WEST SIDE STORY
Daughter of Olympia impresario Gerry, Tara Sinnott opens up about her new life in sunny California
IT WAS a shrewd observation which transformed the late-night scene in Dublin. Impresario Gerry Sinnott, owner of the Olympia Theatre, realised there was a legal loophole which would allow drink to be served later if performances were being held. He ran with it – and Midnight at the Olympia, which was legendary during the late 1980s, was born.
‘Dad decided that Dublin needed a late night music venue and he went to court and fought and was eventually granted a licence,’ says his daughter, Tara Sinnott, who now lives in LA. ‘He realised there was a loophole in the law that would grant a liquor licence, if there was an act performing on a stage. He’s responsible for the late night bar licence that most places have in Ireland now. The place was always packed. It didn’t matter who was on the stage. Then other places like The Village started doing the same thing.’
Charming and ambitious, Gerry – known as the Man in the Black Trilby – was something of an institution when it came to brainstorming ground-breaking entertainment. It runs in the blood; Tara followed him into the business, working at the Olympia before starting her own company and, recently, moving to Los Angeles. Now she’s using the know-how she gleaned from her genial dad, who is suffering from the degenerative disease known as Frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), to honour the man who was such driving force in her life and in Dublin. On May 18, fittingly at the Olympia, she has organised a huge tribute event to honour her father, which will include many big stars who performed there in Gerry’s time, such as Dickie Rock, Rebecca Storm and Red Hurley.
‘ I was always Daddy’s little girl, especially after my sister went away to study drama and my brother went to become a pilot,’ says Tara. ‘I was the only one who worked in the Olympia, side by side for six years and we became really close. We used to go clubbing together in Dublin and if I walked in some place on my own, people would say “Where’s Gerry?” He was known as a really cool guy and my friend. No man will ever come close to my dad. Maybe that’s why I’m still single!’
Tara’s pride in her father’s achievements in changing the entertainment landscape in Dublin is palpable. Gerry and his former wife were constantly going to see shows in the West End and on Broadway and then doing whatever it took to bring these shows to the Olympia. Tara says he never received a penny in grants or state funding, unlike other theatres, and that he was also instrumental in having VAT removed from the price of theatre tickets.
‘Dad always liked taking huge gambles. He produced some of the biggest shows Ireland had ever seen. Some paid off, some didn’t. In 1989 he put on a production of West Side Story which cost £1million then. He went to London and New York to cast it. He changed the way traditional pantos were done, including bringing in things like Dustin the Turkey. He discovered Samatha Mumba at 15 and cast her as the lead in Bugsy Malone.
‘Trainspotting is an example of a show that didn’t do well, because Ireland wasn’t ready for that kind of show. I was theatre manager at the time and I remember about 30 people screaming at me in the lobby saying how obscene and disgusting it was and how dare we put it on. I apologised and asked them if they had heard of the book or the movie. My father always wanted people to see great and different work.’
The theatre was a huge part of her life from an early age, and Tara recalls some of the more superstitious elements of the Olympia. As a child, she and her friend Aoife would play chase up and down the many stairs in the venue.
‘I remember Aoife and myself were playing near the stage and she suddenly froze. We were near Box 3 and she pointed and
‘I fell in love with LA when I came here’
said “g-g-ghost” and then ran away. I looked and there was a female ghost who waved back at me. Her name was Anne and it turned out that many people have seen her,’ she says.
‘Many years later, when I was working in the Olympia, I remember feeling a hand that I could not see going up the back of my neck and through my hair. I’ve never run so fast in my life! There is another ghost that a lot of people have also seen, who is a soldier who went in there during the Easter Rising and was killed in there. He’s generally seen up in the gods (the upper balconies). The Olympia ghosts are mostly very friendly and they’re not going to harm you or cause any problems,’ she says.
Her interest in the entertainment world only grew as she got older, though she hit a few speed bumps along the way. She endured terrible bullying when she was at school at Our Lady’s Grove in Dublin. She developed anorexia and dropped out of school to start work with her Dad.
