Theater Memories

posted in: Mini Memories 10

Reader Belinda dropped a comment on the very popular Arcades of Durban post and it raised so many memories I thought it should have its own post. She wrote:

Reading all these posts have brought a flood of memories … I can’t remember whether it was Murchies Passage or Salisbury Arcade, but in the early 70s there was a shop that sold hippie paraphernalia, adjacent to the flagship Wimpy. On Saturdays, the Dbn hippie community (and part-time hippies) would hang out there, flowing onto the pavement surrounding the shop – much to the horror of the older generation. Watching Steve Fataar play at the YMCA one afternoon before the police declared the gathering illegal … the gig moved to a commune in Ritson Road, they could not stop the music no matter how hard they tried …

Later the shop Bilbo opened on the cnr of an arcade (Murchies or Salisbury … the memory is rusty) and Smith street, their clothes were the rage around 1976/7 offering alternatives for matric dances to the hideous trilobal dresses that flooded the market then … Bilbo’s harem pants and tunic were considered super hot in during 1977. In the early 80s I was based at the Little Abbey Theatre in Commercial road and we would get our eye kajal and sandalwood soaps from a little shop in Ajmeri Arcade.

Also remember with many fond memories the Oriental Bazaar that was situated on Commercial road, nearer the beach side, great place to buy puzzle rings. Back in the 60s had ballet lessons on the second floor of an old building in the lane that led from the top of Russell Street to the Emmanuel Cathedral. Will never forget climbing the rickety old wooden staircase to the strains of castanets and Spanish dancing at Pat Farman’s ballet school. Seminal memories… also visits to Carnival and Backstage in Payne’s Building to buy ballet shoes… the smell of grease paint that hit one on entering … evocative smells that no longer exist in the entertainment industry.

The punk and reggae explosion with gigs held on Friday nights at the St John’s and Moth halls near Old Fort; Finch and Henson at Wagon Wheels (OMG that was legend especially when they played “Cocaine”). Early memory of Payne’s Bros turning 50 (could have the birthday wrong here) and there were celebrations and sales at Payne’s .. shopping hours extended into the evening for this event; the entire population of Durban seemed to have turned out to experience this.. Tretchikoff exhibiting at the Payne’s Bros gallery, never realising just how collectable those prints would become fifty years later… also remember the old wax museum at the beachfront.

Window shopping up West and down Smith streets at Christmas time was a family ritual …; Albert Park where all the kids played before going home to flats in Earl’s Court, Ogwini, Cressington, King’s Lynn … when one wore evening clothes to night showings of films like Camelot; Sound of Music; My Fair Lady … the swap-ads craze and swapping these stickers in the grandstands in Albert Park and the fetes at the City Hall, the City Baths swimming pool, lunchtime 16mm movies at the natural history museum and the orchestra rehearsing in the City Hall …

Oh my word, far too nostalgic for my own good right now… it was what it was … cities and societies evolve … Durban was and remains an intensely spiritual place, there is nowhere quite like it anywhere in the world. So miss the place …

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10 Responses

  1. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Belinda
    Pleased that my Arcades of Durban post evoked such memories for you. This is another which you may bring back more memories. Click on the link:
    Reading your contribution I like to try and expand on some facts which are a bit obscure and I have picked this one. ” Back in the 60s had ballet lessons on the second floor of an old building in the lane that led from the top of Russell Street to the Emmanuel Cathedral”. I have never heard of Pat Farman Ballet School so looked it up and found a reference in the 1968 Durban Directory: Patricia Farmon School of Ballet 94 Broad Street. In the same building Lyle Dantes Flamenco School of Ballet so this ties up with your comments. However this was in Broad Street not Russell Street. She may have moved the school later. Then the lane you mention could be Davis Lane which ran from West Street through to Pine Street and ended up close to the Cathedral. So the building remains a mystery. It wasn’t the building on the corner of West St and Cathedral Road was it?
    Paynes turned 100 in 1969. I think there are posts on FAD about the celebrations. I remember going to see Tretchikoff’s paintings at Paynes. They were selling prints of the Orchid left on the Step if I recall. Then the Little Abbey Theatre in Commercial Road I think was based in the Old St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church which was on the corner of Commercial Road and Albert Street. The church had been closed down but remained intact and if I recall it was turned into a theatre. I stand corrected though on this. Can you supply any other clues as to the building where you did Ballet?

