SMOKE: The Forgotten Theatre
Originally published: 20 July 2004
Cape Town in the early 90s was definitely the place to be if it was sheer rock and roll you were after, from the multitude of brilliantly new and innovative bands like The Dolly Rockers, The Mavericks, The Streaks, Live Jimi Presley, Valiant Swart, Nine, One Big Rush, The Usual, The Heavy Petals and Barry (a band that had only one ever public performance, which was to about 50 pissed drama students and a handful of vicious art school queens looking for fresh young botty) - all the way through to the vibrant hum of late night eateries and a proportionately busy theatre scene.
Long Street was the hub from which all roads branched out - the start and finish line of any given night of debauchery - and you could begin your evening sedately enough, sitting outside on the sidewalk of one of the plethora of bars or coffee shops, before upping the tempo once the sun went down by moving over to The Crowbar, Stag's Head or Arties (an underground dive which was too low for tall people to stand in, and which according to Pierre Malherbe was the place the Springbok Nude Girls played their first ever live gig).
It was the era of Bandstand with Stephen Garratt of the Argus - every weekend he would cover all the live gigs happening around the Cape Peninsula, and he was a busy man in those days.
You were always spoiled for choice when deciding what band to go and see and it would usually be at places like The Garage, The Base, The Planet, Ruby in the Dust, The Fringe (in the early days, before Patrick the owner decided all bands were crap and banned them) and Arties.
Once you'd buggered yourself up good and proper with a night of heavy drinking and wild partying, you'd be starving hungry and prepared to blow your electricity money on a tin plate of nosh from the greatest ever wee hours food establishment, Mr Pickwicks - which was (and still is) on Long Street.
So if you'd planned an evening right you'd start and end at roughly the same place, a lot the worse for wear.
Some nights would be more sedate though and in an attempt to catch up on some culture you might head out to the theatre for an evening of crap acting and cheap sets, and no theatre came cheaper or more alternative than the Long Street Theatre.
The first thing to note about the Long Street Theatre was that it was not in Long Street, and the second thing to note is that there was no sign outside telling you it was a theatre - it was a dark stairwell off the road that you had to descend before you found yourself in an airless, windowless basement of some old shopping centre.
Those things would probably explain why the biggest ever audience at the theatre was around 20 - nobody could ever find the damn place.
It was run by an absolute nutter called - I shit you not - Jimi Hendricks: a mullet-bearin', gun-totin', spur-janglin' hangover from the 70s who had yet to move on. He had run a successful restaurant in the north of the country somewhere, the feature of which was a huge pig that he allowed to walk amongst the diners as they ate.
He found himself with a shitstack of cash from the sale of his restaurant and came to Cape Town to live the dream - owning his own multimedia theatre.
That nobody could ever find the place was a travesty, since it was guaranteed to blow even the most bent mind.
Jimi lived in the theatre, in a back room where all his stuff was piled up. The whole place - the floor space of which was massive - was pretty much open plan, and the bar was in full view of the audience, who could watch shows at the bar if they wished.
Around the back of the seating (Jimi had brought in tiered wooden benches - like you get in sports stadiums - and the place could seat well over 100 people if stretched) was a giant screen, and Jimi had a projector through which he would play the weirdest collection of 70s art movies you have ever seen - filled with bad gore and trippy sequences.
He had an immense sound system and in later years - when the theatre had run its course - he turned the place into a nightclub for a while, and Long Street shook at night.
I performed a three-man show there called The Best Of British, which was a compilation of some of our favourite British comedy sketches since 1960, and that show absolutely epitomised the place.
We had absolutely no budget - not a solitary cent - so everything was drawn from our own resources, which were practically nil.
We spent most of our time getting pissed with Jimi, who was of the firm opinion (and rightly so) that if he wanted drinking companions he would have to give them free beer, since we couldn't afford to pay for it.
Our costumes were tatty and completely not suited to the period, and Grey had an inability to learn lines and thus had sheets of paper with his lines on stuck at strategic places all over the set.
Most nights we performed to around five people, but there was one glorious night on which we got about 25 - which represented a serious amount of wealth. We broke open Jimi's bar and spent it all in one night.
At one stage in the show we held up a crap piece of crap paper upon which was craply written: "This show is not poor theatre. It's totally bloody destitute theatre."
And that was the simple truth of it. The place was sad, dark, mad and cheap - just like us.
At the time I had the girlfriend from hell, who managed to convince us to let her be our manager for the show. She somehow ripped us off of most of the paltry earnings we made and we would cower in terror during a rehearsal when we heard her coming down the stairwell (you could always tell when she was coming - she had an urgent insistency to her footsteps that let you know in advance that you were in serious trouble).
The show eventually moved on to greater things at The Baxter and later The Light Fantastique in Muizenberg, and pretty much the day we moved out of there coincided with the end of that golden 90s era in Cape Town.
The Long Street Theatre got progressively sadder and Jimi progressively madder, and last we heard he had a bowl of frogs on the bar ("Get your fresh frogs here!") and was planning a massive shark tank in the middle of the theatre to freak out people who were tripping.
And lemme tell you something - if you were tripping and happened to make the journey into Jimi's Hell with some screwed-up goth chick whining over the sound system, a mad cowboy locked into an acid-bent world of his own, and a great big fucking fish in a great big fucking tank - yeah. You woulda freaked.
Soon after all that I left the mad girlfriend, got hitched up and started down the road to Wellville.
But I pine for that shit sometimes. Not a lot - just a bit.
All Smoked Out,