Entertainers

There was rarely a quite moment in our house. Somebody was always playing a musical instrument. Although she was a qualified piano teacher, just like her mother was before, my mother didn't give piano lessons. She said she didn't have the patience. Dad, on the other hand gave lessons to pupils almost every day. One day it would be a singing duo with a guitar and the next somebody else with a button keyed accordion.

Mum and Dad had a dance band when I was young and played in the local hotels to the tourists who came in their droves every summer from Scotland and the North of England. Mum played the piano and Dad played a host of instruments, the accordion, guitar, the Hawaiian guitar, a dulcimer and several strange things he had concocted himself.

Out of the summer tourist season, they put together a 'concert party' to entertain the local townspeople and surrounding area. It was amazing that a small town had so much and such diverse talents.

It was not unusual to have an Irish dancer. There was an abundance of those and my Dad had an enormous repertoire of Irish and Scottish jigs and reels. I watched girls practicing their routines on our upstairs landing. There wasn't much room but there was no carpets or rugs there, just linoleum. You can't tap dance on carpet!

Of course, there were singers. There was the cowboy duo, The Buckeroos singing 'Home on the Range' in close harmony. Then there was Owen Finnegan who was a tenor and sang John McCormack operatic and folk classics.

I wasn't terribly interested in singers or dancers, they were two a penny. There were three other acts much more riveting...

Tom Neil was hilarious before he even spoke. He was tall and lanky and wiggled his long fingers. This was some time before Tommy Cooper became popular but Tom was definitely cut from the same cloth. Part music hall, part circus clown, his jokes were sometimes childish and if anybody else tried to tell them, they wouldn't be funny at all.

"A man climbed up the mast of a ship to the crow's nest. By the time he had come back down, the ship was gone!"

Such was the delivery and body language, the audience were rolling in the aisle.

One of Tom's treasures was a memory act. He would hand a telephone directory to someone in the audience and tell them to open it at any page. He would ask what the page number was and get them to choose any person on the page. After a bit of walking up and down between the wings of the stage with his head in his hands, thinking very hard, he would announce the telephone number associated with that name to the audience. "That's right", would come the response, to rapturous applause. Tom would then ask for the directory to be passed along to somebody else. This time he would ask for the page number and any telephone number on the page. A few gyrations later and he would give the name of the person whose number had been given. Correct again!

For the next bit, he would ask for someone to shout out a page number and line number and concentrating even harder was able to give both the name and number on that line. Amazing. "One more time", he would say, "another page number and line number". He would pace up and down as before putting his hand to his head. The he would turn round and pace a bit more. Still more pacing. It wasn't coming. He would say, "It's...", then turn and do some more pacing. Did he not know the answer to this one?

The somebody would walk out from the wings with a telephone directory in hand and shout, "Hey Tom, that's page is missing from this one!", giving the game away completely.

Tom was a master of timing. A truly funny man.

Then there was Sammy Gilmore. Sammy had come originally from England and specialised in conjuring, fire eating and sword swallowing. A one man circus, by all accounts. An act of this magnitude was quite a catch for a small provincial town. For me, standing a few feet from someone swallowing a real sword was quite a different experience from seeing it happen afar on some stage or in a circus ring. Feeling the heat from the fire blown from his mouth is something I will never forget. One trick that particularly impressed me was when he took out a packet of double-edged razor blades, demonstrated their sharpness with a piece of paper, and continued to put each one into his mouth, one by one, pausing each time as if to savour the taste, or maybe the pain. It could have been either. Then he swallowed deliberately, and took a sip of water from a glass to wash it down. Having apparently eaten the entire packer of blades, he put his fingers to the back of his throat and pulled them all out again but by now, they were joined with string into a necklace. Amazing trick!

Later, I got Sammy to teach me some of his tricks. The card tricks were easy when you knew the technique and I was able to impress my friends afterwards. He also showed me how fire eating was done. It used highly volatile cigarette lighter fuel which, when ignited, burned with a relatively cold flame and as long as you blew it away from you, was not as difficult or dangerous as it looked. It did leave a nasty taste of petrol in the mouth though. He tried to persuade me that swallowing a sword was easy too, that it just went straight down the gullet and there was nothing to it. I never did pluck up the courage to try that myself. I guess that's the difference between a born performer and a rank amateur.

Winnie Hartnett was the sister of our next door neighbour. She lived with her family in a quaint little cottage that was the gatehouse to the Drumalas Estate. Winnie was a ventriloquist. She had a papier maché doll called Jeannie with big rosy cheeks and odd looking wooden teeth. I never really understood the concept of 'throwing the voice', as it was called. How could you possibly 'throw your voice' to make it appear that it was coming from behind a cushion across the room? Like other types of 'magic', ventriloquism is all about distraction – and not moving your lips. I don't know how Winnie managed to make her voice come from behind a cushion, but she did!

Her other 'doll' was even more surprising. Forming her forefinger and thumb into a mouth, she drew on some smoochy lips with lipstick. A mop of hair with two big rolly eyes was held in place with her middle finger and the body of a rag doll hung down beneath. By just moving her thumb, 'Sylvia' would speak. With Jeannie back on her knee, there was a three part repartee between them. I can't recall any of the gags, I don't think the patter was as significant as the ventriloquism itself but it certainly was entertaining.

Years later, the family became a variety act. I played guitar and sang. My younger brother played an upright bass guitar that my Dad had made. Mum played piano and Dad played an odd assortment of kettles, vacuum cleaner hoses and a strange banjo made from a chamber pot. He could coax a tune from just about anything.

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.