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Illusionists, Magicians & Vanishing Ladies in the Town Hall...
By Alan King, Mayo County Library
18, Apr 2017 - 12:52

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Nowadays, there's a talent or an entertainment show on nearly every channel - each looking for a different angle to hold the viewers attention. Just over a hundred years ago, the people of Castlebar were entertained in the Reading Room of the Town Hall by a Vaudeville type travelling variety company called 'Dr. Ormonde and the La Belle Sunflower Coterie' who played to wide acclaim due to the variety and content of their acts.

Poster advertising Dr. Ormonde’s show in Tuam The Square, Tuam, Co. Galway c 1890’s Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland.
Dr. Ormonde (Andrew Garrioch Ormond) was an English magician/illusionist who along with his family toured extensively in Europe and on Broadway in the US. They also performed a number of private audiences with Queen Victoria and other Royal families. The company visited Castlebar seven times between 1887 and 1910 and on each occasion, they played to packed houses who were amazed at the variety and content of the acts. On their first visit, their main act was to make a young lady vanish from the audience and in the full glare of gaslight. A hundred pounds reward was offered before the show to anyone who could explain the trick but when she disappeared in a puff of smoke, no one could figure out how it was done. Dr. Ormond was a skilled hypnotist whilst his son Fred was a 'lightning cartoonist' and ventriloquist who could sketch at speed anything or anyone the audience threw at him.

A daughter Stella was a clairvoyant called the ‘Witch of Eldor' who mingled amongst the audience and revealed private and personal information which both delighted and frightened the crowd. Speculation was rife after each performance as to how she obtained the information as the family were met each time at the Railway Station and she was never seen alone or speaking to any townsfolk.

A popular part of the show was the introduction of the 'Magnetic Lady' - Miss Minnie Baldwin who would have all types of metal objects apparently attaching themselves to her person and a reward would be offered to six local men who could try together to push her from her balance when she stood on stage on one foot. No one ever succeeded. A performer was then secured with handcuffs and leg irons and locked in a large iron cage set up in the middle of the room. A blanket was thrown over the cage and after a few minutes, the artist escaped. Once again rewards were offered but no one could explain the trick.

At the end of each show, the youngest daughter Lottie (who was about six when she first appeared) gave what was described in all newspapers as a 'brilliant violin recital' and have the audience in tears as they left for home. She went on to win numerous international music prizes and had a successful career as a concert violinist.

On the last two visits to the town, the main attraction was what was called a Vivo-Tableaux which showed animated pictures of what was happening in the world at that time. Vivid scenes of the Boer War, Spanish bull fighting, Buffalo Bill's Wild West and upsetting scenes of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake were shown - the first cinema in Ireland didn't open until three years later in 1909.

Dr. Ormonde who was a friend of the legendary Harry Houdini also wrote a number of books about stage hypnotism and on exposing fake spiritualists. When he died not long after their last visit to Castlebar in 1906, the variety show disbanded.

The Town Hall with its impressive history has seen a lot of diverse performers pass through its doors down the years and continues to do presently with the Linenhall Arts Centre leading the way in the development of arts and culture in the county.

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