Johnny Theunissen, gem of the Karoo, laird of our hearts

Johnny Theunissen, gem of the Karoo, laird of our hearts
‘I’m going up!’ David Rawdon said to Johnny Theunissen in 2013 shortly before the hotelier died. Johnny had a habit of looking up too, seen here in his element at the piano in the Lairds Arms at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein. (Photos and collage: Tony Jackman)

James D Logan was the Laird of Matjiesfontein long ago, but for more than 35 years of our lives a century and a half later, Johnny Theunissen has been the de facto Laird of this tiny outpost. He died this week after a short battle with cancer. He was 56.

One of South Africa’s great characters, Johnny Theunissen, managed to become loved throughout the land and even the wider world while never leaving his small Karoo town of Matjiesfontein.

Johnny T was a rare yet humble man who was born in one of the smallest towns in the world. All he needed to do to achieve this success was to be who he was: a born entertainer and comedian who made a life and a living out of his charm and talents. 

He was also a lay pastor, a man of his community, and was as integral to Matjiesfontein as the very bricks and mortar laid by the Victorians.

Johnny and the red London bus, blowing his bugle for Lord Milner Hotel visitors to board for the evening tour. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

My family first became aware of Johnny in 1985, four years after we discovered the village and the year our daughter Rebecca was born. 

He was 17 going on 18, a cheeky chap, a hotel porter in a red tunic, who played the bugle to alert guests that the evening London red bus tour was imminent. 

He blew that bugle with all his might, then stuck his head through the ornate doors to the pub where a man in his cups had been dozing with his head on the bar counter. He swung around, “Is dit jy wat so blaas!?

Everyone has a Johnny T story. 

Everyone who visited, whether from Calgary or Paris or Edinburgh or Berlin, heard his host of catchphrases. 

My wife Diane Cassere was “James Logan’s great-great-great-granddaughter”, a status he conferred on somebody on the bus every day; a sort of rotating title.

“One day I was sitting in the cane chairs on the stoep of the Lord Milner Hotel sipping a beverage and watching the Rovos Rail pull in,” she recalls. “Johnny appeared from the railway platform with a party of Japanese tourists in his wake. When he saw me he stopped and announced, ‘And this is Lord Logan’s great great great granddaughter – she sits here every day.’

“The Japanese all turned and bowed to me…. not knowing what to do, I bowed back, and they all disappeared into the hotel to be shown Matjiesfontein’s beautifully dressed lounges.”

The Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

We were introduced as “the honeymoon couple” countless times. I’d occasionally be “a Chippendale”, but any couple from anywhere in the world who was riding that bus would find themselves bestowed with one of these honours.

International guests were told that “the birds’ nests in the tree near the yellow lounge are dried coconuts” and that Johnny’s own grandmother “was Logan’s Hot Chocolate and I came out as the cappuccino”. 

Logan, a Scot, was the founder of Matjiesfontein as a health spa resort for continental visitors in the 1880s.

Bugle blown, guests on board, off the bus would go as he blurted, “Showtime!” The commentary was ever eccentric and familiar. 

“This house was home to the first telephone, and he called the guy with the second telephone.” 

“You get married in the church and divorced in the bar.” 

“The bus has no power steering, so the driver must use his sixpack.” 

“We turn to the left because we cannot turn to the right.” 

Every now and then he’d throw in a “Vat hom, Fluffy!”

Younger guys on board would be told to “come and show your sixpack tonight and then we share the tips”. Even I got the sixpack treatment.

There are families and groups of friends who have been going to Matjiesfontein all their adult lives to get a fix of the essence that only people who love this eccentric hotel village can understand. 

For some of us, this is personal. 

There are always faults with this place, always have been, and we would be bereft were that to change. 

Matjiesfontein Village is like a Persian rug; it is meant to have flaws. 

Nobody needs Matjiesfontein to lose its soul. Yet somehow, through various waves of the life that has washed over this strange little village, its soul has been resilient. 

