“Bio” is an abbreviation of “bioscope” (the term by which cinemas were referred to in South Africa)
In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens living in Cape Town, there were a number of so-called bio cafés in the city. Cape Town also had its full-sized cinemas like the Colosseum, the Metro, the Alhambra with its twinkling stars on the firmament of its high, dark blue ceiling, and the Van Riebeeck. By contrast the bio cafés were small, narrow, dank places with the air thick with swirling cigarette smoke. Their popularity stemmed from the fact that they always showed a double feature and one could sit there all day if one wished to, watching the same two films over and over again. As an added bonus, you were served a free, sweet Kool Aid soft drink.
There were three bio cafés that my brother Charel and I frequented. They were called the Pigalle, the Elstree and the Roxy. It was in one of these cinemas that I had sat in my seat frozen with fear as I had watched a black and white horror movie about zombies. I had shut my eyes tightly in terror as the zombies, having risen from the dead, stumbled amongst the trees through a thick fog on their way to visit some unimaginable horror upon an unsuspecting victim.
I had a love-hate relationship with horror films, but that did not stop me from also going to see the 1956 movie “The werewolf” in a bio café. The lead character in the movie had been lost and had ended up in a remote village, where someone had injected him with a serum that contained wolf’s blood. This had caused him to sprout thick fur and to turn into a bloodthirsty werewolf whenever the moon was full. It was a scary film. I was a little surprised at the time that it had not been nominated for an Oscar, as it was a far better film than “Giant” or “The Ten Commandments”.
Another movie that sticks in my mind from the bio café days is “Reach for the sky”, the story of the British World War 2 fighter pilot Douglas Bader, who had kept on flying despite having lost both his legs in an aeroplane accident. And then there were my favourites, those American Western movies featuring Audie Murphy.
Charel, two and a half years my senior, is very tall. Even in his teens he could easily pass for someone much older than his actual age. He could therefore bypass the “No persons under 18 years” restrictions where they applied to films when he was no older than 14.
He told me in detail about “The fly”, a 1958 horror film which he had seen, but from which I had been excluded because at 13 years of age I couldn’t beat the 16 years age restriction. His mere account of the film’s storyline freaked me out so much that I was relieved that my bluff had been called and that I had been refused entry. It was about a scientist whose atoms had mutated with that of a fly during a scientific experiment. Terrifying stuff!
When I visited Charel in South Africa recently, we reminisced about the old bio cafés in Cape Town and how much we had enjoyed going to them. It transpired that he had other fish to fry in his mid-teens besides horror movies, when it came to going to the bio cafés. The object of every teenage boy’s fantasies in those days was Brigitte Bardot, a super-sexy French movie star.
“You know,” Charel told me, “the best show that I ever saw at a bio café was a double feature of two Brigitte Bardot movies. I rocked up as soon as the place opened in the morning and I stayed there the whole day, watching the same two movies over and over again. And you know what? The next day I went back and did the same thing again!”