Changing gay history
For better or worse, I (inadvertently) was directly involved in changing the face and fabric of LGBT history in Queensland, Australia, at a time when it was illegal to be gay while police and government were desperate to squash us.
An iconic Brisbane gay bar, within the Brisbane Fortitude Valley club space, Cockatoo Club at the time was owned by Tony Bellino where Vic, having met me at the Sheraton, hired me to work initially as his ‘eyes and ears’ bartender.
Tony found that his Cockatoo Club licensor/manager, Michael, in outward appearances was a nice guy, but had a history of insurance scams, and now had his hand deep in the till to pay his drug habit. Tony sold the Cockatoo Club to his brother Geraldo (Gerry/Geri) and Vittorio (Vic) Conte, in summer 1983 and Vic elevated me to bar manager.
In August, Vic and Gerry engaged a new co-manager, a “money collector” named Jerry they had used to run around some of their various enterprises collecting their cash, to work alongside Michael initially managing all the money. This continued, for a month or two before Michael disappeared overnight into the ether. Vic’s wife Jan, joined as bookkeeper.
A few months later, it was revealed by Vic’s ex-wife, Jan, that Jerry also apparently had both hands deep in the bags of cash before it reached Gerry and Vic. Jerry also disappeared into the ether, quickly. At which time Vic and Gerry wanted a “clean” start with a fresh new young general manager.
With fresh clean hands (and no criminal record for the license), I was elevated to the top job of founder and manager overnight. Vic’s ex-wife, Jan became my new bar manager to manage the bags of cash during the week. I loved having this pressure off me.
My principal focus was to rebrand the club, with a new business license, establish and operate the new expanded space using a restaurant license to allow us to sell alcohol, and make money in form of cash, and lots of it.
With Vic and Gerry’s blessing (and budget), I created an extremely theatrical nightclub space, that over the years grew and physically expanded to be the infamous super mega-club.
Historical perspective of an insane time
At the time in the 80’s, the general media would glorify women as objects of desire, including full page color spreads of bikini girls in major papers. ‘Meter Maids’ wearing only only bikinis would be hired to walk the streets and put coins in peoples parking meters to avoid tickets. Pubs had separate rooms and entrances for women. Society was seemingly, weirdly, segregated — the “blokes” who did the hard yakka (work) and their “sheilas” who would service their blokes. It was all a little like parts of the middle east today.
Australian culture evolved quickly out of this, but Queensland (& Tasmania) were behind the rest of the country.
Queensland derived its criminal law from the UK including the prohibition of “buggery” and “gross indecency” between males. While other states in Australia fixed their anti-gay laws in the 1970’s/1980’s, Queensland was ruled by the conservative ‘National Party’ led by Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His government actively used homophobia for electoral advantage, linking all gay men to pedophilia & asserting all gay men are morally deviant.
Anti-gay laws were intensely enforced by Queensland police throughout the 1980s, (lesbian activity was always legal). At this time, government policy was very hostile – at the height of The Beat‘s success, in 1985, the government passed an amendment to the Liquor Act making it an offense to serve alcohol or to allow to remain on licensed premises any “deviants, sexual perverts or child molesters” (with interpretation of this definition to be up to the individual police officer).
Indeed, some police would come to The Beat for “poofta hunts” [‘poofta’ being Aussie derogatory slang for gay] and turned a blind eye to “poofta bashings” – a common problem in Brisbane at the time – particularly in our back alley.
Some police detectives, out of uniform, would return to The Beat later in the night to drink, snort cocaine, drop acid, pick up a ‘cuddle bunny’ for the night and have fun. It was a weird experience.
The Bjelke-Petersen Government intended that the new licensing law be used to refuse service to gay men — and centered it on the 2 major gay venues in Brisbane — the Terminus and The Beat.
Police raids intensified. Our payoffs with cash envelopes, cases of liquor and slabs of beer to local police, including the vice squad, softened the blow, but occasionally we had to be ‘seen to lose’ — so we would negotiate a Monday or Tuesday evening for a future raid, and ensure the club was had a smattering of lesbians and straight looking people that night.
It became a game of “us” vs “them” — the “them” being the police, the politicians, the poofta bashers and often, our own families.
