Final curtain call for ‘Mr Computicket’
The boy from Benoni who grew up to rub shoulders with the stars and invent a system that would revolutionise the theatre industry has passed away at the age of 92. Percival “Percy” Tucker died in Cape Town after a number of health complications including COVID-19, shortly after the death of his life partner, Graham Dickason.
“I think he died of a broken heart,” says his devastated friend of five decades and former personal assistant, Gail Jaffit Leibman. “It’s terribly sad that after a life surrounded by so many people, he died alone in hospital.”
Tucker was born in Benoni, where his family had settled from Lithuania. When he was seven years old, the Tucker family saw British singer Gracie Fields at a Benoni performance of her South African tour. For him, it was love at first sight, and he was smitten with the theatre. When he was 10, he was alone at home when someone knocked on the door offering complimentary tickets to a play if the family was willing to lend them the furniture for it. Clearly Tucker agreed, because his parents returned home to find men loading their lounge furniture onto a truck. Their furniture was returned after the play finished its run.
“His favourite tag line was that he was BC [born in Benoni] before Charlize [Charlize Theron],” wrote arts and lifestyle writer Robyn Cohen on her website The Cape Robyn. “He and my late mom attended the same school in Benoni. In 2017, Percy took us on a trip there. Heritage was very important to him.”
“When I was bitten by the entertainment bug, he became my mentor and inspiration,” says his cousin, theatre producer Hazel Feldman. “He always had his finger on the pulse. He had an incredible memory until his last day, and knew every detail about every performance or show in South Africa, going back decades. He would travel extensively and when in London or New York, would see 15 shows in five days. What he did with Computicket was incredible. I think I was too young at the time to realise the extent of what he did by inventing such a system.”
“It began as Show Service in 1954,” remembers Jaffit Leibman. “He flew to London, bought the system, and established contracts with every theatre and movie house.” When Computicket opened for business on 16 August 1971 in South Africa, it was the world’s first fully operative computerised, centralised ticket-booking system. “We had contracts in every shopping mall. They would pay us to have booths. And it would be mandatory for all staff to see every show and movie screening so that they would be able to make recommendations,” she says.
“He revolutionised theatre in South Africa. He made it accessible. It was huge for us,” says producer Pieter Toerien, another lifelong friend. “He would joke that he was ‘just a ticket seller’, but he was so much more.”
The two met when Toerien was just 19 and brought his first show to Johannesburg. “I went to Percy for advice on ticketing, and we hit it off right away. He was always there – the ultimate friend. There wasn’t much for visiting actors to do in Johannesburg, and he would happily entertain stars at his flat in Killarney every week. Once, I brought out famous French singer and movie star Maurice Chevalier. He was 82, and insisted on having a walk around Zoo Lake every day. I would take him, but one day, I got flu. Percy immediately offered to do it, and for three days, he would drive across town to take him for his walk.”
Tucker was “very generous”, Jaffit Leibman says. “We had a tea lady in the office. One day, we got a call that she wouldn’t be coming in. When I asked why, the person said she was having a baby. We had no idea she was pregnant! Well, Percy bought her a house and educated her child right through to university. He is now a high-powered periodontist in London. Percy did that a lot, but he always kept schtum about his tzedakah.”
Musical director Bryan Schimmel recalls, “My history with the formidable force of nature that is Percy Tucker goes back to 1983 when I was a student wanting to get into the entertainment industry. I worked part time as a Computicket sales operator during the holidays. He was a bottomless mine of information, and his passion for selling tickets to the arts was infectious. Eleven years later, when A Handful of Keys became an overnight theatrical sensation, Ian von Memerty and I were selected to be the entertainment for Percy’s retirement from Computicket in 1994 and I was thrilled to be asked to play piano and entertain at his 80th birthday. Our industry has lost a visionary, a groundbreaker, a mentor, and a friend.”
Dorianne “Dr D” Weil interviewed Tucker on her show Coffee & Connect, and found him to be “the carrier of so much history. You could really sit at his feet and listen. But not many people knew him or what he did.” Long term friend Brian Van Rheede recalls how Tucker met stars like Percy Baneshik, Jim Stodel, Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley MacLaine, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Roger Moore, Johnny Mathis, Anthony Perkins, Marlene Dietrich, Basil Rubin, and Goldie Hawn.
Opera singer Aviva Pelham says, “He knew what went into productions. He wasn’t there only for the good times, but also the decades in which the arts have been embattled in South Africa. This was especially true for the ballet company, which I’m sure wouldn’t exist without Percy. Not only would he regularly help it to continue, he also ensured the standard remained high. And he never looked for the limelight. He had huge integrity.”
Besides theatre, “He was mad about sport,” says Toerien. “He was a tennis fanatic, and loved golf. He would often wake up at night to watch sport live in different time zones. And if Federer lost, it was a very bad day! He was also quite religious and embodied so many Jewish values. He would go to shul every week, and it was meaningful that at his funeral, his rabbi knew him so well. He won’t be replaced. There will only ever be one Percy Tucker. And if you have a friend even half as good as him, consider yourself a very lucky person.”
