Joe O’Gorman the Irish Comedian was born in Dublin on May 24th 1863.
Joe O'Gorman Senior 1863 - 1937. "Irish And Proud Of It". First Chairman Variety Artistes' Federation. King Rat.
Attaining a local reputation as a dancer and singer he resolved to try his luck in England and secured an apprenticeship with Horace Wheatley. He then fell in with Joe Tennyson – formerly Devine – and formed the Double Act which was to achieve considerable prominence as Tennyson and O’Gorman – ”The Two Irish Gentlemen” with top hats and smart frock coats, bucking the conventional ”Irish” style of the day.
They are considered to have originated the Comic and Straight-Man formula, adopting the Minstrel Show Cross talk between the end men and Mr Interlocutor by taking their own stand centre stage.
This led easily into simultaneous dancing and and singing as a duo.
The act toured extensively all over the British Isles and made several ventures to the USA, travelling as far west at St Louis, which was considered the furthest safe venue. In 1897/8 they travelled to Australia, joining forces at the Tivoli, Sydney with Johnny Coleman, Joe ‘s brother – in -law. Johnny was the brother of his wife Maggie Coleman, the extensive Coleman Family being much related to Sanger ‘s Circus. Sandy Coleman was, by popular report, Queen Victoria’s favourite clown.
Joe O’Gorman had two sons with Maggie Coleman – Joseph (junior) born July 1890 and David, born 1892. He continued touring in Variety and Pantomime until 1902, when Joe Tennyson indicated his determination to retire from the Business and Joe (”The Irish Comedian and Raconteur”) continued on his own, as did Tennyson a little while later with another partner.
The later years of the 19th Century and early ones of the 20th century saw a huge development in the Variety Theatre. With the organisation of chains and circuits of theatres the terms and conditions of work offered to the Performers were not always satisfactory, with some cases of exploitation and hardship.
It was considered necessary to form an organisation – “The Variety Artistes’ Federation” – to safeguard the interest of the Profession and, in particular, the less well known and more lowly remunerated members.
Joe O’Gorman was named as First Chairman: No. 1 in the Profession. He was the man to lead the Artistes – the 6,000 holding membership cards – in the disputes which were not long in coming to a head.
The “Music hall War” started in January 1907 and saw closure and picketing of Halls. It generated fierce antagonisms, for the Variety Theater was the popular evening entertainment before the advent of film, radio, greyhound racing and evening Football.
The closure of theatres left a gap in people’s and the Country’s life.
The dispute went to Arbitration and was settled with a victory for the Artistes over amounts of Commission to be paid to Agents and payment for matinees, with sensible alterations to the practice of barring acts from appearing in proximate localities for long periods.
Joe O’Gorman had led the Artistes but this left him in a disadvantageous situation. He had been made, against his inclination, Chief Booker of the Water Rats’ (a social and charitable organisation for members of the Profession) Agency and in consequence the focus of many animosities from the Proprietors and Agents, whose control had been challenged. As a consequence some of the most prominent Artistes reneged on their agreement to book with the Rats’ Agency.
This redounded against Joe and he found work hard to get. However TOP (Harry Tate, O’Gorman and Wal Pink) Productions was formed, resulting in the inception of the show “Irish and Proud of it” which was a vehicle for Joe O’Gorman, emphasising his brogue, Irish dancing and songs – ”My Irish Molly” and ”Bedelia” among others.
This show had immense popularity and was followed by others in a similar vein – ”As Irish as Ever” and ”Shamrock Time”. A visit to USA was allowed in 1917 but plans to take the show there came to nothing .
The Music Hall Strike coincided with the first appearances of Joe’s sons – Dave and Joe – as the O’Gorman Brothers. This followed their return from South Africa where they had worked with their father and step mother, Jessica Grace, ”The Beautiful Jessica”. She was a celebrated wire walker, and Dave and Joe had assisted her in her new act as a singing and dancing duo.
The young fellows branched out on their own with fast stepping and acrobatic dancing, singing and the leven of comedy allowed to juveniles.
They worked with consistent success on all the circuits and tours up to the First World War, visiting South Africa in 1913 and Berlin, Vienna and Budapest just before War.
The comedy double act style – in evening dress – evolved into the well understood Double Act formula and became their permanent staple.
They toured their own shows “Round the Town”, ”Finnegan’s Follies” and ”Fools in Paradise”. Capitalising on the 1920’s vogue for revues, they became celebrated exponents in Variety of the Crazy style of comedy, having a consistent presence at the Holborn Empire, touring the Palladium Shows and developing it in Summer Seasons at Worthing and Southend.
