Following the tragic news of Brendan’s passing last night (July 10th), we’re taking a look back at one of our most memorable shoots, with the legendary comedian.
Brendan allowed VIP into his Flordia home in December 2001, where we spoke for hours about his amazing career, his close-knit family and how he’d never forget his roots.
It has been yet another marvellous year for comedian Brendan Grace, culminating in what he describes as the highlight of his thirty-year career – playing to packed houses in the Gaiety Theatre for eight straight nights last month. It was the first time he has played the Gaiety in ten years, since he stared there in pantomime, and to this down-to-earth Dub it really was like coming back home in triumph.
But home these days is sunny West Palm Beach Florida, in an idyllic spot called Jupiter, where the family, wife Eileen and children Amanda, Melanie, Bradley and Brendan Patrick went to live eight years ago. But Brendan still returns to Ireland at least a dozen times a year for concerts, cabaret and television.
Married to Eileen for 28 years, he now claims that he intends slowing down his heavy work schedule of 200 shows a year, so as to have more time to smell the roses. He has definitely come a long way since he started out as a singer with a group called The Gingermen in the sixties, before heading for Canada in 1971 to try his luck as a solo artist.
Gradually, comedy crept into his act until a new career as a comedian was born and he went on to become one of our most loved stars. His major break came when he introduced his great character “Bottler” to TV audiences on the Late Late Show, as well as having a hit record with a song called Cushy Butterfield.
It allowed him buy an engagement ring for Eileen, and they married two years later. He was also one of the stars of Noel Pearson’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, along with Tony Kenny and Cahir O’Doherty in 1974.
VIP visited Brendan and his family at their luxury home in Florida, where he spoke of his career, his plans for the future, his hopes for his children, and the harrowing time they went through when daughter Melanie was badly injured in a car crash.
Brendan, your recent concerts in the Gaiety Theatre were a triumph. Was their success that important to you and your team?
Very much so. It was quite a gamble to undertake such a number of shows. The Gaiety theatre has always been good to me. I remember standing on stage in the seventies with the cast of Joseph, and receiving a standing ovation. Twenty eight years later I stood on that same stage by myself, and received a standing ovation after each show. That series of concerts was a huge star in my constellation. I had worked everywhere in Ireland, like the Red Cow for nine years, so when I decided to do a one-man show at the Gaiety, we put a lot of effort into it, from booking it well in advance, to getting a sponsor in Maxol.
Did you think it would be that successful?
You always hope it will be, and filling a theatre for eight nights was wonderful, but to receive a standing ovation every night was really more important than the money. Words cannot describe the feeling you get when a packed theatre stands on its feet. It was every emotional. Being a Dub, I used close the show with Dublin in the Rare Auld Times, but some nights I had to let the audience sing it. I just couldn’t. I had to hold myself back from breaking down. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of my career.
Was it a big gamble?
Yes, and not just financially, but on my career. If the show had laid an egg……One thing that I’ve always been associated with is a happy show, and this latest show was definitely in that category. There was one night the crew couldn’t open the safety curtain. It was being raised an inch at a time, so 25 minutes after curtain up was due, I got a ladder in the orchestra pit and climbed up on stage. However, the biggest cheer of the night was for the crew who eventually got the curtain up. They deserved it. They work very hard.
When did you decide to uproot the family and go and live in Florida?
It all came about because of the Frank Sinatra organisation in America, who made me a great offer to go to the States. I got to know them during Sinatra’s Irish tour but, really, I didn’t want to go. The family were a lot younger and I didn’t want to uproot anyone. However, Eileen and I had been going to Florida for holidays ever since we were married, and we got to know and love the place. We always said that if we ever moved to America, it would be Florida, and that’s the reason we chose to live there when we made up our minds to live on the other side of the world. Thankfully, the kids took to it like fish to water. It was also a golden opportunity because of the green card situation for us and the kids.