  2. belinda
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald,
    With regard to the name of the “ballet” building, no I can’t. It would have been around 1964 and you are right, it linked West street to the Cathedral and Cathedral Rd rings many bells … all I remember is that there was a pet shop on the ground floor that sold mice … they were stored in glass tanks next to the window. You are correct about the Little Abbey Theatre once being a church. I believe it was one of the first Presbyterian churches in Durban and was later deconsecrated to become a warehouse for a trading firm that specialised in fabrics. This irony was not lost on the theatre community at the time, as the first spaces used in the medieval period as stages were situated inside the early Christian churches and cathedrals; earlier still, the very origins of drama are linked to the spiritual and forms of religious worship across all cultures world wide. The Durban Arts initiative, a sub-group of the city council, rented the church and adjacent buildings and reconstructed the theatre. Attached to the theatre was the Little Abbey Theatre Foundation, a tertiary theatre school which was connected to the professional theatre. Pamela Perry and Dr Sandra Herrington spearheaded the school and the theatre. I have the fondest memories of those days. Sadly, the theatre closed its doors in around 1984/5 and I moved to Johannesburg. I have pics and programmes and wonderful memories. I remember Jock Leyden in the front row, creating his theatrical cartoons that would appear in the Daily News, and many of the Durban acting fraternity who were involved in radio dramas performed at the Little Abbey … Ingrid Mollison, Caroline Smart, Pamela Perry … as drama students we would work on the various productions as assistant stage managers and the like, learning and honing our craft by watching these actors at work … what an experience. Ann[e] Freed was a well-known drama teacher at the time. Her daughter Lynne (sp?) Freed is a well-known author, now living in the US, who writes about post-WW2 Durban. Her books are awesome. So too is a relatively recent novel by Sally-Ann Murray (was and may still be a prof in the Eng Dept at UKZN), the name of which escapes me at this moment. Google the author to find out, the descriptions of the Berea, Durban beachfront, Maris Stella, Dewaar (sp?) Kindegaarten in Moore Road, circa around 1964 to mid 70s, are unbelievably real. Other seminal entertainment memories were Marjorie Chase’s annual ice shows and when the Boswell Wilkie Circus came to town … My father worked with Ms Chase’s husband and was involved with shipping some of the sets for the shows out to SA from the States. In the 70s a smaller ice-rink opened in Pinetown, however it was no match to the scale of the rink and that of the shows that were put on in Durban at the time, awe-inspiring. Of course, not to mention the culture of drive-ins … Durban, Umbilo, Bluff drive-ins. I’m also sure that Durbanites who were at schools in the 70s made the obligatory school trip to the University of Natal, Durban (as it was then known) to attend a rendition of a Shakespeare play each year, performed in the beautiful outdoor amphitheatre in the grounds of Howard College. Peter Larlham, a lecturer in the Drama Dept. at the time, was a favourite as he would generally play the comic characters. If I recall correctly, most of these Shakespeare plays were directed by Prof. Pieter Scholtz, who often played a senior character. Leading from this, most kids at school in the 60s who were entered into the annual eisteddfods, were adjudicated by Elizabeth Sneddon, Prof of Drama at the university and whom the Sneddon Theatre is named after. Those who went on to sit their Teacher’s Licentiate in Speech and Drama through Unisa, may also remember Ms Sneddon as the marker of the practical exams in the late 70s and/or early 80s. Gosh, I’m having another stream of consciousness trip down memory lane. I will have to look for old photos, programmes etc sometime and upload.

  3. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Belinda,
    Seeing my hunch about Davis Lane seems to be correct, I looked it up and there was a pet shop called The Dog Basket at 3-5 Davis Lane. Now I cannot tie your ballet school with the building which stood on the corner of Catherdral Road and West Street but I remember it quite well as I used to pass it on Sundays on the way to Mass at the cathedral. At ground level was a furniture store called Jay’s Furniture. Further down Cathedral Road was Ellis Brown Coffee. The building is called Alexandra Building and in the late 1930s dancing schools were accommodated in it. The building today is a ruin but being over 60 years old it is a protected building and cannot be demolished. However it is deteriorating badly. I will attach a picture that I have of it taken from street level and is the only one I have. You will have to try and visualize it in better times.
    Alexandria Building Cnr West St and Cathedral Road
    In the picture Davis Lane is between this building and the side of the building in the picture. If I recall that was a bank and next to it was a shop called Shimwells that sold motor cycles amongst other things.

    re the names you mention at the University of Natal Speech and Drama Dept. My wife was familiar with all of them as she took Speech and Drama as a subject. She was associated with Mavis Wayne and Veronica Hassett and taught at their studio in Albany Grove.

  4. Belinda
    | Reply

    That is the building. So sad how it has fallen into disrepair. You are right, there was a furniture store. Remember the name Mavis Wayne. I think she took the vocal classes. Remember the Colombia Tea and Coffee Merchants that were opposite, a block down and next to John Orr’s. Even more memorable was the wonderful smell of coffee beans and tea leaves that infused the shop; can still smell it in my memory.

    • Gerald Buttigieg

      Hi Belinda
      Well that one is sorted. Here is an iconic picture of Colombo Tea and Coffee standing up to the “big boys” that wanted to tear it down. It still stands today but no longer a tea and coffee shop.

