In a genteel area of Dublin, there was a house where Macbeth mixed with magicians, where actors from the Abbey Theatre shared a breakfast table with acrobats, where mountebanks slept in late and returned after midnight, still wearing the traces of fantastic make up.
This was Sheridan House, a theatrical `digs’ that was a cut above the rest.
For travelling vaudevillians and thespians, the question of `digs’ was a serious one. My parents were vaudevillians, and made regular appearances at the Capitol Theatre in Dublin, at least two or three times a year.
A good `digs’ was a treasure. These were mostly private boarding houses providing little more than bed and breakfast, and the quality ranged from acceptable to downright dodgy. The worst provided no comfort at all for theatricals arriving late and hungry from the theatre, and grudging landladies who counted out one slice of bacon and one piece of toast for everyone at breakfast.
Rarely did a `digs’ pride itself on the ability to provide exactly what its transient clients wanted. But thanks to an organization called the Actors’ Christian Union, Sheridan House was a shining exception.
The union were a body of clergy and show business Christians who provided aid to stranded actors, and performed many other excellent services for theatrical people of all religious persuasions – or as was most often the case, no religious persuasion of all. This benevolent and truly charitable organization made no distinction. They provided a helping hand for anyone in “the business’’ who needed it.
Aware that many theatricals were putting up with `digs’ that were more Dickensian than Shakespearian, the union bought a fine old Georgian House in Phoenix Park and turned it into a theatrical boarding house.
Everyone was welcome, from circus performers to Shakespearian actors, and the rates were more than reasonable. One thing the Actors’ Christian Union was acutely aware of, was that theatricals rarely had much money.
The house was named after the Irish dramatist, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Its charming old Georgian façade, with the fan shaped leadlight over the front door so beloved of architectural historians, opened out onto a quiet, tree lined street.
It was a short walk from the Grand Canal, where I spent a lot of time. The wide grassy banks and thick bushes were perfect for playing hide and seek, and I would lie for hours and watch the graceful white swans, although I never got to close to them – they could be fierce in defence of their dark feathered little cygnets.
As one of the few children ever to stay at Sheridan House, I was something of a novelty, and the staff wasted no time in spoiling me. I was a regular visitor to the homely kitchen, which produced delicious food at any hour. Breakfast was a magnificent meal, starting at 10am.
The cheerful maids in their black uniforms and starched white aprons never woke anyone before then, and only cleaned the rooms and made the beds when the guests left the house.
I used to think that they slept in, as well, because the kitchen was always open when we returned late from the theatre, with a ready supply of hot tea and sausages for supper.
The midday meal was substantial, with a light tea served before the guests left for their respective theatre engagements. Light meals are always advisable before a performance, especially for those prone to stage fright. But by the time theatricals got back to their `digs’, they were ravenous, and supper was a hearty meal.
The good Christian values of cleanliness, quietness and homely comfort were balm to the often tortured theatrical soul. Sheridan House provided spotlessly clean and bedlinen daily, in rooms that emphasised simplicity and comfort. While there was little more than a bed, a cabinet and a wardrobe, all was serviceable and of the best quality.
One of the best features of Sheridan House was the reading room, with its inviting fireplace, deep leather armchairs (polished daily by those tireless maids), writing desks and shelves lined books. Even the books had been carefully chosen, mostly consisting of theatrical biographies, circus histories and other tomes of interest to the guest.
The writing desks were well stocked with pens, paper and envelopes, and stamps could be purchased from the housekeeper, who would also arrange for the letters to be posted. There was an ancient office typewriter for those who need to dash off a letter to an agent or producer.
Rarely has any venture been tailored so perfectly to the needs of its clients. Coming back to Sheridan House at midnight was like returning home, such was the welcome as you walked in the door.
And there was the added pleasure of knowing that the other guests shared the same odd habits of dressing up in spangles and greasepaint to earn a living, and that whenever you arrived, there would be several people staying there that you already knew well.
Sheridan House flourished in the 50s and 60s and now is no more. But it remains in my memory as a home away from home, staffed and run by people of immense kindness and consideration.
In every way, true Christians.