The Slow Death of
How did a Sydney University institution
meet its downfall? By Tom Joyner
Art by Ann Ding
It was late one night in 2008 and Yasmin Parry had just knocked off after working at the Snowball at Manning Bar, a party event involving three floors heaving with alcohol-fuelled students gyrating to club hits.
It was just like any other shift, except Parry was about to meet her fiancé for the first time. "He had this big curly halo of hair and was wearing skinny jeans – which was very cool back then – and he had Converse sneakers with fluoro pink laces. I remember his outfit very clearly," she recalls. “I just sat with him and talked to him for a while and he just seemed really cool. We were about to leave, he was going to some other party and we were going home after work.”
After a sheepish exchange by proxy of a mutual friend, the pair met up again the next night. A little more than eight years later, he proposed while on a trip to the US in a little town just outside San Francisco. “I think we'll always remember Manning as where we met. We’re talking about planning our wedding now. I didn’t grow up in the city, so to me Sydney Uni and Manning Bar and the people that I met there are really special to me,” says Parry. “Raph’s a really big part of that. So Manning Bar is a really special part of that memory.”
But the Manning of today is almost unrecognisable from the one where Yasmin Parry met her fiancé. Far from the hub it once was, these days Manning hardly approaches capacity for even its most popular events. Lunchtimes aren't nearly as packed as they used to be, and party organisers scramble to attract students. The crown jewel of the University of Sydney Union’s campus offerings, Courtyard, opened in 2015, is a pale reminder of Manning’s glory in the 90s and 2000s, when students would filter in from classes before lunch and stay until long after dark. Back then, the place resembled something between a dormitory common room and a nightclub.
Essays were hurriedly finished in between swallows of cheap draught and greasy fare from the famous Manning Grill, or before that, the barbecue that found permanent residency on the balcony. Student politicians would meet to plot factional deals. People would swing by unplanned between classes with no reason other than to soak in the scene. And it wasn’t just students. While in Sydney in 2011 for filming of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio calmly took up a seat on the Manning balcony dressed in a hoodie, baseball cap and dark sunglasses, poring over his lines. As the story goes, nearby students gawked, but no one approached.
Something was just always happening at Manning Bar. "Our English 101 lectures invariably featured a mass exodus at 11.25am, as half the class walked out to queue for first drinks at 11.30," wrote radio broadcaster Dom Knight in a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed in 2003. “And while the bar was a firetrap that stank of stale beer, and every step on the faded carpet squelched, the place undeniably had atmosphere.” Knight and comedian Charles Firth were part of a generation of Sydney University students to experience Manning at the peak of its zeitgeist. “I’m very surprised,” says Firth when I tell him of today’s poorly attended parties and half-empty lunchtime sessions. “It was the absolute centre of gravity of the entire university when I was around.”
Firth’s characterisation isn’t uncommon. Manning was in many ways the largest community within the University.
“There were kids just lining up every day asking 'Can I have a job here?’ They didn’t need a job for money, they just needed a job for some sort of social inclusion,” recalls Nathan Tyler, who was manager of the USU’s bars from 2004 to 2006. “[Comedian] Ben Jenkins pretty much sat at Manning every day for a semester not going to class and asked for a job every day. Finally he turned 18 and I gave it to him. He loved it.” Tyler, like Parry, fell for a “Manning romance” in the mid-2000s. “I actually met my wife there and we now have two kids.”
Now a school teacher, Tyler recalls with passion his years spent at Manning, both behind and in front of the bar. Like anything, there were highs and lows. During his time working there, a student suffered a fatal heart attack on the balcony one night. Less than 12 months before that at a curry party, a popular event hosted by the Indian Society, a young man plunged to his death from the third floor balcony railing.
“You watch the footage and you can see he has a fight with his girlfriend and you can see he walks to the fence and jumps over. There’s 800 people there. He just went headfirst into the courtyard,” says Tyler. “That messed me up for a while.”
For many of that era, Manning was the place to be on campus. “It was just where everyone hung out. From my perspective it was the whole point of university,” says Firth. “My degree was a bachelor of Manning Bar.”
