THERE'S only one venue in town where you can listen to the classic 18-piece jazz band The Fat Sound - the popular Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove. They've been playing there for the past 14 years.
"The Radium", as it is colloquially called, is owned by Manny Cabeleira, and he calls it "the last surviving decent watering hole in Louis Botha Avenue". Besides The Fat Sound, this great pub and restaurant has been host to a parade of "captains of industry, supreme court judges, celebrities, actors, media personalities and other well-known overseas visitors".
Cabeleira believes that popular short story teller, Herman Charles Bosman, used to drink at The Radium, his last drinking stop before going home to Lombardy East.
You'll have to queue from around 10.30am on the first Sunday of each month to catch The Fat Sound for their 12.30pm show. The band owes its continued existence to The Radium, and according to leader Jake Pressley, the sheer size of the band precludes it from performing around town.
He says: "It has some of the best jazz musicians on the Reef, but there is not much call for jazz at the moment." About half the members, including Bruce Cassidy (formerly of Blood, Sweat & Tears), are professional jazz musicians, others teach music, but all are professionals - there's a nuclear physicist, a research chemist, an engineer, an optometrist . . . Pressley, now retired, says he just "wants to help kids to play jazz".
The Radium retains its early Victorian features: attractive pressed steel ceilings and strip wooden floors. The ceilings and walls are painted a shiny olive green, with red detail. The walls are adorned with pictures of old posters, sailing ships, cartoons, soccer teams and newspaper headlines. The menu appears on blackboards, and good food it is.
Originally from Madeira in Portugal, Cabeleira devised a menu with "a bit of everything", but with great Portuguese specialities like piri-piri prawns, grilled Portuguese sardines, or grilled fish done the Portuguese way, on a cast iron griddle.
The Radium has, in the last 20 years, become a favourite community meeting place, the local pub and watering hole. Cabeleira says he has customers who have been frequenting the bar for 40 years, others who have a daily meal there, and from before he took over, it's been multiracial.
Its large, impressive Burmese teak bar has a history. It's around 100 years old and came from the original Ferreirastown Hotel, demolished to make way for the Magistrate's Court in 1944, says Cabeleira. It is believed that trade unionist Mary Fitzgerald stood at this bar in the hotel, making rousing speeches in the build-up to the miners' strikes of 1913 and 1914. The Radium got its name from the discovery of radium in 1898 by Marie Curie. According to Cabeleira, in the early days of its opening, people used to say they were "going for some radium treatment", when they were going for tea at The Radium.
The Radium started in 1929 as The Radium Tearoom, an elegant place with a fountain in the middle of the Tearoom and a courtyard in the small back section, with French windows. It was built by the Khalil family from Lebanon. The gentile tea drinking disguised the shebeening from the back of The Radium, where beer was sold to blacks, to whom it was prohibited.
In 1942 a wine and malt licence was obtained and the The Radium Tearoom became The Radium Beer Hall, a men-only bar.
In 1944 Joe Barbarovich bought The Radium. He removed the fountain and installed pool tables in the present-day restaurant section. Anyway, says Cabeleira, the men were peeing in the fountain and the fish were dying, and Barbarovich got tired of replacing the fish.
In 1984 Cabeleira bought The Radium and converted the pool section into a restaurant. And within a couple of years, he had converted it into a unisex bar.
In those days, he says, Louis Botha Avenue was "one of the busiest streets in the country", but it has since seen the exodus of customers overseas, or to the northern suburbs, or to other cities like Cape Town. But when they visit Johannesburg, they always stop in for one of the specialities, the calamari steak.
This doesn't mean that The Radium isn't still popular. Friday lunch times are a squeeze, and there's a busy music programme. Wednesdays and Fridays free music is on offer, and every second Sunday of the month is "diva night", where all girl bands usually play. And on The Fat Sound Sundays, besides the 18 band members, they manage to jam in 200 people.
The Radium is now a registered trademark, so the Radium Hotel in Jeppestown shouldn't have that name, but, says Cabeleira, it's not worth pursuing.
In the early 1990s Cabeleira opened a Radium in Rivonia, but it closed after four years when McDonald's bought the site and constructed a drive-through restaurant.
The Radium now has to compete with almost 50 restaurants in nearby Norwood, but there's no doubt that it can hold its own. After all, it's done so for 60 years and it's still going strong.
The Radium is closed most Sundays, but once a month it's open for lunch and jazz from 12.30 to 4pm. Phone 011 728 3866 for more details.
282 Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove
Telephone: 011 728 3866
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Mondays to Saturdays