After more than 55 years as an entertainer, Milnerton resident Alvon Cillison has a head filled with melodies, a home full of memorabilia and a history of fulfilling memories.
Entertainment is so much a part of his life that he and partner of 25 years, Faried Swartz, also a singer, have two theatre spaces right in their own home.
Alvon, 76, is an all-round performer who has won numerous awards and fans over the decades.
All through their grand old house, besides the personal treasures, you will see the people special to Alvon and this is elaborated on as he speaks about his journey.
From his mother and father, grandmother, sister and her children, to all those who have played a part in recognising his talent and putting him on stage, Alvon is most generous in his praise.
Born in Woodstock, he says parents Angela and George and grandmother, Christine Revell, a school teacher after whom the Christine Revell Children’s Home in Athlone is named, were among his greatest supporters.
Ms Revell had been the principal of St Paul’s Primary School in Bo-Kaap. Alvin says his grandmother always believed in him.
It is also because of his love for his parents that Alvon puts on his annual Mother’s Day and Father’s Day concerts.
“I am so grateful to my parents. I loved them and want to pay respect to them. They were good for me. They allowed me to be who I was. They must have realised from a young age that they had a different son, and they allowed me to be. They never rebuked or said I mustn’t do this or that. All they did was add water to the flower. My father was very proud of me, and that made me very happy.”
Asked how he met Faried, 42, Alvon says: “He came to be in one of my shows, The Spirit of Christmas, and he wanted to learn how to sing, and the singing started, and then it opened up another door for him, and then he said he couldn’t get a lift home, and then he moved in and he stayed.”
Not a performer but an integral part of Alvon’s shows is Faried’s mother, Kolsem, 60, from Rugby, who makes her famous koeksisters for the refreshments.
Faried says those enquiring about the show often ask if they will be served.
Somewhere among Alvon’s record collection is the one that started it all. Bought when he was just 12 years old, it was the song, There’s No Business Like Show Business, that gripped him.
The song was originally from the musical Annie Get Your Gun and became the title of the movie made in its tribute. The movie starred Marilyn Monroe.
“I was gripped by the melody,” says Alvon.
It was at 16 that Alvon left Coronation Road, Woodstock, and headed to Salisbury in the then Rhodesia, where he stayed for the next 10 years, getting involved in amateur theatre.
Here his career found direction, and he credits the late theatre producer, Adrian Stanley, for helping him but says it was when the late Joan Brickhill, referred to as the first lady of musical theatre, came backstage and told him that she would help him turn professional that his life changed.
She had singled him out of a cast of 50. “God sent her there. To put me on the path,” said Alvon.
Joan helped Alvon by putting him in some of the big musicals to tour South Africa.
Eventually, Alvon took a transfer from Salisbury to Durban, still working for the same group.
He then moved to Johannesburg for a musical called Robert and Elizabeth and eventually it got to Cape Town, at the Alhambra Theatre, in Riebeek Street, and that was one of Alvon’s first dreams come true.
As a 12-year-old boy he had seen American Johnny Ray perform there, and now, at 28, he was on that same stage.
He then found himself in one role or the other in a number of the big musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, Minstrel Scandals and South Pacific.
Another big break came when he started performing a cabaret show at the Kyalami Ranch in Johannesburg.
He did this for three years, and it was here where Alvon was spotted by Francois Swart, head of drama at the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), who offered him the role of the Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a show that was only meant to be staged for six weeks but went on to run on and off for the next 10 years all across the country. Alvon won the Gallo and Three Leaf awards for his performance.
In Cape Town, the show opened at the 3 Arts Theatre in Plumstead.
“(Theatre owner) Ronnie Quibell went mad. We blew the place apart,” says Alvon. “It was the happiest time of my life,” he says.
The day after the show opened at Johannesburg’s Alexander Theatre, Alvon found himself on the front page of newspapers.
“All these things were happening to me, and I was still me, an ordinary guy. I’m really very lucky.”
Joseph finally came to an end in 1984, and Alvon moved back to Cape Town where he started directing the show himself.
He did so with children from the Astra School for the Physically Disabled, in Montana, in the choir and pupils from John Graham Primary School, in Plumstead, playing the brothers. He also co-ordinated the show with children from The Ark City of Refuge, in Faure, and at Queenspark High School, where among the dancers were a very young DJ Ready D and Ramone Dewet, from Prophets of da City.
Alvon says it is important for him to guide others in the entertainment industry, just as Joan Brickhill did for him.
“I have tried to help young people to get ahead because it’s sore out there. It is eina to be part of show business. It’s not fun. I might look like I am having a ball all the time, but I have more worries than anybody else. Just like anybody in this whole country at the moment.”
One thing that did almost get him down was his failed restaurant venture in Somerset West, where he lived upon returning to the Cape. He was then asked to sing at the Regency Hotel, in Sea Point, was booked for three weeks and stayed for three months, then got booked at the Cape Sun, where he worked for three years.
After his stint at the Cape Sun, Alvon started putting on his own shows.
In addition to the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day shows, Alvon is also well known for his shows to mark Valentine’s Day, Easter, the arrival of spring and Christmas.
His own production, Showtime, was performed numerous times with a cast of 40 singers and dancers at the Artscape Theatre.
Alvon has had a difficult two years with his health.
He underwent double bypass surgery almost a year ago and now undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This forces him to make full use of Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On the Thursday that I met him, he and Faried were on their way to Bridgeville Primary School, in Bridgetown, for Teacher’s Appreciation Day, where he spoke about how his mother, a midwife, and grandmother had served the community all their lives. He was also scheduled to speak to volunteers at the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) which, coincidentally, was the organisation responsible for saving him and others from drowning when the Oceanos sank off Coffee Bay, on the Wild Coast, in 1991.
Alvon and other members of the cabaret show were due to get off the ship just the next day, but by 11pm, the ship started to go down.
“The ship was a bit skeef as it was going, and we didn’t feel at ease. We were busy doing our cabaret, and the ship was going more and more sideways. Then the piano and everything started to fly across the show. Mara Louw was sitting there with massive eyes. The next thing, the lights went out. People started screaming and shouting.”
At 3am, they were on the deck in their life jackets, waiting for the ship to go down as it rocked in the big swells. But at about 4am the storm stopped.
Alvon says a stillness descended on them. He had a vision. “I saw my mother and father and granny waiting and calling to me and all my dogs and with tails wagging.
“My granny’s saying come and my father’s saying come in, ballie, it’s not so bad. It was strange, and I thought it is going to be three minutes of struggling and then these people are waiting for you. My life changed that day also.”
Asked if he has any plans to retire, Alvon gives the expected defiant answer.
“Never. I’ll fight them on the beaches,” he jokes. “No way, I love doing my shows. I am doing a new CD with friend Paul Petersen
“I can’t wait to get into the studio and get excited about something that’s going to give me another incentive to sing again.”
Alvon Collison will be performing with Faried Swartz and Shannon Lewis at the Morning Melodies concert at Bellville civic centre on Wednesday November 15, from 10am.
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