Firth was the unlikely subject of filmmaker Simon Target’s four-part documentary series Uni – now available in its entirety on YouTube – which chronicled nine months in the lives of students at Sydney University in the mid-90s, including forays into student politics, overdue essays and struggles with relationships and depression. The 20-year-old Firth is depicted as a popular if not overconfident undergraduate whose long hours spent in Manning would today seem entirely foreign. “I used to structure my entire schedule around only having stuff on before 12pm so I could rush to Manning at 12 and participate in whatever thing was on there."
As the meeting point of students from different faculties, interest groups and student societies, Manning was host to regular and well-attended events, even during the middle of the day, when students were between lectures or had given up on class entirely. Stand-up comedy, live music and trivia were fixtures of a weekly routine.
Few knew the routine better than former ABC broadcaster Adam Spencer, who rattles off half a dozen names of people who first began doing stand-up to a packed Manning Bar in the mid-90s, all of whom have since made a career in comedy – Tom Gleeson, Andrew O'Keefe, Rob Carlton, Rebecca De Unamuno, Sarah Kendall, Charles Firth (Firth laughs at mention of Spencer: "He spent the last 20 years of his university degree at Manning Bar picking up chicks"). The list goes on.
“There was just these really talented students coming through almost at the same time,” he says. “On the top level of Manning we’d get literally 600 to 700 people a week. The bar was packed but famously wouldn’t make a cent because students couldn't walk up to buy drinks because there were too many people in the room.”
Students skipped midday lectures just to secure a seat for Thursday lunchtime theatresports – a sort of improvised, interactive, team-based comedic routine that consistently had the audience in stitches. “I have people coming up to me today saying they remember theatresports in the 90s and never laughed so hard in their life.”
Theatresports and comedy became so central to university for Spencer’s generation that the afternoons spent whiled away on the top floor of Manning House would seem an anachronism by today’s experience. “University has been a big part of who I am today. When I did breakfast radio on Triple J, they were the skills I honed in Manning Bar theatresports more than any items of material I learned in a lecture," he says.
"There were kids just lining up every day asking, Can I have a job here?"
"I absolutely loved performing at Manning and watching shows and gigs there," says another late-2000s theatresports stalwart, Bridie Connell. Connell describes the need to work for a crowd, that you couldn't always take one for granted on a Thursday. "Some days we would pack out the bar, other days we would have to put out signs advertising the show, actively go down to the courtyard before shows and try to drum up interest."
Theatresports, which still runs on Thursday lunchtimes, enjoyed the advantage of decades as a Manning institution. It wasn't uncommon for a static crowd to form. "You need people already in the venue so you can have someone to perform to and a base from which you can build a crowd. We built crowds from the ground up but it's much harder," says James Colley, a comic who started performing at Manning around a similar time to Connell.
Crowds would pile in for a performance over lunch, only to hang around into the afternoon to see whatever acts would turn up on stage. Colley recalls one of his favourite examples of the effect: “[Comedian] Michael Hing would just play shit he found on YouTube to people and you’d have 80 people there," he laughs. "No one’s coming to Manning to see that show. No one’s making a spot in their calendar.”
One of Firth’s favourite memories involves a time he convinced Chaser colleague Andrew Hanson (“incredibly funny but a little bit shy”) to play a rendition of Billy Joel’s Piano Man on stage. “It opened to crickets to a packed audience and then just went downhill from here. And then he did just some scatological routine about poo and was booed off. I just remember laughing through the whole thing.”
But Manning’s draw in the 90s was more than simply the allure of cheap beer and comedy, it was also a place for students to meet and hatch plans. Most were harebrained, but some survived the half-serious ideas swapped over schooners on the Manning balcony. Firth says The Chaser – the comedy troupe he and some Sydney Uni comrades would go on to form – was born in this way. “You’d do your creative thing over lunchtime and then you’d sit on your balcony and chat about your grand plans. That was the heart of the university. The liver of the university,” he adds.
It was also at Manning that Sydney University best lived up to its reputation as home of the most hardened student politicians in the country. “All those people met on the balcony on Manning Bar. There’s a whole generation of student politicians – all the sort of Albo [Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese] acolytes. All the key NSW politicians, they all strategised there from day one."
One such acolyte was NSW MP John Graham, who took over Linda Burney's seat on her election to federal Parliament in July. "I remember my sister [former Labor NSW education minister Verity Firth] saying that’s where John Graham convinced her to join the ALP – on the balcony at Manning Bar.”