‘My parents moved me from Our Lady’s Grove to Mount Anvil, which was amazing. I got the lead in the opera there and when it finished, I left school. The anorexia went on for four to five years and I had a lot of issues to work on. Once an anorexic, always an anorexic and I’m very aware that if I’m going through things in my life that I can’t control, I’ll find myself skipping lunch.’
She left school at 15 to begin working with her father in the printing business. Tara worked her way up from receptionist in Panic Print to become the manager of the Olympia, before setting up her own entertainment company Red Carpet. Not free of drama, however, she became engaged but called off the wedding more than a decade ago – taking her first trip to Los Angeles in the aftermath.
‘I first came here 11 years ago after I had cancelled my wedding six weeks before it
was scheduled,’ she says. ‘As soon as the invitations went into people’s letter boxes, I knew I had made a mistake and I called it off. It was the right thing to do, but I was still heartbroken. I came here to see my best friend Aoife O’Dalaigh and I just fell in love with LA. I remember walking along the beach in flip flops and a mini skirt and no make-up and I felt more comfortable than I’ve ever felt in my life. Managing the Olym- pia, I felt like I had to keep up a front and I would never go outside the door without make-up on. I was never as relaxed as I could or should have been, even socially. I’m older and wiser now and I realise it’s not that important.’
And it was her father who kept encouraging her to relocate to California, even when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. ‘Even though he got sick, my dad is the one who practically forced me to come to LA,’ she says.
Given how long it took her to move to Los Angeles, Tara is eager to put down roots there. She’s working for a big production company Maker Productions and lives in what she describes as Melrose Place, in a charming little enclave in Santa Monica. Her neighbour is an old friend from her Leeson Street days, the Kerry-born actor Tim Mur- phy. They walk their dogs together regularly.
‘I know in my heart and soul and every core of my being that this is where I am supposed to be,’ she says. ‘I had my 40th birthday here last year, two months after I got here and 100 people showed up. Even when Red Carpet was doing really well, Dad kept saying “You need to be in LA. Go to LA. Go to LA”. We nearly had a row about it and I kept saying “Stop forcing me to go to LA”. But he was right, and I’m so glad I made the decision.’
And distance is the only thing between Tara and Gerry, who is still very much a part of her daily life. ‘I wake up every morning in Santa Monica to about 20 to 30 emails, and they’re all about Dad,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been a massive fan of my dad and I was always very close to him. I am the person I am today because of him.
‘Though my dad struggles in many ways, given the challenges of the degenerative brain disease he suffers from, he has never lost his energy or drive. He is the most energetic, good-humoured, smiley optimist you could
‘He’s the most smiley optimist you could meet’
ever meet. He can’t manage some everyday things any more that require planning or sequencing like driving, cooking for himself and he has had to take it easy on the work front, but thankfully the carers who now come in to give him a hand have very quickly become friends. A gang of indomitable Dublin women, with the same spark and witty banter they get from their client. He probably has a better social life now than I do!
‘It’s not been without its challenges but he has had the most incredible determination. Like a lot of people with FTD, when parts of the brain die away, other parts flourish and his long-term memory is amazing, probably better than it ever was. Ask him about childhood pets and school friends and he has it all at his fingertips.’
Given the support she has always received from Gerry, and their close bond, Tara felt it only appropriate to organise a night in the venue which made his name, with some of the old guard from the heyday of late-night gigs.
‘The tribute I’ve organised for Dad is mine, and the theatrical community in Ireland wanting to recognise the massive contribution that he made and all that he did.’
(Tickets for The Olympia Stars Salute To Gerry Sinnott are on sale through the Olympia Theatre box office and also through Ticketmaster, priced € 30. The show is on Sunday, May 18)
Close bond: Tara Sinnott with father Gerry
Roots: Tara keeps in touch regularly with her father. ‘I’m a massive fan,’ she says.