the Hippodrome seasons at the Theatre Royal and other places of amusement, must be considered satisfactory evidence of the success of the management during a trying year. The net profits for the year ended 31st May last amounted to £3,488 [over €400,000], an increase of £1,211 [€140,000].

According to the Belfast News Letter on 14 September 1908, Adam took the threat from the legitimate theatre coolly: ‘There is,’ he said, ‘room in Dublin for any amount of light amusements. There is a craze for light opera simply because in the present-day rush people do not want anything that makes them think or worry. In the old days people went to the Theatre Royal to criticise the heavy plays in which Barry Sullivan appeared. They took notes of such pieces as “The Lady of Lyons” and “Hamlet”, and they spent days afterwards discussing them. Since then there has been a change in popular taste.’ In public, Adam declared that he saw no reason why the present desire for light entertainment would not continue. He had been told fifteen years ago in Belfast that vaudeville could not live, but at the present moment it seemed that most of the theatres were indulging in it and nothing else. The competition which would follow would make the theatres produce good material. They would see better turns in all the theatres as the result of this movement.

However, the minute book of the Empire in Belfast reveals that privately there was some concern: ‘In view of the Theatre Royal running Hippodrome for the next eight weeks introducing Madame Albani, Harry Lauder and other eminent artists, followed by the re-opening of the Gaiety with variety performances on the 2nd August, immediate action must be taken on our behalf to secure strong attractive turns.’

On Adam’s death at the age of fifty-six in 1911, his brother Willie took over as Chairman of the Empire Palace Theatre. In 1923 control of this theatre passed to Robert Morrison, impresario and theatrical agent whose family had various investments in the entertainment business and who owned the first film-making company in Ireland. At the same time the theatre name was changed to the more politically acceptable ‘Olympia’. Willie remained an investor in order to retain the bar business for Findlaters, and between 1929 and 1937 received an excellent flow of dividends. In 1951 the company was taken over by a company controlled by Stanley Illsley and Leo McCabe whose slogan was ‘World Theatre—at Your Doorstep’. Audiences were entertained by international ballet and dance companies, and to top class plays and drama, pantomime and revue. There were few international stars of the day that did not appear in front of the appreciative Irish audiences. The memory of Dan Lowrey has faded in Dublin but will forever remain part of Irish theatre folklore.

In the meantime, Findlaters retained their interest in theatre, with the ownership of the Empire in Belfast which stayed in the family until 1961, as you will read in Chapter 14.

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Notes and references

  1. Eugene Watters and Matthew Murtagh Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall 1879-97 Dublin: Gill and Macmillan 1975 p 34
  2. Ibid. pp 35-6
  3. F. R. Wolfe Theatres in Ireland, a booklet published under the auspices of the Amateur Dramatic Defence Association, Dublin: Humphries and Armour 1898 p 18
  4. Hugh Hunt The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre 1904-1979 Dublin: Gill and Macmillan 1979 p 5
  5. Ibid. p 5
  6. Philip B. Ryan The Lost Theatres of Dublin Westbury: The Badger Press 1998 pp 199-201
  7. Watters & Murtagh op cit pp 110–111
  8. Ibid. p 139
  9. Ibid 132
  10. Ibid 131
  11. Ibid 165
  12. Ibid 168
  13. Watters and Murtagh op.cit. p 156–7
  14. The Irish Society 13 November 1897
  15. Dublin Daily Express 13 November 1897
  16. Irish Independent 18 November 1897
  17. Irish Figaro 9 February 1899
  18. The Recorder and Suburban Visitor 18 February 1899
  19. United Irishman 29 August 29 1903
  20. Thomas Morrissey SJ William Martin Murphy Historical Association Dundalgan Press 1997 p 37
  21. Bob Montgomery The Irish Gordon Bennett Race 1903, Irish Transport Series, Dreoilin Specialist Publications 1999
  22. Dublin Daily Express 11 July 1903
  23. Dublin Daily Express 11 July 1903
  24. Brendan Lynch Green Dust Dublin: Portobello Publishing 1988 pp 16, 26
  25. The Irish Times 22 September 1905
  26. Ryan op. cit. p 31
  27. The Mail 5 March 1906