Vlasta Velisavljevic: A century's worth of Belgrade history in one man
Nearing the impressive age of 94, Vlasta Velisavljevic has the energy that even a younger man could envy. He continues to work, and as the proud owner of the driver’s license number 4 he braves the traffic of Belgrade every day.
Every now and then his phone rings. He is offered new roles, contacted by the media or his Dorcol crowd. He’s greeted by everyone he passes in Dorcol - “My punks from Dorcol. All fine kids,” Vlasta would joke.
His debut on the theatre stage came in Roda theatre, working for Gita Predic, daughter of Branislav Nusic. Vlasta overcame many obstacles but also enjoyed so many beautiful moments. His memories hold an entire century’s worth of Belgrade’s history.
You were born in a time that many would call the best of days, followed by the worst of days.
You mean to say ‘in the Kingdom’. :) I was asked once if I ever cried, and I responded - of course I have. I cried inconsolably when they murdered our king Alexander I in Marseille. I was sobbing. Then just a young boy, and you can imagine how a boy feels when he loses his king. We all cried then.
A similar situation happened back when Tito died too. But I didn’t shed a single tear for him. Let’s be clear, we were a serious state back then. I have nothing against them, but there were people who thought that the world had ended with Tito’s death. That’s how immense he was.
I remember I was at Sava river that day. There was a fisherman there who loved to drink, so we called him ‘Mile Manastirka’. He was walking drunk down the Obrenovac road, singing “This is the happiest day of my life”. And we were sitting at Mika Alas’ place with a high-ranking national party executive. Drunk as he was, Mile fell downhill and rolled up straight in front of the tavern. Two policemen who happened to be there immediately reached for their handcuffs, but the party official - a Jew from Slovenia, by the way - who’d grown up near Cvetkova mehana and had a law doctorate and was in charge of security in the National board of executives, Rafael Cijan - he stopped them from arresting him.
Cijan later lived in Dorcol. He’d moved there after becoming a university professor in Maribor. When he was a boy in Cvetkova mehana, everyone who wanted to hang out with him first had to climb the tallest factory chimney to show their courage.
You’ve lived in Dorcol since your childhood. A lot has changed since then.
When I was a boy and up until high-school, I’d go barefoot around town and never past Kralja Milana street, number 15 to be exact. Everything beyond that point I didn’t consider my own and care about. To me, Dorcol only went up to Dusanova street. Later on, people who wanted to claim they were from Dorcol claimed there was an upper and lower Dorcol, but that never stuck. :)
By the time you reached the Red cross, there were already fields of corn there and it was considered the provinces. There was a walled WC there, like in the French movies. There came about an interesting string of public bathroom poetry which my colleague Baja Bacic collected.
Dorcol back then was primarily inhabited by Jews, with whom I grew up. There was a boy my age called Aron who was my neighbor from the same yard. We lived like that with one faucet and some squat-down toilets in the yards - our three apartments sharing them. Low-rise houses with low windows. There still stands a bakery in the corner of Despot Djurdj and Dubrovacka streets where I’d go to buy bread when I was four years old. It’s still open. You know why? Because it was purpose-made to be a bakery. For example, the entire block where the Terazije theatre is at, with the lower part towards the square also had a bakery. When that building was being constructed, Srbinovic the baker invested in building a bakery there. Later came people who wanted to turn around the world, so they tried to house a dairy product store there, then a chocolate shop - and now it’s a perfume shop. You can’t do that because the building was made to be a bakery and you can’t turn it into something else.
So, even though you were from a different world, you were friends with children from rich Jewish families?
I specifically remember the Mesulam family - they owned the Elka fabric factory. We - the poors from Dorcol - would pass by that way every now and then and run into rich kids from better families. Then we’d beat them in marbles and coin tossing to earn a few dimes. However a couple of those boys - the Mesulam brothers who were around my age - took a liking to me and would often help me out.
Sometimes really hungry days would roll around. They happened in the Kingdom, especially during the great economic crisis in the 30’s when there was no food or work.
My father worked at a construction site in Slavija and he’d leave me with a daycare that worked between 6AM and 7PM. Everyone else would go home and I’d stay waiting for him on the stairs near the entrance. Then I’d see him rushing down from Slavija, carrying bread and cracklings. He’d put me on his shoulders, give me a handful of cracklings and we’d go down to the Danube where we slept in a water holding chamber. There was an engine that pumped water for the brick house which was constructed in order to produce bricks to build the St. Mark’s church.
Did you like school?
How can you not like school? Is that even possible? There were all sorts of opportunities in schools. You could learn something. First I went to the King Alexander’s and Uniter’s school in Decanska, located across the way from today’s Dom omladine.
