The crooning contest that turned out to be a Con job
Colbert Kearney on his father Con’s controversial victory in a 1930s singing competition
The site of the former Torch Theatre in Capel Street, Dublin
The author’s parents, Con and Maisie, met in the mid-1930s while both were working in the Queen’s Theatre then managed by Con’s cousin, Lorcan Bourke. Con operated a spotlight and projected films; Maisie was an usherette. In 1935 Lorcan left when the Queen’s was taken over by the Elliman family. But in or around 1939 Con teamed up with Lorcan again in the Torch Theatre in Capel Street where every effort was made to keep the doors open: patriotic melodrama, variety, films, anything that would sell tickets.
Crooning – the type of singing epitomised by Bing Crosby – was all the rage, partly because even the man in the street felt he could imitate this apparently effortless style. Always on the lookout for a turn that would bring in the crowds, Lorcan decided on a talent competition to discover the best crooner in Dublin. The heats would take place on Saturday nights and would go on for, say, six weeks, each heat producing a contestant for the grand finale. There was more than a title at stake. The Torch Theatre was proud to advertise eye-catching prizes. The winner would walk away with £50 and “a solid silver loving cup”. For the runner-up there was a two-week engagement at the Torch, for third place a one-week engagement.
On the first Saturday night Lorcan announced that six young men had volunteered to sing but by the time the fifth was reliving his time South of the Border Down Mexico Way, it was clear that the sixth was a no-show. Everybody in the wings looked to Lorcan for a decision.
“Con, you’re going on next.”
“I can’t go on looking like this.”
“Of course you can. It’s not a bloody opera.”
“And what am I supposed to sing?”
“Sing that thing you sang the other night in Cawley’s. I’ll tell the band. They played it a few weeks ago. Come on, don’t just stand there.”
And so it was that, within minutes, Lorcan was back on stage as MC, amusing the audience while, in the wings, Con Kearney checked his hair, cleared his throat and ran through the words of whatever it was. Con had been among friends with a pint in his hand when Lorcan had heard him sing it; standing alone on the stage, almost certainly for the first time, facing an audience lost in the glare of the lights, was another matter. But he had seen hundreds of others do it and it was only a song and the boys in the band were on his side. He got through it, relieved when it was all behind him. Or so he thought.
The judging was the high point of the competition. Each of the contestants was brought back out in turn and invited to reprise a sample of their song to remind the audience of their performance. There was no jury, no hi-tech means of measuring the reaction of the audience. Lorcan simply asked for a “let’s hear it” for each of the singers and, turning one scientifically cupped ear into the auditorium, he quantified the response on an imaginary scale from one to ten, jotting the figures down on a piece of paper, which he then returned to his top pocket.
Con duly re-emerged, sang the first verse and retired, letting the magic of his singing cast its spell. He had barely got his breath back in the wings when he was surprised by the amount of the applause, at the very least the equal of anything any of the others had received. With growing anxiety he heard Lorcan list out the scores, all the competitors receiving high praise and flattering marks of either seven or eight. Until they came to tonight’s winner who would go on to the grand finale: by popular acclaim and a mark of nine, none other than [tantalising pause] contestant number six, Crooning Con Kearney!
Among Con’s confused feelings was the certainty that Lorcan was up to something. Before his reprise, every available member of the Torch staff had been directed down to the rear of the stalls and ordered to make as much noise as they could. When Con had asked him what he was up to, Lorcan had waved him away with a smile: “Nothing! A bit of a laugh, that’s all.”
As word of mouth spread, news of the contest and the prizes (and of the mode of adjudication), audience numbers were up and, to the delight of the box-office, it was obvious that ambitious young crooners, who had most likely honed their talents in the local pub, were arriving with their own supporters primed to bring the house down when required.
The event was established as a city-wide competition when Lorcan announced that among the following week’s hopefuls would be none other than the celebrated Walter Bradley, aka Blackie Bradley, aka the Coombe Crooner. Until then the favourite had been a docker from East Wall whose supporters had shaken the Torch to its foundations but, even before he appeared, Blackie Bradley was felt to be a dead cert.
While the other winners (with one notable exception) were known only within their own immediate area, Blackie Bradley’s rendition of Begin the Beguine was legendary from the Liberties to Crumlin. Owners of pubs invited him and his friends to come on singing nights and have their drinks on the house, provided Blackie obliged the company with a song and an encore. (There was even talk of the Torch management banning him on the grounds of professionalism, but he and his team successfully insisted that no money had changed hands – only a pint to clear his throat – and that Walter Bradley was a full-time parking attendant.)
An important part of Blackie’s star quality – apart altogether from his crooning abilities – was the fact that his father had obviously not been Caucasian and, at a time when people of colour were seen in Ireland only on cinema screens, this lent him a cosmopolitan glamour none of the others could match.
The night of the grand finale arrived. Six contestants would sing but all agreed it was a two-horse race between the Coombe and East Wall, with the Coombe expected to win by a distance.
Earlier that morning Lorcan had sent Con over to Domigan’s Wholesale Hardware, Toys and Fancy Goods Warehouses on Merchants Quay to buy a “silver” cup for not more than half a crown. Con probably reckoned that Lorcan was correct in presuming that the winner would be much more interested in pocketing the cheque for £50 than in questioning the quality of the silver.
The house was packed with noisy supporters for the grand finale and it was obvious that East Wall and the Coombe were only concerned about each other. To nobody’s surprise and despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the applause for Con was audibly less than that for the East Wall crooner and Blackie Bradley, which was, in each case, thunderous. And, it seemed, equal: even Lorcan’s sensitive ear could not come up with a clear winner and he was forced to have another general reprise before he could reach his verdict. Tension threatened the silence as Lorcan reappeared with what, after an almost impossible task, was his final decision.
In third place and winner of a week’s engagement in the Torch Theatre …East Wall’s finest –
A shocked intake of breath throughout the auditorium. Mumbles of amazement. A pretence of polite applause from the Coombe, relieved that their man had seen off the only opposition. Some coarse mutterings of East Wall discontent in which two words could be distinguished, one of them “fix”. The neutrals wondering who, if not East Wall, had come second.
In second place, the closest second place imaginable in what was almost a dead heat … Walter “Blackie” Bradley.
Two seconds of mute astonishment: ready, set, and then an explosive barrage of abuse directed at Lorcan by the Coombe. It continued as Lorcan appealed to “your sense of fair play”, begging them to “get over your disappointment”, respect the difficult decision the judge had to make and “show some fellow-feeling” for a young man with a great future before him. None of this could be heard; nor did anybody in the audience hear a word when Lorcan congratulated Con, presenting him with the trinket from Domigan’s and the envelope. Curtain.
The police were not called. The Torch was not burned down, although the takings for the Crooning Competition were not enough to stem the tide. The final stage production was in February 1940; it operated as a cinema until it closed completely in 1941.
I was a child when Con first told me the story of the crooning contest and I wanted to know what about the £50. He smiled: there was no cheque. But what was in the envelope? Still smiling: a piece of blank paper. But why did Lorcan say there was a cheque for £50? His conspiratorial stare: that was hard to explain, but when I was bigger I would understand. I wondered how long I would have to wait for this enigmatic enlightenment in which a grown-up me would understand what then seemed mysterious. But, as ever, he was right: the time came when I could make sense of the whole story.
Down By The Liffeyside by Colbert Kearney is published by Somerville Press