A Night at the Opera House in days gone by

A performance at the Opera House in the 1930s.
A performance at the Opera House in the 1930s.

Wall hoardings, pubs, long vertical strips of coloured paper or cardboard stuck on shop windows, advertised the turns (acts) in the Opera House.

The audiences came from the city and much further afield.

Demolition works at the rear of the Opera House on Carlisle Road in the 1960s.

Demolition works at the rear of the Opera House on Carlisle Road in the 1960s.

Some came from Limavady via train to the Waterside Station then by ferry to Foyle Street and up the ‘breakneck steps’ to Carlisle Road.

People on their way to Derry’s New Royal Opera House in the 20s and 30s called into Jarvis’s fruit and grocery shop, located across the street, before joining the queue for the “Gods” (cheap seats) on a Saturday night.

At the shop, the purchase of a single Woodbine and a bag of tainted fruit helped ensure a good night’s crack.

Jarvis’s had no loss on fruit. Ensconced on the hard wooden forms in the “Gods”, the audience consumed the edible parts of the tainted fruit and retained the stumps for future use!

Incidentally, the venue, with a capacity of 1,600 people, opened in 1877 and played host to a lot of the stars of its day (that may have included Count John McCormack who appeared at least three times in Derry).

While awaiting the first act, the adverts for Hughes’ Soap, Grant’s Snuff, Watt’s Whiskey and many others could be read on the fire curtain.

Curtain up was a signal for noisy cheering and hand clapping which quickly subsided as the night’s turn performed. Catcalls and a fusillade of tainted fruit descended on any unfavoured performances; and the stage often had to be swept clean before the following act.

This criticism was not only reserved for bad turns and was frequently and indiscriminately directed at performers regardless of talent or performance.

One singer - who went on to become very successful - writing in his memoirs some years after, said that his most treasured possession was half a red brick thrown at him in the Derry Opera House!

A net eventually had to be stretched across the “Gods” to protect the players and the audience.

The net was soon festooned with rancid fruit - no doubt adding to the overall ambience.

The missiles were usually accompanied by noisy verbal abuse which frequently led to exchanges between the “Gods” and the stage.

Here’s a few examples: Singer: “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, Gods: “Well away you go then.” Shakespearean actor: “My kingdom for a horse”, Gods: “Would a donkey do?”, Actor: “Yes come on down”.

Celebrated companies like, Sousa, D’Oyly Carte, and local groups were welcomed and treated very enthusiastically.

The behaviour of the audience gave rise to the myth that any turn that was well received in Derry would be successful anywhere.

It is believed Derry people thought that acts were brought to the Opera House to be ‘tried out’. What they didn’t realise was that all provincial music hall audiences thought the same.

The Opera House flourished in a atmosphere which, like Victorian architecture, persisted in some form until the 1930s. Visiting show people were regarded as risqué and young men from well-off families who consorted with the chorus girls were frowned upon.

Respectable traders and workmen maintained a defensive distance between themselves and these wandering players.

Johnny McCafferty, an upright respectable taxi driver in the city, worried exceedingly about his spiritual welfare each time he was called to The Imperial Hotel - the favoured accommodation for visiting acts.

From here he often had to carry chorus girls and their consorts to parties and functions across the town - so he always took the precaution of taking his Rosary beads with him.

It is said that, on one such occasion, the ribaldry in the back seat was so bad that he abandoned the taxi and his passengers in the middle of Carlisle Road. Although he lost his job, he saved his soul and eventually his prayers were answered when he secured a job in a local bakery.

During the depression of the 30s - and the advance of cinema - the Opera House fell on hard times.

Staff numbers were reduced. The commissionaire who opened the doors to the queues on Carlisle Road was dismissed and his duties taken over by the ticket collector who, having opened the doors, then had to run to his original station.

Waiting customers soon discovered that, if they could get through the ticket barrier before him, they were in for free. The result was that the ticket collector was almost trampled to death in the stampede when the doors were opened.

However, ‘self-preservation is the mother of invention’. The ticket collector acquired a long wooden pole with which, from a safe distance, he could knock up the panic bars on the doors, dropping the pole - he then ran like hell to the barrier.

But the end was in sight and the Opera House gave way to a cinema called The Opera.

Although it was converted by the owner, ‘Red Willie’ Doherty in the late 30s - a prosperous time for picture houses - it appears to have been less than successful.

The audience at the back of the balcony complained of not being able to see the screen.

Not long after, it was destroyed by fire. This occurred during a republican campaign of bombing cinemas that showed British newsreels.

The burning of the Opera House removed a Derry landmark from the scene. The Opera House drew the wrath of the local IRA for showing what were described as ‘British war-time propaganda films’ before the main event.

Other prominent local entertainment houses were also targeted for the same reason.

In a recent article in the ‘Journal’, former St Columb’s teacher John McCartney says it was his father, Johnny, and another man, who he thinks was Joe McGinley, who set a fire in the building on that night of March 8, 1940.

The story is told in John’s book ‘Fufteen’, a biography of his father, one of the great characters of his time in the city.

“He didn’t hate opera - he loved opera!” says John. “Count John McCormack was a great favourite, and he loved the other great singers of the time.”