Whatever happened to Phyllis?

Phyllis Peake pic
“I wonder what happened to Phyllis Peake?” I’m the only one who’s asked that question, and then I asked it to myself. I don’t think anyone today remembers her or even cares. But she played a larger part in making Johannesburg what it is today than George Harrison. In case you don’t know, he discovered the gold that caused Johannesburg.

Everyone knew about Phyllis Peake in the 1960s. The sleaze reporters of the Sunday newspapers (Lionel Attwell for the Sunday Times and Gordon Winter for the Sunday Express) could never have survived without her.

She frequently appeared in the Magistrate’s Court, usually dressed somewhat unconventionally, and once, I believe, with her haired dyed green. Every time there was the usual charge against her: procuring, soliciting, running a brothel, prostitution, racketeering, whadda, whadda.

It was titillating reading on a Sunday – there was no TV those days, avoiding going to go to church, and no fishing in the Orange Free State on a Sunday. Yawn. What’s in the papers? Phyllis Peake – again.

The truth was, in fact she rarely appeared in court. Her premises were often raided, but when the cops found themselves in the company of Judge X; Mr Y.MP; Professor Z, they just dropped the charges.

I only knew her briefly. It was a for a short time in 1982, but I often wonder whatever happened to her? Apart from the front pages of the Sunday Times now yellowing in some discarded archive, not much is known about her. And I can’t help. All I can do is to piece together clues from what I heard, read, and what she herself may very well have lied to my face. It’s not expected for a brothel Madame to tell the truth.

Everyone knew that Phyllis Peake ran brothels. But by the time I was working in the theatre in the late sixties, I knew a bit more.

I was resident stage manager at the Alexander theatre. The general manager was Roy Cooke, and he liked to take taxis. He liked drinking, brandy, and he disapproved of people who drank and drove. So he drank and didn’t drive. A man of principle.

He and I often had to go travel from the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein to go to the Empire Theatre in the middle of town. There were often variety (1960s version of vaudeville) shows, and Roy always did the scenery and stage dressing. He did because he loved it. He had been the greatest set designer for African Theatres in its heydays, and he yearned for the big time, which the little repertory Alexander Theatre was certainly not. But that’s all another story.

Roy always used Roses Taxis, and always insisted on being driven by Bennie Blumberg. If Bennie was the driver, Roy and he would mutter together with him about business, things ain’t wot they used to be, and “how’s things”. Sort of men’s talk. If Bennie wasn’t available, Roy would ask the driver, “Where’s Bennie?”

“Down in Durban,” was the usual reply.

“Things got hot?” Roy would ask.

“Yup,” the driver replied. “He’s doing Point Road to a few months.”

“Often happens, eh?” sympathised Roy.

“Yup. Life’s like that.”

One day, Roy told me the real story. Phyllis Peake was the town’s best known brothel keeper. She once served time, like about 18 months. While inside she studied economics, or thought about it, and came up with the economic theory of decentralisation. She figured that she’d been fingered by the cops because she was in one place, like her brothel was “immovable property”. They could watch her, case the joint, follow her tracks, and then wait for the night when she wasn’t hosting judges and MPs, and then pounce.

That’s how she’s been raided, and caught, with not a professor or judge in sight.

It wasn’t going to happen again, so she implemented her new-found economic principle of decentralisation by running a delivery service to the client’s houses. Phyllis would take a booking by phone, then call up her employee, who would in turn order Bennie Blumberg from Roses Taxis to take her to the client’s house, and fetch her again.

Phyllis Peake no longer ran a brothel. Every house in Bryanston was her brothel. Impossible to trace or case.

If the girl didn’t come out of the house within a reasonable time of that expected, or came out a little “shop-soiled” then Bennie could call up a friend or two, and either see to the girl’s safety, or collect reparation any “damages incurred”.

A lot of her girls worked as usherettes in the cinemas during the day, so it was double income business for them. They could also practice some services in the dark in the cinemas and do some marketing at the same time.

That’s all the stuff that I learned from Roy. Roy liked interesting people. Roy had a profound effect on my life as he made me almost addicted to interesting people.

It was about the same time that I was teaching English literature, poetry and stage scripting for Benni Bonaccorsi, the best drama teacher in town.

Benni had her studio in number 31/32 Manners Mansions in Jeppe Street, entrance behind Smokers Corner. Benni’s husband “Bonni” Bonaccorsi was an Italian count. There are more Italian Counts than there are Italian peasants, but that’s another story.

