Monthly Archives: September 2019

The little things you never forget

Rand Central

There is an intersection in the middle of Johannesburg that was important to me. It is where Jeppe (now Rahima Moosa) crosses Joubert Streets. On the one corner was International House, or Ansteys (it seemed to have two names), on the other, Manners Manners, and on the third corner (northeast) was Rand Central. You entered Rand Central through an arcade, at the bottom of which was Show Service on the right, and the Cheza coffee bar on the left. The corner table of Cheza on the arcade seemed to be the permanent home of an elderly man with a long brownish beard, and who smoked a Meerschaum pipe. In those days, you could smoke anything anywhere.

I don’t know who he was, or why he had this privileged position.

I saw him often as was the stage manager at the Alexander Theatre. Service. Show Service sold tickets until about 5 pm. After that, I had to drive into Show Services, collect the unsold tickets and take them back to the theatre. There I had to load them carefully into wooden racks, and check them against the seating plan, so that the cashier at the Box Office could show patrons what seats were available on the plan, and then reach behind carefully, and take the right ones out of their slots.

No computers, no Comiputickets, just manual. Just Hollerith cards. Now there’s a word you don’t see often

Scary people worked at Show Service: Percy Tucker, Aubrey Louw, and Pat Bray. I’m not saying they were voodoo monsters. It was just that I was barely 21, and I held in total awe these people who knew everything. I was young and knew nothing. I would cheerfully have crawled on the floor and licked their shoes. I was scared of them. That’s why “scary”.

Manners Mansions

There were two important people in Manners Mansions. The building had a corner island shop, Smokers Corner. I never went in there. That was a connoisseur shop, and I’m sure they never sold Peter Stuyvesant or Westminster 85. They sold exotic tobaccos, briar pipes, pipe stands, and those Swiss army type implements that pipe smokers used to scrape the filthy gunge from their pipes, and then band the pipe on the heel of their shoes, usually over the Persian carpet.

They also sold unusual cigarettes like Idlewild menthol. Sobranie, and McGillavry’s Export cigarettes. And Consulate in tins. I remember McGillavry’s because the radio advertisement used “The Scottish Soldier” in the background.

In numbers 31/32 of Manner Mansions was the Benedicta Bonacorsi Drama Studio, which was to play such an important place in my life. Somewhere on the 4th or 5th floor was the flat where Muriel Alexnader lived.

Theatre, some really special people

Harry Ligoff.

He was a lighting engineer, but more than that, he was the first to introduce that funny thing called a transistor into dimming the lights.

When I was very young, I’d seen saline dimmers, either at His Majesty’s or the Capital in Pretoria. They were smelly things where an electrode dipped deeper into a salt solution. It short of shily make the lights dim, but also produced quite a lot of chlorine. After that, they developed the rheostats, which scraped a carbon brush against a coil of wire. No smell of chlorine this time, just the smell of ozone.

Anyway, Ligoff, introduced his “electronic” board to the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein. I became stage manager there in 1968, and whenever it went wrong, which was quite often, we’d call in Harry. He was short, and sort of scraggly, with the hint of a hunchback. Long Bob Hope nose, and always polite, cheery, with an undercurrent of cynicism. Like he was saying to you, “So nice to see you. How can I help?”. But you could tell he was thinking, “Silly prick. What have you done this time? Flicked your cigarette ash on the dimmers, I suppose”.

I knew he was pals with Percy Baneshik, theatre critic of the Rand Daily Mail, because I sometimes saw them in the bar at the Elizabeth Hotel. Percy was another matter. He’d had polio and had a leg, or both, in irons. He was short and stunted, and the polio had also hit his arms and hands. But he drove a car. He had a long piece of wood attached to his car key, so he could insert the key into the door lock, and then press his elbow against the wood and turn it that way. He also had some hand controls on his steering wheel, to take the pressure off his feet. He never married, and as far as I can remember, lived with his mother. But he was theatre critic of The Star, and a powerful person to be feared, respected and cowered to. A bad review killed you, and a good one meant a long run. Make or break.

At that time the critic for the Sunday Times was Oliver Walker, later to be replaced by Bill Brewer. The Sunday Express was Evelyn Levison. Marylin Jenkins and Bill Edgson were on The Star. The Rand Daily Mail critic was usually Dora Sowden.

