Saying goodbye to The Doll House
If you happened to pull into a small, neon-lit roadhouse just off Joburg’s Louis Botha Avenue this past weekend, you would have witnessed the end of an era.
First kisses, last stops, juicy burgers, big cars – it all came to a close on Saturday 26 August as hundreds paid tribute to the iconic Doll House.
The Doll House, most often referred to in the past tense, and always spoken about with an air of nostalgia, was a drive-through diner frequented by many. To lovers, families, travellers, and party-goers, it was nothing short of an institution. What began as a ramshackle roadhouse with a stretch of parking lot, became a cultural microcosm of sorts – a meeting grounds for the many characters who called Johannesburg home.
Photo courtesy of Pamela Anne Laxen
Now, more than 80 years later, after the patrons have thinned out and the sales have dwindled, the Doll House has been sold off and prepped for demolition, taking with it, countless memories.
But in true Doll House spirit, it didn’t go down without one final night of good food, music, and celebration.
Titled Night and curated and organised by photographer Marc Shoul and arts writer Matthew Krouse, the joint exhibition and art party served as a brilliant send-off, and saw countless Joburgers – young and old – come out to enjoy the party.
The exhibition itself comprised video and photographic works by artists such as Billy Monk, Dale Yudelman, Jodie Bieber, Mack Magagane, Haroon Gunn-Salie, and Dean Hutton. The works came courtesy of two large screens, one inside and one outside, and all of them dealt with the theme of ‘night’ in one way or another, be it the revelry, the charm, the darkness, or the pleasure.
Throughout the evening, hits straight out of the 60s, 70s, and 80s blared out from the decks, and stalls carrying books, memorabilia, hot dogs, popcorn, and booze were dotted around the parking lot and inside the venue. The Doll House itself, of course, was belting out shakes, burgers, toasted cheese, and fries all night long. Some folk pulled up in packed-out cars while others rolled in on motorbikes, all of them coming through to reminisce, grab a bite, and pose beneath the old neon lights and that now famous sign: ‘No hooting. Please flick lights’.
And here’s the thing: The Doll House, like countless other spaces in the city, was not without its problems. Turf wars, bigotry, and garish displays of masculinity are just a few of the unpleasant memories that some of its older patrons can recall. A venue that’s been around as long as this one is bound to carry an infinite number of stories with it. On Saturday evening, however, there was only a group of people coming to bid farewell to a bit of history that won’t soon be forgotten.
And in a city as expansive and as multifaceted as Joburg, it’s rare to see a venue bring so many different people together for a single reason.
Pausing for a while, in the middle of the Saturday night crowd, was like being caught up in the unravelling of endless timelines. Elderly couples sip on milkshakes and recall teenage love, while young families sit in their cars and make new memories. Throughout the parking lot, old friends catch up and reflect on their livelier days.
Towards the end of the evening, as people start turning in for the night, a car inches through the crowd before stopping behind a group of people blocking its path.
It stops, flicks its lights on and off, and then hoots.
“Can’t you read the sign?” a man calls out from behind the car. “No hooting.”
Up ahead, the group disperses and the car rolls out onto Louis Botha, disappearing up the road.
“Oh, right.” he says. “Guess I just got caught up in the moment.”
Pic by Graham Smith
If you missed the final hurrah, but you’re still looking to take a trip down memory lane, check out this Doll House appreciation group on Facebook for some great photos of the venue.
by Dave Mann