To most people, Bob Martin, instantly draws up the image of vitamin tablets for dogs. But before he retired, to everyone in the South African theatre business, Bob Martin conjured up quite a different picture
Bob Martin was a theatre photographer.
I have known Bob for about thirty years. When I was twenty-two years old I shared a house with the beautiful dancer, Tossie Van Tonder. Bob recalls coming to meet Tossie and as usual she was late! “You used to feed me with gorgeous butternut soup or homemade tagliatelle Alfredo. Over those meals with glassfuls of wine, much chatter and laughter, our friendship was formed.”
I asked Bob how his photography had started? Laughingly he told me that he had always been a ‘Baby Brownie’ fan, and shot pictures from when he was ten growing up in Cape Town. He started his photographic career whilst in Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency. He was working as a ‘scene of crime’ photographer as a reservist with the Kenya Police. On his return to SA he worked as a Sunday Times photographer.
“I had many exciting, sometimes tragic moments during my life as a photographer there – such as the Sharpville massacre in 1960.” He then broadened his experience by working as a publicity-stills cameraman on a number of international film sets, assisting the legendary ‘Karsh of Ottawa’ on the film, “Zulu” with Michael Caine.
But his artistic insight from behind the lens really came into play when he began to work as the only permanent theatre photographer for the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT).
“I felt that I had found my true destiny,” says Martin. “And so it was that my real life as a photographer of the theatre began. I realised then that I’d found my niche, surrounded as I was by dozens of gifted, creative artists.”
We know Bob as a photographer. I was amazed to discover that he had longed to be an actor. I read this piece out of Bob’s memoirs to be given to his children one day:
“I had been making a reasonable name for myself as a ‘Photographer of the Theatre’. I had been given my first break by Leonard Schach and his ‘Cockpit Players’ in, Tennessee William’s, “Night of the Iguana” at the old “Playhouse” theatre in Braamfontein. I had by this time, already photographed about ten plays. Due perhaps to my “Walter Mitty” tendencies, I had secretly always wanted to be an actor! But, a relatively early marriage and the resultant responsibilities to my children, had prevented that.
One day, Bobbie Lang, who I’d known since 1949, told me to report to the Wits university Great Hall, “for an audition!” Just for the hell of it and with little in the way of actual acting training, I went. It was a bit of ‘chutzpah’ really, especially since the audition was for a professional production, directed by none other than Leon Gluckman who was “Mr. Big ”of Johannesburg’s theatre in those days. He already knew me as a good photographer of the theatre, but NOT as an actor!
The play was none other than, Peter Ustinov’s “Romanoff and Juliet”. If successful, I was to play ‘Romanoff’, opposite Heather Lloyd-Jones’ ‘Juliet’! Heather was the up-and-coming ingénue of that era. She was soon to become quite a star in Brian Brook’s ‘Irma la Douche’. I was shocked into reality to find that I had to read to her in person! She too, was most surprised to see me there because I had already taken some super publicity pictures of her. A mild flirtation between us had ensued. She was ‘hot’ property at the time. I read for about 20 minutes and apparently impressed Leon Gluckman. He totally floored me by saying: ”OK Bob, you’ve got the part! Now, when can you start rehearsals?”
I remember distinctly going back to the Alba Hotel in Braamfontein, which was my ‘home’ at the time. I needed not only a few stiff drinks but a good hard “think” as well.
My ‘working’ life had been so varied. Since leaving school I had been: an apprenticed motor-mechanic, a sailor in the SANF, a shop assistant, a waiter, a maitre-’d in a night-club, a student dancer with the Cape Town University Ballet Company, a car-salesman, (which I hated!) a Firestone Tyre Company representative in both Kenya and South Africa, (which I hated even more) and which is where I met my wife, Marie! And now, I was a reasonably successful freelance theatre and motion picture (stills) photographer! Could I, should I, would I become an ‘Actor’ as well?
Marie and I were still wallowing in the emotional aftermath of a traumatic divorce. I did have a good ‘day job’ with a big Motor company. Although I hated the work it was a necessity because of my commitment to my children. “The Theatre”, as a profession, was just as much of an, “uncertain heartbreak house” then, as it is today, and it seems, always will be.
Suddenly my longing to become an actor was at last, realised. All I needed to do was phone Leon Gluckman and accept the part.
What to do?
For once in my life, common sense prevailed. When I did phone Leon the following day, regrettably I declined the part. He sounded genuinely disappointed. As was Heather. He even offered me more money, but I’d made up my mind. Poor Bobbie Lang was absolutely livid! He had recommended me and had convinced Leonard that I was right for the part. Who knows? I like to think that he was right!
It was an absolute dilemma in my life that has haunted me ever since. Should I have thrown all caution to the winds, behaved irresponsibly and BECOME the good actor I felt I had the talent to become? Alas, I was never to know. In my heart of hearts, I instinctively knew, that for once in my life, I had acted wisely and done the ‘responsible’ thing.
I often wonder how different my life and that of my children would’ve been, if I had taken that part and become the actor I so badly wanted to be.”
I’ve always loved Bob but having read that Memoir that love is coloured now with great respect!
In 2009 Bob’s book Highlights and Footlights was published. It is a masterly tribute to South African stage and screen. I am incredibly honoured to have been included in this book. If you are in Exclusive or Wordsworth, do yourself a favour. Go and page through it….and marvel at his brilliance!