Brisbane’s Bar Histories

This interview featured in the February issue of Bartender magazine.

While many Brisbane venues are in the midst of rebuilding, it could be a great time to walk down memory lane and recall names like; Whispers, Tony’s, Princes, or Beat Nightclub. Do they ring a bell? You might be showing your age if you answered yes, but what they heck – back then you could get a Grasshopper cocktail for $2! Cocktails Not your style? Then you could have grabbed a middy of draught beer for 70 cents and hit the neon dance floor.

Author, and former Brisbane club owner, Pauling Bell, is becoming Australia’s very own bar historian. She is currently leading a project called Clubbed Out and its aim is to document the history of Brisbane’s bar scene from the 1950s until today. Bell wants to involve current bartenders into this landmark research project as well – so you could make your mark on history.


It would not be surprising to find out that someone who polished glasses in the late 1970s now owns their own trendy cocktail bar in Melbourne’s CBD – perhaps they even kept their old polishing rag as a memento? Bell has already turned up a wealth of memories, stories and artifacts – including old uniforms, entry ticket stubs and photos. Bartender talked to her recently about the project and what it hopes to achieve.

Thanks for your time Pauline, what is the aim of your research?

“The main aim is to publish a book and to have an exhibition in 2013.”

What inspired you to launch the Clubbed Out project?

“Most people seem to have a period in their lives where they went out a lot with friends to bars and clubs – I wanted to document and record this history before it is lost.”

How hard has it been to get people involved?

“It has been surprisingly easy. A lot of people are eager to help out and are excited about the project, everyone from bar owners to bartenders, glassie and the general punters who spent their nights gracing the club scene.”

What sort of artifacts are you hoping to turn up?

“Everything! From old photos to flyers, advertisements, coasters, matchboxes, glasses, ashtrays, business cards, membership cards, uniforms, and videos. Whatever relates to nightclubs we are happy to look at it.”

How are you gathering the information – how can a current bartender get involved in the project

“Information is being gathered mainly via the Clubbed Out website. I’m also planning to host some Clubbed Out Roadshows in 2011. Everyone is invited to come along and present their memorabilia. I am joined in the roadshows with a representative from the State Library of Queensland who will help in assessing articles presented, and people also have a choice of donating their items for preservation to the State Library archives. Clubbed Out will borrow items for the exhibition and book.

If a bartender has experience of attending or working in a club up until 2000 we would love to hear from them. Often bartenders are a wealth of knowledge about people they have met or work with that may have been involved in clubs.

Many bar managers have been in the industry for several years so we are naturally interested in talking to them too.”

What sort of contributions would you like to see from today’s bartending community?

“I am very interested in looking at how working conditions have change. This includes licensing and RSA as well. There seems to be a lot more pressure on staff compared to the 70’s or 80’s. I’d like to be able to track and compare the changes workers have experienced. It would also be great to do the most popular cocktails by each decade!”

Why are these sorts of social histories so important to communities?

“They are important because everyone can have a voice in this project. I’m also interested in showing the evolution of how people go out.”

Have you turned up any historical gems?

“One of the major gems that we discovered was a club called Princes, which ran in the 40’s during the war until the mid 50’s. It had an extensive art collection, stunning décor and they had an orchestra playing each night. I was fortunate enough to talk to Michael Pelling whose mother ran the club. He was able to provide me with a few photos of the club as well as an advertisement.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Olga Smedley who was head receptionist/hostess at Whispers. Olga had over 15 years experience in the hospitality industry from 1969 to 1984. She has an amazing collection of photos, flyers, menus, drink lists from Whispers which was one of Brisbane’s leading club from 1979-1983. The owners used the lighting designer from Studio 54 spending over half a million dollars on lighting alone. Whispers also had valet parking, cigarette girls, drink waiters and an a-la-carte restaurant. Quite a feat in 1979!”

Can you tell me a little about the nightlife from back in the 1950s? Any enduring legacies?

“A lot of the clubs in the 50’s weren’t licensed. The drinking age was 21 so the clubs that appealed to teenagers and those in their early 20’s were BYO or ‘smuggle drinks in’ style. A lot of new bands performed in these venues and Brisbane had a very fertile music scene in the 50’s, which has carried through to today.”

How have ‘nightlife trends’ developed or disappeared over the years – or have things stayed consistent throughout the generations?

“From the 60’s onwards clubs were focused on providing a floorshow. This would involve a resident band, host/singer, guest singer, depending on the club a few dancers and quite often a stripper. Supper was also provided.”

Were there obvious social distinctions between Brisbane venues that divided the going out communities?

“A lot of people would go to dances and record hops instead of clubs up to the 70’s as these were the less expensive option. In the 80’s the scene in the ‘valley’ was more gay orientated with the city being a “straight” hang out. There were also a lot more suburban clubs up to the 80’s as transport was always a major issue for club goers.

During the Bjelke Peterson era when the skyline was being changed drastically, people were always on the move especially if you were against the government. Many clubs which catered to younger alternative people would be there one week and gone the next so you were always on the lookout for where the next club be.”

What are some of the most entertaining stories to come out of the project?

“We’ve uncovered some great stories. Strippers and performers changing in kitchens, one regular to a club woke up Christmas morning under the bar in the early 80’s. A semi-trailer crashed through the front doors of Romeos club after the driver was asked to leave.

There was also the story of Mick Fleetwood who was in Brisbane after looking at some coastal real estate in the 70’s. He arrived in town and was looking for something to do on a Monday night (tough one for Brisbane in the 70’s). His host took him to Tony’s, which had about 7 people watching the resident band.

Mac asked his host if he could jam with the band and the members of the band were hesitant at first but were assured by the host that he was a good drummer. After he played with them on his first song, the band stopped went over to the host and said, “Who the hell is he?”

When she explained that it was Mick Fleetwood they went quite pale but continue to jam with him for an unforgettable night with 7 other people present.

Are there nightclubs and bars that are still on the same foundations?

“Brisbane lost a lot of our historical buildings particularly in the early 80’s. This included about 90 percent of our CBD Hotels. The one club that has traded as the same name in the same venue for over 25 years is the Beat Nightclub in the Valley. Tony’s also in the Valley has been trading with the same name since the 70’s. It began as a club and now is a strip club.”

When did the cocktail ‘culture’ hit Brisbane and how did it change the scene?

“I believe the cocktail culture has always been around. A lot of the clubs in the 70’s had fantastic cocktail bars. In the 80’s I used to go to a cocktail bar on the top level of the then called Gazebo Hotel. We were served some of the best cocktails I have had! In the 90’s cocktails seemed to fall out of favour – it could have something to do with the daiquiri slushy machines.

In the last 10 years more emphasis has been placed on good cocktails with fresh ingredients. In Brisbane the Bowery has always been good but there are many other great bars like Canvas that do some great cocktails with service to match.”

How to be part of History

– Head to to contact the research team.
– Ask around – your parents/ manager or venue owners might have some great information from ‘their’ day.

1 Comment
  1. I worked at Pinocchios Nightclub in the early 70’s for Gerry and Tony Bellino. Desperately trying to find information on a band member who played there at the time. I believe the band was called Taylor Brothers.

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