Dave and Joe O'Gorman, 1930
This broad, fast and eccentric mode of working had secured the Brothers two visits to the United States in 1931 and 1932 for Paramount and RKO – on the Fanchon and Marco routes – working from Coast-to-Coast. This was an invaluable experience during which they sampled the developing and challenging American practice of fast moving and polished comedy.
It was from this period that the act became styled ”Dave and Joe O’Gorman” in keeping with American convention. This coincided with their first appearance in Pantomime (at the Shakespeare, Liverpool), a form which they were soon acknowledged to be masters of. There followed pantomimes at Manchester and Sheffield, and three years for the Melville Brothers at the Lyceum Theatre, London, immediately before the Second World War.
Joe O'Gorman - New York 1939
The War Years were very busy theatrical ones, with successive Pantomimes including the Alexandra, Birmingham, Glasgow and Coventry. This led in turn to touring shows – ”The Boys of the BBC” and ”Hello Playmates” with Arthur Askey – in which time their renowned comedy vent parody was established, and radio broadcasting for BBC and at the Prince’s ”Magic Carpet” in 1943 for Firth Shepherd.
Their regular and continuous variety work was interspersed with a great deal of work for ENSA, beginning in the UK and travelling to Italy (1944) and India and Burma (1945) when War conditions and hostilities were at their height.
Entertaining troops was very much to their taste.
On return the Brothers were booked for annual Emile Littler Pantomimes, including ”Mother Goose” at the London Casino (1946/47), described by James Agate as ”…perhaps the best pantomime I have ever seen.”
Dave and Joe O'Gorman, Manchester Hippodrome 1946
In 1948 Dave and Joe were selected (the idea had been mooted in 1939) to take over the Olsen and Johnson legend ”Hellzapoppin” – the expression of all fast moving and anarchic Crazy Shows – and to tour it following London showings.
In this venture the Brothers’ long experience and versatility were seen to best advantage and given every scope. This was a deserved success and had many imitators.
The subsequent years were filled with a second Royal Variety Show in 1946 (following 1938, though not as featured performers) and ample Variety and Pantomimes – Leeds, Cardiff, Dudley, Swansea and Bristol. There followed further CSE tours – taking over from ENSA – to Italy and Austria, Canal Zone and Malaya, plus the usual round of Variety.
A final touring venture was the Victoria Palace show ”Knights of Madness” with Eddie Gray and Arthur English (1954) and Panto at Bristol ”Cinderella”.
In the intervening years Dave O’Gorman had been very prominent in the operations of the Variety Artistes Federation as Chairman for several years. He was elected King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats, following his Father, who was twice in that position.
Dave O’Gorman died in 1964 and Joe O’Gorman in 1974, bringing to an end an era in which the family had occupied a central position in the world of Variety.
Comment From Chris Robertson, 28th April 2012
I would urge anybody who has an interest in music hall, the entertainment industry in general or indeed British history, to watch this site as it grows or, if possible, contribute to it. It is a window into a fascinating part of British culture and connects us to part of our heritage that we must not lose. As for myself, well, I came across it by pure serendipity. Let me explain….
Brian O’Gorman who, with his grandson, Paddy Johnston, is the moving force behind this site, contacted me after he saw my mother’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph towards the end of 2011. Mum did many extraordinary things in her life, but one of the few straightforward things she did was to marry my late step-father, George Robertson.
Mum died last year and the DailyTelegraph’s glancing mention of George in mum’s obituary led to Brian writing to me, asking if, perchance, this was the George Robertson who spent years working the music hall circuit alongside his father, Joe O’Gorman?
When I confirmed that it was, Brian was kind enough to invite me to his home and we spent a highly enjoyable afternoon talking about George, Joe and his brother Dave, known for part of their distinguished careers as the O’Gorman Brothers, Variety in all its aspects – no pun intended – some of the extraordinary times my step-father enjoyed with Dave and Joe, the nearly endless flow of famous people they worked with, the eccentric goings-on behind the scenes, the rise and fall of the music hall and much, much more. I felt I’d touched history.
My stepfather was Dave and Joe’s stooge. For those who don’t know the term, that means George was the straight man who set up gags and various scenarios for the senior part of the act. But Dave and Joe, George and the rest of the permanently rotating ensemble were a team with no hierarchy except talent and even that was used to the benefit of all. Everybody worked very, very hard. The Act was all and everybody was on an even footing when it came to getting it right.
How many of us can say we work in such a healthy atmosphere today?
