The Life and
Death of an Institution
Samantha Jonscher on the Imperial Hotel
Queer nightlife has a long history in Newtown. After the commercialisation of Oxford Street, Newtown and The Imperial Hotel became a vital part of Sydney's queer community. Samantha Jonscher speaks to veterans of the scene and to those that are trying to shape it (and keep it going) now.
At age 23, when Vicky was caught cruising in a park by her parent's neighbour, she left her suburban Sydney home and fled to the city. "It was 1984, 'transexuality’ didn’t exist. I was just a gay man who hated my body and hated myself." Those early days in Sydney were tough, she says, but by the time she found herself living in Newtown, she quickly learned she wasn’t alone. “I was a freak, sure, we sort of internalised that idea, I guess, but we all had each other, we were all freaks––back then I was a ‘cross-dresser’, a ‘transvestite’.” She pauses. “And The Imperial, that was the centre of my life, the centre of my freakness, my friends’s freakness”.
Thirty years later, Newtown still has a bit of that “freakness”. Or at least it does according to the Marrickville council website. The Newtown Entertainment Precinct apparently offers “24-hour people-watching”. I tell Vicky this and she laughs it off. “King Street is nothing like it was––I mean it looks sort of similar–– but it’s all different. The King Street I remember was rough, really rough- but it was also sort of safe, like I didn’t stand out as much. Because everyone did. Now, sure there are still a lot of characters left over, but it’s not the same. There is a Gorman, for Christ sake.”
When you talk to people who have been on the Sydney scene for a long time, The Imperial comes up as a special place––a perfect cocktail of sin, sex and love. Vicky called it “absolute freedom, absolute embrace––it was dirty, purely dirty, but also friendly. I found it easy to make friends there”. These feelings come up again and again.
Jonny Seymour, half of the organizing brawn behind Sydney queer institution Club Kooky and a celebrated DJ, describes The Imperial of the late 80’s and early 90’s as “the first venue I felt at home at”. “Once upon a time the basement was an illegal cruise sex club. Think sawdust floors, a room full of bathtubs, a motorcycle, slings and a ‘none more black’ darkroom.”
Paul Capsis, a cabaret artist, joined the Sydney queer scene in 1984, two years out of high school. It was also the year that homosexuality was decriminalized in NSW. “I grew up with violence around sexuality. I wasn’t a big bar person, but that’s what I liked about The Imperial. You could meet people a lot easier, there wasn’t that wall of pretension a lot of the other bars had. More acceptance.”
“Its location isolated it. Newtown was still sort of rough with its multicultural, multifaceted working class. Gay men hadn’t quite migrated en masse like they had in the early 80’s and late 70’s to Surry Hills, which permanently changed the face of the neighborhood. Newtown was a slightly out of the way place, and the music was more punk and rock, which was a nice alternative to the disco of Oxford Street”. Also around this time, Capsis explained, Oxford Street was starting to change.
In 1994, Priscilla Queen of the Dessert came out. Part of it was actually filmed at The Imperial. It brought queer culture to the masses and showed the world, with pride, what Sydney’s queer scene was about. Vicky left Sydney around this time, but remembers this as a the beginning of what she hoped would be “less violence, less hate, more celebration. I guess that is what happened”.
It's interesting how often this film comes up amongst people I interviewed as a turning point for queer culture in Sydney. Seymour pointed to its release as "a seismic shift for the Sydney gay community", people came to understand that “Taylor Square was the ground zero for Friends of Dorothy”, so they flocked to come and see them, the community.
Capsis however points to it as the beginning of the end, for Oxford Street anyway. “Post-Priscilla, all the pubs became very commercialised. Heterosexuals were coming to gawk at what this Priscilla film was all about. It ended up changing the entire scene. Destroying it really. From then most queers would go to Newtown, because they didn’t want to be gawked at as part of some big commercialised thing.”