Then there was the live music. The annual band competition, hosted each year on the bar's stage, was the launchpad for Australian names like Regurgitator, Frenzel Rhomb, The Jezabels, and Cloud Control to name a few. As host to the largest campus band competition in the world, Manning saw hundreds of young bands test their mettle in front of an adoring crowd.
“They put on huge bands there because it had this towering reputation,” says Firth. “Steve Lawless understood that a student space should be where good bands should be able to experiment and develop.” Lawless, who managed bookings for the venue for a time, developed a legendary reputation as a kingmaker on the Sydney band scene. Spencer remembers the band comp as an annual fixture that grew nearly too big for its digs. “They had to cap the number at 120 bands because there just wasn't enough time to get through the all.”
In the years that followed, the live music program at Manning developed into a behemoth under the tenure of people like Will Balfour, who is now an events coordinator at UNSW. “Will Balfour took it to the next level. He made it a really professional outfit,” says Tyler. Endless acts, big international names among them, played at Manning on one glorious roster. “There’d be punk rock shows, there’d be Missy Higgins. There was Rubber Ball, which was like this BDSM thing every year. It was fucking freaky, people dressing up in gimp outfits in their leather-tight shorts and face masks, but they were the loveliest people. So many nights a week were just spent on gigs, really good gigs.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that cracks began to appear in the Manning legacy with the introduction of voluntary student unionism – a watershed in Australian history that marked the beginning of the end. The rivers of gold that flowed under its predecessor, compulsory student unionism, had run dry by the time the Howard government finally passed the legislation on December 19 of that year, dealing a significant blow to student organisations around the country.
“I remember when it was introduced and we were so devastated,” says Tyler. “We got the news back, it was a Friday afternoon and the motion had just passed. It was literally the last thing that passed in the year. It was like the moment when Kennedy was shot. We were so deflated.”
According to Tyler, VSU had an immediate impact on the life of the bar. The USU responded to the legislation with the introduction of ACCESS cards in the years that followed, a voluntary membership that today costs $75 annually, allowing members to join clubs and societies on campus, earn discounts and more. But the initial uptake among students wasn’t strong. “If you’re going to have to buy a discount card, it’s going to become like WSU or ACU where you just go to class and then you go home. No one’s going to engage with student life to the same extent,” says Tyler.
Year-on-year finances for Manning Bar aren’t available publicly, but former and present directors of the University of Sydney Union Board speak of years of head-scratching and underwhelming attempts to reinvigorate the bar as it haemorrhaged money. The development of Courtyard at the Holme building, which opened in 2015, proved popular. The combination of an open seating plan, modern design and reasonable food and drink options meant it could easily double as a sophisticated event space. In other words, it was galaxies away from the grungy appeal of Manning.
How much of an impact it has had on Manning's viability as a campus hub is unclear. According to current USU President, Michael Rees, Manning isn’t necessarily underperforming. "Not all of the performance of a building can be assessed in purely financial terms. Manning also offers a lot to the student experience. It has long been the home of our Clubs & Societies office and programs department but now also includes our autonomous Women's and Ethnocultural spaces too, which is a big development."
Rees says while no plans are set in stone, there is discussion about the future of the bar. “Although any significant change would be years away, the Board is always eager to discuss how we might improve what we, as an organisation, offer our members and the university community.” But rumours have trickled down of a refurbishment, while some talk about the need to raze the entire building. Either way, the consensus among students I spoke to was that something had to be done to save Manning Bar.
After all, how does an institution like Manning Bar die? For a start, it takes time. It doesn’t disappear overnight. But Manning, which had become so important to the experience of generations of Sydney Uni students, seemed to do just that. One by one, events were cancelled, students stopped attending parties, and bands were booked elsewhere.
“There are literally a handful of universities in the world that offer the student activities on par with Sydney Uni,” says Adam Spencer. James Colley concurs: “If you want to create a culture that has shared campus experiences, you need a place where people are. Campus life is what Sydney Uni builds itself on and it’s always what it had over other universities. It was a tiny festival there everyday.”
Many students will never know what it was like to be part of Manning Bar in its heyday. But for those who do, they’re not likely to forget it.