Pedro’s Stories 1.

DURBAN CINEMA MEMORIES

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day and in a moment of intense nostalgic sentimentality, after a special dinner, we watched the newly digitised and restored MY FAIR LADY which was amazing.

It reminded me of going to the cinema in my youth, in Durban and Pinetown and how exciting that was. With no television at all in our youth, the cinema was about the headiest thing you could do. The whole experience was just thrilling, I remember.

My favourite cinema was the Embassy next door to the more technically challenging Cinerama which was on the corner of Smith & Aliwal streets (now Anton Lambede & Samora Machel, I believe?); their styles were completely different.

The Embassy was more stately; not as grand as the refurbished Prince of Wales further down Smith Street which became the Coliseum.

The Embassy was all burgundy furnishings and low lighting. There was a wonderful popcorn and nicotine fragrance in the welcoming chill of its air-conditioning and it was the first cinema I ever visited when we were taken to see NORTH WEST FRONTIER, an adventure film starring Kenneth MoreLauren BacallHerbert Lom, and Wilfred Hyde-White. How I was let into such a violent film I do not know though today it looks rather tame.

The next revelatory experience at the Embassy was POLLYANNA starring Hayley Mills. We were taken to a matinee and I fell instantly in love with her and dreams of stardom which galvanised me for years to come! I saw all her films, collected all her pictures, corresponded with her, adored her to the point of proposing marriage though I was only 11 at the time! She actually wrote back and told me we were too young to make such decisions but she was glad I enjoyed her films. I bumped into her from time to time in my acting career and then met her properly at a charity event at the Regent’s Park Theatre in London.

So – the Embassy had a lot to do with my youthful delusions!

How I loved that cinema mile. Round the corner in Aliwal Street was the Piccadilly which showed altogether more difficult films; and across the road was the Metro, all Hollywood arte deco and a far more American feel.

It was the scene of an embarrassing altercation between my Father and the Commissionaire one Saturday matinee afternoon. In those days you dressed up to go to the movies. Grey flannel shorts, long grey socks, short sleeve Teesav shirts with tie, can you believe? Despite the heat. THE WIZARD OF OZ had been re-issued and it was our first visit to the Emerald City, the Ruby Slippers and the Glories of Judy Garland. My youngest brother who was 7 was wearing shorts, bare legs and sandals and was refused entry on the grounds of being improperly dressed. My Father was outraged; he pointed to a miniskirted, almost naked young lady that had been let in ahead of us and asked whether she was not improperly dressed too. Shrieks of indignation; outrage all round, embarrassment for all – and the duty manager summoned who ruled in our favour and we took our seats in the dress circle. Or Loge as it was called in the altogether snootier Coliseum. At matinees 26c could procure you a seat there, 13c in the front stalls.

Oh, those were the days. The cinema was a whole experience: first there were the local ads put up, slides really, followed by proper commercials advertising everything from motor cars to TableTop frozen vegetables, to 5th Avenue Cold Duck Rosè, “The Name to say, is I&J” Frikkie Fish Sticks or “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop into the TableTop Shop today; do your shopping at the TableTop shop – See you there!”

Then at least two news reels, probably British Movietone and SA Mirror; a Looney Tune cartoon; Look At Life and sometimes also Pathè News, trailers and an interval. 

During the interval you could purchase popcorn of course and soft drinks, no alcohol allowed, Stage & Cinema was always on sale and cigarettes too. Muzak wallpapered everything until the next set of commercials when lights were partially dimmed.

And then – the main event; but before that there would be a feature commercial when the lights would go down, the screen widen to its greatest, Cinemascopic extent and a beautifully filmed, five minute event would be presented taking you to the international, jet set life of Peter Stuyvesant, or the rich, classy events at Cowes or Ascot with Rothmans, Sports with Lexington, the glories of the Winelands, the vines of Constantia, the grapes of Stellenbosch and Tulbagh whose wines had a taste of history; the glories of Oudemeister, Rembrandt van Rijn and Cameo; and naturally Benoni where we had our first Campari!

The Coliseum hosted such films as DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, RYAN’S DAUGHTER and, indeed, MY FAIR LADY – the very one!

