The Best Little Theatre in Town

1965 - Wits University

The cool thing about being poor, and having nothing, is that you have so much in common with other people who have nothing. Julie was also a “non fee-paying” scholar – by the grace of the Pope through the Holy Family sisters at the girls’ convent in Yeoville. We hit it off. It was the mid sixties – we were both in matric. We spent more time dreaming about the determined future than studying.

It was fun. She fancied law, politics, sort of working with serious people, but more than anything – being someone –someone else – and she knew who. Considering where we had both come from, she was going to either obliterate the past, or re-invent it. She was going to make miserable people jealous.

I also fancied miserable people, but I was going to earn my bucks making them momentarily happy. I was going into show business.

I thought of it as drug dealing. You sold them something that sent them to the moon, but brought them back again too soon. They needed you to send them back to the moon, or even much further, just by coming back to see yet another show.

There was no TV in South Africa – the theatre was the “happy drug” of the times.

It was also the sixties – “Tune in, Turn on, and Drop Out,” according to God, or Timothy Leary, or whatever he was called.

It was “next year” that mattered. Neither of us had parents who could, or would, send us to university. We had to get there on our own. Fees, books, accommodation – the financial demands seemed endless. In a couple of months we would have to enrol and pay the first term fees in advance.

We needed money and FAST.

We were sitting in Doney’s in Kotze Street, Hillbrow, having a cup of coffee we couldn’t afford. At the next table, this dude was sitting there going through lists of names. He looked interesting. Smooth, slicked back hair. Not Brylcreem, Silvikrin or Vitalis, but that stuff that didn’t look greasy, La Pebra’s. He looked like a philosopher.

Julie looked at him and at me. The signal – who’s he? Looks interesting.

After ticking off some names on his list, he took out a neat loose-leaved notebook, and started comparing names on his list to specific pages in his book.

Julie just up, and went to him. “Hi, are you a school teacher?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You just look like a very interesting person, and my brother asked me to have the cheek to ask you if you’re a teacher. What do you do then?”

“I help people find lost ones.”

Julie’s eyes brightened, a good sign. “Missing person’s bureau?”

“No,” he said, with his voice monotone like a priest. “From the other side.”

It took at least month to get to know Olliver Buckstone really well. He wasn’t going to tell us about himself, but we knew that he knew that we knew that we’d both be amenable to a deal.

Maybe it was the way we looked.

Maybe it was because Dr Buckstone was a really clever guy who knew people, how they operated, and what they thought. He had to be clever. You don’t get dodo’s running spiritualist churches.

I said he wasn’t a doctor’s arse. Julie said he was doctor’s arse. Didn’t matter, he wasn’t a real doctor, but who was going to prove that. After all this was Hillbrow, and the one law there, was that you could be whoever you wanted to be.

As long as you did it properly.

Olliver Buckstone ran a boutique spiritualist service. Not a church, but one of those “By Appointment” businesses, where word of mouth promised you that you might just be able to have the privilege of being allowed into his presence to see what he could do to heal pain of the separation from your loved ones.

We showed him we could “work on some new techniques” to help him make his service more “interesting”. Then he challenged us. “Do a good job, impress my dear clients, and it’s a worth R10 a night.

Ten Rand a night, when university fees were R120 a term, was nothing less than the highest paid job in town – to us.

All we had to do was come up with something new, at least once a week.

We were up to it; we were up to anything that paid R10 a night. We would spy for Russia, join the ANC or even prospect for gold in a rubbish tip for R10 a night.

For two young kids with nothing, who had come from nothing, but were going to the moon, it seemed like a good deal.

Olliver Buckstone was fraud and a conman. He was charming and successful, and he offered a good service that made people happy.

We had known lots of people who made people happy. He was no more a fraud and pretence than every actor in town.

Radio was a fraud; it used the ugliest people in the world to get little old ladies to fall in love with them. Theatre was a fraud.

No, you see, theatre is an illusion, radio is an illusion, and show business is an illusion. Catholic schools traded in illusion, and we knew all about them.

Olliver Buckstone was an illusionist. Mind you, so is God. And we were engineers in illusion. Years later I would come to work with a lady who ran an employment agency where her specialisation was in sourcing Perimeter Intrusion Engineers. The judge called them burglars.

Looking back, we were both heading for a lifetime of working in illusion; me in show business, Julie in being someone else.

