It's end of the road for Jozi's iconic roadhouse, the Doll House

A developer has bought the last remaining true roadhouse in Johannesburg, and will demolish it by month end. Carlos Amato looks back on a legend

13 August 2017 - 00:00 By Carlos Amato
The Doll House pictured in the 1930s.
The Doll House pictured in the 1930s.
Image: Doll House

The sign says: "No Hooting Please Flick Lights." Don't wake up the dolls. An ancient waiter appears, not much younger than the Doll House, which opened in 1936. He doesn't want to talk about the place or its looming closure. But he brings me a bacon-and-cheese burger, which arrives on a heavy plate, resting sweetly on a steel tray, hooked onto my window.

The beef is beef, not beefish, the tomato fresh, the onion keen. The chips are an inch across, rich in honest fat - pre-McDonald's fat, from planet Earth. Each chip is a noble, golden soldier against those horrible white walkers from the north known as "string fries".

The Doll House ain't no Parthenon, but it is a ruin of lost cultures

I examine the Doll House. It's butt-ugly, even by Highlands North standards, with an Alpine-chalet roof the colour of mummified polony. The menu billboard takes 10 minutes just to read, let alone understand. What is a Blondie? What is a Kenny? A Henny? The menu refuses to say. Just the prices. These vintage specials are too mythical, too powerful, to explain on the board. You have to join the cult. Speak to people who know people who've seen the Blondie, or eaten the Blondie. (I asked - it contains cheese, egg, steak, bacon, tomato, onions and chips. Only R63.)

Four hadedas of the Apocalypse eyeball me from the rooftop. To my right, the carcass of a Mazda 323 whispers in the shadow of a used-car dealership. To my left, a weary father and his large adult son sit in a Golf GTI, munching dagwoods in silence.

The Doll House ain't no Parthenon, but it is a ruin of lost cultures. If you were a 16-year-old East Rand Italian disco princess in 1977, the Doll House was your Colosseum. If you were a sax-playing Orange Grove barmitzvah boy in 1951, this was your godless shul. If you were a Yeoville cokehead in 1995, this was your 3am confessional.

At the end of the month, this temple of calories and hormones will be no more. A developer has bought the last remaining true roadhouse in Johannesburg, and will demolish it, building low-cost housing in its place. A public campaign to save the Doll House building has came to nought.

No Hooting Please Flick Lights.

GHOST OF LOUIS BOTHA

Lucky Muleya, the manager, has worked at the Doll House for 25 years. He started as a waiter in 1992, when he was 18.

Muleya sits me down at a fake-marble table under the syringa trees, on the south side of the parking area. He has a warm face, a quick smile: a face for disarming drunks. When the lights go out, he will go home to Limpopo. "I will relax for two, three months. Twenty-five years in the food business is a lot."

Manager for 25 years, Lucky Muleya.
Manager for 25 years, Lucky Muleya.
Image: Alon Skuy

Muleya and his team will get severance packages from the Doll House's former owner, Tony Leca. But it's gonna hurt. "Change is constant," says Muleya. "When it comes, it comes." He blames the demise of the Doll House on the rise of the fast-food chains, along with demographic shifts in the area: the Zimbabweans and Nigerians who now live in the apartment blocks on Louis Botha Avenue prefer to cook and eat at home, he says. "It's the same as the story of Nokia and the other phones. A Nokia used to be THE phone." He laughs grimly.

Back in 1992, McDonald's wasn't a thing. "There was only a Bingo's and a Fontana at Balfour Park, and a Black Steer," says Muleya. "So we were busy. We were open till 3am - and at 3am on Saturday nights there were drag races down Louis Botha. They would start here and go all the way to the Watt Avenue bridge across to Alex. Sometimes they would start at this robot here, so they would converge here before the start. They would close all the side streets with parked cars. The cops didn't stop it. Until somebody was killed in a crash at the bridge."

Muleya insists there wasn't much violence. "No, you would get couples fighting - you're open till late and people are intoxicated. So you will have some shouting.

"I remember one guy in his early 30s, who came here with whom we assumed was his wife. They order a mixed grill and a fruit salad with ice-cream. And they were busy holding hands at the table, enjoying their lunch. Then all of a sudden, another woman gets out of a taxi, crosses the road and moves towards them.

"I see the man and his cherry running towards the car. Then I see the second woman picking up a tray and smashing the windscreen. So the man and the cherry fled. That's when we realised the wife wasn't a wife, but a sidekick. Naughty!"

Pilgrims came from all over Joburg, seeking a Blondie and a shake and a drag on the American dream. Muleya remembers serving Doctor Khumalo in his Bafana prime, Jomo Sono and the kwaito star Spokes H.

The Doll House parking lot in 1992, featuring a hungry Casspir.
The Doll House parking lot in 1992, featuring a hungry Casspir.
Image: Doll House

The Doll House was the essential pitstop for suburban clubbers en route home from Hillbrow and Yeoville. It was also dear to the local Reform Jewish community, whose Temple Shalom shul was next door. Unlike the Orthodox Jews of Highlands North, they could mix meat and dairy and tolerate a bacon-haunted kitchen. The catch came during the Yom Kippur fast, when the scent of the Doll House drifted mercilessly into the synagogue.

"During Yom Kippur, some Jewish kids would come and hide just over here," (he points to the street side of the vibracrete wall next to us) "and order from behind the wall, where they can't be seen. And we'd ask them, 'Aren't you supposed to be fasting?' And they'd say, 'Aaaah, fuck that! I'm hungry. I want my chicken mayo, bra!'"

But how did Muleya deal with the brekers and the tsotsis - the wild beasts of the Joburg night, armed with their subwoofers and their subhuman touch? "You will have your rough people," says Muleya. "You negotiate your way round them. It's very difficult to make a drunk person reason. But your public relations kicks in. Some people are happy drunks, some are funny drunks, some are grumpy drunks.

