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Lion House and Mayfair Hotel, Bambalapitiya

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On the landward side of Galle Road, starting from where Bullers Road begins, are a row of restaurants, shops and business enterprises, some having been in business for more than five decades. The most famous of these used to be Lion House and Mayfair Hotel, two restaurants located next to each other, where schoolboys, referred to as the “bambalawatte boys”, meaning the boys from the gardens of bamba, playing truant gathered together to light up a quick ciggy before hitting the matinee movie at the Majestic Cinema across the street. Lion House, the "Sinhala Kade" which dished out the most savory dishes of Sinhalese tradition from the spicy and lovely "katta sambol" “lunumiris”, and steaming hoppers, just off the pan, not to forget the mouth watering kavun and kokis especially during the Sinhala-Tamil New Year and festive season. The "bithara appa" (egg hoppers) laced the red hot chillie “katta sambol” soaked with a good cuppa, steaming hot, plain (black) tea, accompanied by a Three Roses cigarette (Four Aces for the guys who wanted it cheap) was the "diet" of the hundreds who patronized the "Lion" in all its glory and splendor. The Lion House cuppa tea was something truly special to all young smokers. Every schoolboy in Bamba knew Lion House almost as second home.

Lion House was patronized by a cross-section of guys. Royalists, of the Bamba and Wellawatte breed, Peterites from the "bamba" homeland, Thomians too, from far off down south Mt. Lavinia. The Mount boys “jumped” a South-Western bus to be at Bamba in a short span of time as traffic was sparse on the Galle Road in those times, unlike at present where a run from Mount to Bamba junction would take about an hour. This was also the hide-out for the schoolboys (it did not serve much as the showcase at Lion was there for all and sundry to see) for a "punt" (a cigarette) as the next one will have to be in the toilet at home where chances of being detected by "pater" (father) are sixty to one in the possibility.

"Lion" apart from the schoolboys also had their lion share of press reporters, hangers on, Majestic theatre patrons, (a somewhat downtown branch of the YMCA of Fort patronized by such breed) and of course the "Bambalawatte boys". The Bambalawatte boys being many drop-outs from who live in the Bamba and Wellawatte area, jobless, and strumming a guitar and sporting an "Elvis Presley" hair bump and sideburns to adorn their pimply face,and whoe past time was passing remarks at the gals who walk by. Once the "Lion" patrons glue themselves to their seats around the rectangular tables it was "finitos" for the waiters and management. The ones who come in first wouldn’t leave in a hurry, but spend hours chatting in groups, while only totting up a bill for a few rupees to the dismay of the "Lion" management and the poor waiters who longed for a five cent tip to keep their hoke fires burning. Sadly the "Lion" exists today at its original site, the showcase outside the restaurant remains but the floor space has been halved and rented out and the other half is no longer an eating house.

From the "Lion", just next door, stood another famous eating place of the 1950/60 era, the "Mayfair Hotel" a renowned place run by Indian Muslims. A place synonymous with Moghul dishes and Watalappam. The aroma and mouth-watering taste that came out from Mayfair's delicious buriyanis is still etched in the memories of the 'gluttonous" of that by-gone era. The roast chicken could not be matched by any other eating "joint" in town except, maybe, by the original "Pilawoos" restaurant in the Pettah run by the Palandis of South Indian roots. Mayfair too had their fair share of Hoppers, which, soaked in mutton kurma (meat curry) with all the masala (spices) added gave a good run to their competitors next door although patrons still favored hoppers with chillie hot sambol served by the Lion. If its "Buriyani" its Mayfair, and they did a splendid job with it and their take-away specials of chicken and mutton is something still spoken of by the old timers, a taste that has never been matched even to this day. "Mayfair" was also a boozers favorite. Although the place did not serve liquor many a patron came there soaked and swinging, to wind up their long and thirsty day with a good buriyani feed as their "old ladies" (wives) would not be awake when they would eventually get back home in the wee hours of the morning. Mayfair sales used to sky rocket during the end of the month when pay-day came around as a good buriyani was sold for around Rs 3/50, a fairly expensive commodity in the days when a bus ride from Fort to Bamba costed only 15 cts. The name "Mayfair" exists even now at the same location with "new" added to it but it is a far cry from the good old "Mayfair" of old.It was here, within these two premises, that many of the ideas that emanated from the youth of Bamba were discussed and plans hatched to carry out whatever mischief they had in mind, whether it was scaling the walls of St. Pauls’ Milagiriya or raiding the echelons of Holy family Convent girl schools. These two restaurants along with many more that have now sprouted up along the Galle Road, extending all the way to the Bamba Market and even beyond, also served as eating joints for those driving past after midnight.

