Legendary pantomime star Maureen Potter recalls her greatest moments on stage, radio and TV. She was interviewed by author Colm Keane in 2002, two years before she died.
There was a time when Maureen Potter’s Gaiety pantomimes were as Christmas as plum pudding.
Year after year, she sang, danced and performed her way through sold-out productions, demonstrating a unique genius for comedy, satire and simple good fun. Her versatility was awesome, her timing perfect. For those who saw her perform, she left memories that would be fondly recalled down through the years.
Maureen’s pantomimes were lavish spectacles, with colourful scenery, topical jokes, and lots of mayhem and madness on stage. Men with muscles played women. Women played boys or cats. Well-known acrobats, dancers and singers made guest appearances. Children in the audience hissed and booed.
There were princes and princesses, evil witches, the bad being outwitted by the good. And presiding over them all was the extraordinarily talented ‘Pantomime Queen’, the great Maureen Potter.
“Ah, yes, the pantomimes were lovely,” Maureen reflected in 2002.
“I’ve done so many wonderful ones – Tom Thumb, Humpty Dumpty, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Goldilocks – they were all marvellous. They were especially wonderful for children, who love a live show. They love the special effects, and all that, but to be able to talk back, that’s what they like.
“They can’t talk back at the cinema. That makes pantomime a lovely experience.”
There was, of course, a lot of hard work – memorising scripts, refining dance routines, doing matinees and evening shows, all occurring around Christmas.
“Pantomime was tough,” Maureen agreed. “It was really tough. You spent your whole Christmas Day with a turkey leg in one hand and a script in the other. But even though our home life was so chaotic at that time of year, my consolation was in the fact that the panto would be bringing so much happiness during the season of goodwill.”
Maureen, who was born in Dublin in 1925, was destined for the stage. “I was five when I went to school and I refused to go unless my mother sent me to dancing school the next day,” Maureen remarked.
Her mother agreed, wisely it seems, as Maureen turned out to have nimble feet. She soon became All-Ireland Junior Dancing Champion.
Dublin’s legendary dance teacher, Connie Ryan, spotted the child prodigy and took her under her wing. “I was very lucky,” Maureen recalled. “In the summer of 1935, when I was ten years old, I was out in Bray in a little cinema doing a show with Connie Ryan. Jimmy O’Dea came to see it and he booked me for my first pantomime.
“It was Jack and the Beanstalk in the Olympia. Then he booked me for the following year for the next Olympia pantomime, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.’”
Fortune shone again on Maureen when she was aged 12. “The manager of the Theatre Royal got me an audition with Jack Hylton,” Maureen said, referring to the famous British bandleader and impresario. “I went into a huge room with a piano and I sang. I forgot all about the audition and went on holidays to Portmarnock with my cousins. One day, we were trying to make fudge on a Bunsen burner and we set the place on fire. My cousin used all my clothes to put the fire out.
“A day or so later, a telegram came from my mother to say Jack Hylton wanted me in two days time to go to London and broadcast from the Queen’s Hall. I had no clothes!
“I had to borrow my cousin’s, which were miles too big for me, and I looked like Little Orphan Annie. I did the show. I was supposed to stay with him for a month but I stayed for two years.”