Buckstone lived in an old stone mansion high on the hill of Westcliffe. It was simple, large, empty, mysterious, and beautifully spooky.

He had one room that could seat about fifteen people round a table. The table was in the middle of the square room. The curtained walls were about eight feet from the backs of the chairs. One wall had a window, a small one that faced onto a stone walkway, with an oddly Dracular-ish balustrade.

The other three walls were fitted with ceiling high velvet curtains in a dark blue. You had to look carefully to see that there was another six feet between the curtains and the actual walls of the room. Ideal.

The door on the wall opposite the window was inset, so that it looked like a passage. This disguised the space between the wall and the curtains. Beyond it was a light and airy, comfortable, warn and welcoming ante room where tea and biscuits were served, and where people could arrive, wait, talk, circulate, and all in all, make the occasion look like an intimate cocktail party.

He had a ceiling in the room, where you would expect a ceiling to be, sort of ten feet from the floor. But if you looked really hard, the ceilings up to the wooden, or pressed steel ceilings, were a lot higher. This room had no pressed steel ceiling, just a space all the way up to the slate tiled roof. The false ceiling made the room warm. Above it in winter it could be as cold as Julie’s angry stare.

The room was lit with two-branched candelabra that peeped through the curtains, as if they were attached to the wall. In fact they were on poles that came up from the floor.

The floor itself had a couple of layers of underfelt, covered with a thick black carpet that went from stone wall to stone wall. Within the curtained area were a variety of reproduction Persian carpets, the type you bought at that place in Kruis Street, you know, the one that had “Genuine” and “Sale” plastered all over the windows. Lots of people were in the illusion business.

Four times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, Olliver Buckstone had fifteen or fewer people round. They all had one thing in common – they wanted to hear from the people they loved and missed.

Some people went to the cemetery and put flowers on someone’s grave. At Buckstone’s place, they came to listen to the radio.

Buckstone wanted us to upgrade the radio into the theatre or even the movies.

He had foresight, this cool head. He lived life as a blast.

****************

Both of us had read Paul Gallico’s “Hand of Mary Constable”, and “Too Many ghosts”. They’d been on the bookshelves for some time. They seemed a little ambitious. “He’s got to make it complicated,” Julie observed. “He’s a mystery writer. They always have a complicated last chapter to show how clever they are.”

But we borrowed Gallico’s candle trick That was cute. But the rest seemed to be passé and in fact, anyone who had access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica would recognise Daniel Dunglas Home. There would be no rapping, knocks, tambourines or trumpets with us.

Years before, we would sometimes creep into the garage at my house, and go through Popular Mechanics and Popular Science from the thirties and forties.

We remembered almost every one, and that gave us some really scientific methods on which to base our new science.

The candles were pure genius.

We had Buckstone install candlesticks in between the lights round the room. There were two branches to each, to match those holding globes, which were connected to a dimmer. (Not one of those knobs you turn in the light switch, they hadn’t been invented yet. It was a bloody great rheostat mounted in a corner with a handle that looked like the things a railway signaller used.)

We experimented for weeks with packets of candles, finding the average time it took for candles to burn. We always did our tests in the room, as we knew that candles would burn at different rates where different air was, you know, more oxygen and that sort of thing.

Candles are surpassingly consistent; no wonder they were used as clocks in the middle Ages. We knew exactly how long it took to get down to certain level, say two inches down from the top, from the time they were lit.

That would be the time Buckstone would start – he always insisted in punctuality with his “guests”. That’s why they had to be early, and had to sit around with the tea and biscuits. Of course that wasn’t the only reason.

Then we’d take an ice pick, heat it, and melt it down to the centre of the candle where the wick was. All we had to do was cut out a bit of the wick with a pair of nail scissors.

Then we laid all the candles for the candelabra in a row, and cut the wicks of each one a little lower down than the one before. About a sixteenth of an inch lower.

It was precision work, as the candles had to mysteriously go out, one by one, and one after the other, as if some… thing … was moving .. to put them out.

Worked like the opening scene of a ballet when the lights slowly come up to reveal a sight of pure fantasy, except backwards.

Julie and I, we designed our own costumes, completely black with thick black woollen socks that wouldn’t slip on the carpet.

When the lights were out, Julie would walk round the table, in the full blackness, and give each one a blast of air on the backs of their necks with a douche she’d lifted from a chemist shop.

