The inimitable Alvon Collison, the wind beneath our wings
It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that not even the Oceanos could take Alvon Collison down when it sank off the East Coast of South Africa in 1991.
When Alvon Collison breezed into a room, his smile went in ahead of him, followed by a blast of energy peppered with the strange words he made up, a quip about someone in the vicinity being “from Grabouw”, and his trademark “szhawnnagatonto!”, however one spells that Alvonism that he trotted out incessantly. I don’t know if anyone has tried to write it down before, but that’s my best stab at it. If you’ve ever been to an Alvon Collison cabaret show, you’ll know the word or variations of it.
Alvon (and after knowing him for four decades I cannot bring myself to call him “Collison”) beamed, he cajoled, he charmed, he effervesced. There was nobody, nobody in the world, quite like Mr Entertainment, Mr Showbiz, Mr Razzmatazz, a man with a heart even bigger than his smile. Even when he nearly had a much earlier death, when he was one of the cabaret performers on the passenger liner the Oceanos when it sank off the East Coast in 1991, he managed to find himself in a comical situation, even as the ship was sinking and he was being our very own South African equivalent of the band playing and trying to bolster spirits while the Titanic went down.
Alvon told a Cape Town Press Club gathering at Talk of the Town restaurant and bar in Burg Street in the months that followed that at some point, casting around for another song to sing during that terrifying ordeal, he started singing American Pie and suddenly realised that the next line was going to be ‘This’ll be the day that I die”. He quickly switched to another song. (An aside: The Wikipedia entry for the sinking of the Oceanos makes much of the British entertainers who were heroic in the disaster – all lives were saved – and Collison’s role in raising spirits during the drama should by rights be recorded there.)
I first met Alvon in the foyer of the Hofmeyr Theatre just off Adderley Street in Cape Town a decade earlier, after a show. Gordon Mulholland and Rex Garner had taken over the premises of this once beloved Cape Town theatre and sometime movie house, and staged a series of famous musicals there. One was The Fantasticks and that was the show we had seen that night. I was with Argus Arts Editor Derek Wilson and he introduced me to this man whose fame I already knew, and I can see Alvon’s beaming face right now, in that shining and unforgettable moment; a bestowing of smiles and the delight he took in living life. Once Alvon had blessed you with his smile, it was seared into your memory.
No surprises then that at every show you ever saw when he was playing in cabaret at Cape Town hotels, whether the Century or the Cape Sun, where he ran and ran in the years that followed, he always trotted out When You’re Smiling in his inimitable style. If you had arrived depressed, sad, anxious at whatever was happening in your life, by the time Alvon had worked his magic on you you’d packed up your troubles and the sun was shining through, just as it did for the Oceanos passengers.
My other early Alvon memory was in 1981 in Johannesburg and he invited me to the opening night performance of a new show. It was Friday evening upstairs at the Market Theatre and it was the premiere of Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Adapt Or Dye, which was to become a cultural phenomenon and tour the nation and other parts of the world for years. We did not know that then. It must have been cold, because Alvon was enveloped in a giant, woolly black coat, and I still picture him giggling and heaving in that great coat, almost choking in mirth, alongside me, scarcely able to breathe, that’s how funny it was to watch Uys in that now classic.
In the many years that followed, these being the years that followed his famous and lengthy run as Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he commanded the hotel cabaret scene in the Mother City, with stints away in the other national capitals. He grew a following of fans who would see his shows again and again and again. He became, to his followers, like an old friend, someone you went to see if you needed a fillip, a pick-me-up, if you were down and in need of some loving care. That is what Alvon Collison did for you. He picked you up.
Always, in his shows, he’d cruise on stage in one of his trademark sequined jackets, and always there was Mr Bojangles, and boy did he sing that with the aplomb of the true crooner and cabaret star. Always, there was Hava Nagila, always there was To Life! (L’Chaim), and when at the end of the song he belted the two little words out with all the force within him, To LIFE!, you felt the vibrance of life’s possibilities soar within you.
He caressed your heart in his renditions of the classic ballads of the 20th century. He loved the songs from the musicals, Hello Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and another Satchmo standard, It’s A Wonderful World, because that’s how Alvon saw the world and his role in it.
He had a way with food too. At one stage he even had his own restaurant, in Somerset West as I recall, although he called it a supper club. He’d cook masses of food of the Sunday lunch variety – roasts, many sides, lots of puds – and you’d pile up your plates from the groaning buffet, then he’d be on stage with his familiar routine.
He caressed your heart in his renditions of the classic ballads of the 20th century. He loved the songs from the musicals, Hello Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and another Satchmo standard, It’s A Wonderful World, because that’s how Alvon saw the world and his role in it. When others saw hopelessness and despair, he saw the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night; the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, and also on the faces of people going by; friends shaking hands saying how do you do; and when he got to that line of the song in his shows he was walking through his audience, shaking hands and throwing kisses, most likely asking some aunty if she was from Grabouw and making a quip about someone’s hairstyle, then throwing his head back with warm laughter and sashaying back to the stage.
When he sang When You’re Smiling, you believed him when he claimed that the whole world smiles with you, laughs with you, and it was near impossible not to be lifted by his way with that old Louis Armstrong crooner. Later in the Eighties he added Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings to his repertoire, and managed to “make it his own”, as the overused phrase goes. And its lyrics held a truth for many young aspirant singers who looked up to him, and whom he mentored with selfless generosity, frequently pausing his own shows to give a youngster an outing in front of an audience. So when he sang, Did you ever know that you’re my hero and everything I would like to be?, it could have been those kids singing to Alvon Collison, the wind beneath their wings.
But he also did a proper rock ’n’ roll turn in his Elvis Presley medleys, ending up just as sweaty as The King himself always did after storming across the stage from end to end wearing that spangled white suit, of which Alvon wore a replica.
He had pet names for everyone, just as he made up his odd little Alvonisms. I was Tonsh, or sometimes Ton, so to me he was Alvsh.
And so we find ourselves in the time we all dread, when we must say goodbye to someone who has affected our lives and enhanced our happiness, now in this time more than ever before, it seems.
We all knew he had been ill for a long time; we all knew this was inevitable. And the thought of this spirit with a heart and soul so big that no giant black coat could contain it, and which no ship could sink, being confined by a lockdown and not being able to be on stage, where he belongs, is as maddening as it is sad.
So farewell, warm, brightly hued and even sometimes brash Alvon, with your funny words and your oceans of humanity and kindness.
And we can know that, though he is gone, there’s one toast he’d be making to us all, right now, in his inimitable Alvon way…
Drink l’chaim … l’chaiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmm… to LIFE! DM
Collison had been ill for years and finally succumbed early on Saturday.
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