When police raids were impending, typically our doorman would see a bevvy of unmarked police cars pulling up on the main street, sometimes with a paddy wagon in convoy (a utility vehicle with a human cage in the back to contain people getting a free ride to the local jail), our doorman would flash the overhead lights from switches installed at the door, signaling to all customers that a raid was about to occur.
This stupid game helped however, helped solidify a gay Brisbane community united in just wanting acceptance. The more the government and police pushed us, the more brazen we would become.
The Queensland National Party alerted voters to a looming homosexual invasion. As the dying government flailed in search of a lifeline, they latched onto homosexuality as a lifebuoy.
Queensland National Party politicians such as Geoff Muntz and Ian Sinclair made their anti-gay views very vocal, with Sinclair claiming that the Labor Party’s failure to condemn homosexuality was helping to spread HIV.
Then Welfare Services Minister Geoff Muntz said, “homosexuals indulge in a deviant lifestyle” and did not think gay people should be allowed in public swimming pools. “You’ll never hear of a gay mardi gras or gay swimming carnival in Queensland.” Muntz said at the time.
Fear of HIV and AIDS were at their height in the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen Government used this fear to increase homophobic sentiment and demonize gay people further. Rumors spread you could catch the homosexual only HIV/AIDS by drinking from same glassware or even being near a poofta.
It was a rather ridiculous to-and-fro war played out on the streets of the Fortitude Valley, with larger and larger payoffs to corrupt greedier and greedier police officials and politicians.
A Twisted Theatrical Twist
Stealing the set design and construction concepts from my days at the Queensland Theatre Company, the club decor and themes would change on whim, from dungeons & dragons to a cruise ship, to a speak-easy (using some left behind real gambling tables), to a junk yard, to baseball stadium, to moulin rouge, to hell. It was extremely theatrical utilizing a lot of Trompe-l’œil design.
This made regular customers even more regular.
On the huge 2nd floor of The Beat, I maintained a scenic workshop in what used to be a gambling club. I converted this to a painting workshop and props storage, along with my office to provide dedicated space to work on themes.
We opened with a theme of gambling club, that was designed as tongue in cheek to the local vice squad of police, raiding Vic and Gerry’s gambling clubs on a more regular basis.
I borrowed real gambling tables from 2 of their clubs that were temporality closed by the vice squad, added a bunch of fake Tiffany overhanging lamps and bought an old restaurant supply of coffee cups to serve drinks in. The wall’s scenic fireproofed canvas drops were painted to look like the interior of a casino, and we added a steel security door at the front door with a sliding trap door in it. Customers received casino chips upon paying their cover charge at the door for use at the bar with drinks. This was one of my favorite themes, particularly when even the vice squad visited, and all had a good laugh.
Another example, one night as tables, we had glass topped coffins with dummy bodies inside, their hearts beating, along with skeletons in shackles hanging from the walls, where scenic flats or canvas drops covered the wall spaces with an old stone look. Fake cobwebs would be strung strategically, and the lighting design would rely heavily on red. Green lights around the bar made all the tonic water glow, and we played a background sound effects reel of occasional screams, creaks and chain noise that would randomly be heard mixed under the DJ’s 80’s club music.
Another night it may a cruise ship (R.M.S. BE▲T) with everything in white, portholes on the wall flats and canvas drops with iconic views of things around the world, all the staff dressed in ships uniforms and all drinks with parasols, flowers and colored straws.
It was a lot of work with the themes, but it paid off in dividends. I was able to increase the base salaries of all long-term staff and had extra cash to hire out of work actors, models and musicians to be a part of the entertainment mix. Before I left, I had 2 permanent scenic painters and 1 props person.
I only ever painted one element myself, from scratch, the dragon on front of the DJ booth, during a hell theme. I was quite proud of my artistic ability.
Sometimes a theme would last for a couple of weeks, sometimes I would change it twice a week. This concept worked so well, particularly since nobody, but me and my production designer knew when the changeovers may happen. Not even my staff would know for fear of letting the cat out of the bag with loose lips – and trust me, in gay clubs, everyone had loose lips since smartphones and text messaging had not yet been invented.
At close of business, designated changeover staff would be told to report to work at 10am the next day for the changeover of the new design.