Later that became a music and then ballet school. You can still see the spot where the Communists tried to erase the ‘King Alexander’s’ part but failed. Maybe the workmen who had to do it were in favor of the king themselves, so they left it that way on purpose.
My junior school teacher was Majstorovic. He was incredible. We had experimental teaching back then - that’s what they called it. Majstorovic would take the entire class - third or second grade, I think we were - out to Tasmajdan where the Ivkovic brothers were building the St. Mark’s church to see how it was done. Incidentally, many don’t know that there used to be another smaller church being built there - right where RTS is located today, but it was never completed due to land disputes.
You remember your teacher for a lifetime, but there are people who don’t know that.
Years later, one of the high ranking officials of the Communist Party, the man who decided the fate of other people, came to Sava where I had my own ship. It so happened that I went to Lane Gutovic and was talking to his mother, Mrs. Lepa. I told her I was always out on Danube and she says ‘Oh, there’s this one man who’s an official now - I was his teacher. He’s over there all the time’. And I tell her ‘I was just there with him’, and she replies ‘Oh, well send him my regards’.
The next time I saw him, I told him his teacher said hi. He asks which teacher. I say, your teacher, from school. I asked him if he remembers her name and when he didn’t, he was immediately erased from my mind. I never said hello to him again.
An interesting fact about you is that you knew from the earliest age that you would become an actor.
I was already making a living off of it as a child. I could recite and sing. Here in Dorcol there is a kindergarten that was built by ladies from the court and it’s still in business today. I couldn’t wait for the holidays when they’d come to visit and I would recite to them. In exchange they’d give me shoes, shirts, pants...it helped cloth and sustain me, so I realized acting was something good.
Still, in your highschool days, you were a bit - let’s say problematic. :)
I enlisted in the Second Boys’ highschool. It had the most beautiful school building in the Balkans. Back then in the 30’s, it had its own cinema hall, a huge yard and a gymnasium which had an exit all the way down to what was then Kneza Pavla street. That school was sadly torn down and in its place came the much less beautiful Politika building.
In the same class with me was the man who’d become the head of the Crown Council eventually. He and his brother were driven to class every day by their chauffeur in a Rolls Roys, and I beat him up. My father had given me 2 dinars to buy a bread roll, and as I was standing there and eating it, he’d smack me and knock it out of my hand. I lost my temper and that’s how it happened.
That’s how I was expelled from that school and moved to the strictest school in existence back then - Realka. There, we had to wear a hat with the school emblem that had the school’s name and our class number on it. We weren’t allowed to go out at night, unless we left without the hat. But if you got caught by a teacher without it, you can say goodbye to everything.
I had a religious studies teacher who’d sit in the small cafe across the way from Realka and watch the students come, go and pass by. We called him the Match and he’d give us the religious studies in rhymes. Only he could do that. And when he took attendance he also did it in rhymes. The same thing went for when he was quizzing us.
How do you remember the occupation of Belgrade in WWII. It was one of the most difficult periods in your life.
The Gestapo was housed in Tanjug. Up on the roof they had anti-aerial defenses, the flacks and across the way lived Nikola Simic. Now, lots of coal from Germany would get delivered to Gestapo, and Simic would crouch behind his gate with a bucket and wait for the guard to pass by. Then, he’d fill the bucket with coal and used it to warm his family.
I did something similar. I started off by stealing firewood from the Germans at the Railway Station. Later we got a bit more brazen so we stole other things. Wagons of apples would roll in from the railway - as well as wagons of whatever Serbia paid the Germans as the defeated party. We’d steal what we could to survive.
Those were the days of Milan Nedic’s government, who later gave a lot of trouble to the Communists because masses of partisan officials and officers were brought in when the Germans chased them around Bosnia and they’d cross the Drina river as refugees. Then there was the refugee commissariat who handed out their ID’s, allowing them to spend the winter in Serbia.
That was the most terrifying time of my life. Once the Germans caught me stealing food and sent me to the Dahau camp, then the Hede branch near Dortmund. The only thing that saved me from death was my age. The Germans preferred to put the young and able bodied to work rather than death. That’s how I ended up working at a grenade factory.
Around ten years ago I went to visit the place where the camp used to be located. Now the area is completely constructed - they made a huge lake where people come to swim and sunbathe. And all the while I was followed by a German police car. They were probably suspicious of me because they saw me start to poke around from the moment I got off the train. They didn’t bother me, but I saw them following me.
I eventually discovered that the camp was located in the exact same place now labeled as a ‘theatre’. I wanted to go in but they were closed.
You survived a German camp and later even Goli otok as a political prisoner after your godfather - a Colonel - was arrested. But even though you’ve survived so much, your motto still seems to be ‘I’m doing okay’.
