Category: Archive

Tracings: A conversation with Carmel

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

"Excuse me," said the woman in Barnes & Noble bookstore, "You look and sound like Carmel Quinn."

"I am Carmel Quinn, " came the entertainer’s friendly reply.

"Oh no, you can’t be," insisted the woman. "I’d know her if I saw her."

This, of course, is just one of the many tales you’ll hear from the Dublin-born singer/comedienne, who is as celebrated today for her hilarious live shows as she was during her Arthur Godfrey days in the 1950s.

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," she whispered to me over a mid-afternoon cuppa as she revealed how her destiny as a performer just fell into place somewhat like a song to a singer.

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Dressed smartly in fine knit separates, with elegant posture and groomed auburn curls, the once football-dribbling tomboy has indeed become quite a lady. She has a unique blend of effervescence and calm, resulting in a wit that is understated yet evident. It’s all in the timing, as the saying goes. And in this, the lady is a natural. However, it is her blue Irish eyes which fascinate me the most, alternately laughing with joy and clouding with sadness, twinkling with mischief and warming with love, always speaking the sincerity in her soul.

And those eyes project sheer magic as she recalls her first encounter with the stage at the Christmas panto in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre. So smitten was she by the entire spectacle that she created her own homemade stage with nothing more than a shoebox and candy pink tinsel paper. However, her family had more practical plans for her, with a pensionable teaching job in which she had, of course, no interest. So, after two years pretending at Carysfort College, she opted out for a singing career. "Goin’ around with them bands," her bookmaker father would say, clearly displaying his disapproval.

However, the adolescent Carmel was having a ball. Her first gig was a country tour with a band, performing in large tents with the back of a truck as the stage. Also, being minus the luxury of a dressing room, she recalls changing into strapless "frocks" in the grass behind the truck. During this awkward procedure she noticed a series of holes in the tent with a distinctive blue Irish eye peeking through each one. The local priest was immediately summoned, arriving with a stick to poke each of the lusty lads in the eye.

Carmel found romance elsewhere, with Kerryman Bill Fuller, owner of Dublin’s Crystal Ballroom, despite the admiration of no less than Celtic tycoon Tony O’Reilly. Regardless, the Phibsboro lass became Mrs. Fuller and the newlyweds took off for New York. Starstruck by their Broadway home address, Carmel insisted on taking a "stroll" to the famous theaters on her first day in the Big Apple. However, their cross street was 145th, turning the stroll into a pilgrimage. To break the journey, they stopped off at Hurley’s in the Rockefeller Center, where, on a television just above the bar, Carmel set eyes on her destiny — "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts."

The next day, she went to CBS requesting an audition. On learning from the receptionist that there was a six-month wait, she replied, "But sure, we could all be dead in six months."

Somehow her blunt naiveté opened those audition doors to the powers-that-were as she trooped in for what she thought would be a nice chat. Sheet music? What’s that? And so she sang without accompaniment "The Old Bog Road" and "The Green Glens of Antrim," a performance that won her the prize of three days on Godfrey’s morning show. On the third day, she was asked if she’d like to stay on at the show. "Oh, I’d have to think about it," she replied honestly. She stayed for six years.

This propensity to find her fate on day one is something she inherited from her own mother ,who died when Carmel was 7. "She was a tall, beautiful redhead with lots of admirers," gushed Carmel as she told me about her mother’s seven years as a 20-something in Philadelphia, dating some of the top eligibles. Nonetheless, the fair lady returned to her native Fair City to live at 12 Auburn St., Phibsboro. Residing a few doors up at number 26 was bookmaker Michael Quinn, who was also a great storyteller and classical violinist. The twain met and fell in love on her first day home, despite the lady’s disapproving parents. "Sure, what does he do but play that fancy fiddle?" they objected. So the smitten couple were left with no option but to elope.

For Carmel Quinn, home is the stage. It is her own personal hearth, where she can literally sing and talk to her heart’s content. She loves her audience and they love her. She continues to appreciate her success and count her many blessings. She is also a generous giver, donating the proceeds from her annual Carnegie Hall concert, now in its 25th year, to various charities from St. John of God’s in Dublin and the African Missions, run by her childhood neighbor, Father Billy Hyde, to St. Margaret Mary’s School in the Bronx.

She balances her life between performing cross country, visiting Ireland regularly, spending time with her children and grandchildren and relaxing at her Leonia, N.J., home with long walks, workouts, reading and crossword puzzles. As for retirement, she doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and is forging full steam ahead with a new one-woman show, a "special request" CD, a possible TV soap and a long-awaited book.

Although blessed with a tremendous sense of humor, bringing joy and laughter to all who meet her, she has not been without her heartache, the most painful being the June 1988 death of her 30-year-old photographer son, Michael, due to a massive heart attack.

"I remember the day he arrived at the door with a bunch of fans to meet me, bringing them home for tea," she recalled, that loving, maternal look in her eyes. "He was all heart. He really was."

I’m sure he was, Carmel, as indeed are you. There is indeed truth in your dear father’s words — what’s bred in the marrow comes out in the bone.

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