Our intentionally over the top garish drag shows never stopped the flow of the evening, and were performed on the bar, on tables, on top of the cigarette machine near the front door, in the DJ booth, on top of the bass speakers near the dance floor, and once on a bungee swing over the dance floor.
Think a hairy man sporting a tilted orange wig, one eyelash up, one upside down, with smeared lipstick and dressed in fabulous couture, often with massive scenic hats (a scale model of the Sydney Opera House was favorite), throwing sarcastic shade at customers walking past, often “copping a feel”, and singing along in good harmony, but in the wrong key, to a 1980’s pop hit. These were ocker Australian drag characters, similar to what can be seen in the later movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”.
It was important to me to keep the “beat” of the music continuing all night, to keep people from getting tired. Stopping the music for a show at its peak would have been a disastrous concept, which I never allowed on weekends. The drag performers worked with my DJ’s to our music, not the other way around.
I handed out batches of secret complimentary door passes (to avoid cover charges) to hundreds of local cute (and typically big haired gay boys) on condition of secrecy, and never handed them out to women, ugly gay leeches, or knowingly straight men. This way, most of our regular customer base were hot, young, good looking, gay boys. Yet legally, everyone was welcome, if they paid the cover charge.
Further, realizing that profit on soft drink is MUCH higher than that of alcohol, I would designate some late-night hours to be soft-drink only bar times, usually around 4am when the club was full. This had an additional benefit of pacing my customers alcohol levels, keeping them partying (and spending) for longer, often until 7am. The cost benefit analysis is simple, and one of the secrets of the bar trade to this day, as an example:
Suspecting some sticky fingers from my own bar staff within the 3 bars, I instituted a “cash register control system: to make the bartenders THINK I was able to track cash and balance this with weekly alcohol consumption. Actually, it’s impossible due to the combination of post mix syrup soft drinks, bottled bear and different prices of different alcoholic drinks. But my staff had not figured that out. A week after installing this, I noticed the cash take consistently went up by about 10%.
A few months later, during a scene change, without saying anything to any of my bar staff, I had purchased half a dozen old 2nd hand security cameras, at the time, these were big clunky things. My resident designer screwed each above the bar, pointing them generally towards the array of tills. He stuffed the cables up into the ceiling tiles, so it looked like they were connected. He then put an old broken TV set in my upstairs office, along with an old clunky Betamax videotape machine below the TV. Again, all perception and nothing explicitly said to the staff. Indeed, these days, fake pretend security cameras, with a tiny blinking red light powered by a battery, are commonplace in most bars worldwide.
In the coming weeks, the weekly cash bar take went up again but this time by about a whopping 25%. Although I suspected a couple of them, I never worked out, nor cared, which of the staff had sticky fingers, since their personalities bringing regular customers made up for it in the long run. Most bars and restaurants assume a 10% theft rate by staff in their operations.
The combination of regular themed decor changes, secret door cover charge system, soft drink spree at peak times and pretend anti-theft security measures was my key to building up the business from about AUD $12,500 a week to over AUD $40,000 in profit each week – in the mid 1980’s.
Delivering the “take” every Monday late afternoon to Gerry & Vic’s office was also interesting. We had a slew of little canvas bank bags, and each week, the cash was counted and buddled in clusters by denomination and wrapped with a single rubber band. Each bank note domination bundle was put into its own canvas bag, at the time $2, $5, $10, $20 and $50. The heavy $1 coins, in another bag. The weirdly shaped and very heavy $0.50 cent coins and below were never delivered, and instead used in our operational costs.
After retaining a cash float in my office at The Beat, I would take the 6 bags together shoved into in a non-descript department store shopping bag, for the 3 or 4 block walk to Gerry & Vic’s office above their Manhattan Club, along with a single tiny piece of paper from my bookkeeper detailing in handwriting each bags value, plus a combined total note.
Either Gerry, Vic or their GM Robin would simply place each bag on a weight scale on their desk, and thereby know, almost accurately, how much each was containing. If the combined value of each of the collective 6 bags was equal to, or more than the previous week, I was “good to go”. If it was less, they looked for an explanation, and were always polite in those weeks.
Fortunately, nearly all weeks the combined value of the weight of the 6 bags were getting heavier. If particularly heavy in a given week, they would often reach into one of the bags, usually the one containing the $20 rubber band wrapped bundles and throw it at me saying “good job kid” – I would then divvy up this bonus with all my staff, which built loyalty and commitment.
