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.

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