  5. Heather Gabriel
    | Reply

    So precious to read these memories! I did Speech and Drama with Peggy Timmons at the Mavis Wayne studio in Albany Grove in Durban in the 70’s. I remember being part of the Drama group from Mavis Wayne who entered impromptu Chain Story Telling one year at the City Hall where we had to all continue telling an impromptu story with a beginning, middle and end, 5 minutes at a time. Don’t know how we did it so well! I also remember being part of the comedy play ‘Post Early for Christmas’ which we performed at the City Hall at an eisteddfod. I had completely forgotten about these lovely experiences. Thanks for the reminder! Heather Gabriel (nee Bell )

  6. Natalie Lange
    | Reply

    So weird to be joining strangers with shared memories.
    I was the invincible Toad of toad hall in a play produced by Veronica Hassett and a glowing Pamela Perry who was pregnant at the time, and remember vividly so many of the names and places mentioned.
    Just must add double thick chocolate milk shakes from Milky Lane in Albany Grove while waiting for the Saturday drama class to begin…

  7. Jane
    | Reply

    Loving all the details in these posts!

    I grew up in Durban but my memories are very vague and cannot add very much, I’m sorry.

    The jacaranda trees made a big impression – there were jacarandas on Musgrave Rd and Moore Rd.
    Moore Rd was so steep there were steps in the pavement, and when the pavement was carpeted with the fallen lilac jacaranda flowers it was dangerously slippery – but beautiful to behold

    I remember the library in Musgrave Rd and ?the City Hall – where as a child you could borrow any 3 books for free as a member but if you wanted more the additional book /s (2 max) had to be nonfiction, and I think there was a small fee as well?

    I attended Pat Farman’s School of Ballet in the 70’s in the CBD, where Pat also gave Spanish dance classes but all I remember about the building is wooden stairs, the changing room adjacent to the only studio room with a full wall of mirrors on the right and a large expanse of windows with an open view opposite the door.
    The pianist was a very patient older woman with grey hair: Margot.

    Pat also held ballet and Spanish dance classes at Maris Stella Convent at one stage.

    Anyone know what happened to Pat and her 2 daughters?

    The studio star was Lizette (very slender, graceful and blonde), who I believe was pursuing vocational training.

    I remember school galas at the Rachel Finlayson (saltwater) Baths, where the Durban Girls’ College girls didn’t have cheerleaders – no loud cheering, rowdy encouragement, battle cries for them!
    They clapped decorously at the end of each race.
    You could compare it with the scene from “My Fair Lady” at the Ascot, with the rest of us yelling the equivalent of “Come on Dover, move your bloody ass!” 🤣

    How I envied those DGC girls their beautiful dark green dresses, white Panama bonnets and fountain-pen Italic handwriting… sooo elegant

    I heard the Berea Girls School schoolgirls had skating lessons during school hours, and I envied them too

    I remember the little menagerie at Mitchell’s park, especially the zebra finches in their cage, some parrots/Macau’s?/cockatoos, and the giant tortoises – you could get a ride on them.
    I think there was a little mini-train track where you could buy rides near the playground – not really sure.

    You could hire the bandstand at Mitchell’s Park for children’s birthday parties, and order your ice-cream cake from the local cafe – I went to a few class parties there.

    I used to go swimming at a friend’s place. There was a wonderful litchi tree next door which overhung their garden.
    You had to be very careful where you walked…the bees would get drunk on the fermented fruit and were unable to fly.
    You’d see them lurching around the paving edging the pool and toppling in.

    My junior school went on numerous school trips to mosques, where we were given heaps of information pamphlets on Islam and lots of very yummy samoosas.

    We studied the rock pools at Umhlanga Rocks, farm animals at Cedara College of Agriculture, and attended the Shakespeare productions at Howick College.

    I remember attending a fire walking ceremony at a Hindu Temple – either Manning Road or Umbilo Shree or Cato Manor: no idea which or even how I got there!

    I do remember the bus service was absolutely abysmal, especially on Sundays.

    There was a long pier at Tongaat beach, and the sand was always full of marigolds at the tide line.

    There was a giant slide somewhere out of Durban, on the way to Virginia Airport, where you carried your mat up what I think were fire escape stairs… the structure wasn’t exactly shiny and new, and I don’t remember it as being a waterslide

    We went to Virginia Airport for occasional air flips, and the Airshows.

    I loved the beach at La Lucia: walking through the tunnels of bush to get to the white sand, climbing on the branches of fallen bleached white trees while keeping an eye on the delicate edges of the incoming tide creeping in below

  8. Janine
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald & Belinda
    I did Spanish dancing with Pat Farman around 1974 & the studio was in one of those lanes btw Esplanade & West St. It was very close to The Playhouse Theatre. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the lane but I do remember there was a bakery downstairs where i recall buying delicious “beesting cake”
    Unfortunately it’s now a very dodgy part of Dbn where I wouldn’t even venture during the day!

    • Gerald Buttigieg

      Hi Janine
      The lane you are thinking of is Albany Grove. The Arts Centre was in Albany Grove and if I recall correctly dance was taught there. Albany Grove runs between Smith St and the Esplanade. Does not connect up to West St.

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