Vic and Gerry were so thrilled at the new waterfall of cash this young kid was making them, we upped the game, purchased the adjoining building spaces, expanded the club, more than doubling its size.
Amidst various anti-gay, anti-police, anti-government, anti-anything campaigns by news media, print, radio, and TV, grabbing at straws trying to sell advertising, The Beat became more and more popular, proving there’s is no such thing as bad press.
Mafia + McDonalds vs Homophobia + Government
The Beat faced notoriety in the Brisbane nightlife scene, due to my investors Vic & Gerry (fair and encouraging, yet very hands-off bosses) who years later would be under investigation for also running illegal gambling clubs and massage parlors, and for how “out” we were, flagrantly proud to be gay-friendly.
This all partially resulted in unveiling a long trail of police corruption, which assisted toppling the Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, and which started a chain of events that changed Queensland’s political landscape and brought in a new era of change to eradicate anti-gay laws and forced Queensland to step in line with rest of country.
In the early 80’s, other gay bars included the Terminus (249 Brunswick St), Alliance Hotel/Ambush Bar (320 Boundary St), Hacienda Hotel/Zuloos Bar (Brunswick & McLaughlin St) and The Sportsman Hotel (130 Leichhardt St). Each of these bars had a typically loyal and regular customer set, and generally would keep a low profile to fly under the radar.
At a time when it was illegal to be gay, and against a backdrop of the Queensland Government creating laws specially to shut down gay bars, The Beat decided to be bolder, stronger, and louder in the community, and not hide that it was a gay bar. This was intentional, partially to divert attention away from the other business operations of my ‘investors’.
We decided to make the gay symbol at the time — the pink triangle (this was at a time well before the rainbow flag symbol was adopted) — the centerpiece of its logo which I created, and painted it on the brick exterior of the building facade — it made no secret of what The Beat was — and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders over time, joined us.
The Beat is located at 677 Ann Street in the Fortitude Valley, one of the main streets of Brisbane, and nearly everyone coming to Brisbane from the northern suburbs, or the airport, would drive right past our pink triangled facade. For legal reasons I incorporated the words “mixed party” onto my logo design.
I led the re-branding of the space from Cockatoo / Beat restaurant to The Beat, engaging international DJ’s such as Keith Haring’s “Baby”, rehearsing nightclub performers, staffing, hosting V.I.P.’s (and police and journalists), budgeting, operations, interior design and marketing.
The licensing authority was attempting to shut us down on a technicality. To get the liquor license, I had to declare The Beat as a bistro that operated under a restaurant license (even though only 1 in 1000 customers wanted food) Of course, we did not have any.
In order to maintain our ability to serve alcohol, over time, I utilized either student chefs, greasy spoon bicycle deliveries, grocery shop chips and other pantry items.
On a tip off from friends inside the police, a few days before a licensing raid, a regular lesbian customer and fan of The Beat, who owned the franchise license for the local McDonalds restaurant, and I put our funniest plan in place.
I would give her and all her staff free entry and free drinks (she was a lesbian boozer), in exchange for 2 or 3 times a night bringing over all the 30-minute old, un-sold de-branded hamburgers, chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches destined for the bin.
We setup a completely fake kitchen at the rear corner the main floor at The Beat, with a large working refrigerator (we used for champagnes and wines chill), non-working oven, used pots and pans and a glass display counter with all the McDonalds throw-a-ways.
We removed all the McDonald’s branding and placed these sumptuous fast-food feasts directly onto cheap plates from Lucky’s Trattoria, with The Beat branding – just a toothpick with a paper flag printed with The Beat logo on it.
One of my glass picker-uppers was tasked with watching for anyone suspiciously looking like undercover police or licensing squad and then immediately go stand in the ‘kitchen’ ready to serve, pretending to be the cook.
Sure enough, when the licensing raids came, they were unable to do anything, since we had complied with our license, as disgusting as it was. The funny part, some customers got the munchies and bought the aged McFood and enjoyed.
This went on for about another year. Indeed, inspired by the new Liquor Act making it an offense to serve deviants, we re-branded our diner accordingly.
