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Singing the Doll House blues




No more will a wonky steel tray attach itself to a car window. The neon sign that insisted: “No Hooting Please Flick Lights” to generations has flickered out. The place has seen its last illicit liaison, covert political meeting, last first kiss as well as the end of those famed bruiser brawls after drive-in jols.

A developer is set to build low-cost housing and a retail space in its place.

It was many things to many people. A haven of familiarity, a place to play Jewish geography, a Grove guy haunt, a West Side Story in the East where rumbles and the occasional inter-cultural love story that lasted only till the next Saturday night kept patrons coming back for more. It proved so popular that the concept was replicated in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

Now, the Doll House has become the stuff of Johannesburg Jewish mythology.

So, it was no surprise that hundreds of 40, 50 and 60-somethings swung by Highlands North last Saturday, August 26. Some brought their children, others came holding hands with their new squeezes and old memories.

Most had their hands in their pockets, prepared to fork out one last time for their final favourite double thick, or to hear the rattle of the serving tray on their window once more, reminisce about drag racing (‘“police turned a blind eye until someone died,”) and curse the rise of the malls. (On this night, not even Hyde Park Corner was completely safe from derision, doll!)

Anyone who was anyone took the road less travelled to 377 Louis Botha Avenue, and ordered toasted cheeses like it was 1974.

Financial adviser Mike Jankelowitz, 56, says he bumped into an old mate there. “Lance and I commiserated on how we used to eye out the girls on dates when we were just jolling with the guys and how envious we were of the Alfa Guys.”

He says anyone with Alfas parked on the extreme right. “Any other car parked on the left. Even sports cars wouldn’t dare turn right.”

When Jankelowitz and his buddy bought Alfas and could finally park on the right, it was, he says, “like Saturday Night Fever”. “We strutted around. We loved how much we were envied. Of course, our selection of dates increased.”

Jankelowitz remembers most poignantly the lure of forbidden fruit. “My mother used to say, ‘don’t eat the food, you don’t know what’s in it’. We, of course, knew the hamburgers were 100 per cent beef and never pork! I loved the soft serve vanilla ice cream, the waffles and the banana double thicks.

“But the chips? The chips were the coup de grace. Home-cut and thick, thrown into hot oil so the outsides were crispy and the insides light and fluffy. Then those big salt cellars and the glass jug with black vinegar! Those chips were so hot, your fingers almost couldn’t handle it. You had to breathe with them between your teeth to cool them down!”

There were fights all the time, says Jankelowitz. “It was a testosterone competition every week.”

Ah yes. Howard Sackstein, Saicom CEO, remembers too: “The Doll House in many ways represented the ground zero of Joburg masculinity. In the unsophisticated days of Brylcreem when Jews and Lebs would battle, the Doll House was the starting point for many of those brawls.

“Today, times have changed and Jews and Lebs join each other for a whisky over Shabbos dinner instead.”

Food journalist Anna Trapido says her friend Joanne Yawitch once confessed a more traditional form of forbidden fruit: “In the 70s, there was a synagogue next to the Doll House where socials were held for Jewish youth. Nearby was a hall where the Lebanese kids had their socials. The Doll House – in the middle of both – was where Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden romantic trysts took place.”

Built in the 30s or 40s, Trapido says: ”Modern motorists, who regard their automobiles as mere modes of transport, cannot truly grasp the mid-century significance of owning a car. Driving represented modernity and independence. It was also central to social rituals.”

It seems the thrill of never having to leave your ride was widespread – and sometimes just practical in the apartheid era.

Anti-apartheid stalwart Joe Slovo revealed to Trapido that the Doll House was the go-to place for activists. “On April 7, 1960, the Unlawful Organisations Act No 34 resulted in the banning of the ANC. That afternoon Joe and Helen Joseph went to the Doll House to discuss the way forward.

“Apparently, your car was less likely to be bugged by the security police and you could sit with people of other races.”

The other kind of race was also prevalent. Former Rabbitt drummer Neil Cloud, now 63, remembers bruisers drag racing up and down Louis Botha before the guys would go to the Doll House for a “graze”.

“These were nice boys from nice homes. It was usually just a show.