I’m not invulnerable, far from it. Everything I’ve been through has left a mark. But thank goodness it didn’t break my soul and my empathy is something I managed to save. I love animals and nature. I could be genuine and gentle - especially when it comes to the ladies. :) Women deserve gentleness and I like it when they’re gentle towards me in return. :) I’m lucky enough that my wife is one such lady and we’ve been happily together for over half a century.
She was just going through some pictures and we started talking about a cat we used to have that died. We remembered the cat when we went into isolation and were saying how nice it would be if it was still around. It brought my wife to tears.
After Goli otok came other problems.
They kicked me out of the theatre. Not only were the investigators and their posse after me, it came to where I couldn’t even enjoy a play in Belgrade. I was kicked out by the famous Zeka from the Terazije scene. A friend of mine gave me tickets to Nusic’s play “Dr”. Zeka came up to me and asked to see it. I showed it to him and he ripped it up and said ‘Get out’.
Years later he sees me in the street and was calling to me “Vlasta, Vlasta”. All I said to him was ‘get bent’ - what else was there to say?
So I had to work in the provinces. There was no other choice. Later Soja Jovanovic - who is highly underrated today, considering everything she’d achieved professionally - helped me get back to Belgrade.
During the time you couldn’t work in Belgrade, you also lived in Mostar.
I wasn’t allowed to even show my face in Belgrade, let alone act in the theatre. On the other hand, in Mostar I met some truly wonderful people. Like Dzemal Bjedic, for example, then the president of the county and later the president of the government. There was also Safet Cisic, a teacher by profession but also the best theatre manager I’d ever met.
That was when I met the most interesting club in old Yugoslavia - the Mostar Velez. I rooted for them with all my heart even though I was a Red Star fan. Velez was the only club that played only with their own players. If you weren’t from Mostar, you couldn’t get in. That was the club that gave rise to our representation’s best soccer trio - BMV. Bajevic, Maric and Vladic. Amazing guys.
Eventually you managed to return to the scene of Belgrade. What was your ‘sweetest’ gig?
Today the ‘circle of two’ has various other connotations, but the tramway two in the 50’s was intended for children. On bigger holidays the setup would arrive at the entrance of Kalemegdan, the kids would board the tramway and we’d perform for them during the rides.
There I performed with Dragan Lakovic, Baja Bacic, Djuza Stojiljkovic. We’d earn a fee every ‘circle’ we made - a hefty fee at that. Our main goal in life back then was to get the tramway driver to go faster so that we’d make more rounds and earn more fees. :)
You were also known to enjoy a bit of the bohemian life with your classmates and friend Djuza and Zoran Radmilovic.
There were all sorts of shenanigans there. We married off Zoran from Madera. There, as Red Star fans, we’d get to sit with the players but never the club executives. We were sitting there once near a very beautiful lady who was a radio journalist. I noticed that Zoran was playing footsies with her under the table. The gathering ended, we were going out and I realize she was coming with us. There we were standing in front of Madera, the dawn was breaking and Djuza saw that Zoran had something in mind.
Zoran said “Let’s go to my place to listen to some records”. I think to myself - what records, you’ve only got the one. Djuza and I look at each other and say we were too tired to go, so we went home.
A few days later, Zoran told us that the lady spent three days at his place and on the third day someone rang his doorbell. He opens the door and there’s an older gentleman, asking if his daughter was there. Zoran said yes and invited him in. The man came in, took a seat, took a gun out of his pocket and put it on the table in front of himself. “What are you thinking now?” he asks.
Zoran says “I’m thinking we should get married”.
“Oh, alright then.” the man says and puts his pistol back into his pocket.
And so they got married.
Problem was that Zoran had a great love of his own already - who’d been away for over a month. The beautiful Dina Rutic, famously a Partisan’s child. She comes back to the city eventually and comes straight to the Belgrade drama theatre to see us. They hug - haven’t seen each other in a long time - we’re talking. Everything is normal.
I asked Zoran if he told her the news and he said no, and that he doesn’t know how to break it to her. Days pass. I’m not even sure how it played out in the end, but I do know that Zoran eventually went and told her everything.
Still, after various complications Dina and Zoran finally reconciled and got married. I was the bell ringer for their wedding in Stari Grad. I rang the bell shouting “Zoran Radmilovic’s wedding, second time over!”. The bride’s father - a Partisan fighter - almost killed me. :)
You’ve sailed the seas and had many adventures with Djuza and Zoran.
We spent summers together and sailed a ship in some serious waters. The crew consisted of Zoran, Djuza, myself and Toni Laurencic. It was a backdrop for everything, especially if you wanted to film something. Just not for the ship. We got thrown out of every harbor.
Why was that?