Many years later, when I was old enough to no longer be a snotty little boy, I became close to Percy, and together we discovered the old Gaiety Theatre. It had become a clothing factory, but the original moulded ceiling was still in place. Once Percy had written about it, the ceiling was bought by Adam Leslie and installed in his new theatre in End Street. Well NEW theatre, nd OLD building. It was originally a music academy founded by Lady Phillips, sometime at the beginning of the century.

Hermione Gingold

I loved that lady. I was, maybe 22, and she was over 70. It was 1969. She came out to play the lead in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, and I was stage manager.

One night, after the show, Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke came back with their aunt Muriel Alexander in a wheelchair. Old Muriel was by then nearly 90 years old, and a delightful old drunk. It was often my job to deliver groceries to her flat in Manners Mansions, and usually had to help her off the floor and into a chair to sober up. If I’d achieved what she had, I’d also be a drunk, in a permanent state of celebration.

Louis said to me, in his usually pompous manner (sort of an impersonation of Sir Donald Wolfit), “Howard, please ask Miss Gingold to come here. We can’t take aunt Muriel down the stairs.

I went down to the star dressing room, and gingerly knocked on the door. “Yes?” came that raspy Gingold voice with its sibilant lisp. “Miss Gingold, I have Muriel Alexander in the prompt corner, I can’t bring her here. She’s very old.”

“Muriel Alexander? Nonsense. She’s dead.”

“She’s not, she’s in the prompt corner, but very old.”

“Must be at least 100”, she murmured, and then yelled, “Muriel Alexander, oh my Jesus!”

She threw on her wig, did up her dressing gown cord, and fled up the stairs. At the sight of Muriel, she fell to her knees, and both of them started crying. I’m not sure they actually said anything to each other, they were too occupied crying. Later Gingold told me that she hadn’t seen her since 1908, when they both played in Pinky and the Fairies directed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. I thought, what if they hated each other in 1908? I’d also have cried if I’d again met my worst enemy after more than 60 years.

 Pinkie and the Fairies in 1908. Hermione Gingold and Muriel Alexander are there somewhere. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/42399206@N03/3972417017/

Others

If you needed a revolving stage, the only person who could build it for you was Harry Klass of CEMCO. I think CEMCO stood for Cinema Engineering Manufacturing company, an he’d made his fortune when they invented Cinemascope. Most films were still standard format, so the screen had to have motorised masks that could changed the black border of the screen from 4:3 to 1.85:1 to accommodate the super wide screen.

Then of course, the studios kept on bringing out different aspect ratio formats: VistaVision, Todd AO, Panavision and so on. Creating new mask, all motorised, for hundreds of screens all over the country, kept Harry going, prosperously, for years. Don’t forget, there was no TV until 1976. Everyone went to the movies. Sometimes to watch the film, but often to have sex in the back row, smoke if you were under 16, and even drink alcohol copiously. To be fair, very few actually had sex in the back row. Most were using very silly techniques to start trying to have sex, like putting your around the girl’s shoulders.

Harry made several revolving stages for shows I stage managed: Fiddler on the Roof, Canterbury Tales, and Androcles and the Lion. These were all hit shows, but that was in the context of the time.

Harry was something like Harry Ligoff. Polite, gentlemanly, but said one thing, nd thought another. His unspoken thoughts were possibly, “Nice to make an exorbitant profit out of you.”

Today, looking back, those hit stage shows were quite silly. But they were all we had, and silly TV hadn’t hit the box in our homes yet, with even sillier shows. By the time I had graduated from theatre to film, and then to TV. I had mastered the art of making kitsch rubbish.

Joe Freedman

Joe was the lighting man for African Theatres, so he was always there whether you were working in Johannesburg at the Empire, Colosseum, or His Majesty’s; in Durban at the Alhambra; in Pretoria at the Capitol; or in Cape Town at the Alhambra. He was cool, always smiling, his lips betraying what he was thinking, “You silly turd. You know nothing, and you think you’re in charge. No stage manager is in charge of me, especially one that’s 22 years old. I’d tell you to fuck off if it was worth it.”

His assistant was older than he was, Ronnie Watters. Ronnie bred rabbits. He dyed them different colours and sold them at show grounds, sports stadiums and entrainment parks. He didn’t think evil thoughts like Joe Friedman did, he was too busy thinking about coloured bunnies.

Joe was very masculine and attractive, and usually had very discreet affairs with women in the cast – especially chorus girls. So discreet, that you only got to hear about it if the girl boasted about it. But then, Joe was in such demand, that you didn’t believe the girl, to whom it was often “in her dreams”.

