Potter, Maureen (1925—)
Potter, Maureen (1925—)
Irish actress and variety performer. Born Maria Philomena Potter in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland, on January 3, 1925; daughter of James Benedict Potter and Elizabeth (Carr) Potter; educated at St. Mary's School, Fairview, Dublin; married Jack O'Leary; children: two sons.
Freeman of the City of Dublin (1984); honorary doctorate, Trinity College, Dublin (1988).
Maureen Potter made her professional stage debut at age seven when she appeared at St. Teresa's Hall, Clarendon Street, in Dublin, singing Broadway's Gone Hillbilly. She then began to make regular appearances with the Jimmy Campbell band at the Theatre Royal, Dublin's premier variety venue. When the Jack Hylton Band from Britain, one of the most popular of the day, appeared at the Royal, Potter auditioned and subsequently got a telegram from Hylton asking her to come to London the following day for a month's booking. In fact, she stayed two years, billed as "Maureen Potter Child Impressionist, Dancer and Burlesque Actress." One of her stage impressions was of Shirley Temple (Black) which, she recalled later, made her childhood a misery because of the effort it took to coax her hair ("like stair rods") into ringlets and curls to look like Temple. She toured Germany with Hylton, where at one performance Hitler, Goebbels and Goering were present. Though Potter was given a silver and blue wreath as a memento of the occasion, her mother, who loathed Hitler, promptly threw it away.
Potter was playing with Hylton at the London Palladium when war broke out in 1939. Her mother insisted she return to Dublin, and this marked a decisive turn for Potter as the rest of her career was largely confined to Ireland. At the end of 1939, she went straight into pantomime with Jimmy O'Dea, with whom she formed a legendary comic partnership that lasted until O'Dea's death in 1965. O'Dea, the most popular entertainer in Ireland, was a sublime comic and actor who performed in variety, pantomime, straight theater, musicals, films and later in television. Potter graduated from being his feed to become his full-fledged comic partner: "It's the rhythm of putting across comedy, one word too many and it's gone. You have to think about gaps and timing and I am the luckiest woman in the world because I worked with Jimmy O'Dea…. [H]e taught me my business… he was the master of timing." Potter recalled O'Dea's mischievous streak, the way "a mad look would come into his eye and you never knew what he was going to do." They developed such a rapport on stage that each sensed instinctively what the other was going to do next. Among their most famous creations were Dolores and Rosie, two Dublin women or "totties" in the Dublin vernacular. Rosie (O'Dea) had a genteel accent and a grand manner in contrast to Dolores' (Potter's) flat, screeching tones and malapropisms.
O'Dea loved touring in Ireland, even during the Second World War when conditions were difficult. Potter and the other performers built the stages, packed up the scenery and the costumes, and washed off their makeup in buckets of cold water. After the war, there was less touring, and O'Dea and Potter were largely based in Dublin, at the Theatre Royal and later at the Gaiety Theatre. They performed annually in pantomime, summer shows and musicals, but being based in Dublin meant that their acts and sketches had to be constantly changed and renewed. Two weeks' rehearsal was the maximum period allowed. The need for new material prompted a need for new writers; one of them, an army officer by the name of Jack O'Leary, wrote many of Potter's political satires and parodies. He retired from the army and continued to make a major contribution to Potter's career after their marriage.
Potter's last show with O'Dea was Finian's Rainbow (1964); he died in January 1965. "I was amazed I could carry on," said Potter, but the nucleus of O'Dea's company remained, notably Danny Cummins with whom Potter formed a new stage partnership. The Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne, who produced two television Christmas shows starring Potter in 1970 and 1971, noted that Potter was suspicious of television but soon overcame her reservations. She also did more film work. In 1967, she appeared as Josie Breen in Joseph Strick's film of James Joyce's Ulysses. Ten years later, Strick asked her to appear in another Joyce film, Portrait of the Artist, where she gave a superb performance as Mrs. Riordan. She did her last pantomime in 1985, and the following year was invited to play Maisie Madigan in the celebrated Gate Theatre production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. The show went on tour, to Jerusalem, Edinburgh and finally Broadway in 1988. Director Joe Dowling recalled the scene at the play's end when Maisie told Juno her son was dead. Potter played it with "stillness, a sense of dignity, simplicity and sincerity," he said. She took on another important straight role as well, that of the mother in Hugh Leonard's Da. Leonard felt that his mother (on whom the part was based) would have given rare approval to Potter's interpretation.
Potter was increasingly afflicted with severe arthritis, which had made the Broadway run of Juno particularly difficult for her. She made two attempts to return to pantomime in 1986 and 1987 but found it physically too demanding. She carved out a new career for herself in cabaret, with annual seasons in Dublin winning her a new generation of audiences. In 1989, she published a children's book, The Theatre Cat. Potter still enjoys the process of putting shows together, but as she has gotten older she has become twice as nervous, especially on first nights. "I'd like to keep going as long as they laugh. If they stop, I'll stop."
"Make 'Em Laugh," RTE series broadcast September 1999.
"Super Trouper: The Maureen Potter Story," Radio Telifís Eireann documentary broadcast, January 7, 1999.
Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland