Last year’s release of Baz Luhrmann’s film Gatsby, an adaptation of the classic American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, has ensured that Art Deco is enjoying a revival, also in Eden. In his book, one of Fitzgerald’s characters says, “I like large parties – they’re so intimate”, and it is exactly this juxtaposition of intimacy and opulence that characterises a new period theatre recently opened in Prince Albert.
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Prince Albert resident Johnny Breedt, an international film set and stage designer with a slew of Hollywood projects under his belt, recently fulfilled his lifelong dream when he opened The Showroom theatre in the small town, reviving all the glitz and glamour of the Art Deco heyday.
The opulent trend emerged to dominate fashion and design in the roaring ’20s. Even architecture was swept up as major buildings and hotels across the globe boasted the bold lines and eclectic style for which Art Deco became renowned. The ancient Egyptians brought their own touch to the trend when the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s brought to the fore the zigzag architectural features and geometric shapes embraced particularly by the Americans. South Africa enjoyed a gold boom in the 1930s and Art Deco buildings became a lasting legacy of this period.
Johnny, who spent most of his life on film locations around the world, relocated to Prince Albert six years ago. After completing work on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, he joined forces with Charon Landman, owner of local businesses including the Swartberg Hotel.
“I loved going to the theatre as a kid and from an early age wanted to own my own theatre or direct shows. I wanted to provide a venue for performing arts in Prince Albert and was at a function telling someone about this concept when Charon overheard us talking. She suggested we put our ideas and resources together.
“The town needed a multi-purpose venue for performing arts, but we also wanted the type of venue that would attract more people to Prince Albert,” says Johnny.
Stepping back in time
The Showroom, housed in an old building on the main street, was a remarkable feat, having been completed in six months from start to finish by a film set crew and local labour.
“It had the old Art Deco style, which was my inspiration. When I work on a movie set, I always look at the bones of the location and give it the flesh. The most prominent thing about this building was the Art Deco façade,” Johnny says.
He collaborated with friend Graeme Cowie, who translated Johnny’s vision into a 3D design from which Prince Albert architect John Witton created the architectural drawings for the exterior and structural interior work. Johnny took responsibility for the interior design.
The final product is breath taking, starting with the fabulous façade that promises an evening to remember. The auditorium has the plush fittings of a bygone era, while the bar and lounge combine minimalism with an elegant yet grand style offset by handmade chandeliers. Attention to detail, such as the mirrors and wallpaper, echoes the glitz and glam of the ’20s.
John (Witton) says he has never seen a team work as quickly and professionally as the film set crew. “These guys descended and worked all hours. They are used to going to the middle of a desert and building a town in a few weeks. It was a remarkable feat really, and a very rewarding experience for me. Since the theatre opened, it has brought a lot of tourism to the town. We’ve been to most of the shows and it has an incredible buzz that’s difficult to explain. There’s a sense of energy in the theatre that’s almost infectious,” he says.
And that response is exactly what Johnny wants from his audiences. “The idea of the theatre is not just a show, but an experience. I want people to leave mesmerised,” he says.
The Showroom has already become a tourist attraction, even during the day when there are no shows. In the December holidays up to 200 tourists per day visited the theatre and since it opened last November, virtually every show was booked out.
Prince Albert can expect another Art Deco delight in the town centre later this year when Dr Ian and Louisa Pund of Kredouw Olive Estate take ownership of the old National Service Station Centre, which is set to become a shopping centre.
The building has an Art Deco theme, which Louisa says they hope to restore to its former glory. “It will be quite a simple renovation and we want to re-awaken the building to what it was. I have already been collecting some beautiful pieces for the interior and to use for lighting. The renovation should be complete by May,” Louisa says.
In Knysna, the Ar’deCo Guesthouse combines an Art Deco theme with a new millennium twist – the clean lines of the façade are lit up at night in a hue of pastels and chandeliers in the entrance hall add a touch of glamour. Owner Anita Bekker says the house was originally built in 1942 but the previous owners envisioned a redesign from the original Spanish theme.
“We finished the redesign after buying the building in late 2009, naming it Ar’deCo to give guests an idea as to what to expect. I spent a lot of time in antique shops looking for the right pieces for the interior design,” she says.
The old Hawthorndene Hotel in George, although derelict, has a stunning Art Deco façade hidden beneath the grime. With a haunting nostalgia of the exuberant ’20s still evident despite the decay, the hotel remains under liquidation but a new owner this year could see it restored to its former glory.
Perhaps the most unusual example of Art Deco along the Garden Route is the Mossel Bay War Memorial, which stands below the Cape St Blaize Lighthouse. Designed by WJ Delbridge of the Royal Institute of British Architects and unveiled in September 1928, it commemorates Mossel Bay residents who fell in the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the South African border war and the war in Iraq.
The Art Deco trend reverberates with the extravagance and romantic glamour of the ’20s and ’30s. Reminiscent of raucous jazz, the Charleston, chorus girls and flapper dresses, it was an era when everyone knew how to have a good time – no wonder it’s back!
Bookings and inquiries: 023 541 1563 [email protected]
Johnny Breedt’s career in the film industry includes designing for big players such as Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, United Artists and Universal Pictures.
He was art director for movies such as Anna and the King (Jodie Foster) and The Ghost and the Darkness (Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer), among others. His debut as production designer was for a local film, A Woman of Color, followed by the art film Paljas. Johnny received an MNET All-Africa Award nomination for Best Art Direction, while Paljas, directed by Katinka Heyns, was the first South African film entered into the Best Foreign Film category for an Academy Award.
Johnny designed Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (United Artists), Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire (Universal Pictures), Duma (Warner Bros) by Carroll Ballard, and Primeval (Buena Vista). He was nominated for a South African Film and Television Award for his work on Catch a Fire. He also designed Wes Craven’s remake of The Last House on the Left (Rogue Films/Universal Pictures), The Breed (Firebird Films), Death Race 2 (Universal Pictures), and Red Water (Sony Columbia/TBS).
For HBO, BBC, and HWC, Johnny collaborated with Anthony Minghella on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, followed by a six-part TV series with directors Charles Sturridge and Tim Fywell. More recently he completed the Nelson Mandela biographic film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, produced by Anant Singh (VideoVision), which he describes as one of the highlights of his career.