The old-timers

African Theatres was full of “old timers” who’s careers hailed back to the 1930’s. At the Empire in Johannesburg, Louis Shinwell and his wife Jenny has retired into a flat at the top the theatre as general caretakers. Buy when  live show came in, Louis would go back to his role of crusty old stage mechanist. And Jenny would, whether you liked it or not, become head of wardrobe.

Louis had seen it all, and told you over and over again until you could sing along with him. He looked at the thirty-foot revolving stage we used for Fiddler on the Roof, and continuously reminded me that it was four feet smaller than the one used in the same theatre in 1934 for White Horse Inn. And, that was the show that brought Bruce Anderson to South Africa. And a limited repertoire of snippets like that, endlessly repeated.

Louis had an older brother, Mannie, who had the same semi-retirement at the Alhambra in Durban. His wife, Mabel, also took on Jenny’s role, when the show moved to Durban. Mabel had no teeth, and seemed determined to do without them, so we referred to her as the witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The old timers like Louis, Mannie, Jenny and Mabel Shinwell had the whole history of African Theatres in their heads. That went with them, and went again when African Theatres became Ster Kinekor. The new cinema chain, now owned by Sanlam, had no room for 70 years of archives, so evert record, programme, article, newspaper cutting an admin documents was tossed onto the rubbish heap, as they were cutting down on floor space. History repeats itself, because it’s always being tossed into the dustbin.

Sweet revenge

Everyone you meet in life teaches you something. Even if you just met, or liked, or disliked them. The people you spent years with, just a week, or an hour. They all taught me something.

At school, and sweet revenge

I was at Marist Brothers in Observatory Johannesburg. It wasn’t an expensive school; it was the cheap branch. It was where those on the margins sent their sons to school. The Chinese, the Lebanese, the refugees, and those who couldn’t afford a Catholic school, but managed to persuade the brothers that they could. Like my mother.

There was no way on earth that we could afford the fees. And so, I spent 13 years of my life with my fees in constant arrears. When my grandfather died in 1961, we suddenly had a little money, and my mother paid the arrears. But that meant that a year later, we were a year in arrears again.

But, let it be known. When the time came for me to write matric, although we were heavily in arrears, the brothers let me write, and they wrote off the debt. They don’t do that anymore. Three months, and you’re on the pavement, headphones, iPad, the lot. I went to the 50th gathering of my matric class. They only managed find 5 of us. Brother Joseph asked me if I was in a position to pay my arrears yet. At the end of 1963, they amounted to about R120. We gave up trying to translate that into today’s money, so, he wrote it off. Again.

Teachers

I suppose the few left from those days remember some of the teachers. There were two kinds at Marist Brothers: the brothers, and the lay teachers. The brothers had sworn oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience. The lay teachers thought they may find girls cute sometime.

Mr McGirr (first name unknown), but we nicknamed him “Duimpie”. He taught Latin and was diminutive. I used to get to school early, anything to get out of the house, and I’d walk the fields with him. He spoke about everything on the fields. He left Cicero and Seneca to the classroom. I learned a lot about Spinoza, St Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Plato, and little-known snippets about the other teachers. Years later, about 1984, I bumped into him in Checkers in Yeoville. Old habits die old. “Mr McGirr, SIR, “I exclaimed. He peered at me. “Thomas.   1963…Why did to only get a C for Latin?” That left me staggered. I couldn’t remember the name of the girl who had dumped me two weeks before.

Billy Singleton. He was rumoured to have no more than Standard 8, but he had been teaching Geography for 40 years, so I guess that made him qualified to teach the Seven Seas and Five Continents. That Ctesiphon is south of Baghdad, and that Everest is 32 000 feet above sea level. Life changing things like that.

It also made a huge impact on the couple of guys who couldn’t speak a word of English. They were refugees from Hungary in 1957 and had been placed in a range of Catholic schools. We made the welcome in our own way, not being able to speak a work of Hungarian. Wed turn to them and smile, “Is dit lekker om so lelik te wees?” They’d smile back. We were cruel. Just like all kids in the 1950s. And 60s, 70s, 80s, and today.