Bonni had emphysema and did very little work, apart from always being impeccably dressed (as befitted a Count), and huffing and puffing his way through the streets of Johannesburg looking for interesting people. As a matter of course, he’d sit through trials from the visitors gallery of the courts, where he’d hear all about interesting people.

One day, a mother brought her teenage son for an audition to learn drama with Benni. I’m not aware of anyone who failed an audition with Benni, unless of course they obviously couldn’t pay. But that was the same with all drama teachers in town. They were the 1960’s equivalent of today’s “Casting Agents”.

Anyway, just as this lady and her son were leaving, Bonni was coming home from one of his journeys to Rissik Street.

He stormed into the studio, and shouted, quite emotionally, to Benni, “Whatsa thata woman doing here?” – Italian accent from Venice.

Benni peered at him across her glasses, and asked calmly, “What ‘thatta woman’? She’s Mrs Matthews, and she brought her son for an audition.”

Bonni was still apoplectic with rage. “Mrsa Matthewsa, my fuckinga arse. Thatsa Phyllis Peake!”

Well, Matthews junior was enrolled as student, and learned drama until Benni found him trying to recruit the girl students to become waitresses in his mother’s night club.

Between Benni and Bonni, we pieced together what we knew about Phyllis Peake, from Bonni’s court records, and from hearsay, and from some of the things that Matthews junior had indiscreetly let out.

Phyllis Peake came from school and onto the labour market some time in the fifties. She wanted to be a photographer – this in a time when the only work that women were allowed to do was secretarial, typing, switchboard and receptionist.

But Phyllis Peake was Phyllis Peake, and no “Man’s World” was going to stop her. She was the last of the downhill racing feminists.

On Saturdays, she get up before dawn, hot foot it down to the West Street Magistrates Courts and examine the roll of marriages to be conducted them that day. She’d phone the people up, and get herself booked as the wedding photographer.

No one seemed to mind a woman photographer, and her business expanded to the midweek marriages as well.

Phyllis Peake got rich, well, richer than the poverty into which she’s been born. Soon she found that her biggest cost component was photographic processing. She figured she’s save big bucks if she had her own laboratory, did her own processing and printing.

She took rooms in Downing Mansions, on the corner of Bree and Eloff (opposite what became the President Hotel). In one room she had backgrounds, chairs and lights, and the other room became a darkroom that she fitted out with the best laboratory equipment. She could afford to.

Life went rushing on in a routine, and business got better and better. One day a man called and asked her how much she would charge for the whole studio. She gave him a price. He checked, “That’s for the darkroom as well?”

She’d never been asked that before, so she tripled the price, and the deal was done. Except that there was another clause to the deal – she was not to be there, she had to disappear, and only come back when he was finished.

What the hell. Suited her. She earned three times more than normal, and could go to the movies.

One evening, she noticed that he hadn’t assiduously emptied the rubbish bin as he usually did, and she went through it.

So that’s what he was using the studio for, she nodded silently as she stared at the crumpled remains of a photo that any judge would classify as “serious pornography”. Phyllis wasn’t shocked. Not at all. It got her thinking. Photography was a dead end job. She was getting bored, and this nice guy had given her an idea.

From that time on, for, possibly a decade, her Pilgrim’s Progress is reasonably well documented on the front pages of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express.

During that time, she was fingered, convicted, served time, and then became the fore-runner of Mr Delivery.

It seems that about the time I was at the Alexander Theatre, and teaching for Benni, that Phyllis moved into premises down the road from Downing Mansions to the building next door to the Savoy Cinema. She took a whole floor, which she converted into a club that fronted for a glamorous and very high class brothel. It had a lounge and bar, and the curtained-off passage, onto which opened many doors.

Phyllis Peake left my life then until the mid seventies when I used to see advertisements in the newspaper smalls for “The Prisoner’s Friend”. They read: “Do you need Bail? Phone The Helping Hand”. If you asked who this was, everyone knew it was Phyllis Peake, the butterfly once again transformed into yet another caterpillar.

It beggared belief just how a business worked. If you were arrested, say for house-breaking, then you could phone the “Prisoners Friend” and they would bail you out. Why would The Helping Hand do so? They’d only get their money back if you were found innocent, which in those days wasn’t very often. It didn’t make sense.

Then one Saturday night – I was working at the SABC at the time, I was spending a quiet social time with some journalists at the Devonshire Hotel in Jorissen Street, in Braamfontein. Well that was “quiet” as defined by the “Dev”. It was in fact very noisy. Bars stools were thrown through the windows (which were closed at the time), some people were getting physical exercise planting their fists against other’s noses, and one or two were being nicely asked to leave by their belts.

