Death of showman Louis Burke

Louis Burke’s Facebook profile picture. The legendary South African showman has died in America.


LEGENDARY South African theatre actor, director, producer, writer, impresario and Shakespeare expert Louis Burke, the former husband and professional partner of South African theatre icon Joan Brickhill, has died in America, where he has lived in more recent years in Newhaven, Connecticut.

Social media was abuzz today with condolence messages for the widely celebrated showman who, born in the mid-1930s in Durban, had not been well in recent months.

Singer-actress Judy Page said: “This is sad news. it is indeed an end of an era of great musicals and glamour, and I was blessed to be part of it. RIP Louis Burke – and thank you.”

Mango Groove vocalist Claire Johnston, who as a child played one of the orphans in the acclaimed Brickhill-Burke production of Annie, wrote: “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear this. I learned so much from Louis and Joan and have so many amazing and happy memories. RIP Louis Burke.  Thank you for the magic.”

Singer-actor and producer Richard Loring said: “Sad news, indeed. A man who gave wonderful opportunities to many aspiring singers and dancers. RIP in the knowledge that you created openings for young people wanting to be in the world of entertainment.”

Actress Gay Lambert wrote on Facebook; “Truly the end of an era. So many losses over the last two years; so many wonderful theatricals who gave such joy and truly unforgettable memories to so many. Stars, each and every one!”

Cindy Alter, of hit band Clout, wrote: “Oh, that is sad. Such a legend. May his family be consoled by all the love pouring out for him.

Burke studied drama at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) and started out in amateur dramatics, his first stage performance in Johannesburg being in a 1957 production of Arthur Miller’s A View From a Bridge.

He went on, alongside his Durban-born wife, to appear in, direct and tour with many landmark productions, a highlight of his career being his direction of the 1989 Broadway production of the musical Meet Me in St Louis. That production was choreographed by Brickhill, who died in January 2014.

Louis and Joan parted ways in the 1990s after a fulfilling career that initially had the couple co-producing, co-directing and appearing in large-scale classical productions, including The Miser (for Pact in 1964), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Alexander Theatre in 1964) and Dark of the Moon (Pact, 1964). In 1965, Burke’s directed The Beggar’s Opera in Cape Town, a year before he and Brickhill co-devised the first of the popular Minstrel Scandals spectacles.

Their African musical, Meropa, had a Royal Command performance at the London Palladium in 1975, after it reopened the revitalised His Majesty’s Theatre in Johannesburg. That was in December 1974, when the Brickhill-Burke team, along with Graham English, took over the now-defunct theatre’s lease.

During their years together, the Brickhill-Burke team produced such stage successes as Oklahoma, Hello Dolly, Barnum, Annie, Mame, They’re Playing Our Song, The Sound of Music, Follies Fantastique, Gypsy and a number of Sun City extravaganzas. Their hit plays included I Love My Wife, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Norman Conquests.

Burke was also known for the movies Follow That Rainbow (1979) and Van Kerslig Tot Kollig (1982).

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