Billy Singleton once made a disparaging remark about the Lebanese, and they swore revenge. You didn’t mess with the Lebs. I would pay then protection money to save me from the Ducktails (local youths who fashioned themselves on the London Teddy Boys, but had adopted the Elvis hairstyle, that resembled a duck’s tail behind their heads), and who hung out outside the Apollo Café in  Raleigh Street in Yeoville. They would loll against the café windows, in their stove pipe trousers (stovies), and white socks above their pointed shoes (winkle-pickers). They’d sweep their hair back with combs that were clogged with Brylcreem. Others would casually swing bicycle chains, round and round, until I came cycling down the tramlines. Then they’d let loose of the chains and send them flying through my bicycle spokes. That had me on the tarmac with my blazer torn.

After that I paid my protection money. The first time the Duckies tried that with me again, I reported them to my protectors. The next day, I cycled past the Apollo and the Duckies wore arm slings, heads bandaged, with their cigarettes hanging limply from their swollen lips.

Anyway, back to Billy Singleton and his regrettable remarks. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but those were the days before political correctness, so it wasn’t a matter of reporting it to the authorities, it was a matter of brutal revenge.

He drove one of those box shaped Anglia’s. Duimpie also drove one, and the two of them would vie for the one parking space in the shade of the trees. This day, Billy’s was in the sun. The Lebs opened his window (with a coat hanger, same as these days, and then artfully defecated (shat) on his back seat. Lots of it. By lots of Lebs.

That made big impression on me. Firstly, I laughed myself until I nearly vomited, then I imagined the smell. Then I pitied him because I am sure it destroyed his car. Finally, it made me respect the Lebs even more, and didn’t complain when they doubled my protection fee.

Highest of the high-class hookers

Hihgpoint Hillbrow

Hillbrow. 1968. Gloriana’s flat was down the bottom of the hill in Raymond Street. It was magnificent, and she gave us lovely breakfasts on Sunday mornings.  Gloriana was in social welfare.  She didn’t go looking for battered women; she was in the other kind of social welfare.  She looked after the social welfare of any man rich enough to afford her.

And she charged!  And she was classy.  No rubbish with her.  She offered her sessions for never less than 24 hours.  And at a time I was earning R50 a week, she was taking in R500 a night.  She timed the sessions so that Sunday morning was always free for her friends, who she entertained for breakfast.  Year in and year out.

Gloriana was really a coloured, but pale enough to pass for white.  She even had a Book of Life that classified her as white.  But if she just tweaked the make up, she could be coloured again.

Earlier that year she had noticed that there was an increase in German tourists, and she knew that they came to South Africa because they had a taste for toast.

“I wanna get my hands on some of that Deutschmark,” she said. “I need a nest egg in another country.  I’ll charge them plenty and make them pay me in Germany.  Open a bank account in Frankfurt. But I need to an itty bitty more darko.”

When she was with us, Gloriana spoke like she came from Coronationville, which she did.

When she was with clients, she spoke as if she was a secretary from Buckingham Palace.  I gave her help at times.  I worked in the theatre and had studied speech and drama.  The problem was always her tendency to end all her sentences on an upward inflection, like they spoke in Riverlea.  I got her ending her sentences on a downward inflection, and slowing down.  It made her voice so much more resonant.  She could have got another R100 a night just for that.

That Sunday morning we helped her.  Helped her choose her clothes, and get the complexion going.  Gloriana went from brunette to black with long flowing locks – not straight like an Indian, but with gentle waves.

She said, “Gloriana won’t do for a coloured, besides Gloriana of Hillbrow is known the world over as a white.  I need a new name.”  We thought, and thought, and then remembered the film of “Irma la Douce”. I wonder what about Gloriana made us think of “Irma la Douce?”

Anyway, she left the kitchen as Gloriana, and by the time we had all finished with her, and added the final touches, the beautiful mixed race that came back into the kitchen was Mimi the Mau Mau.

If anyone else had tried it, they’d have ended up like an SPCA mongrel.  But not Mimi the Mau Mau, nee Gloriana. Shape shifter.  Like Merlin.

We all helped with breakfast. I made the toast; the Professor set the table, and made little curly shells of butter with the spoon thing with the scalloped edges.  Pushy made the coffee and poured the orange juice.  I did the kippers.

Gloriana did the scrambled eggs.  She wouldn’t let any one else touch the eggs, not because she had some special flick of the wrist, but that she beat them with a vibrator.  “No other way to make scrambled eggs really fluffy,” she would say, as she stood upright, vibrator in one hand in the egg bowl, and her Perilly’s Private Blend between the second and third finger of the other.

We all loved living in Hillbrow. It defied everything: legislation, the cops, normality and South Africa.

Looking back over 40 years, we’re still shape shifting.  The blacks want to be white, and the whites want to be black. The poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be richer.