And the smoking! Everybody smoked! There were ashtrays in the seats in front of you and the air conditioning could sometimes not cope with the clouds of smoke through which the projector light beamed. At Cinerama, once the 20th Century, where action films like GRAND PRIX and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD where hosted, friends would sit in the front row at the matinees gasping on packs of ten Gold Dollar and emerging into the hot, humid sunshine with blinding headaches.

All part of the fun.

In Pinetown, in Crompton Street, The Gaiety Cinema was our local and of course the Pinetown Drive-in along the road towards New Germany. The Gaiety was great because you could pop down from the cooler airs of Kloof after supper and take in the latest Bond movie or whatever was showing. One evening there was pandemonium when several rats appeared and projection had to be briefly suspended while the general hysteria was calmed. Fizzies and Ciggies were consumed in quantity.

Old Pintetown: Crompton Street with the Gaiety centre of this old picture.

In Pinetown, in Crompton Street, The Gaiety Cinema was our local and of course the Pinetown Drive-in along the road towards New Germany. The Gaiety was great because you could pop down from the cooler airs of Kloof after supper and take in the latest Bond movie or whatever was showing. One evening there was pandemonium when several rats appeared and projection had to be briefly suspended while the general hysteria was calmed. Fizzies and Ciggies were consumed in quantity.

At the drive-in our favourite treat was an amazing, gigantic club sandwich called a Dagwood. It was brought to the car and placed on a little tray attached to the window and next to the speaker pulled in from its stand outside. Windows open of course to let the stifling, cigarette smoke out.

When no babysitters could be found and if the movie was overage for us, like THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, we’d be put to sleep in the back but peeped all the while and went home to nightmares.

Things were more mature in Smith Street. The Royal Hotel Omelette Bar saw our family often and on grander occasions, when we were older, even the Durban Club, that institution of quite unashamed prejudice and colonial pretension.

My younger brother and I were treated by friends of my parents to a Metro screening of the then re-released masterpiece SINGING IN THE RAIN – “remember, dignity, always dignity….” – and then taken to the main restaurant at the Royal for formal dinner. Gins, wines and brandies were served I recall, though we were underage, and I smoked my first cigar which was brought over in a portable humidor and resulted in a blinding hangover the next morning.

But what a wonderful film.

I mustn’t leave out live theatre. For me this was also revelatory and fed into my youthful aspirations. My first live theatre attendance was at the Lyric Theatre down Umbilo Road where I witnessed Marjorie McConville and David Horner’s wonderful THE KING AND I: the music, the hooped costumes; the story of Anna in Siam – to me it was all magic. That same year was my own first as I stepped forward onto the stage as the Angel Gabriel in the school nativity play, based on a script taken out of Women’s Own and directed by my English teacher, Betty Richards. 

Down at the Alhambra, just up from the Indian Market, I was introduced to Oscar Wilde in the form of AN IDEAL HUSBAND and a series of wonderful shows from Dawn & Des Lindberg and Brickhill Burke extravaganzas through to Diane Todd’s delightful Eliza Doolittle in, yet again, MY FAIR LADY; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, sitting right behind Taubie Kushlik and dying of embarrassment when my father, on perusing the programme called down the line of children to my mother, :”Darling! I thought Taubie Kushlik was a man?” to the many ballets and shows that the embryonic NAPAC started producing there, before their move to the re-re-furbed Coliseum & Playhouse, conjoined into concert hall, opera house and theatre.

At the Durban City Hall the Durban City Orchestra later I think, The Natal Symphonia, entranced us and it was there that I saw Marlene Dietrich who, the legend has it, had spent the afternoon on her knees sewing weights into the stage curtains!

Don’t forget the ice shows either! No English pantomimes in stuffy theatres  in hot, humid Durban at Christmas. No! It was all on ice. At the Ocean City, another enormous venue for big movies and big ice shows. Who can forget Graham Rich’s extravagant Dames or his rendition of Largo Al Factotem in MOTHER GOOSE or JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and many others, while on the enormous screen, resting on comfy black naugahyde, we were ravished by Zeffirelli’s ROMEO & JULIET, Maggie Smith’s Desdemona and Laurence Olivier’s OTHELLO and many other wide screen extravaganzas. 

Like Heather Lloyd-Jones and her Tomango products, “I could go on and on….!”

Oh yes. I loved the cinema and what live theatre was available and feel rather sorry for the millions denied these delights by the advent of television.