WHAT MAKES KURT SCHOONRAD REALLY TICK?
Dec 20th 2009, 00:00
Hint. It’s not just his signature wheels and sunglasses.
Kurt, a man of a million faces and many sunglasses, always arrives in style. His appearance in a recently acquired 1940 Chevrolet transforms the road leading into the River Club into a dusty lane on a mid-American farm. For a few moments, there’s apple pie inthe oven and Elvis on the phonograph. His latest car is unusually understated for Kurt who tends to favour gleaming mobiles so highly polished that you can count the strands in your beehive in the reflection off their bonnet. Kurt assures me that he hasn’t forgotten to paint this car and that the rusty bits are on purpose. ‘It doesn’t look fancy-shmansy like my other cars. Butit’s brand new under the skin.’ He’s aiming for the distressed look, which is the latest trend with custom car builders in the States. As he poses for photos, Kurt, recognisable across the country for the hit SABC series Going Nowhere Slowly draws comments from passersby: ‘Gotta earn a living somehow,’ and ‘All in a day’s work,’ he jokes, in-between pulling faces. The title of his show is ironic. Kurt has gone somewhere fast. Jettisoned out of Mitchell’s Plain, he’s become one of Cape Town’s most popular comedians, and recently opened a comedy venue Jou Ma Se Comedy Club in Woodstock. Kurt admits, ‘At 36 I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought possible.’ So what’s next? ‘I still want to be a stand-up comedian when I grow up,’ he quips.
After the shoot, Kurt relaxes with a Castle lager. Son Jack was born a week ago, and since then, life’s been hectic. Taking a swig of beer and soaking up the sun, he’s in a reflective mood. The conversation kicks off with the topic of cars. Kurt is passionate about his wheels, but doesn’t want anything from a showroom. He only loves vehicles that need TLC, especially American-style cars older than the 1950s: ‘America in the 30s-60s was very over the top – in your face in a way that only the Americans can do. It’s as though after winning the Second World War, they had a licence to boast. Then during the 1950s, the styling reflected the space race, with wings on the back and rockets on the front. I love it.’ Despite his predilection for muscle cars, Kurt’s first romance was with a Beetle. As is so often the way with first loves, it broke his heart. After months of persuading the owner to part with it and managing to secure it in his backyard, he ran out of cash and had to sell it before finishing the restoration. This was a bitter blow and the first and last project that Kurt left unfinished. Kurt had his first serious relationship at age 22 with a 1955 gleaming black panther of a Chevy that is still growling inside his garage. Driving his cars, Kurt feels like ‘king of the world’. He admits, ‘Perhaps it’s a big wank. But it’s my wank, so let me have it.’ Kurt’s passion for his cars is only equalled by his passionate hatred of BMW drivers. ‘I’m passionate about not liking BMW drivers. They are arrogant. Especially BMW soccer mums of the X5 variety. I plan to have my own soccer team one day, but I won’t embarrass myself with a BMW.’ Kurt admits that he’s ‘a chronic and compulsive restorer’. ‘I’m in quest of a self-help group to join: Restorers Anonymous.’ Nothing out of the box appeals. If you are to worm your way into Kurt’s collection, you need rescuing. It’s not the quick sling over the shoulder and run type of salvage, but the strategically planned execution, which takes months to accomplish, that Kurt favours. Some people talk to plants. Kurt communes with objects. ‘They choose me,’ he says, citing, as an example, the recently purchased rat-infested 1970 clam couch that he found abandoned in a garage. It took six months for him to purchase.
Like any Rockabilly, shades are an essential part of Kurt’s repertoire. He owns 30 oddly shaped and desirable sunglasses. Today, he wears the classic Ray Ban Wayfarers that were first introduced in the 1950s and have gone through various stages of popularity. His favourites are a pair of 1970 Kazal shades. Thanks to e-bay, Kurt has the whole planet at his fingertips and has yet to purchase a pair of shades in South Africa. A little hint, readers. Kurt, generally a laid-back guy, has one unbendable rule: never, ever, touch the lenses of his sunglasses. There’s only one worse thing you can do to him and that’s to finger the vinyl of his record collection. Kurt grew up in an English-speaking minority in Mitchell’s Plain and used humour as a defence mechanism to help him cope with difficult situations. As the only English-speaking kid at school, he was teased and bullied mercilessly. ‘I was tortured as a child,’ he says, letting the comic mask slip for a moment. Billy Connolly writes in his autobiography that comedy is based in pain. Kurt agrees. ‘It’s how disenfranchised and struggling people deal with adversity. The best comics are from disadvantaged groups.’ Kurt is certainly happy at work. ‘I’m making a living from being an artist. I’m grateful.’ But as a success story from Mitchell’s Plain, he has few role models. ‘Sometimes I feel blessed and special. Other times I feel tortured. There’s a lot of guilt. Sometimes I feel alone and that’s not easy. I like the unusual, the path less traveled. Living an alternative lifestyle and liking things that other okes aren’t into is a double-edged sword.’
Comedy might have started as a defence but it easily dovetailed with his extrovert personality. ‘Part of being a stand-up is that I’m a compulsive show-off,’ he admits, adding quickly that he’s also modest. ‘I’ll never polish my own marbles. Kurt always had a strange sense of destiny: ‘I always knew that I was going to do something different. At the age of 15 I spent hours in my bedroom writing down my thoughts and feelings.’ When Kurt’s personality married with the business acumen he gained through a marketing diploma at Technikon, his success took off. ‘I saw a gap in the market. There was a huge demand for standups and no supply. My little forte is that I’m a media whore.’ Stand-up comedy has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the last five years. Kurt attributes this to its universal appeal. ‘Stand-up resonates with the average kind of guy.’ He calls it ‘drive-through entertainment’. Kurt has discovered that honesty is the key to successful standup comedy. ‘When I was a drama student, I was taught to get into other characters. In stand-up, you have to bare your soul. There are no props to hide behind. There’s only a microphone and a spotlight. Stand-up will show your true self. If you’re a chopper, there’s no way of hiding it. My act has evolved immensely. I go on stage with less material because I’m starting to realise that it’s personality that counts the most.’ Kurt has lived in Observatory, which he calls ‘the suburb of the culturally challenged’, for 12 years. He loves the live-and-let-live vibe and enjoys ‘living with an eccentric bunch of people from all over the world’. He’s managed even to outsmart the bergies, who ring at his door at 5am on a Sunday morning, by cutting the wires to his bell. Three years ago he purchased a Victorian gem, typical of the area. ‘It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,’ he says, beaming ‘A city planner owned it at the turn of the last century. My home is like a museum. Everything is white – the walls, the ceilings, the floors – and filled with handpicked retro objects.’
Despite his pleasure in collecting and restoring rockabilly memorabilia, it is people that really make Kurt tick. Already back in his car, Kurt rolls down the window (not without a certain effort) and lets me in on a secret: ‘People are my biggest passion. I love interacting with them. They’re the basis for my career. It’s what they don’t say that’s the most powerful. Take the guy with the shopping list in Woolworths. He shouldn’t be there. We men are hunters, not gatherers.’ And just before Kurt accelerates away, he shouts: ‘We stumbling blokes are only kids in suits. Just let us play!’
by Dawn Kennedy