Well, we’d come to Hvar for example and anchor up. We get off the ship and see a massive poster for the women’s division of the Branko Krsmanovic choir, conducted by Darinka Matic. We think to ourselves “Wow, we can’t miss that”. And of course after the concert we brought them all to our ship and had a party.
We conducted ourselves with honor and dignity and believed in that when we attacked and when we were being attacked. :)
It turned into a party that lasted until morning.
Unfortunately anchored next to us was a ship with a Canadian flag - a married couple and their crew - who complained to the harbor captain that they couldn’t sleep because of us. We’d just gone to bed when we heard someone calling out - “Alo, alo!”. It was the harbor captain who told us “You know, you have to sail out of here”.
I pleaded with him to understand, but he wouldn’t hear it.
And you know, people come to swim there - there was already a crowd gathered to see the spectacle.
At that moment Djuza and Zoran get up and ask him in a Croatian accent what the problem is.
Now he mellows out because it’s three against one. He lowered his guard and made the mistake of boarding our ship. We let him out in the afternoon - dead drunk. :)
Of course already tomorrow there was the second choir concert and they came to us for a party again and the Canadians complained again. So the harbor captain comes over - again - but this time determined to kick us out. I tried to invite him to board but he waved his finger at me saying “No, no - never again”.
So we had no choice. We sailed off, this time to some palm tree island that was bought by some Menagelo. Everything was luxurious there. The island had a small cove towards Hvar and you only had to pass a ridge to see a massive, lavish complex. There were Italians there having fun, singing and partying. It was the afternoon when we got to this big restaurant and took a seat. A guy came out, somehow knowing we were from Belgrade, and told the cleaning lady “Sweep up this trash here too”, pointing at us. Djuza and I immediately tell Zoran “this guy is a chauvinist, don’t mess around”. But he replied “why, what’s the worst that could happen?”
The two of us couldn’t tolerate it and went back to the ship hungry and our friends stayed behind. After a bit, a row boat with a waiter comes out of the small harbor, straight to us, bringing us some fish dishes and drinks. As I took them, the waiter says “Mr. Menagelo wishes you the best and he sent over some food and drinks for you.” And then he leaves. We were shocked.
The Italians are looking at us, wondering who we were that Menagelo is sending us something personally. Djuza and I take it in our stride and show off and that’s how we got to meet these Italian people. They started singing - some girls with them too - and everything was going great when Djuza decided to go wash the dishes. Force of habit because he served on the ship as a dishwasher. I tell him “Don’t wash dishes you idiot, everyone is watching!”, but it was too late - the illusion had shattered.
That’s how Djuza embarrassed us. The moment they saw him washing the dishes, the Italians went away, realizing something wasn’t right there. :)
You always carry out what you said you would. That was the case regarding a promise you made to a friend.
There was a radio speaker who told the water levels for Radio Belgrade - Sergej Venderovic. I heard a lot from him. His father was a Colonel, one of the people from whom king Aleksandar took in as refugees. Sergej believed his father was murdered and had been trying for a long time to find out where he was buried. I told him not to worry - that I would find his father’s grave no matter what. Sergej eventually left me that purpose after his death. I kept the promise and found the grave in Bela crkva. I went there twice, and found it on my second visit. It was quite neglected, although the Russian embassy started an initiative to have it arranged and cleaned up.
You’ve traveled the world with the theatre. Do you have any anecdotes from your trips?
We were in Bogota. They were harassing us like anyone’s business at the airport. All my colleagues had passed the airport check and were waiting outside for me. And I was being searched even though they hadn’t searched anyone else. They took out all my things while my colleagues were cheering - but not for me. They were rooting for the police officers.
When I was in Karakas, I completely understood the regiment and their people. When the night falls and lights go on in those cardboard huts, it feels like you’re in the sky. We had great weather during the day. Sergej Trifunovic really got into bamboo collecting. He wanted to bring a big bamboo home but they wouldn’t let him take it on the plane. :)
I would sit there and listen to the birds...you don’t need anything else. If I were there, I wouldn’t work at all. People in those huts don’t need anything to enjoy life.
Still, you continue to work.
I work with Sotra for the King Aleksandar show. Recently I played in a movie with Tamara Aleksic. I’d also worked with her on a play in Madlenianum. I always admire her beauty - though to me the most beautiful of all the ladies is my wife.
Sinisa Pavic called me up for the latest show he wrote - “Heroes of our age”. I was supposed to play Ceca’s (Svetlana Bojkovic) husband, but I rejected it and the role went to Aleksandar Bercek. I said no to the part because I had a different part in “Swindlers”, playing a capitalist. I hadn’t heard from Pavic since. I haven’t called him and he hasn’t called me, so now we’re waiting to see who will call first. :)
So there’s definitely work - sometimes even more than I’d like.