I asked one of the sleazier of the journos, “What’s this business of Phyllis Peake’s, The Helping Hand?”

He knew. He would. He was that type. He explained. When you were arrested, you’d phone her, and she’d get all your details. What you did, what you intended to do, why, how, and in short, how good you were at what you did.

She got all your details. She actually didn’t even care if she got her bail back or not. The point was, she had all your details, knew everything about you, who your friends were, and your enemies. She had you by the balls. But she was, as usual, a pioneer. She had a database of people with unique skills. This was long before the word “database” was invented.

If you ever needed a skill which she may have on her database, you could contact The Helping Hand, and through Phyllis, hire the right person for the right job.

For instance, say your wife had cleaned you out in the divorce, and you’d do anything to get back the diamond necklace worth millions, why not phone Phyllis? She’d arrange a “spatial intrusion engineer” to “perform a retrieval”. You paid a handsome fee, but you got your millions worth of diamonds back.

It was brilliant.

A little later, she opened “The Maids Friend”, a personnel agency where you could get a trained maid, and place where a maltreated maid could go for mediation.

When you think hard about it, the two – The Helping Hand” and “The Maids Friend” both fitted together like hand in glove. After all, the maids could find out just where certain things were kept, and made the life of the spatial intrusion engineers a lot easier.

At last, the time came when I was to meet Phyllis Peake, face to face, and got to really like her.

After the SABC suggested that I was too good for them and that I should further my career elsewhere (that’s another story), I opened a film production, corporate communications and PR business. That description meant then, what it still means today. “I’ll do anything for money.”

I got a job (freelance) doing publicity for a really nice guy called Tony Factor. This was one rough little Jewish boy. He came from nothing, was chronically dyslectic, and couldn’t even read. Unless it was a complex contract where he could suddenly read every letter of the fine print.

He got known as the discount king when he hit the headlines discounting petrol, which had a price fixed by the government. I don’t think he ever actually sold any discounted petrol but her did later discount new cars, which had the bosses of GM, Ford, VW and company all wanting to kill him.

When I came across Tony, he was discounting coffins. He bought these SKDs (semi knocked down) which was like one of those model kits. The came from a factory owned by a kindly gentleman called “Pa” Venter, who had this carpentry factory down in Robertson in the Cape.

The coffins came flat – Just a pile of pre-cut and pre-drilled pieces of wood, with a little packets that contained all the screws and lugs.

You could assemble it yourself – you just followed the easy-to-read instructions.

Tony agreed the instructions were easy to read. “They look gud enuf,” he said. “Can’t read them myself, I’m dyspeptic.”

But, as Tony used to say, “You just keep the kit under your bed, and when you feel the time coming, you can just put it together and get into it yourself.”

Brilliant marketing. They flew off the shelves faster than snake oil.

One day his, equally rough secretary, somewhat decoratively tattooed on her breasts, told Tony that some one called Phyllis Peake was on the phone, and wanted to talk to him.

“Ah don’ wanna talk to dat hooker,” he spat, and turned to me. “You take the call.”

Phyllis Peake had a sweet voice, if somewhat other side of the tracks accent. She said she was closing her undertaking business, and had a lot of body fridges in her back garden, and she wanted to know if Tony wanted to buy them.

“I really don’t know, Phyllis,” I responded. “But as his representative, I must say it could be interesting. Can I come and see you?”

“Anytime sweetie. 65 Honey Street Berea.”

“Tomorrow, afternoon tea?” I asked, rather anxious to meet her, but not sounding too keen. Like a little ‘hard to get’.

It was 1982.

I knocked on the door of this modest but neat little house off Harrow Road in Berea. She answered the door. Short. Grey hair down to shoulders, dead straight but scraggly. Her dumpy figure put her at mid-sixties.

Inside, her lounge was the antithesis of her. Deep scarlet velvet drapes, trimmed with gold braid, lush imitation gilt Louis VI chairs, and her tea pot was pure Spode.

I got her off the body fridge subject, as I didn’t want to have to see them for myself (I draw the line somewhere, even when it comes to interesting people.)

“Why did you get out of the sex business, Phyllis?”

“Darling, it was when those massage parlours opened up. They sprang up like rats and mice, and took all the class out of the trade.” She should her head sadly, as if relating how her cat had been run over.

