Remembering the heady days of King Kong 1959

  • KingKongUSE
When I finally sit down to watch a performance of King Kong this week, 58 years after this African jazz opera came into my life, it will be with joy and many, many memories. It will also be the first time I actually watch it.
by LIONEL SLIER | Sep 14, 2017

The last time I didn’t see it was in 1959 when it debuted in Johannesburg for six weeks. Each night I was there, backstage, schlepping scenery around because “the show must go on”.

I’ve had to wait all these years to finally catch it and so my walking stick and I will be in the front row. I’ll be watching the scene changes as much as the action on the stage. And yet, as famous as the musical has proven to be, few people know the origin of its name.

In 1933 there was a movie about a group of American explorers who go to a remote island where they encounter a gigantic gorilla whom they call “King Kong”. They capture it and bring it back to New York. The film has the iconic ending of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building, holding the heroine in his fist.

Twenty years later South Africa had its own King Kong, so named because, like his namesake, he was strong and fearless. He was a black boxing champion by the name of Ezekiel Dhlamini, whose strength was legendary. But because of apartheid, he was not allowed to fight against white boxers, which caused him terrible frustration.

Dhlamini apparently also had a short fuse. He killed a gangster in an argument, but was acquitted as it was ruled self-defence.

Later, he murdered his girlfriend in a shebeen fracas and then shouted to people to call the police. At his subsequent trial for murder, he disrupted proceedings continuously, calling to be hanged. The white judge sentenced him to 12 years. After a few weeks in Leeuwkop Prison, he drowned himself.

At the time there was an organisation called “The Union of South African Artists” run by Ian Bernhardt, who was a tireless agitator for black advancement. Its members were fine musicians, dancers, thespians and singers. Bernhardt organised concerts which were called “Township Jazz” and which were often staged at the Selborne Hall, part of the Johannesburg City Hall complex.

The audience was often racially mixed and the shows were very well-attended. Bernhardt asked me to assist with the concerts. Actually, I did not do much more than sell sweets and Coca-Cola (sixpence a can) at intervals.

Enter Leon Gluckman, a leading actor and director. Heand Bernhardt decided that, with such an abundance of talent, they should do a major show.

Well-known members of the Johannesburg Jewish community, Clive and Irene Menell, became involved in promoting this idea and a musical based on the life of Ezekiel Dhlamini was mooted.

The production team consisted mostly of Jews and the cast was made up of many black performers who would later become big names in South Africa.

Well-known Johannesburg lawyer and author, Harry Bloom, wrote the script and a gifted musician, Todd Matshikiza, composed the music together with local journalist Pat Williams who contributed the lyrics.

Gluckman was the obvious choice as producer; Spike Glaser was the musical director. Anti-apartheid stalwart - although it wasn’t known at that time - Arthur Goldreich, created the scenery, the programme cover and the record sleeve.

Altogether, the cast consisted of 63. Nathan Mdledle, leader of the prominent group “The Manhattan Brothers”, starred as King Kong, with three other members of his group, together with the “4 Woody Woodpeckers”, another prominent group. Rising star Miriam Makeba was Joyce, King Kong's girlfriend. Kippie Moketsi was among 14 musicians, one of whom was young Hugh Masekela.

On February 2, 1959 the show opened to thunderous applause at the Witwatersrand University Great Hall to a multiracial audience, something unheard of during those apartheid days and certainly illegal. Yet the Security Police - the Special Branch - were surprisingly quiet.

The first night was a sensation. Oliver Walker of The Star  described it as, "my greatest thrill in twenty years of South African theatre-going".

The Golden City Post, a leading black newspaper, called it "a milestone in the history of non-white entertainment". Drum Magazine lauded it as "a smash hit”.

Virtually the entire backstage crew were Jewish, including myself, although all I did was bring on and take off scenery as required.

Tickets for the show were at a premium and queues formed daily in Eloff Street at Percy Tucker's Show Service booking office and stretched around the corner to the main Post Office a block away in Jeppe Street.

Leon Gluckman said:, "There has been genuine co-operation between black and white and in a small way it has brought understanding, which is much better than the fear which informs the relations between the two sectors."

He also remarked: "I would like to say that the Jewish spirit has to some undefined extent entered into the production of King Kong.”

For the participants, performers, musicians and back stage crew, plus hangers-on, there was an added bonus. There were after-show parties held regularly, mostly in the suburb of Orchards where in High Street many so-called "leftists" lived.

The parties were racially mixed. "European" liquor was available and everyone danced together, which was highly illegal. Why did the police allow this?

Speculation was that the apartheid government thought that King Kong was an example of people developing along their own traditional lines and it was to be encouraged. However, at those parties, we never knew whether the Special Branch would barge in and arrest everyone or not.

Away from the group, apartheid still reigned. This was evident when a group of us asked Miriam Makeba out for dinner before one show. We went to several restaurants in the area around Wits and they all said they could not allow us to be served.

Eventually we found a restaurant - an eating place rather - in Fordsburg where the Indian owner nervously allowed us in. Indeed “Sad Times, Bad Times”, as one of the show's songs was called. That was the South Africa that was.

King Kong ran for six weeks in Johannesburg and then toured the country, except for Pretoria where it was refused permission to play. I remember those weeks well - they felt like a six-week suspension of apartheid.

The show is currently on in Johannesburg and at last I am going to see it!


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