“In pandemic days, we book our tickets to watch livestreamed events and video on demand on the digital stage. There are ticket re-selling platforms, featuring complex transactions between multiple sellers and buyers,” wrote Cohen. “Let’s remember the groundwork and foundation put down by Percy Tucker, Mr Ticket, the ticket seller from Benoni.”
Qhawe Lama Qhawe is laid to rest
Herby Rosenberg and I came from different sides of the political tracks. There was a threat, a gun, a raid on my offices as a young student activist. We were destined to fight, but instead, we became close friends.
A lawyer by profession and businessman by practice, Herby would regale us with stories about his time driving a luxury Cadillac motor vehicle which he gave up to find meaning in serving his people and the people of South Africa.
The first time I met Herby, he told the story of rushing to airforce headquarters in Pretoria where his son was stationed, upon hearing of the Church Street bombings, telling the story of cradling his injured son in his arms. He told the story of the first time his son danced with Herby’s wife, Sandra, after recovering from his injuries. Herby cried, we cried too.
As its director general, Herby lead the South African Zionist Federation into a political powerhouse that towered seven stories over the skyline of Doornfontein, and lead South African Jewry.
The world changed, and Herby changed too. He embraced the new South Africa with vigour and enthusiasm. He and Bertie Lubner would re-define the Jewish community’s contribution to the new South Africa. Nelson Mandela gave him his nickname of Qhawe Lama Qhawe (the Hero of Heroes), and never a better description there was.
Herby was a founding member of Afrika Tikkun, the SA Jewish Report, and South African Friends of Ben Gurion University. His energy and passion drove everything he did. When he took people round an Afrika Tikkun school, Herby would burst with pride. The kids loved him, they would run to him, surround him, hug him, and hold on to him as if drawn to their saviour.
Herby’s list of patronages and directorships included the Worcester School for the Deaf and Blind, Medunsa University, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York, where Herby was the only South African on its board.
Herby would often say that you don’t fundraise, you “friend-raise”, that life was about relationships and connections between people. Regardless of whether you were the chief executive or car guard, Herby would treat you with the same respect.
Always immaculately dressed and in later years with a dapper cane, he was as much at home in the boardrooms of Johannesburg as he was in the bush, where he would describe his hand reared elephant “Jabulani” and how it would smell his cologne in the Kapama Game Reserve.
When I gave a public speech, Herby would often lead a standing ovation and would tell whoever would listen that he was my mentor and taught me everything I knew. In truth, I could never aspire to be half the man that Herby was, a giant of his people, who served the people of South Africa, its Jewish community, and world Jewry with such honour and distinction.
In 1986, Herby gave me a gold Cross pen with a Star of David on its clip. It was accompanied by a note that applies more to Herby today than it ever did to me. The note read:
“The Jews have always faced a dual challenge, having to fight their oppressors and to fight for the preservation of their singular identity”. How poignantly was this expressed in Alterman’s The Battle of Granada, a poem that portrays the remarkable Shmuel Ha’Nagid (Samuel the Governor), Hebrew poet, scholar, statesman, soldier, who 900 years ago was leader of Spanish Jewry and at the same time chief minister of state for the Berber King of Granada and commander of his army.
Alterman sets a battlefield scene where Samuel, the Jewish general, is being addressed by a Spanish commander. The Spaniard tells him in this rough translation of Alterman’s exquisite Hebrew that apart from the military campaigns of Granada:
“…you have another war,
a war of your own,
an unending war.
It is the war of your people whose shepherd you are
It is the war of your language whose host you command.
It is the war of your children
whose teacher you are
to teach them the meaning of your antiquity…”
Herby leaves behind a loving wife and two beloved sons. His memory will forever be a blessing on the people of South Africa.
- Howard Sackstein in the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report.
Farewell to a mensch of the struggle
Norman Levy, a mensch of South Africa’s struggle for liberation, has died. He was 91. Norman and his identical twin brother, Leon, began their political activity as school boys and campaigned for freedom and equality all their lives.
The brothers stood in the dock with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Helen Joseph, and 150 other leaders of the liberation movement in South Africa’s “trial of the century” – the 1956 Treason Trial.
In an interview with the Levy brothers in 2020, I asked them if they were the last living Treason Trial defendants.
“Could be,” Norman said, and the twins rattled off names of fellow activists who were on trial with them. All the people they named had died.
“I’m not sure about the last, but I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the few left,” said Leon.
“I think you mean we are two of the few left,” corrected Norman.
The brothers were born on 7 August 1929 in Johannesburg. Their parents, Mary and Marc Levy, were immigrants from Lithuania.
The boys had just turned six when their father died. It was a difficult time for their mother, who had four children to look after, and the twins spent a lot of time on their own.
The brothers had similar ideologies but took different paths to becoming radicals. Leon joined the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, but Norman rode headfirst into leftist politics when he was 14.
