It was the summer Elvis Presley made his radio debut singing That's All Right. But across the Atlantic in Youghal, east Cork, it was another American, film director John Huston, who was making waves in the entertainment business as he arrived in town to film Moby Dick.
Huston had chosen Youghal to stand in for the whaling town of New Bedford in Massachusetts for his film adaption of Herman Melville's classic 19th century novel, and he had lined up an impressive cast headed by Hollywood heartthrob Gregory Peck.
Some 61 years on, memories of that eventful summer of 1954 have come flooding back to those involved in the movie with the release later this week of another whaling epic, In the Heart of the Sea, which stars Irish actors Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy.
The film, which opens on St Stephen’s Day, tells the story of the New England whaling ship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a giant white whale on November 20th, 1820, thus providing the inspiration for Melville to write the novel which brought Huston to Youghal.
Not surprisingly the decision to shoot some of Moby Dick in Youghal caused huge excitement, with thousands flocking by car, train and bicycle to the seaside town to catch a glimpse of Peck, who played the obsessive Captain Ahab, and the rest of the cast.
Among the cast were Richard Basehart, Orson Welles and
, as well as Irish actors Noel Purcell and Joseph Tomelty. Irish Times theatre critic Seamus Kelly, who once wrote as “Quidnunc”, played the part of the third mate, Flask.
Aingeala Ní Dhomhnaill was a teenager at the time and remembers the crowd milling around Youghal town hall when Peck arrived to sign the visitor’s book only for the Hollywood star to dodge the hundreds of fans as he left to go to the set.
“He came out the front and then went back into the building as if to go out the back door and everyone ran around the back only for him to nip out the front and jump in a limo to go the set. I didn’t speak to him but I was only a few feet from him – I was delighted,” she recalls.
Aingeala's sister, Brenda Prendeville, appeared in the film along with her late mother, Nellie O'Halloran, and her late sister, Deirdre.
All three of them played the family of a member of the crew of Captain Ahab’s ill-fated whaling ship, Pequod.
“I was about 12 at the time and I played a child whose father was leaving on the ship. I remember John Huston telling me how sad I was to look as I might never see him again.
“They had to shoot it a few times and I was exhausted, and I think I looked more bored than sad. But it was fantastic – walking down the quays with all these false fronts on the buildings to make Youghal look like New Bedford. Of course, we knew they were false fronts but it all looked so real and seeing it through the eyes of a child was marvellous.”
No air and no teeth
Ita Beecher was 18 at the time. She recalls how her friend, Jo Broderick, whose mother owned the Marine Hotel in the town, told her Huston was looking for extras and she cycled into town to see if she could get a part.
“They were paying 30 shillings a day – we were all dying to get on the money more than on the film. The costume was like a monk’s habit with the weight of it and the thing was all corseted and buttoned into you – you had no air at all but we survived it.” She smiles.
“I remember we saw the film later in the Regal Cinema here in Youghal when it came out and they seemed to use ones with shawls and no teeth and my friend Jo Broderick said ‘Don’t tell anyone you were in Moby Dick, or they’ll think you were one of the ones with no teeth’.”
Sherry to float a ship
Huston and his film crew based themselves at Paddy Linehan’s pub and butcher’s shop on Market Square, since renamed the Moby Dick in honour of the movie.
Although Paddy Linehan died in 2004, his son Kevin recalls his father’s many stories about the film.
“The place was buzzing – they had to bring in fellows with picks and shovels to dredge the quays to get the Pequod moored and I remember my father saying that we sold enough sherry that summer to float the Pequod. He said it was like sitting on a top of an oil well.”
It wasn't just locals who featured in the film. Deirdre Martin was in Youghal for the summer with her late father, Frank Carroll, who played trombone in the Mick Delahunty Orchestra in the Strand Palace. Both she and her mother Eileen got parts in the film.
“I was only three at the time and my mother and myself were in the scene on the pier – it’s a long shot of all the women and children saying goodbye and my mother had to kiss her partner goodbye. I remember meeting John Huston – he was a nice man.
“We got a little wooden plaque with a whale on it. It was a nice souvenir and when I was growing up, it was a nice story to tell people but they would ask did I see myself in the film but to be honest, it’s such a faraway shot, I don’t know whether I’ve been edited out or not.”
A documentary about the making of Moby Dick in Youghal features in the series Hollywood in Éirinn, which is being screened on TG4 from December 31st to January 3rd.