“You know they were amateurs, darling. Amateurs. When my places were raided, my girls always had a box of tissues to wipe up the sperm and flush it down he loo the moment there were the sounds of a raid. These massage parlours had no skills, no training, no …. CLASS. They got raided and closed, and then they’d pop up somewhere else. They were also very grubby. My place was spotless. Spotless, darling. And not one of my girls ever had a bruise.”

We talked and talked. She was lovely. Just like the granny I had always wanted to have. Interesting, resourceful, and who’s spent her life having adventures. I wanted to write her biography. She agreed.

We started work, but half of it I couldn’t write. Many of her clients were still alive: Judges, MPs, magistrates, priests, owners of companies, and worst of all, the Chief of Police.

We agreed to put it on hold, and wait for at least some of them to die.

I never got her full story. Shortly after that I headed for my first divorce, and the post-divorce period where your soul gets sand-blasted.

Phyllis went off my mind.

One day I drove past 65 Honey Street Berea, and the place obviously changed hands.

I wonder whatever happened to Phyllis Peake?

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Empire Magic

Empire magic
For the end of the world was long ago / And all we dwell today

As children of some second birth / Like a strange people left on earth

After a judgement day.

G K Chesterton (Ballad of the White Horse)

It’s hard to remember. Not recollecting the past, but reliving something that isn’t there any more.

Saturday night at the bioscope. The Piccadilly in Yeoville. They used to show ‘Carry On’ films. Endlessly, but then they made ‘Carry On’ films endlessly. In between, the films were sort of bland, “Sink the Bismarck” sort of stuff. If we couldn’t find anything to see at the Piccadilly, we would trek all the way to Hillbrow, to the Clarendon or the Curzon. After the Clarendon was pulled down (when they pulled down all the old picture palaces in the early seventies), it became Nedbank. The only nice thing was that Nedbank was the first ever to open an ATM. It dispensed a great big plastic slotted card that contained the enormous amount of a R10 note.

With spaghetti bolognaise at 75 cents, 20 Players at 28 cents, and a gallon of Lieberstein at R3.00, R10 was quite enough to last many days.

That was after it had changed from the Netherlands Bank of South Africa. I think they changed the bank’s name because the Netherlands in those days were the most vociferous opponents of apartheid. The local bankers had to suck up to racist wealth by divorcing themselves from the name of the enemy.

The Clarendon was where “The “Sound of Music” showed for months. Some old lady bought a ticket for every performance (four or five times a day). After a few weeks, they gave her a free pass. It was in the papers. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. The theatre and cinema industry weren’t clever enough for publicity stunts in those days.

The first time I ever walked into the Empire theatre through the Stage Door entrance was when I got a job as a stage hand for Minstrel Scandals, a rather cheesy tits and bums show that had as its distinguishing feature the 1920’s burnt cork black faces of the negro/white chick shows that none can understand why they were popular.

Anyway, Louis Burke and Joan Brickhill mounted this “extravaganza” of mindless routines that appealed to the over-45s in the 1960s who actually remembered the 1930s. They dragged in the younger members of the family, who liked the eye candy because it was ten years before television would lighten the lives of South Africans. In those days, watching old men playing chess on the park was high entertainment.

“Burke/Brickhill” to the public meant glitz and glamour. It was their forte, neither of them were intellectual. Apart from mindlessness, they had one thing in common, they were always both chasing the same guys. He was a good deal younger than she, and they seemed to be a good team, and their cat fights backstage certainly showed off a bubbly relationship.

In fact, Minstrel Scandals was a load of complete shit, but it was my first job in the theatre, and to me it was an early reward of Valhalla.

From the bus stop in Market Street, I turned right into Kruis Street. Halfway down on the left was this tatty grey door with faded red letters “Stage Door”. Nothing could be more romantic.

Open the door, and down about six steps, and on your left was a cubicle – the domain of Joe, the Stage Door Keeper, in a maroon livery with gold braided cap. Sweet and patient with all the mincing giggly boys, and the brainless squeaking pretty girls. He had terrible gout, and dragged his feet painfully in ever-increasingly larger shoes.

Some of the guys in the chorus were straight, but if they didn’t mince, they got their face slapped.

Turn right through two swing doors, and you were in magic land. On the left was the stage. On the right, the stairs to below the stage where curtains were stored, and where they used to operate the grave and star traps – long since shored up. And of course the obligatory theatre ghost lived down there. The Phantom of the Opera is the only theatre ghost anyone has actually seen – sober.