And now that a man who was a part of the essence of the place has moved on, we who love the man have asked ourselves this week, can Matjiesfontein ever be the same without Johnny in it? And the answer is, yes, it can, because history and decades of that resilience have demonstrated this.

Frontman at the Lord Milner, Johnny Theunissen, leads the singing at The Lairds Arms. (Photo: Chris Marais)

I remember when the late Muriel Bownes was at the piano and telling ghost stories – must have been circa 1989 – in the Lairds Arms at the centre of attention of guests who had only checked in hours earlier. And when she died, we couldn’t imagine the place without her. 

Yet, in the late 80s, she had been grooming a teenager called Johnny Theunissen, had encouraged him to play the capricious old piano, and in no time at all Johnny was Mr Entertainer for a generation and more of the village’s tens of thousands of guests. 

It turns out that Johnny had been getting piano tutoring nearby as well.

Johnny told me about Muriel Bownes’ easing of him into the role the last time I was standing next to the piano with him, between the songs he would always ask me to join him in singing whenever we were there. 

He would lift a hand from the piano to tap me on the shoulder, point to his bowler hat on top of the piano, and wink. I’d take it around the room and gather him some tips. 

That evening, I’d told him he didn’t look well and he’d looked up at the ceiling in that Johnny way, head half cocked towards me, and said, “No I’m fine, I’m fine!” and played De La Rey (Sal jy die Guptas kom kry?) and Cotton Fields, Sarie Marais and Blueberry Hill.

But it was clear he was not fine. 

During the last half-year, on our visits he was still blowing the bugle to usher people onto the bus for the evening tour, still issuing his distinctive chirp, and everyone on the bus was still laughing and getting into the Matjies spirit, but between his famous quips he was pausing to cough or clear his throat, then pick up his microphone again and carry on.

My own family have been going there since 1981, before my daughter was born. My girl even got married there, as she swore she would when she was little. 

There are other families with a long, rich association with “Matjies” and its people. 

Writer Etienne van Heerden and his family, I discovered this week, have been visiting virtually as long as we have, and loved Johnny. 

Restaurateur Peter Tempelhoff and his family have known Matjies well since Liz McGrath took over after hotelier David Rawdon’s death a decade ago, and they loved Johnny. 

We all loved Johnny.

Etienne van Heerden wrote to say: “Sat in Haarlem, Netherlands, in a restaurant when the news came. I walked out and the church bells in the enormous, lighted tower looming over the street started ringing. As a family, we knew Johnny for decades. Most people knew him only for his happy-hour showtimes, but we knew him as a serious, thoughtful man. The Lord Milner has lost, in human terms, its greatest asset. Condolences to the family.”

Peter Tempelhoff, on hearing the news this week, said, “That is such sad news Tony, it’s absolutely sad news about Johnny. My family and I loved him so much. I worked a bit there and got to know him. I was lucky enough to sit in the bar over a pint and listen to him sing and play. What a Karoo legend, he’ll be sorely missed by many. My fondest memory of him though is on the red London bus in stitches while he guided a tour of Matjiesfontein’s one street. Vat hom, Fluffy!”

Tony Romer-Lee, Managing Partner, Valor Hospitality, who have the management contract to operate the Lord Milner, first alerted me to Johnny’s passing: “Very sad news from Matjiesfontein is that Johnny Theunissen passed away yesterday – he had been battling lung cancer, thankfully not for too long.

“We know Matjies is a place that is close to your heart and as such you will have known Johnny, experienced his tours and singalongs in the Lairds Arms. He has been the personality of the village for 35 years and leaves a huge hole in the community.

“I’m not sure if you were one of James Logan’s grandchildren or a Chippendale [I was both, among other things], but either way there is no way that Johnny would not have not left his indelible mark on you as he did us all.

“The only anecdote I can add that might stack up to yours/Jon’s/Tom’s [both are David Rawdon’s nephews] is when I first arrived at Matjies with Liz McGrath in 2013. She had not been before and instantly fell in love with the Village and the Lord Milner. Johnny must have picked this up as he immediately crowned Mrs M as ‘the Blonde chick’ and I can’t think of anyone else in and beyond SA who would have got away with that. She was quite enamoured!”

