Category Archives: Theatre

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:


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.

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.