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!”