Recently broadcast on WLRfm, over four one-hour slots in a month, about the heyday of variety in Waterford – The Tops Of The Town, created a wave of nostalgia and a further remembering of stories and incidents from a golden age of what we now call community entertainment.
Produced by Wayne Browne and narrated by Jim Nolan, it recreated the humble beginnings, in 1962, when the De La Salle committee in Stephen’s Street, set in motion an entertainment style what had ten local competing teams in 1963 and grew to a national event under John Player tops with televised finals and at its peak had 18 centres.
The list of names it featured is a potted history of theatre in Waterford and a relevant part of the social history of entertainment. At the outset it fostered a spirit of comradeship and community in Waterford and Patsy Sheridan described it as a drug. By the middle of the 1990s, there was only one competing team in Waterford seeking advancement to the national stages and then legislation against the tobacco industry caused the withdrawal of Players and the demise of the Tops. Eddie Wymberry commented that over 30,000 people appeared in the local tops and today there is no monument, or plaque, not even a poster to remember those stalwarts. If it wasn’t for the work of Peter Doyle and more recently Michael Grant, variety and Tops would be completely forgotten.
Out of that glorious heyday two families survive in variety and panto – the Corcorans and the Grants. Now WLRfm have given new hope and re-awakened the memories from the corners of minds and we must not simply chose to forget.
I have mixed and amazing memories of Tops. With Raytex I was one of, if not the worst, member of a comedy team only to be rescued by Eddie Wymberry, Patsy Sheridan and Denny Corcoran. I got the opportunity to work with legends and my confidence was restored.
Listening to these tapes was a great experience and I remembered some people who may not have been mentioned… John Merriman, Danny Lenihan, Danny Wyse, Paddy Kennedy (make-up), Linda Stewart, Frank Coughlan and Adrian Doyle (who’s father Arthur contacted Niall O’Flynn of John Player to sponsor and advance a national movement in entertainment).
Remembering Paddy Kennedy set me off to seek out Vicki Robertshaw who did wonderful make-up work for the Waterford Pantomime Society and now lives in Reading.
I still get a shiver down my spine when I hear the Tops intro tune and Eddie Wymberry described so well the tension with the curtain down, the countdown beginning and the houselights fading as a show opens before 700 people – it was terrific. Tony Phelan, describing the early days and Joe Barrett, Patricia Walsh and Nicky Cummins, describing shows rehearsing in adjoining classrooms in Stephen Street. No business like show business; Foundry shows with 13 men and a Builder’s show with 13 men and one woman (Gretta Mackey).
May Sage and Paddy Grant describing costumes made out of crepe paper; blind pianists, Traveller’s horses and an ass. The glorious humour of Paddy Madigan, semi-naked dancers, Dermot Graham being read from the altar, Mick Brown writing about Tops as did CV Kavanagh; Noel Purcell meeting a cast in the North Star Hotel and wishing them well. And the fine story from Teresa Graham about Frankie King’s dog getting two precious stalls tickets in a cast raffle.
Throughout all of this Denny Corcoran emerges as the King of Kings, the most inventive, the most focussed, the most talented. But he, himself, pays tribute to the late Dermot Graham, whose innovative approaches took Tops to a more professional place. He presented lavish spectacles and also produced hits like Air On A Shoestring and It’s Cheaper By The Dozen And A Half.
By the 80s the Tops had changed with the arrival of comic genius Davy Sutton. You first heard Denny Corcoran’s anthem, My City Of Music. Costumes and choreography dominated and you had lots of quick changes and the sight of people arriving in Flaggy Lane with armfuls of gaudy costumes on hangers.
Ronnie Gleeson was organising buses to attend national quarter, semi and finals and there were rows about eligibility and guest stars, overtime payments, walking-the-dog money. Big business saw advertising possibilities in tv coverage and for a while the dream went sour. Now it’s just memories and nostalgia.
WLRfm will re-broadcast this series the last two days of December and it will be a final chance to sit back and hear the Tops theme and remember, another opening, another show..