IF YOU could bottle Esler Burke’s enthusiasm and excitement, the world would be a happier place. He makes no secret that he’s in his early 70s nor that it’s taken him five years to fulfil his dream, a dream that’s about to take the stage at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey.
Music is nothing new to this delightful man who began his career as an engineer in Pye Radio in Larne, all the time fronting bands playing in top venues. He and the band Springfield went to London but were turned down by management because he looked so like David Essex!
The day he saw the film Oliver! with Ron Moody as Fagan in the Regal Cinema in Larne, he was hooked. He read Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist and began to investigate Lionel Bart, best known for creating the music and the lyrics for the Oliver!, a man who wrote Living Doll for Cliff, From Russia with Love for Bond and, although he couldn’t play any instruments, had someone to write the notes for him.
Now Esler has written words and music of his own musical, Twisted.
“This is a sequel to Oliver! and centres around his half-brother Edward. I got this spark from the Dickens book and I was able to develop the character and his relationships. I had 300 rewrites before I was satisfied but I still lie in bed at night going over and over the scenes.”
As we talk he develops the plot and I can safely say it will intrigue audiences. The music is both catchy and poignant and Esler has involved the best in the business – Mark Dougherty who provides orchestrations and musical maestro Wilson Shields and his band who have, as Esler says, taken it to a new level. Twenty one songs, a cast of 42, many from Youth Theatre – a night of celebration.
As excitement mounts for Esler, still playing cricket for Larne and still fronting the Castaways Show Band, it looks like another huge feather in his cap and a fantastic future for Twisted.
:: February 20-24, theatreatthemill.com
HE WAS 84 years old when we sat and talked, a Belfast man with a beguiling smile and a twinkle in his eye, a poet who lived an extraordinary life which he has charted in his poems.
As a child of five he and his mother and brothers arrived in New York to join his father Bernard, owner of two thriving grocery shops. The family had been fractured after his father left.
Young Joe, later Patrick, lived in East Street in the Markets area and was brought up by his aunt Mary. Initially he didn’t know that Annie McGarry O’Connor was his mother.
“I only knew the beauty of this woman and the fragrance of her perfume as she bent over to kiss me goodnight. She was a mad rebel and when Father sent money for boat tickets she spent it on a red leather coat.
“She worked in a fancy box factory, going to work in bare feet and putting on the style on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and when she admitted that she’d spent the passage money on the coat, her friend suggested having a bet on a horse. She did and won £92 and we were able to travel second class instead of steerage with the rest of ‘the Irish’.
“She was a real flapper and happy on the boat.”
He recalled a Russian orthodox priest took him under his wing and they played dominos in the dining room so the boy could watch his mother learn the tango with the Italian dance master.
Two Years Later
In 1929, came the tragic Wall Street Crash which led to the Great Depression.
“My father had to close his shops in Harlem and Amsterdam Avenue and as he employed a lot of our relations that was very hard for him and them.
“We lived in an apartment in 96th Street, a real ritzy avenue of trees, opposite the church with a bank on the corner. Belfast had been so dark and troubled and New York so vibrant and colourful and I was very happy.”
He paused, remembering: “I used to take my father’s dinner to him on my roller skates and we thought it a great honour that he was robbed by Legs Diamond, called Legs because he made his victims take off their trousers so they couldn’t chase him!
“It was a terrible time; people were committing suicide, jumping from windows, but worst of all was our maid Blanch, an Austrian woman who looked after us but when we had to let her go she took her own life.
“My mother got a job near Times Square even though she was pregnant with my sister Mary, and my father fell into a deep depression and began drinking.”
The young man, who had to take on duties at home and keep up with his schoolwork, won prizes and his poems were published.
“I got free lunches at school as we were classed as poor people but the Irish cops looked after their own and sometimes they gave us a turkey. But I remember people standing in line for soup and the ice cream vendor selling drugs.”
This was Hell’s Kitchen, the centre of New York’s underworld where Irish American crime circles hug out, the scene of West Side Story, also the stage for the young Joe O’Connor who graduated in 1941 with the Best Citizen award.
“My father fulfilled his American dream only to have it all taken away. He didn’t like me because when we arrived I was frightened and my mother took me into their bed and he couldn’t forgive me for coming between them on their first night together!
“He would sit on the stoop outside our apartment, I would sit beside him and listen to him crying.”
A history lesson from Padraic Fiacc remembering his days as Joe O’Connell. He died last week aged 94. Rest in Peace.
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