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.


Left; Right …

1964 Army 1964 1

I was drafted into the army after school. Conscription. I didn’t take it seriously. Well I did, but not defending the country.

It was funny; I sort of found it romantic and heroic that my father fought for King and country in the war, civilisations response to the threat of the Nazis. What I took seriously in my army days was not getting beaten up by some illiterate Dutchman lance corporal with a pacing stick.

When I did get beaten, it wasn’t the fault of the Lance-Corporal with a Standard Three. It was me, for refusing to speak Afrikaans. I could speak it (I come from Dutch stock); I just refused. If I was in his putrid socks, I would also have beaten me up, especially as he had a deep and abiding hatred of “Die Engelse”.  In the Army, they all had.

Our uniforms were all Second World War issue. My father said they were great because they came in two sizes: too big and too small.

Nine months of completely wasted time. I was declared unfit for combat. Suited me, I didn’t want to die for Afrikaners, or “The Skaaps” as my father called them. These days he would have been hauled before the Human Rights Commission.  In the 1960s, the word xenophobia hadn’t been invented, and what it meant, was compulsory.

My father said that “we only won the war against Hitler because the Skaaps stayed at home. The only thing a Dutchman can grow without a subsidy is a beard.” He’d puff his pipe, and snort.

So I was drafted into the Pay Corps, Hoofbetaalmeester. The bunch of non-humans who paid servicemen like me 50 cents a day. Wow. Really worth while dying for your country.

We marched to the office in the morning, filled out forms, had a hot dog for 5 cents; and marched back to the tent camp behind Defence Head Quarters in Pretoria (next to the jail).

Then we’d not march, just saunter into town and spend the evenings in the café bios.

They were great, and Pretoria was full of them. They were small, maybe 200 seats, with a shelf in front of you where our stored you free glass of Coke or milk.  We always chose the Coke as there was less chance of it being watered down.  For something like 10 cents, you could sit there all night. Walk in the middle of the film, watch it through to the end, and then be treated to at least an hour of series, and serials, and then the film would start again. “Continuous showings” read the sign.  They all had the same names all over the country: Imperial, Royal, Roxy.

Those serials: Hopalong Cassidy; Bar 20 Rides again; Doomed Caravan, Forty Thieves; Captain Marvel; The Adventures of Fu man Chu; Flash Gordon; Lost City of the Jungle. Forerunners to TV today – mindless. I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go and read a book.”

When things started a looking a bit déjà vu, then you just get up and leave. A really nice night’s entertainment. Every night. Hebrews 13:8 – my father used to say that about dinner at home. It wasn’t grace. It was an old wartime habit. Went back to fighting in the desert. I one day looked it up. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever.”

That was army. Sitting in a tent, spitting on your boots so that the polish came up with a shellac type of shine. Pure Dada.

The day they blew up the bridge on the river Kwai

River Kwai
Saturday night at the bioscope. The Piccadilly in Yeoville the always first choice. 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.

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

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) for months. After that 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.

Publicity was left to student pranks. It was in the early sixties that they were showing the “Bridge on the River Kwai” at His Majesties. The film was about how they blew up the bridge over the river Kwai in Burma during the Second World War. Everyone went to see it because it had William Holden in it, and the girls creamed their jeans at the sight of him.

The Wits engineering students devised a way that they too wanted to blow up the bridge over the river Kwai. They commandeered a fire engine with a big ladder, somehow, or so the story goes. They drove it up to the cinema one evening when the pavement was full of people queuing for the early evening show.

This grand fire engine, sirens blaring, came roaring down Commissioner Street. It slammed on its anchors right in front on the cinema to the alarm of the patrons – who remained shell-shocked still on the pavement.

Dressed in old army World War II excess (easily available then from ME Stores), the students swivelled the ladder until it faced the canopy of the cinema. On top there was cardboard cut-out of the Bridge, with those ubiquitous cut-outs of the actors – all looking upwards to heaven. William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness – the Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Kurt Russell of the time.

The students rushed up the ladder with suitable military expressions (they didn’t say “Go – Go – Go” in those days). One had a rucksack and in it some firework explosive dingbat.

They placed the charge under the cardboard cut-out, connected some wires, ran to the other end of the canopy leaving the wire to run off the reel. They connected the charge, put fingers in their ears, and grandly pushed down a plunger.

There was a bang, a flash of powder, and the acrid smell of cheap gunpowder.

The cardboard shattered into flakes of paper and fluttered down to the street.
Down the ladder, they went in triumphant retreat, ready to beat the light fantastic out of town.

But all did not go right. Somehow the ladder got tied up in the overhead lines, and there was a moment of movie type suspense, delaying the fire engine.

But they got away. The cops took hours to arrive. I suppose someone finally recovered from the shock, and got to a telephone and, panic stricken, had reported that someone had blown up the bridge on the river Kwai.

The cops were wise to those sort of telephonic practical jokes. They just went about their business muttering something like “Souties!”

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.