It was still quite a gamble walking away from a highly successful career in Ireland to work elsewhere…
When we went, we decided to try it for two years at the most. It was a question of just going and seeing what would happen. If we didn’t like it – okay. We could always return. We still had our home in Saggart, and still do. Now we absolutely adore living here with the weather and way of life. But Ireland is, and will always be, home. My eldest child, Amanda, worked and travelled with me, but has just gone back to college. She is already a qualified cosmetologist, Melanie has just graduated from drama college, Bradley is studying communications in college in Boston, and Brendan is in junior High School in West Palm Beach.
Was it difficult to settle in at first?
A bit. My children were all going to Irish speaking schools at home. They just didn’t have to make the adjustment of changing schools. They had to change to English speaking schools. They were kids who only knew the Our Father in Irish, but they had been learning history and geography through Irish. They had to readjust. When we went, Amanda was 18, Melanie, 16, Bradley 11 and Brendan Patrick just nine. Now the two boys are real Americans. They have American accents when they’re with their American friends, particularly Brendan Junior.
So like you and Eileen, they have all settled well in America. Were there no downsides to moving?
My parents had already died when we decided to move, and my only sister was already living in America, but Eileen’s parents and two sisters were living in Dublin. Shortly after we arrived in Florida, Eileen’s dad became very ill and it meant we all had to return to Ireland. It meant taking the children out of school in Florida and get them back into school in Ireland. The problem was that I had to return to America, because a lot of work had been fixed up for me there. So Eileen and the kids stayed in Dublin, and I got on with my work in the States. That was certainly a downside in the early days! Now everything is fine. I doubt if the two lads will ever return to Ireland to live. They’re Americans now. We picked a great part of Florida to live in called Jupiter. It is the home of Burt Reynolds, Celine Dion, golfer Greg Norman, singer Vic Damone, and was the home of Perry Como.
You’re obviously a close family?
Yes, we see as much of each other as we can, particularly during holidays and Christmas, and we stay in touch with all our relatives in Ireland and abroad. The children are a very important part of our lives, so you can imagine the dreadful time we went through when Melanie was badly injured in a car crash. It was over two years ago, and she had returned to Ireland with her boyfriend, Frank Gillespie, to go to a wedding. Frank has a couple of pubs, Black Thorn and Baggot Inn, Boston. Their car was involved in a horror crash in a head- on collision with a lorry near Mullingar. Melanie had to be cut from the wreckage. Thankfully, she and Frank recovered but it was a harrowing time for us all. I had just flown into New York from Dublin, and had to fly back to Dublin on the next plane. Eileen was visiting an aunt of mine in Carolina, and it took her about two days to get back to Dublin. Poor Melanie has metal plates inserted in her back and legs, and she will need cosmetic surgery, but the main thing is that she recovered. I now call her my Bionic Woman – we will be forever grateful to the hospitals and staff.
So when and where did it all start for you?
I have an aunt, Wyn Meyler, who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She was a very famous model in Ireland when I was young. She was with the Betty Whelan agency in the days when they were called mannequins and not models. I was always very impressed that every hotel porter and every taxi driver seemed to know her, and always called her Miss Meyler. She used take me to the Gresham Hotel for tea, and I was very impressed by the life she led, and it probably gave me a taste of the good life. I also worked in my uncle’s pub in Wexford Street in the early 60s, on the floor collecting glasses. It was later called The Mean Fiddler. It was a singing pub and I used sing a couple of songs every night. I wasn’t paid but that didn’t matter. I was happy singing songs like Ghost Riders in the Sky and Lovely Leitrim. In 1966 I was able to add Up Went Nelson after Nelson Pillar was blown up! Singing in the pub and seeing my aunt being recognised were probably the two most important things that encouraged me to get into show business. I started as a ballad singer with The Gingermen, and also learned to play the guitar.
When did the comedy start?
The talking took over when the guitar strings would break. We would prefer to buy pints rather than buy new strings! You know, it was Jim McCann who showed me how to wash guitar strings in boiling water, salt and oil.
When did you realise that story-telling or jokes were your future?