Our neighboring restaurant, Lucky’s Trattoria, which was additionally a money laundering front for the mafia was partially owned by a short, stout and lovely Italian man named Luciano (“Lucky”) who took pride in his restaurant. He also enjoyed the increased business from The Beat as we got busier, and over time, Lucky became super gay friendly, and his restaurant stayed open until the wee hours of the morning, adjusting his closure time based on how busy we were by the hour.
Overnight, Lucky’s Trattoria became the gay and drag queen restaurant of choice, Luciano loved the attention.
Lucky’s son became a regular at The Beat and seeing his own franchise opportunity put in menus, used his Lucky’s Trattoria kitchen to cook, and supplied sample dishes to put in the display cabinet. When someone ordered, one of our staff would run out our backdoor, down the back alley of Lucky Lane to Lucky’s kitchen and bring back the disk to serve.
I coined “Lucky Lane” as a triple entendre based on adjacent Lucky’s Trattoria, the “L” shape of the delivery lane, and the outdoor sex that would occur in our dark, shattered beer bottle, used syringe and potholed rocky service alley – i.e. getting ‘Lucky’. Much to Lucky’s amusement, I had my resident designer paint a faux “Lucky Lane” street sign on the building wall at the entrance off Ann Street.
Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
Randomly, at my whim, I would get on the DJ booth microphone, and call “free drinks” for the next 5 minutes or so – my bar staff hated this, but customers loved it of course. It created a dangerous rush of customers to each of the bars (we had 3 bars at the time), which presumably, also created new ‘nookie nights’ due to the throbbing of bodies pushing against each other to get to the bars.
To be honest, I tended to be wild, and do dangerous and crazy things randomly at The Beat, which looking back could be attributed to my quickly growing substance abuse.
The local police (vice squad) would sometimes give me an “8-ball” of cocaine, or a handful of LSD/acid drops they had captured in a recent drug haul and loved to share some of this with me in exchange for drinks, friendship and occasionally girls/boys to hang out with.
The cocaine always remained upstairs, hidden in little plastic bags inside a window air conditioner near my office, below the AC air exhaust fan. No sniffer dog could therefore smell it, and not even my police suppliers or staff knew where I stored it.
To avoid entrapment, I only ever accepted the drugs in my upstairs office, and only after they imbibed first, in front of me.
I was never, ever a pimp, but I was happy to connect the members of the force with those girls and boys I knew enjoyed the ‘friends with benefits’ schemes of the ‘80’s then let them work it out themselves.
I admit that I was so damned promiscuous, my bartenders would sometimes sit certain boys at the bar stools in a sequence where they would bet amongst each other as to which boy would interest me the most. I would often pick one (or two) to join me upstairs in my office to play with. It was this weird game where I would walk behind the bar look at the line of boys and choose. I’m not proud of my promiscuous behavior those days, but in the early ‘80s this was considered ‘normal’ in the scene. I am so lucky to have been completely spared from AIDS.
I think cocaine saved my life, with the AIDS crisis now hitting Australia, and my promiscuity untamed, I did so much cocaine for a brief time, I couldn’t have sex. By the time I weaned myself off the powder and I migrated towards more of the hallucinatory variety, there was more education about how to avoid HIV, and introduction of widespread condom use.
I had a piece of jewelry from House of Hung in Singapore that hid my tiny sheets of acid – basically each a ½ cm square of tissue paper with a micro-dot of acid on its centre, slid inside a hollow on a white gold pinkie ring. I would simply slide off my ring, and with a tongue damp finger, the tissue would stick to it, and I would place it on my tongue. Thus, I could discreetly take a ‘hit’ whenever I felt the urge while downstairs in the club, and nobody would be the wiser.
In addition to my favorite of drops of acid regularly at peak times, I was also becoming an alcoholic.
After a few years of living the bar life, Johnnie Walker was becoming my best friend, and it wasn’t until one night I woke up on my dance floor around lunch time with the cleaners vacuuming our carpets nearby, where I had an empty bottle of scotch in one hand, and the lighting controller in my other hand (acid trips make you enjoy kaleidoscopes of color and movement), and the back of my head was wet in my own little pool of vomit.
I quit, cold turkey, there and then – no more booze or drugs.