General Manager Werner Smit revealed that Johnny had first started “officially at the hotel” on June 1, 1985, “first as a porter, although he asked David Rawdon to be an entertainer at first”. The die was cast.

Jonathan Rawdon, David Rawdon’s nephew, posted on the hotel’s Facebook page: “I recall how Johnny approached my uncle David Rawdon and said you know what you need in this Village… an entertainer. And boy did he fill those shoes. But he was so much more. The fabric of the community with church and family. He will be missed and Judy and I pass on our love to his family.”

Jon told Daily Maverick that he remembered his Canadian wife Judy “telling me a story of how Johnny had her throw a sheet on and pretend she was a ghost on the other side of the river while he innocently showed guests the Travellers’ Chapel. 

“They were obviously amused. But what made the story was another guest lying on the lawn in the dark looking at the stars and Judy tripped over him and he screamed in horror thinking she was a real ghost.”

The news was also broken by the hotel on their Facebook page. “It is with a heavy heart to inform everyone that Matjiesfontein’s legend, John Theunissen, has lost his battle with cancer after a short time in hospital. Johnny has served Matjiesfontein Village over 35 years as entertainer and will be remembered for his love for people.”

Restaurateur Matthew Gordon was among those who posted his condolences: “This is terribly sad news. Such a wonderful, irreplaceable member of this community. We will miss him so much in this little town we love and have been coming to for many many years.”

Johnny was also a key member of his community. 

Cindy Anthonie, Hotel Manager, was born and bred in Matjiesfontein and a member of Johnny’s congregation. She told us Johnny “always told us that he was a soccer player in the 1980s and he loved the game very much but injured his right leg and could not play any more.

“Johnny also worked in the Matjiesfontein Post Office situated in the main street in the 1990s. When the post office closed and they wanted Johnny to move to Cape Town, Johnny decided to resign from his position as postman and applied for a porter position at the hotel and soon became a wine steward and barman.

“Johnny was very devoted to his work and also became the hotel tour guide; he always mentioned that working with people was his passion.”

Cindy Anthonie confirmed that Johnny’s mother had worked for Logan’s son-in-law Major John Buist (a name every visitor to Matjiesfontein hears) and his family for about 40 years.

“Johnny also told us that Ms Joyce Buist, the daughter of Major John Buist, gave him piano lessons on the days when he accompanied his mother to work.”

She also provided an insight into the possible future of entertaining guests: “We know that no one can replace our legendary Johnny T, but we have a barman who is also called John who always joined Johnny with singalongs in the bar.”

The baton, it seems, may have been passed, and that brings with it a sad tear for Johnny, followed by a happy one at the thought of what lies ahead for those of us for whom Matjies is a part of the fabric of our lives.

We will return to Matjiesfontein again and again as long as life allows us to, and whenever we walk into the Lairds Arms we will glance at the piano and picture Johnny T there, head back, lungs full of Ray Charles and De La Rey, heart full of love for us all. 

Thank you for a world of memories, Johnny. My family, and countless others, will never forget you. Vat hom, Fluffy!


Johnny T liked to tell random international guests, “Look how thick the walls of the hotel are. It shows you how scared the English were of the Boers.”

There’s a chip in one of those walls now. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Brian Hutton says:

    A true musician right up to the very end. His presence will live on in the echoes of Matjiesfontein.

  • Eamonn Cullen says:

    Sitting here in rural Kilkenny Ireland what a lovely well written story. When I lived in South Africa the Karoo was a place I enjoyed spending time in although I never visited Matjiesfontein the story of Johnny put a smile on my face. May he Rest In Peace.

  • Peter Johnston says:

    His presence in the bar and on the bus was an absolute delight and the unmissable highlight of a stay there. What an amazing character. He won’t be forgotten …

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