“Things like Mardi Gras went from being political and unified, to a bloated pig of a thing that started to exclude and marginalise people within the community. There was too much money, too much tension, and we thought 'oh they’re looking at us now, we have to show ourselves at our best, and our most extreme, and our most exciting’.”
Today, that Imperial––of the 80’s and 90’s-–is gone. It had its ups and downs, but shut, possibly permanently, in July of this year. This most recent shutdown seems to revolve around one central image in the police reports: patrons licking alcohol from the floor while staff watched on, amused, and uncaring.
Thinking back about what the venue used to be, Seymour told me this was “school-ma’am tame in comparison to the venue’s debauched past”.
When The Imperial entered its heyday, Newtown, unlike Oxford Street and Surry Hills, was still grungy. Vicky remembers it as a different kind of place to Oxford Street. “I always felt less like I was on show there- I went there to have fun, not to be seen. There was a lot of different people there as well. On Oxford Street things were becoming segregated, X crowd would go to this place, Y crowd would go here. There was also a lot of women, who were increasingly avoiding Oxford Street.”
But over time, from the 90's to the naughties, The Imperial lost some momentum and Newtown started to shift, housing prices went up and gentrification set in. In 2007, owner Shadd Danesi (who also owns Oxford Street venue ARQ) closed the hotel for renovations and petitioned the local council to increase capacity from 306 to 788. Part of the proposal was the addition of a 'giant stiletto’ to the pub’s roof, an exact replica of the stiletto in the film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
In many ways the conversations we are having today about nightlife in Newtown started then. Residents were weary of living near the nightlife venue that they chose to live near by. The queer community was left with nowhere to go in Newtown (the Newtown Hotel closed around this time as well). There were arguments about how much traffic to the area would increase if capacity was increased. There was support from those who saw the advantages of having a major club in a suburb other than the Cross. People talked about the stiletto ruining the pub’s heritage architecture.
The Imperial reopened in 2010 with a 24-hour licence, increased capacity and multi-million dollar renovations to show for it (no giant Stiletto, though). But, it had been closed for three years and people had moved on, "we occupied other bars and spaces" Seymour explained, “we are a species that know how to adapt”. The scene was changing.
On a recent trip back to Sydney to visit her family- who had recently opened themselves up to accepting her- Vicky stopped in at The Imperial on a Saturday night. “It was a bit like it used to be, the main bar was a hive of my people, but there were also other people there too. They were nice enough, but it felt less like my place, a queer place. A couple weeks later though, I went back with a friend who was performing from the old days. It was totally different, it was a night put on by queer promoters and immediately The Imperial was a gay venue again”.
Ash Houghton, owner of Satellite Café in Newtown, entered the scene in mid-2000’s. She cut her teeth at Club 77 in The Cross. Talking about today’s Imperial, Houghton sounds a lot like those who knew it in the 1990’s. “The Imperial is a home to a lot of us. It’s always had open arms, a whole lot of love, and a fuck load of glitter…You would make 20 friends in five minutes, and you’ll never look back”. But she notes, “the crowd obviously changes with whoever’s promoting the night, but if it’s queer, it’s always going to be nothing but fucking great”. Houghton points to Seymour’s work with DJ Gemma as Club Kooky and Peter Shopovski’s projects, including House of Mince as guaranteed good nights out.
Houghton, like a lot of others members of the community that I spoke to, said that they only went out if it was a party put on by certain promoters. “They’re brilliant at what they do and they always bring the crowd you want to be around. You won’t get that crowd on any ordinary night out. Instead, you’ll generally get overcrowded venues, the same music you’ve heard in the bar you just left, and bad bad attitudes from the “out-of-towners”––those strangers who come to Newtown ‘cos they’ve heard it’s ‘cool’.”
Houghton told me, "Kooky has been solely responsible for so many of us finally realising that we're always going to have that home away from home."