You’d hear them suddenly inhale as the douche exhaled, in sequence round the table – just an extra effect.

Both of us would close our eyes for at least two minutes with black velvet over our eyes before the lights or candles went out. If you switch off lights with your eyes open, you go blind for quite a long time. If you open your eyes in the dark, you can see surprisingly well.

Then we’d step through the curtains, and turn our heads slightly, so that in fact we were looking ahead through the sides of our eyes. Amazing what you can see. Is that how cats do it?

Buckstone would start speaking, messages, never in fake voices, and never with moans and groans like in a trance.

He just called it channelling, he said he had thoughts put into his mind from “the other side”, and that all he was doing was describing those thoughts.

He was so accurate; he had names, relationships, date of death and all sorts of intimate details. It was so impressive.

Of course Julie had picked it all up from them over tea and biscuits in the half hour before the show, and just repeated then to Buckstone who had a memory that was a gift. I mean, if you have a gift, you use it.

I remember that four-eyed freckle face at school had fingers made of rubber, and he eventually became a concert pianist, and an alcoholic, in that order.

There was that hunk that was a springbok on the tennis court and he became a Wimbledon player and a rapist, also in that order.

Buckstone had an incredible memory for details and sequence, all without any notes, and he became an illusionist and comforter, and then a, dunno.

After two years that we knew him, he disappeared, the house was sold, and I guess he moved to greener pastures where people were richer, and could afford to pay more.

Then after the candles and the douche scenes, the electric lights slowly came on, me, gently pushing on the rheostat with such style and panache.

By that time, Julie was under the table. She had a wide space in which to manoeuvre, and the table was large enough to seat fifteen. It was round, so people were a long way from each other. She had this massive magnet which had thin felt on the end so it didn’t scrape on the underside of the wooden top, which in the centre, was actually plywood. But you couldn’t see that underneath the green baize felt tablecloth, which was stretched tight as a snooker table, right to the edges, where it fell all the way to the floor.

Buckstone would flip four cards into the centre of the table. For Chrissake, the fucking cards moved, on their own.

Actually, they had a sliver of iron inside them, and the magnet did the rest.

But because they had moved, Buckstone was able to interpret them to the delight and consolation of his guests.

The lights went out again, and Julie escaped to be with me behind the curtains.

It was like stage managing a play.

It all went according to schedule and the script, but the script changed if anyone came twice. We had lots of “special effects”.

I’d made a channel out of wood, which I fitted against the wall, sloping from about six feet at one end, to a foot off the flor at the other. I’ve mentioned the window in the middle. Well the missing part of the channel was fitted into place as soon as the curtains over the window were closed. There was the same passage effect around the window as there was round the door.

As soon as everyone was seated, the walls of the passages disappeared – they were only doors, set flush.

Once they were opened, we could freely move between the walls and the curtains around all four sides.

I’d sometimes drop a marble into the channel and let it rumble, very quietly, but audibly, all round the room. Sometimes it was two marbles, sometimes a handful of small ball bearings. They all made their own distinctive sounds. They were choreographed according to the script for each performance.

Sometimes a gust of air, besides the windows being visibly closed before the curtains over it were closed, that rustled the curtains surrounding the room. Three fans, little ones, operating on separate cables from this cute switchboard Buckstone had designed initially. Once I saw how it worked, over the next two years, we refined it without his help into quite an operation.

All without electronics. You could still buy valve radios in those days. We used little stepping motors and relays. If the relays snapped too loudly, we had sound proof boxes made of paper mache that we put over them.

Paper mache – just egg boxes.

The space above the ceiling had little speakers taken out of a radio set We had ultra violet light that drifted down from the ceiling (actually the violet fluorescent strip was over the ceiling and shone through a piece of gauze painted to look just like the rest of the surface of the ceiling.)

Amazing what we learned from “The Book of Film Effects”, and “Stage Craft for Designers”. Who needs the fucking Internet, when you have your own brains.

Forty Rand a week; that was twenty each. We didn’t need a calculator to wok out that was eighty rand a month. Enough to pay for a little car, clothes, university fees, books and Lieberstein. And a place to live above Pops Café opposite the entrance to the university.

They hadn’t invented the word “entrepreneur”. We were ingenious, self-made craftsmen.

And the world was at our feet.

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