I’m not normally one for saying that previous eras were better than ours. For one thing, it’s the human way, when recounting tales from the past to forget any boredom and suffering. But the world of Dave and Joe was more humane, happier and real than the techno-crazed nonsense we are becoming immersed in and what Brian described of life on the road for the brothers and the gang, particularly before, during and immediately after the second world war, gave me a sense of history I’ve never gained from a book.
I didn’t know until Brian told me that approximately 200 music halls closed in 1955, the year that ITV began broadcasting. His belief is that the decline actually started before television began pumping entertainment in to people’s homes and his explanation for that is fascinating.
I won’t go into that area as it may be grist for future articles on this site. But the point is that we lost part of our identity when we lost music hall. There is a British-ness about music hall and its cousins – cabaret, revue and above all, pantomime – which is too powerful to have left the national DNA in a couple of generations. But neither can it be reproduced on YouTube. No sir. Not at all. You need to be there, to feel it and smell it. It’s taken me years to understand that, but the tales of Dave and Joe that Brian recounted meshed perfectly with the stories George told me and the two strands came together to make a whole.
Brian touched on so much: the tales of nonentities who unexpectedly became famous, the unappreciated professionals who never rose above middle of the bill, the tyranny of the time-keeping management of the music halls, the incredible precision of the acts themselves and what they went through to achieve it, the murderous politics of the industry… if you can’t enjoy the privilege I had of learning about these and other fascinating aspects of this bygone world directly from Brian, then try and get hold of his book, Laughter In The Roar.
Funnily enough, mum and I came across Brian’s book in the late 90s, when we went on an otherwise unsuccessful hunt for anything connected to George in the handful of theatrical shops that are left in London. My signed copy from Brian now resides alongside the few other bits and pieces the family has from that era, including photos of George and the brothers on the road that Brian was kind enough to make me copies of.
My step-father was not the most organised of people and mum was a ferocious burner-discarder of anything she decided was not of immediate use, so Laughter In The Roar and the bits and pieces associated with it are rare and precious keepsakes for us.
I could go on and on. There was the time, when entertaining the troops in Italy – or was it Burma or India? – that George’s legs got sunburnt. He went off to his tent to recover for the evening performance, fell asleep with his pipe in his mouth and burnt down the tent. But that night….. yes, you guessed it. Like a true pro, he played his part in the brothers act as if nothing had gone amiss.
Then there was the time that… well, enough already. My journey in to this area of British history had a personal incentive. But the reader needs to find their own incentive.
I’ll just add this, though. When artistes of whatever profession leave their trade they tend to go in one of two directions. They either live through their memories or they plunge into their new life – their new role? – as fully as they relished their previous one.
George largely did the latter. He did a series of mundane jobs in our local hospital in south London, took early retirement and became a much loved local character, shuffling around the local pub and betting shop circuit in an era when it was still safe for an older man to do so. I honestly think his bets never rose above 50p and being no great student of form, he never made his fortune.
But everybody knew him and loved him. As he grew older, George would occasionally unleash a long forgotten dance routine or ballad from the past in whatever theatre – by which I mean pub or betting shop – he happened to be in at the time. Even when he imbibed more whiskey than was good for him – a not infrequent occurrence – George could still unleash an impressive routine from the archives. He was a gentle and loving soul, who found fulfilment in making others happy. Of course, I knew that before I met Brian, but I had it confirmed and brought to life again when I met Brian. I felt George was in the room.
My point, though, is that you don’t have to have a personal connection to tap into the richness of this world. Take the plunge: ask Brian a question, find out the name of your long gone and undoubtedly destroyed local music hall and get its name on to this site: get your hands on Laughter In The Roar and pull on any of the innumerable threads it provides to the recent past. This is a rich world of British-ness that younger people would be better for being in touch with.
I keep saying British-ness, but of course the O’Gorman family was Irish. When the brothers were starting out, some very unpleasant chapters of Irish-British relations were still fresh in the public mind. One of the few topics under the sun that Brian and I didn’t get round to was how the brothers – let alone their father, Joe O’ Gorman senior – coped with the anti-Irish sentiment that was present in Britain at the time. Some of it was vicious beyond belief. Did the O’ Gormans just treat it as another day, another pressure amongst so many? Or did they so define themselves as stage characters that British audiences saw no further than the make-up? I don’t know and there you are – another subject for debate on these pages.
So please set to. Find a moment to tap into this part of our heritage. Help this website grow. Look at others that perpetuate the memory of this peculiarly Anglo-Irish chunk of history. At some point, I hope Brian puts some of his incredible music hall poster collection on here. It gives a real flavour of the world of Dave and Joe and George. When I saw it, I could hear them laughing. I really could and so will you.