When I went to Canada and tried for a solo career as a singer. It was exactly 30 years ago, and I might still be just singing only for a fortune teller I met in Toronto. He was called Zorba the Greek, and he told me things that day that all turned out to be true. It was uncanny, right down to names and places, and this guy had absolutely no idea who I was. Honestly, most things that happened to me mushroomed from what he said that day. Sometime later, I was back in Toronto and tried to contact him again, just to tell him he had been so right. I returned to Ireland, had a hit record with a song called Cushy Butterfield, and introduced a character called Bottler on the Late Late Show. I was on my way and it enabled me to buy an engagement ring for Eileen Doyle, the woman in my life. We were married two years later in 1974, and spent our honeymoon in London, where I had to learn my lines as the Narrator for the musical, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which ran at the Gaiety.
Was that how your love for the theatre started?
Theatre has always been good to me, whether it was in a musical, pantomime or concert. I was the person who stepped into Jack Cruise’s shoes at the Olympia Theatre after his death. He was a hard act to follow, but I did it. I would like to acknowledge the fact that people like Jack Cruise, Cecil Sheridan, Maureen Potter, Danny Cummins, Chris Casey and Val Fitzpatrick are all the people I tried to emulate when I went into the theatre. They were the people who influenced me so much.
Yes, my mother, who always took a great interest in my career. She had a brilliant sense of humour. It was probably because of her that I was very mindful of the fact that I didn’t use bad language on stage. In those early days, no one used bad language. When I was in the business first, the word ‘knickers’ would have been outrageous. You might even have to change it to ‘drawers’. Now anything goes, and I think it’s sad the way things have gone. You have to be comfortable with comedy. I have my fifth Brendan Grace video out right now, and it contains nothing that would embarrass anyone. I think Christmas and Brendan Grace go hand in hand in Ireland, and I know that my video will be played in many, many homes at Christmas time, and the reason is that people are not going to be embarrassed. Imagine being embarrassed in a room with your grandchildren. People are always asking me about alternative comedians. I just say if something makes me laugh then it must be funny, but even if it doesn’t, it might be funny to someone else. If someone goes into a type of comedy that’s just profane, it’s the same as a person opening a shop that sells only bread. Why not pen a shop that sells bread, milk, sugar, cakes, whatever. Sticking to just one thing means they’re creating just a tiny market, instead of appealing to many more people.
Your character Bottler has certainly been good to you. Any more coming along?
Bottler has been amazing, but I’ve had a great response around the world with my sketch, Father of the Bride. Everyone knows someone who has been that father. These days I have Agnes and Lily that audiences have taken to. They’re the latest vehicles for my comedy.
Do you write all your own material?
Yes, along with a man called Brian Keane, who my wife, Eileen, calls my other wife because I spend nearly as much time with him as I do with her. We’ve been together for 17 years, and we’re become great friends as well as business associates. We suss everything out and then put it together. I make no claim to being an original comedian. Half the stuff I do are jokes that have been out there for a long while. You recycle them, do variations of things. I’m also a very good observer.
Are you a party animal?
I’m not good at parties. I like to sit down, have a drink and relax, but I can walk away from it all. I’ve managed to do that in America, and particularly in Florida, where I never work. No one here knows what I do for a living. I meet the odd Irish person who is on holiday while I’m shopping in the supermarket. Do they get a laugh when they spot me in my shorts and T-shirt! I’ve friends in Florida who have visited Ireland, and they come back to tell me they didn’t know I was famous over there! I just smile and say I’m just a stand up comic. I prefer staying at home. I love cooking and am quite inventive, although I need an army to clean up after me. Strangely in Ireland, I eat all the wrong foods like curry, fish and chips, but you’d never see me eat a hamburger in Florida. Here I’m into healthy foods. Maybe it’s the weather.
Obviously you’re enjoying the good life in Florida?
Very much so. Life is at a more relaxed pace. I love it, but I’m also very proud to be Irish, and never more so than in America. Bottler is still very much around.