Once upon a time in Durban
Durban - Gordon Michael spins a kaleidoscope of Durban’s history packed with colourful characters and memorable moments in time.
Now 65, Michael - who worked at the Blue Zoo Restaurant for 46 years, along with three generations of his family and having retired in 2017 - is now in high demand for his Once Upon A Time in Durban talks, whether at a club, school or to a group of tourists.
He also manages the tuckshop at Mitchell Park Zoo, where he can be found every morning opening up for the day.
A natural raconteur, Michael grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in Puntan's Hill, a few kilometres from the elegant surrounds of Musgrave and Windermere.
At seven, he started selling newspapers when the Daily News was two cents a copy.
Soon after, he also started working at the Windsor Park Golf Course, opposite the Durban Country Club - while he slotted going to school in between.
His job at the golf club was to collect balls smacked down to the other end of the driving range and it was the start of a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
By the time he was 12, he had won the best caddy of the year at the golf course, picking up the Alan Herschell Golf Club trophy.
He’s quick to point out that Herschell was the jockey who won the 1928 Durban July and from his many well-thumbed reference books, such as Dear Old Durban, he pulls out a picture from that era.
Becoming a well-known caddy to the captains of industry who also played the horses, and with Newmarket Stables also close to the golf course, it was inevitable that he became familiar with many in the horse-racing industry.
In 1971, he joined his father at the Blue Zoo Restaurant at the famous Mitchell Park and for close to 50 years, Michael has taken note as Durban’s history unfolded.
His knowledge of the history of Mitchell Park is formidable.
The much-loved park will turn 125 years this year.
He recalls how South African tennis champ Kevin Curran would practise close to the park at the Mitchell Park Tennis Club as a boy.
“He would always come here (Blue Zoo restaurant) after practise and have a cheese and tomato toasted sandwich for seven cents or a chicken mayo toasted sandwich for nine cents.
“He lost at Wimbledon in 1985 to that 17-year-old, Boris Becker,” said Michael.
Blue Zoo was also a popular hangout for the horse-racing fraternity and Michael said trainer Herman Brown, who is now in his 90s, was a regular visitor.
“He nicknamed me Curry because he used to tell his children bedtime stories about me and my cousin, who was called Rice.
“In the early ’70s he (Brown) would order ‘kingclip with chips and salad’ which cost 22 cents back then.
“Jockey Felix Coetzee, who always rode for the Millard stables, also used to come to the restaurant a lot.”
He remembers the day the Durban July favourite Sea Cottage was shot.
“It was June 19, 1966, I was 12 years old and he was shot at the beach by trigger man Johnny Nell.
“Nell shot Sea Cottage in the buttocks because he only wanted to injure him.
“The story goes Nell, who was a club bouncer, got paid a lot of money for the job and he needed cash at that time.”
He easily recalls high-flying names, such as racing stewards Jack and Ken O’Connor, who owned the Oyster Box Hotel in the early ’50s, as well as legendary names such as the Huletts and Greenacre magnates and ’80s hotel boss, Sol Kerzner.
“Kerzner’s dad lived at Althea Court and used to arrive in a chauffeur-driven Valiant regal.”
But his favourite person was the late president Nelson Mandela who, when staying at King’s House which has a gate connected to Mitchell Park, would take solitary early morning walks in the tranquil gardens.
Michael’s sister, Ella Govender, was Mandela’s controller householder at De Tuynhuys in Cape Town and King’s House in Durban and frequently travelled with Mandela when he was president.
“When my niece got married in 1996, he (Mandela) came to my sister’s house in Phoenix, he came privately without even any bodyguards.”
Another popular patron at Blue Zoo was Ann Boyd, wife of Leo Boyd, who was mayor in 1948.
“She always sat at Table 61 and booked for six guests, with people such as Fatima Meer.”
Michael said another favourite patron was actor Henry Cele who shot to fame after playing the role of King Shaka in the famous television series.
“Cele was known as Black Cat because he was also the professional goalkeeper at Curries Fountain.”
Michael is armed with many books and his own scrapbook, which is packed with cuttings, such as the garden party held in Mitchell Park in 1947 when King George VI and the royal family visited Durban.
Michael flips to a picture of Queen Elizabeth, who was still a princess at the time.
He has plenty of royal moments with the latest being the unveiling of the bronze busts of Mandela and King Goodwill Zwelithini by the Zulu monarch last year.
With all the titbits of information he has gathered along the way, Michael moves easily from one subject to another and his passion is unquestionable, as is his memory: “I don’t need to have notes, I remember everything.”
He will speak at the next meeting of the Durban & Coastal Branch of the Genealogical Society of SA on Saturday, September 21 at 2pm at the Family History Centre (Church of the Latter Day Saints), Montgomery Lane, Musgrave.
The Independent on Saturday