He had gone on a bicycle ride around the streets of Hillbrow and turned a corner into a gathering that was being addressed by Hilda Watts, the Communist Party candidate for the Johannesburg Municipal Council. He was enthralled by what he heard, and the next week, joined the Young Communist League.
When he was 17, Norman joined the Communist Party of South Africa, and the South African Congress of Democrats.
Norman, who became a teacher, was involved in the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s to protest against unjust laws, and later campaigned against the National Party’s evil Bantu Education system.
He was also involved in the area committee of the Communist Party, which was operating underground. A month after Mandela and company were sentenced in the Rivonia Trial, the state cracked down on anti-apartheid activists.
Norman was arrested on 3 July 1964, and placed in solitary confinement where he endured endless interrogation sessions at the hands of the notorious Special Branch. The state eventually charged him and 13 other activists, including the lead counsel in the Rivonia Trial, Bram Fischer, under the Suppression of Communism Act.
Norman, who was married with two small children, was found guilty and handed a three-year prison term.
He knew what the risks of being involved in the struggle entailed, and resigned himself to serving his sentence at Pretoria Central.
He could write only one letter every six months, he had no newspapers or magazines, and was allowed very few visits, but he used his time to study for an honours degree in history.
When Norman was released in 1968, he arrived home from prison to find his five-year-old son, Simon, upset. Simon had found a dead bird which he held in his hand.
Norman looked at the bird and saw that the family was frozen, realising it would take them time to thaw.
Although he was free, Norman was prevented from working in his profession and restricted in his movements, so two months after his release, Norman and his family went to England. Leon, who had been detained under the 90-day detention laws, and his wife, Lorna, had already left the country.
In exile, Norman worked for a gentleman’s clothing shop and then won a fellowship to complete a PhD at the London School of Economics. He became a professor at Middlesex University.
Norman returned to South Africa after the African National Congress was unbanned, and helped design affirmative-action frameworks for the labour relations forum of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Mandela appointed him to the Presidential Review Commission, which looked at reforming the public service.
He eventually retired in 2011, and wrote his memoir, The Final Prize, in which he reflected on his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Patric Tariq Mellet, an activist who was in a communist cell with Norman in the 1980s, described him as “a great comrade, friend, and mentor … and a real gentleman”.
“It’s very sad as one by one, this generation of amazing human beings passes on,” he said.
Norman was diagnosed with lung cancer eight weeks ago, and died peacefully at his Cape Town home surrounded by his family.
Principled, humble, good-humoured, and selfless, Norman remained steadfast in his commitment to building a just South Africa. In spite of his enormous contribution to the fight against apartheid, he never considered himself a “struggle icon”.
Norman is survived by his children, Deborah, Simon, and Jessica, and his identical twin brother, Leon, the last living member of the 1956 Treason Trial.
One of the world’s great ‘friendraisers’
I first met Herby Rosenberg more than 25 years ago at the inception of the formation of MA Afrika Tikkun. I had heard about the man’s legal prowess, his sharp wit, and his all engaging style. I became aware very quickly of the magic of the man.
And I witnessed a trait working with him over 15 years which has helped to define one of the key principles that I have tried to live my life by: the kindness of always looking for something positive, no matter the chaos of any situation.
Herby brought a humane approach to the “business” of dealing with people in need. He was always a leader, always thinking about big picture issues while still paying attention to individuals and their own unique needs and requirements. Herby made time for people, he made you feel that you genuinely mattered in his life irrespective of your standing or status.
Herby epitomised the gentleman. He was at all times gentle, courteous, and impeccably dressed. Equally, his mannerism was impeccable. And this had a material impact on the name and reputation of Afrika Tikkun and the various organisations he was involved in.
His love for South Africa and its people was matched by his strongly Zionist feelings and commitments. He saw the importance of his role within the South African Jewish community as contributing towards building support for Israel. He also saw his passion for initiatives such as the South African Friends of Ben Gurion University underpinning his ability to spread himself across numerous boards. In his later years, Herby became an important ambassador while fulfilling the role of executive deputy chairperson of Afrika Tikkun.
Herby had an ability to engage in multiple projects simultaneously. He could move between the South African Institute of Directors’ meetings to the board of governors of the South African Zionist Federation without missing a step. He had a broad-based intellect that offered advice but always from a highly moralistic perspective.
He was the consummate board member, and had a unique ability to relate to the executives of various entities that he was involved with. His “entertainment expense” account was something that caused a great deal of mirth within Tikkun. You see, one could see just how many times Herby would entertain key stakeholders with tea and cake, something indicative of the social being that defined Herby. People from all walks of life simply loved him, and for good reason.
In every meeting spent with Herby, he would initiate the meeting with some positive compliment for someone in the room. This habit of his ensured that our meetings would invariably start positively and with an element of human touch.
Herby was rare to anger and quick to find praise. His love and his respect for his wife, Sandra, and his deep regard and love for his sons, Clifford and Stanley, were evident in a way in which he often spoke of them.
While Herby might no longer be with us, his spirit will always be a part of the DNA that defines our organisation.
- Marc Lubner is group chief executive of Afrika Tikkun.
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