“I hope the new owners keep the old relics in a cabinet somewhere. Maybe the old milkshake machine or an old tray…”

Andy Nossel, a therapist in Johannesburg, was at the final goodbye. She recalls the night when she realised the Doll House was “home”.

“I was 15 and on a double date with older guys who could drive. They took my friend and I to a place in Buccleuch – very far from home in Orange Grove. They started drinking and we became increasingly anxious. Finally, they decided to take us to the Doll House for chocolate double thicks.

“The relief at being back on ‘home ground’ was profound. Anyway, I drank my milkshake too fast and threw up – probably from nerves – all over his Ford Escort. I suppose I just couldn’t stomach that whole night,” she laughs.

Former film producer, Susan Levy, 62, who runs her own company The Organiser, remembers everyone had their favourite milkshake. “Mine was lime.”

“I would go break my fast every year on Yom Kippur with an orange freeze straight after Sydenham Highlands North Shul. Then we would go out as a family to the breaking of the fast dinner.”

Editor and publisher Toby Shapshak, 46, says the Doll House was popular in an age where fast-food didn’t exist. “I was the youngest of six kids. I remember the trays being clipped to the window and the chocolate double-thick. The toasted chicken was legendary.

“My mother was strict about sweets and sugar so this was a real treat.”

He took his mom there recently to say goodbye, “for old time’s sake. She ate a toasted cheese. I had the toasted chicken. The food wasn’t as good as we remembered.”

Still, it was a blast from the past. “I remembered the beers we’d drink as teenagers in the back seat. We’d go there to ‘shwank’. Every generation has spent time there.

“We live in a world that’s not big on longevity,” he says. “Life is fast-paced. Eating patterns of people have changed. There’s more of a health culture and instead of picking up food, we download UberEats. Louis Botha was the hub of the Jewish community. Now the malls attract the crowds.”

Steven Gruzd from the SA Institute of International Affairs, says he went for a last meal recently, the first in 20 years, with his wife and kids. “When I was born, my parents lived across the road in a flat above the shops. My late mom loved the place, as she grew up a few streets away in Highlands North.

“We hooked the tray onto the passenger window for old time’s sake. My girls even said the food was better than they expected.

“I think cities just go through demographic shifts. Apparently, Zimbabweans and Nigerians who live in the area often prefer to eat at home. The place was definitely looking shabby.”

Art consultant Matthew Krouse, who organised the final bash with photographer Marc Shoul which included an outdoor photography exhibition Night By Roadhouse, is more upbeat.

“The Doll House was a hangover from the rock ‘n roll era. It was an American craze and my parents used to go there during the war. It was probably one of the few places in the apartheid era where people of all races could eat in the same venue.

“It was affordable and socially, an even playing field. I believe there was a lot of illicit rendezvousing going on. ”Krouse may feel nostalgic about the Doll House demise, but as for the prevailing “decaying area” justification, he disagrees. “I live in Houghton -the Louis Botha side of Houghton. Far from degenerating, this is a lively and dynamic environment with a multi-cultural community of people.

“It’s a place to be explored and celebrated. There are pool halls and beer halls and second-hand shops. It’s a cosmopolitan place full of life, 24 hours a day. There are West African tailors, kosher places close by, and a new medical centre.

“When something leaves, something new always comes along.”

Still, as Mike Jankelowitz says about the farewell party: “My mate Lance and I had a good laugh after all the reminiscences. We shook hands and I left. It was strange how sad I felt.”


Down memory lane:

“I remember nothing except chicken mayo toasted sarmies.” Jodi Bieber

“I came here as a teenager and also after a few dates in the 80s. There was nowhere to go late at night except here. We all used to park and get a toasted sandwich with thick door-step bread.

“More recently, my sister came from overseas with her kids, and we piled all the kids in the back of the car and came and ordered those sandwiches. I have a very soft spot for the place. I love road houses. They spell fun to me.” Claudia Davimes

“After each of my children were born, my wife Jodi and I stopped at the Doll House for a curry.” Mike Jankelowitz

“I haven’t eaten there for 20 years, but it’s iconic, a part of Johannesburg history. It’s like burning your childhood pictures.” Neil Cloud

“As the Counting Crows song goes: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Steven Gruzd

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