Directly in front of you were the three Star Dressing Rooms. Nothing fancy, no private toilets. In fact the poor stars, who had their names styled on the door in careful gold lettering, had to walk yonks to get to the toilet. Upstairs were two floors of two-seater, three-seater and chorus dressing rooms. That’s why the girls always tripped down the stairs with their muscles glistening beneath their net stockings, and made Joe stick at his job, when he knew he should be warming his tootsies before the fire at home in blissful retirement.

The stage was the sordid machine, the cauldron where you boiled up magic for the audience.

I loved the illusion of the how, but I loved even more being privy to the spells that transformed the dust, dirt and smells of the backstage into what the audience saw.

The stage. As you came through the doors, you were in the wings. The stage sloped down towards the footlights. It was one of the last raked stages in South Africa – a reminder of the deluded days when stage designers thought that a slope to the stage created a better illusion for the audience, both below in the stalls, and up above in the circle.

Hah. You see. Part of the privilege of being “in the theatre” was that, like the Freemasons, you knew the lingo, the secret language, and the funny handshakes. You knew about the Circle, the Front of House lights or FOH), the boxes, the footlights (or floats), the follow-spots (or limes), the pros opening (or proscenium), the wings, paint-frame, flies, counter-weights, and the hand-lines. Nobody else knew about them, not if they weren’t part of the reclusive cult called “in the theatre”, or “Thee-art-err” as Margaret Inglis, Taubie Kushlik, Hermien Domisse, and the other pains-in-the-arse grand dames used to say. You got to be a grand dame when your acting dated to that of Sir Donald Wolfit and your body had degenerated so that you had no option but to glide gracefully across the stage.

Back to the Empire. It seated 1700. The proscenium opening was 34 feet and 6 inches. Its height was 21 feet. The stage floor was 45 feet deep and there were 16 feet of wing space either side. There were 34 counterweighted bars hanging from the grid. The dimmer board was hand-operated off rheostats, and could service around 100 circuits. It was the domain of Joe Freedman and Ronnie Watters. Apart from stage lighting, Ronnie bred rabbits.

To the audience the stage was shining light of another world. To me the stage was a box made of dirty bricks and rusting iron, with a splintery floor boards, eerie sunlight from the crash windows above the grid, and a smell of decades of sweat and dust.

The stage was the fiefdom of Louis Shinwell, who had been stage mechanist for African Theatres since the 1930s. He as about 70 when I worked there as a stage hand in 1966, so he could easily have started his career in the South African theatre during hr First World War.

In later years, when I moved in as stage manager for Fiddler on the Roof, with a 30-feet diameter revolving stage, he looked at it disdainfully and told me that the revolving stage for “White Horse Inn” in 1936 was 34 feet in diameter. “That was the show that brought Bruce Anderson to South Africa, you know.” As if I did know. Nobody ever thought of writing down everything that Louis knew. No one thought of it. His wife Jenny has been wardrobe mistress for African Theatres for as many years. His brother Mannie (and his wife Mabel) had the same jobs at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban – but both Mannie and Mabel were ten years older. Mabel looked just like the witch in Snow White. But she was sweet and kind, and rather made you fond of witches. Mannie looked like a fossil.

Then there was the orchestra pit. It could accommodate about 30 musicians (35 if you didn’t have drums and a goddam harp). It was on lifts, and the conductor had this little box with two buttons on, one for up and one for down. The steel door from below the stage (where the ghost lived) into the orchestra pit had to be closed and locked before the lift would operate. The plan was that the orchestra pit lifted to a level where the audience could see the conductor from the waist up, and the shoulders of the musicians for the overture. The overture was a sort of five-minute taste of all the nice tunes you were going to hear. Nowadays we call it foreplay.

Like foreplay, the overture was sometimes nicer than the show.

When the overture was over, the conductor lowered the pit so that you could only occasionally see the tip of the baton. Extraordinary cost and technology for a five minute sequence of a show that had a full orchestra. Not clean, efficient and clinical like things today.

When you stood on the stage, obviously not when the show was on – I was never an actor – it was strange place. The auditorium was lit by cleaning lights – two single poles on a crude stand that held a single light bulb.

You saw everything with eerie upward leaning shadows from the cleaning lights. The scarlet upholstery of the seats looked brown, the colour of a coffin. It echoed, like an underworld cave. It always looked and felt dead. Like the way the actors felt during under-study rehearsals. You couldn’t do an under-study rehearsal without a hangover – it wasn’t decent.

An empty cinema palace theatre seen from the stage is an experience that belongs to the past.

They’re all gone.

Where have all the flowers gone? Where have all the theatres gone – gone to office blocks every one. When will they ever learn – when will they e-e-e-ver leee-aaaa-arn.