Coffee with Eelco

Alleluya Bar and Café, Auckland

15/03/2012 - 17/03/2012

Production Details

Important Lessons in a Life Devoted to Coffee and Art 

Nowadays nobody thinks twice about popping down to the local cafe to get their favourite brew, be it soy latte, cappuccino or long black, but there was a time when the art of making a good coffee had not come to our shores.

Enter Eelco Boswijk, A young immigrant fromHolland, on an adventure to discover a new life and finding a home. His adventures take him all around the country, working in shearing gangs, milking sheds, discovering the beautiful New Zealand countryside and it’s inhabitants and eventually arriving in Auckland to work for Otto Gruen, creator of the countries first Gourmet Restaurant, The Gourmet, where he learned the art of hospitality.

Eventually he would settle in Nelson and create what would become an iconic cafe community gathering place Chez Eelco.  Chez Eelco coffee house proved far more than a cafe.  It became known nationally and internationally as the place where musicians, writers, actors and all who delighted in cafe, food and the gentle art of good living would find kindred spirits.  Under Eelco’s kindly eye the Chez was, from 1961 until it’s close in 2001, the very heart of Nelson.  

Many famous artists careers were launched from the Chez, with Eelco supporting them at the very beginning of their fame.  Eelco was also responsible for financially supporting WOW World of Wearable Art at the very beginning of it’s creation.  Today WOW is the countries biggest international event and Eelco remains its patron to this day.

Enter Grae Burton, actor, writer, director, whose career was also launched by Eelco at The Chez. In 2008 Burton, with collaborator Tim Coughlin created Coffee With Eelco, a biopic stage show about the life of Eelco and his impact on New Zealand Art and Culture. Three years later a revamped and expanded version of the show will have it’s Auckland Premiere Season at Alleluya Cafe, March 15 – 17.  The show will then embark on a tour of cafes and private venues aroundAuckland.

The show is described as a light hearted, intimate, interactive experience, which transports the audience through Eelcos life, touching on important moments in history and showing the very beginnings of cafe culture in this country. It mixes immersive performance and art with storytelling direct form Eelco’s lips and in the tradition of the Chez, a half time coffee and dessert will be available to all.

Burton(who recently seen appearing as Peter Miller in Underbelly NZ: Land of the Long Green Cloud) is excited to be able to bring the life of one of his real life heroes to audiences. “It’s a great story for everybody about a NZ history and culture, life and legacy, and the secret to making a really good coffee. If you want to find out what the secret is, you’ll have to come to the show!”

Coffee with Eelco is proudly supported by the Wallace Arts Trust.

Coffee with Eelco
Live Interactive Show with Free Coffee and Dessert
Auckland Premiere Season
March 15, 16, 17 at 7:30pm
Alleluya Cafe, Karangahape Road

An extraordinary story about a delightful man

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 16th Mar 2012

Nelson born and raised actor/writer/director Grae Burton has co-created (with Tim Coughlin) an interesting one-man-play, based on the life and times of one of Nelson’s most famous characters: coffee house owner, Eelco Boswijk.  

Given that Grae launched his acting career in Chez Eelco, his full-length work is very personalised, with more than one nostalgic ‘life imitating art, imitating life, imitating art’ moment.

Grae’s knowledge and admiration for the legend is clear and well articulated, through story-structure and characterization. The script is full of Eelco’s catch-cries, such as, “You grow with the stories; life is art.”

We are left with a strong sense of Eelco being a man well ahead of his time, as Grae reads café reviews from the Nelson Evening Mail from the 1960s and beyond, which, like the majority in the Nelson community, embrace Eelco with affection.

We learn Eelco was the café owner who didn’t look around for the next trend – he made his own, his own way, for 40 years. Grae’s work shows Eelco was always the first to celebrate, support and host artistic expression (without judgment), through exhibitions, shows, live music and events. Most significantly, Eelco was one of the first supporters of Susie Moncrieff’s now world-famous Wearable Arts concept.

Yet through Grae’s story telling, the audience also learns about a more private Eelco, behind the charismatic coffee house enthusiast. Grae takes us to the 1920s, to Holland, and opens a window on how the Nazis, concentration camps, and then later in life, a near-death experience with his brother, directly shaped Eelco’s love of life; his desire to celebrate people and create a happy atmosphere to share in art and culture.

Grae reveals the strength of his craft as an actor and writer, during these early scenes, in particular as we witness little Eelco’s  door to his child heart close, and another opened; that was called war.”

Grae’s performance and expression is equally engaging, as he humorously recreates Eelco’s first sip of good coffee, as he worked on NZ farms as a labourer in the 1950s. He effectively reveals all aspects of the man, as Eelco’s personal life, commitments to his family and relationship with his wife Christine, are slowly pulled out of balance, as nurturing the Chez, takes more and more of his time. A Christmas Eve moment, between father and (imagined) son, is particularly poignant.

Venue-wise,K Road’s awesome Alleluia Café is perfect. Top marks to the owner for once again, supporting the arts (just as Eelco did). Alleluia café serves excellent coffee, plus dessert. Being served by ‘Eelco’ during interval, is a lovely personal touch.

Grae’s costumes and styling show fine attention to details, as does his inventive use of props. Turning a kid’s hopper-ball into a sheep for shearing: inspired.

Technically, the evening is patchy. While Grae has a great operator, some decisions I feel, are flawed. Audio–wise, there is no reason to add an artificial ‘café noise’ underlay. Why bother, when the wonderful real noise of K Road– plus, on opening night, a short band practice below – bleeds into Alleluia café? That’s the stuff of life that passed Chez Eelco everyday. Regrettably, I was only 2m from one of the speakers, so the underlay level, was also too loud.

While I understand the constrictions of space and budget in the café environment, as the light-stand is rigged to face the café windows front-on, they reflect in the window, straight back into the audience’s eyes – I felt like a possum in the headlights. Perhaps side-lighting might help?

I also feel the play’s structure suffers from a weak start. The sung preamble, tentatively performed, with average ukulele playing, seems unnecessary. Grae has such a wealth of material to share, so much to say about Eelco and his impact on Nelson social history, why waste time with a thin melody? Once Grae comes out of the ‘singing narrator’ role and speaks to us warmly as Eelco, the evening starts to come alive.

These technical quibbles are not important to the core: they can be tweaked. Or not.

At the heart of this work is an extraordinary story about a delightful man, which is very well told. Coffee with Eelco is a worthy celebration – albeit with a somewhat melancholic reflective end – of a unique personality, who helped shape Nelson’s recent social history and ‘coming of age’ in terms of café-culture.

Grae’s post-show comments are a lovely personal touch: Eelco, 83 years old, as at March 2012, is living in Nelson’s retirement home, Green Gables. The lounge room is now called Eelco’s room. That is something to celebrate.

“Everybody’s happy, OK?” I’m happy. Thank you Grae, and Eelco.


Pepe Becker March 19th, 2012

Ah, I too have many fond memories of Eelco as I was growing up in Nelson - was treated to the occasional after-school snack (of sante bars mixed with cream, raw sugar and cinnamon!) at "the Chez" with his daughter... :-) Wish I'd seen the play!

Grae Burton March 16th, 2012

Thanks for some great feedback which will be incorporated into my performances for the rest of the season. :)

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