In many ways, Spice Cellar's residence at The Imperial brought a lot of these issues to the forefront. They partnered with Seymour as their creative ambassador, promising to keep the venue a queer space, marketing themselves under the slogan "Community. Culture. Diversity". But they had also moved from Martin Place––the late night heartland for Houghton’s “out of towners”. Could the two coexist?
Spice’s management seemed like something that went hand in hand with the new people that were popping up in line for the Marley at 2am, the new faces buying property, the transphobic incidents and the Newtown Hotel’s renovations. It was only open for three months before it shut down, so a lot of those fears remain untested.
Siobhan Poynton has lived directly across from The Imperial for five years, and recently tried to organise a protest to save it and to save Newtown’s nightlife. She is also a DJ who has a lot of experience playing the Cross, either side of the lockout laws. She says that in the time she has lived in Newtown, a lot of the changes have been positive. She points to more, small live music venues cropping up on King Street. But there are plenty of downsides. “Sydney is making some of the best dance artists in the world and we’re just shutting everyone down, even though we’re meant to be the gayest city in the world.”
Poynton has watched a lot of venues close down in the Cross. When there are fewer venues across the board, of course there isn’t room for everyone to have their own space. It isn’t hard to see why club nights, more than clubs, are the norm. As demographics change and clubs close, there simply aren’t enough venues or neighbourhoods left for communities to claim.
Seymour is upfront about the issues that face Club Kooky and organisations like it: “this difficult time we are going through will pass, but the damage is painful on social, economic and emotional levels”. Venues seem to close all the time, “because of everything from unscrupulous venue owners to the police. But each party is always queerer than the last. This year we celebrate 20 years of keeping the community weird”. Speaking about The Imperial, Seymour calls it a “sacred queer space. Online cruising apps don’t foster community. This iconic space must continue”, it was about bringing together “all queers of the spectrum to celebrate and feel safe”.
Safety is increasingly the central issue. For Liang, who moved to Sydney from regional NSW, coming to Newtown was meant to be a positive homecoming. “In many ways it was, there were no other lesbians that I knew about where I came from. They are so visible here. But it’s disappointing that blokes yell 'dyke’ at me while I’m out late with my girlfriend, also just shitty racist stuff”. There are a lot of stories like this floating around – it seems that late night harassment on King Street has become commonplace in a way that it didn’t used to be.
Poynton has watched Newtown change, “only locals used to go out here, there was a lot of respect, a real love-thy-neighbor vibe. Now I get harassed way more than I ever did before”.
Patrons licking alcohol from The Imperials' floor? "school-ma’am tame in comparison to the venue’s debauched past".
It's hard not to see this as a step backward. The subtext to all these conversations is the well-understood equation: safety plus freedom plus space for community equals political mobilization, equals resistance, strength.
Capsis is clear that he thinks that the additional regulations being brought in are hurting the queer community, weakening it. Increased policing, tight regulation, rules, strict licensing and lock outs are in the interest of the people in control, with power. "We claimed Mardi Gras, our space for ourselves. A lot of young people are fighting now, but every day it gets harder for people to be free, to fight, to overcome. It’s all connected. It keeps us all under control."
I asked Vicky what she thought about this and she told me that freedom was really key to those days of old––“freedom to fuck, freedom to dance, freedom to hang loose and be gross, freedom to be, just be whatever. That freedom taught us disobedience”.
There is a sense behind a lot of these changes that things happen behind closed doors with covert motives, Seymour mentions “the Christian right, shady casino deals and parliamentarians’ real estate concerns”. There is a sense that things might be lost, but also that they can get better, with resistance.
In a recent Facebook post Seymour offered this: “Let’s not be sad for what venues we are losing, let’s be grateful for what we’ve been fortunate enough to experience: magical times shared, sweated, danced, made out, laughed, loved, cried and hugged together. We make these communal experiences, and these can never be taken away from us or shut down. It’s ok to grieve, but it’s important to persevere and resonate joy. No law is worthy of our tears. Come together, occupy spaces, dance and heal. This situation will pass and we will survive and twirl united.”
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