1943, All-Star Variety Concert on St Patrick’s Night in Portglenone
The above advert appeared in the Friday 5th March 1943 edition of the Ballymena Observer. The newspaper, costing two pence, outlined the line-up for a splendid all-star performance to celebrate St Patrick’s Night in Portglenone Recreation Hall at 8pm on Wednesday 17th March 1943.
It was an opportunity for some merriment in the midst of the world war that was raging at the time. In March, the allies were taking back North Africa from the Nazis. But they were suffering devastating convoy losses in the mid-Atlantic due to increased U-boat activity.
Locally, police were insisting on proper blackouts on all windows. And individuals in the area were fined in the Innisrush and Portglenone courts for non-compliance. But the locals had a night of entertainment to look forward to on St Patrick’s Night. Here is a rundown of the major stars that performed that night.
Olive Briggs was a contralto singer. A contralto refers to a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type. As well as appearing on stage in Portglenone that evening, Olive Briggs also appeared on the radio that same St Patrick’s afternoon. She had recorded a radio programme for the BBC Home Service. It was called ‘Music from Ulster’ and aired at 4.30 that afternoon. Fellow contributors on the radio show included: James Breakey (baritone), R. L. O’Melay (Uillean pipes) and David Curry’s Players.
James Johnston was a lyric tenor, mainly focussed on opera. He was born in Belfast in August 1903, and died there some 88 years later, in October 1991. He worked as a butcher in his father’s store. And despite having no formal training, he won every singing competition that he entered, apart from one. He topped up his butcher’s income by singing in semi-professional performances around Ireland. After positive feedback for his 1940 Dublin performance in Rigoletto, Johnston was offered a contract with Sadler’s Wells Opera. He ultimately became their principal tenor and stayed with the company for nearly ten years.
Despite having had no formal acting lessons, James Johnston went on to play a wide range of roles on the stage. He played Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and the title role in Grounod’s Faust. In the video below Joyce Gartside talks about working with James Johnston.
In 1948, Johnston starred as Adorno in the British production of Simon Boccanegra. The following year he played the part of Hector de Florac in Arthur Bliss’s opera The Olympians. In 1949 he also made his Covent Garden debut in La Traviata, starring opposite Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. In his career, he also worked with such notable stars as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Victoria de los Angeles.
In 1958, despite being at the peak of his singing powers, he retired and went back to the family butcher shop in Belfast.
But in this 1943 performance at Portglenone, he most probably sang his usual stage songs of the time, namely: ‘When a Charmer Would Win Me’ (from Verdi), ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes (from Sullivan), ‘La Donna Mobile’ and ‘Kitty of Coleraine’ His two encore numbers at the time were ‘Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life’ and ‘Goodbye’.
Williamson was a baritone singer from Londonderry. He also gave recitations, told humourous anecdotes and compered shows. He appears to have been active from the early 1930s until at least 1956. Williamson also appeared on a BBC radio show called A Ballad Concert on the early evening of Friday 8th July 1938, when he sang ‘When the Swallows Homeward Fly’. Williamson’s set at the time of the 1943 show in Portglenone included the songs: ‘The Floral Dance’ and ‘The Hills of Donegal’. A few weeks later, in late April 1943, after singing these at a Young Farmers performance in Ballymena, the Ballymena Observer noted that Louis Williamson “has lost nothing of his old artistry and that his splendid baritone voice is as vibrant as ever.”
Louise Williamson and James Johnston during shows in early 1943, would often sing lively duets. The songs typically included: ‘The Moon has Raised Her Lamp Above’, ‘The Glendarmes Duet’, ‘The Wee Cooper o’ Fyfe’ and ‘Johnny, I Hardly Knew You’.
Alfie Donnelly was a comedian and impersonator, appears to have been active between 1943 and 1953. Later in 1943, after his performance in Portglenone, Alfie appeared on the BBC Radio show ‘Ulster’s Half Hour’. The broadcast was recorded in the BBC’s Belfast studio and focussed on the repatriation of several Ulster prisoners of war.
Donnelly was known for his sly shrewd sense of humour. He was known to do female impersonations. But his best were of Winston Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini and Togo broadcasting.
A few weeks after his Portglenone performance, Donnelly was on stage in Ballymena. The local newspaper in it’s review said that “one spontaneous quip sent the audience into roars. It was when the town clock was striking ten, and he stopped suddenly, and then said in halting tones of Mr Churchill ‘the bells shall ring again’”
Miss Molly Millar
Molly Millar had been performing at the Empire Theatre in Belfast for some seven months prior to her Portglenone appearance. Her notable songs of the time were ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘My Hero’. And when called for encores, as was inevitably the case, she would typically sing ‘My Heart is in Killarney’ and ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’.
Una was a violinist, appears to have been actively performing only during 1943. In her stage performances, her notable instrumentals were ‘A Keltic Lament’ and Toselli’s ‘Serenade’.
Valargo was a ventriloquist and sometimes performed illusions. He was active between 1929 (when his stage name was the Young Valargo) until around 1949.