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Stand-up comic’s illustrious goalkeeping career

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SA Jewish Report readers of a certain generation might be vaguely familiar with the name Con Travis, a stand-up and television comedian of the late 1970s and early 1980s. What they probably don’t know, however, is that Travis – who was born in 1926 and is currently a sprightly 94 – had an equally illustrious career as a goalkeeper in Wales in the 1950s.

He kept goal with distinction for both Cardiff City and Newport County, with City playing in the then English Second Division alongside Spurs, Wolves, Fulham, and Bolton Wanderers. “It was strictly amateur in those days, tea money and bus fare,” says Travis with a chuckle. “If I’d been professional I would have earned £12 (R238) per week with £2 (R39) for a win!”

Travis’ big day as a goalkeeper came in 1953, when he was chosen in the Great Britain Maccabi team to participate in that year’s Maccabi Games. “We had a warm-up game under floodlights against Manchester United Reserves at the United training ground called ‘The Cliff’,” he says. “Although we lost 2-1, Sir Matt Busby, the United manager, was so impressed, he singled me out as the star of the team. He asked me if I was interested in signing professional terms but I politely refused.”

Playing sport, whether soccer or cricket, was always an amateur affair for Travis. He was married and had a young family to support by the time Busby’s offer came along, not to mention being in the latter stages of his studies to become an aeronautical engineer. “After graduating, I ended up in Downsville, Toronto, working on the prototype for the Avro Arrow.

“As an aircraft, it was years ahead of its time, a phenomenal, delta-wing plane, but the Canadian prime minister refused to support the project and in one fell swoop put 20 000 workers out of a job. I was one of them.”

With his best years as a footballer behind him and no job as an aeronautical engineer, Travis suddenly found himself facing an uncertain future. He had always been able to make people laugh, was friendly and gregarious, so with little formal training and a suitcase full of chutzpah, he and his young family went back to Britain where he began a fledgling career as a comedian.

In the years to follow, he appeared on stage with such luminaries as Connie Francis, Sammy Davis Jr., Eydie Gormé, and Rosemary Clooney, the mother of the more-famous George.

“I didn’t forget my Manchester United experience,” he said. “In the game under floodlights we played in 1953, I became friendly with two of their younger players, Billy Foulkes and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan, the Irishman. Whelan, you’ll remember, died in the Munich Air Disaster with seven other members of the United side in 1958. As a ‘Television Entertainers XI’, we played in a charity game to raise money for the next of kin afterwards.”

Before long, the wanderlust bit Travis – his full first name is Conrad – once again. Off he went to a booming South Africa, seen by many in gloomy Britain as the land of milk and honey. By then, he had remarried and had two young sons by his second wife, but he’d always had a social conscience and he continued the charity work he’d started in Britain when playing for teams like the “Television Entertainers” in their fundraising matches against various “All Star XIs”.

“As well as doing comedy work in South Africa, I was actively involved in charity work,” said Travis. “I remember the Germiston Callies goalkeeper, Fred Green, suffering from terrible head injuries while playing for Callies, and we put on a charity exhibition match to raise money for his wife and children before he tragically died.”

During the South African years, Travis became a regular at Cyros night club in the centre of Johannesburg. He also appeared on Springbok Radio. “With the arrival of television [in 1976], I was approached by director Ronnie Wilson who wanted my help with a new comedy show called Biltong and Potroast,” remembers Travis. “I was slightly surprised to be on the Biltong side rather than the other way round,” he says, laughing. “I did only 10 shows before opting out but that was a whole lot of fun.”

Never one to stand still for very long, Travis was also instrumental in bringing Maccabi soccer to Durban, with good friends Bobby Bloom and Dennis Port. “I’ve also held the two-year presidency of the Hebrew Order of David,” he says. “We’ve raised money for a number of Jewish charities, as well as Guide Dogs and Tape Aides for the Blind. It’s work I’m tremendously proud of.”

In a long life lived to its fullest, Travis has seen the world and rubbed shoulders with the good, the famous, and the great. Across all his experiences, though, nothing quite compares with the day in 1946 on which he played in goal for an Occupational Services XI against a Russian XI in post-World War II Tokyo. “We were both part of the occupying army in Japan,” he says. “We beat them 3-0. That was quite something, I can tell you.”

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