"If somebody starts swearing at you, as he leaves, you just laugh. It's a package. The same guy will come back during the week and come and say, 'I'm sorry man.' And then on the weekend, we can fight again."

DON'T MESS WITH THE LEBS

Maybe Muleya is censoring his memories. Or maybe the dawn of democracy civilised Louis Botha Avenue. Because older denizens of the Doll House remember it as a cockpit of white working-class violence - a place often disfigured by ethnic and racist hatred, the kind portrayed in the Paul Slabolepszy play, Saturday Night at the Palace.

In the 1982 original production, Vince, a sociopathic greaser played by Slabolepszy, bullies a roadhouse waiter, September (played by John Kani), before Vince's timid china Forsie (Bill Flynn) turns out to be the real villain. The prototype for the Palace was a lonelier, rougher joint, down in Joburg's deep south. But the relative suburbanness of the Doll House was deceptive.

If somebody wanted a fight, people would set it up ... places like the Doll House were gladiatorial spaces, arenas for white male aggression

In Trevor Romain's comic-book of memories of his '70s Joburg youth, Random Kak 2, he notes the weirdly choreographed quality of the gang wars that raged between the Lebanese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Jewish bruisers of Joburg east. West Side Story and Grease provided the broad plots, but the treatments were graphic.

"If somebody wanted a fight, people would set it up," remembers the filmmaker Laurence Hamburger, whose is eminently qualified by his surname to reflect on the Doll House. He was a regular and reluctant fight spectator as a teenager in the '80s.

"Places like the Doll House were gladiatorial spaces, arenas for white male aggression. People got very badly hurt. There was a dirtiness to the way people fought. I remember someone lying there, unconscious, and someone put a boot into his face. I remember watching the neck flop. I was utterly sickened.

"But I also used to have an amazing time there - we would meet girls and flirt. And their toasted steak was probably the finest South African street-food dish there ever was."

LIGHTS OUT

While the brutality was all too real, it mingled with the unreal: with holograms of history flickering across the mind of white Joburg.

"In the '70s, the Doll House represented the glamour of the '50s," says Hamburger. "And for me in the '90s, it represented the '70s. So the place has layers of nostalgic mythology baked into it. It's not real history - it represents desires and dreams. The Doll House represents an American idea of civilisation: the luxury that the common man could enjoy. The ease of never leaving your car.

A patron prepares to enjoy one of the last ice creams to be served at  the Doll House Roadhouse, a landmark on Louis Botha Avenue since 1936.
A patron prepares to enjoy one of the last ice creams to be served at the Doll House Roadhouse, a landmark on Louis Botha Avenue since 1936.
Image: Alon Skuy

"In America, those places provided a revolving source of dignified casual employment for college students - it was their entry point into the universe of capitalism. But in South Africa, service and servitude were made one thing."

There was a black man in a uniform serving you, a man you can undermine by hooting when the sign says don't hoot, knowing he's under your control.

That brand of passive-aggressive racism is still with us - along with a much less passive form. Recent events at KFC and Spur restaurants reveal the extent to which our fast-food culture is still a portal into the psychosis of our past. When you go grab a bite, you can grab an American dream, or a South African nightmare.

"No Hooting Please Flick Lights."


DRAMA AT THE DOLLS HOUSE

In this extract from Random Kak 2 (Penguin Books SA, 2014), author Trevor Romain recalls the time he chased romance - straight into a bare-fisted roadhouse brawl

"When I was a young man I dated a very beautiful Portuguese girl. It was a very sweet romance, mind you. She even French-kissed me once.

Everything was moving along swimmingly until she suggested we go to the Doll House one night.

Her suggestion was the beginning of a very awkward evening. You see, I grew up in a neighbourhood where many Lebanese, Italians and Greeks lived. I was friends with many of these guys. The problem was that some of her cousins were engaged in an ongoing skirmish with the Lebanese ones.

This put me in the middle. A conflict of interest, so to speak. But because this pretty girl, with full lips and olive skin, said "Let's go to the Doll House ..." I went. With a herd of her cousins in tow.

It didn't take more than a few minutes before the kak hit the fan.

Image: Trevor Romain

The minute the Yeoville ous arrived, the Grove guys jumped out of their cars and fists were flying and Brylcreem was brilling and people were swapping toasted cheese sandwiches for knuckle sandwiches.

While this went down I was leaning against a car, arms folded, watching. Hey, what can I say? It wasn't my fight.

Her cousin was getting a snotklap from one of the opposition when she suddenly appeared at my side and yelled "Aren't you going to help my cousin?"

As an admitted bangbroek I had no intention of getting involved. Not me. But to keep her happy and to keep my hopes of more French-kissing alive, I kind of edged towards the action.

That's when it happened.

KWAAA!

Somebody punched me on the side of the head. I saw big yellow stars. While I was holding my head, reeling around like I was in a Laurel and Hardy movie, it all came to a stop. As suddenly as it started, cars and bikes peeled out onto Louis Botha.

The police reservists arrived and the local boys started planning their counter-attack, which went on for years. And lo and behold, the girl was gone too. Exit roadhouse left.

I was standing like kiepie, trying to shake the fog out of my kop, when a friend of mine came up, reeking of Aramis. He puts his arm on my shoulder and says, "Sorry, china, I klapped you by mistake."

• On Saturday August 26, you can honour the end of an era at Night By Roadhouse, an art party at the Doll House (377 Louis Botha Avenue, Highlands North). Organised by photographer Marc Shoul and arts writer Matthew Krouse, the bash will feature an outdoor photography exhibition titled NIGHT. Send your Doll House pictures to info@roadhouse.ink

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