Flames and famous faces part of GrandWest’s 21-year entertainment history

In 2000, GrandWest’s R1.56-billion development budget was the single biggest contract ever awarded in the province’s tourism industry.

GrandWest, South Africa’s biggest casino and leisure complex, turns 21 this month.

During the course of its 21 years, GrandWest has welcomed a multitude of celebrities and even heads of state, but everyone was taken by surprise when, soon after it opened, Oprah Winfrey walked in unannounced with film producer Anant Singh who took her on a tour of the complex.

The first of the many international artists to perform at GrandWest was US multi-platinum selling singer and songwriter Shawn Phillips, who entertained visitors at Hanover Street for one night only in October 2002.

But the entertainment game changer was the opening of the Grand Arena in October 2007. With a capacity to seat 5 000 or 7 000 standing, the arena’s state-of-the-art sound, lighting and rigging made it possible to host even the most technically challenging shows and from October 2007 to the end of 2019, GrandWest hosted well over 300 international and local shows, until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The arena’s opening act in October 2007 was R&B great Mary J Blige, followed by pop star Enrique Iglesias. The construction deadline was so tight that contractors were still tiling walkways the day before the show. A week later the technical staff were surprised to see Iglesias jump onto stage to assist them with the set up – not something international artists are known to do.

Show highlights for the arena include:

· Creating a turf and sawdust pitch for the Lippizaner dancing horses 2008.

· Precision driving during the BBC’s Top Gear show in 2010 with The Stig, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. The world’s first indoor loop-the-loop, the “loop of death” had to be constructed inside the arena.

· The Great Moscow Circus’ death defying acts and fire stunts kept Grand Arena technicians on their toes, especially as among the Russian and Chinese performers, only the juggler spoke English.

· The Cirque Du Soleil was a massive engineering feat as the rigging had to withstand hanging 36 tonnes from the roof. The original structural engineers were consulted over a series of meetings, to ensure that this was done safely.

· The scariest show was possibly that of German heavy metal group Rammstein which includes the biggest pyrotechnics spectacular in an indoor space. There were tense moments as pilots were unwilling to fly with the pyrotechnics, but the band would not perform without this element. They arrived via road at the 11th hour, leaving a tight window to upload them minutes before the show was scheduled to open. There were 380 pyro cues in the 90-minute show and the heat and sound was intense from the first note. The smoke still had not cleared hours after the show.

· The inaugural Cape Town Motor Show in 2017 had the broadest footprint of any event hosted at GrandWest and spilled over into all event spaces – the Grand Arena, Market Hall, Sun Exhibits, Sun Park, and several parking areas, as well as a 4×4 track which was constructed on the vacant land, on the opposite side of the GrandWest complex. An area of 25 000 square metres was needed and over 23 000 visitors attended the first Cape Town Motor show, which was held over three days.

Staff working behind the scenes at the Grand Arena have several back-stage memories.

David Lombard, GrandWest’s events and entertainment manager, said: “Sting was such a humble man despite his fame. He just cruised backstage and ate supper with the crew, and for me, meeting my Guns ‘n Roses icons was a dream come true. We were also amazed at the 80s Rewind Festival, to see Vanilla Ice running up and down to Front of House to assist with his own mix.

“Michael Buble was a magnificent showman and gentleman too. He really enjoys table tennis and tours with his own tables. There is even a league amongst his crew and we got the chance to play tennis against him. He’s always up for a game.

“Sadly, Roxette’s last ever performance was at the Grand Arena, on 8 February 2016, After the show the band announced that after 30 years, they would no longer tour due to Marie Fredriksson’s declining health.”

After reopening in July this year, GrandWest become the first approved hospitality and leisure industry workplace Covid-19 vaccination site in the Western Cape, administering around 250 Pfizer vaccinations a day to staff and members of the local community. The facility was closed mid-October.

“Over the years we have built extraordinary friendships with our customers, our communities and our stakeholders, and we would like to thank them for their loyalty and support during the pandemic,” said GrandWest’s general manager Mervyn Naidoo.

“Even during the lockdown they continued to communicate with us. We wish that things could have been different and that we could have hosted a really grand 21st birthday party, but the pandemic has put paid to celebrations.”

The Sun International property opened on December 19, 2000.

With over 57 hectares of property in close proximity to the airport and the city, the disused Cape Showgrounds in Goodwood seemed an ideal location for the complex, but its distance from any major retail and business hubs also limited the possibility for impulse gambling, which was one of the compelling reasons for awarding GrandWest the highly prized Cape Metropole gaming licence.