Some significant characters of Lion House/Mayfair fame were the Guneratne’s, local toughs, Douglas Roberts, Tough Kum, & Rutman. The one & only Gerd Von Dinclage of Kinross fame, and his Harley Davidson, Tissa Ariyarate “ Saigon “Hilmi Khalid, and Turab Jafferjee,. This area became known as the domain of the Bambalawatte Boys, of whom much was written by internationally renowned journalist Tarzie Vittachi and newspaper cartoonist Colette. “Once again to those days”, written by Geoff Wijesinghe – in the Daily News paper of Sat, Mar 2, 2002, gives a very interesting and illustrative account of some of the happenings in Bamba around Lion House in those times as follows:-quote George Siegertsz, who passed away in London last week at the age of 82, was one of the last of a generation of post-World War Two musicians. George was a regular at Lion House at the Bambalapitiya Junction. He was one of the motley group of young men who visited the popular eatery, which served more as a "cup tea punt" (a cup of tea and a fag) club where these youth chatted for long hours of this, that and the other. Although the group comprised many toughs who walked around like pocket editions of Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Spencer Tracy, the tough guys at the time of the silver screen, George Siergertsz was more interested in chatting and in music. He was the country's number one whistler, a fine art and often his friends at Lion House, would gather round a table and listen to him whistling the popular tunes at the time. About one in two months or so, George Siergertsz had a 15-minute program over Radio Ceylon and would whistle the popular tunes of the day, haunting melodies, many of them World War Two favourites such as "Time Goes By", "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", "A Long Way to Tipperary" and "The White Cliffs of Dover".

Many of us younger one who kept in touch with the Lion House crowd knew well in advance when George Siergertsz, a lean, tall, gangling figure was going to whistle over Radio Ceylon. Incidentally, although some of his pals operated in grey areas, George never blew the whistle on them to the cops. He was only interested in whistling fine musical tunes. The Lion House group, I would not like to describe them as a mob, although some of them were men of violence looking out for a fight. One morning we read the sensational news in the "Daily News" of two of the Lion House boys having stowed away successfully on board a ship from Colombo to Southampton. If my memory serves me right they were Hula Mortier and Kingsley Rodrigo who, according to their buddies, have gone to the UK to become coal miners.

When I last heard of them many years ago they had in fact made their way to London and were domiciled there. The years following World War Two produced musicians of fine vintage in this country. Foremost of them was Erin de Selfa who was discovered by the doyen of Sri Lankan showmen Donovan Andre, a former racing correspondent attached to the Times of Ceylon, which was published in the evenings and on Sundays.

She was recruited to sing in the group which was known as Red Tail Minstrels and grew up to be dark and dusky, and her voice was very much like the posh Shirley Bassey. Once she grew up, Erin was a regular over a Radio Ceylon. She then left for London under contract to the famous "Talk of the Town" nightclub in London, which was patronized by celebrities.

I had the privilege of listening to Erin over the BBC one night. This was the first time that a Sri Lankan musician had been honoured by BBC, at the time the premier broadcasting station in the world, a highly prestigious achievement.

Her renditions of "Blue Moon", "As Time Goes By", "I can't help Falling in Love with You" and several other sentimental songs, were of the highest international standards.

Several years later, another Sri Lankan Yolande Wolfe, an old girl of Holy Family Convent of Bambalapitiya and whose father owned a building at the top of Retreat Road, followed in Erin's footsteps and became popular in the US.

That was in the early 1950s, the George and Gerry Crake brother were the seniors in the local music scene and they too were regulars over Radio Ceylon. They had a band known as the Crake Brothers, Gerry had a rich, deep tenor. There was also the Millionaires' dance band who practised in a house at Edward Lane.

They had the big band sound and their rendition of the Glenn Miller favourite "Take the A-train", which is a perennial, was superb.

The biggest end-of-the-year dance in the late 1940s was at the Town Hall where several bands played and there was one hectic rush for tickets.

Some of the Lion House "boys" got involved in a brawl at one of those New Year's Eve dances, which ended tragically in the death of a young man, who fell out of an upstair window when taking a punch.

The pint-sized Carl Cooke, the former Thomian wicket-keeper, had a ballroom dancing school opposite Lion House directly behind the petrol shed at the Bambalapitiya Junction. In this sprawling old house he also established the 20th Century Club, no doubt getting the inspiration from the name 20th Century Fox, the international film producer.

One night, some of the boys who had the habit of dropping in for drinks at the 20th Century Club, imbibed more than they should have had and inspired by Bacchus, took all the club's flower pots and placed them on Carl Cooke's billiard table. Being a mild mannered man, all Carl could say was "what have you fellows done? You have damaged my billiard table. And I will have to replace it with new clothes."

Carl, of course, being a peace-loving man, paid for the repairs. But the neighbourhood was very angry with the Lion House crowd for having abused Carl Cooke's hospitality, for he was very popular. Carl's brother Percy who has played for S. Thomas' was my headmaster for long years unquote

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