After that change of life moment, my bar staff had specially marked liquor bottles for me, so when customers bought me drinks, I would, secretly, be drinking black tea and 7-up or soda. If customers watched, they saw my drink poured and thought was my known drink of choice, Scotch and soda.
I am by no means a nun, a few decades later, I occasionally still drink, mostly when out, and mostly wine and beer – usually never at home, unless a party celebration, and never alone.
Fortunately, I have always hated the smell of marijuana, and am too lazy to make the fiddly joints, plus I get headaches from it.
The last time I knowingly ingested any other substances was a long, long, long time ago.
The fine art of perception
When I was working as bar manager at the Cockatoo Club, a few times, in my wanderlust for travel I would pop up to Singapore for mid-week short stay and visit the House of Hung jewelry shop next to the Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road. Here, I would legally purchase raw uncut diamonds. You could travel across borders, including Singapore/Australia without any customs duties, if the diamonds were uncut.
I would bring them back to Cockatoo Club, and on weekends, wait for people to get suitably drunk, and then say “Psst, wanna buy a diamond?” in a rather secretive way. Then discreetly roll them out onto a small black cloth at the end of the bar. Drunken customers would think this was stolen merchandise, and therefore think this would be a great deal. I would sell them for about 400% more than I paid – slightly less in price than if you would buy them at the Wallace Bishop Jewelry shop in Brisbane.
I would then split the profit share with Michael and Jerry and some bar staff, and everyone was happy, including the customers that purchased. A few that had the diamonds cut/set into jewelry came back to buy more from me. The profits would more than pay for my next trip.
Decades later, Richard & Paul Hung, at the family-owned House of Hung shop in the Far East Shopping Centre, still remembered me, and we regularly shopped there, and sent family/friends who were visiting for family discounts. For a gay man, their shop name was very easy to remember.
Close to Cockatoo Club / The Beat, Tony Bellino also owned Pinocchio’s Restaurant (formerly Kitty’s Nightclub at 648 Ann Street) and ran a gambling den upstairs managed by Luciano Scognamiglio. The Red Garter bordello was across the access lane.
Gerry and Vic also owned The Roxy in partnership with a notoriously dangerous man named Robert Chan (210 Brunswick St), and separately owned Manhattan (201 Brunswick St), Bubbles Bath-House (142 Wickham St), Oriental Social Club (235 Brunswick St) and the World By Night strip club (548 Queen St).
Most of these venues, also had additional secret cash businesses operating above them, either gambling or prostitution bordellos. Additionally, other nearby bars and restaurants also had late night questionable enterprises operating from above them or were money laundering fronts for any of the Brisbane underbelly at the time.
If you needed a policeman or a politician at 2am, you only had to visit the 2nd floor of most of these places.
You could also find me, for a very brief time, at World By Night, when I was a (not so proud) male stripper in a go-go bar.
Action in changing human rights
Various celebrities made The Beat an ‘in-place’ late at night after a local concert to unwind in relative privacy and/or show their support against the ridiculous antiquarian silliness of the government.
We stored signage and made space available upstairs of The Beat for creation of protest signage and banners. Even journalists would regularly come to The Beat hoping to catch a police action against our customers or us. Sometimes these journalists were friends, sometimes they were just after “the back story”.
Queensland Courier Mail print journalist Phil Dickie and ABC TV Four Corners The Moonlight State (May 1987) reporter Chris Masters (who came up from Sydney to investigate) were likely the most famous for researching and reporting stories on organized crime and police corruption, with a substantial monthly bribery trail (called “The Joke“) which led to The Fitzgerald Inquiry.
Jack Herbert, known as the ‘Bagman’ reportedly collected more than $3 million in protection money that allowed illegal gambling and prostitution to flourish in Brisbane as part of The Joke which would come crashing down after a series of stories in The Courier Mail newspaper and the broadcast of The Moonlight State on Four Corners in May 1987. Herbert would become the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s star witness, telling all in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
I should also be clear that around this time, I was asked (not by Gerry or Vic, but rather by a vice-squad policeman) to help match-up Phil Dickie or Chris Masters with an underage date, presumably, to use as a silencing tactic — I never followed through. It was around this time I saw the writing on the wall to leave, since the ‘wagons were circling’ a little too close to home.
In addition to owning The Beat, and other clubs, Gerry and Vic ‘apparently’ owned illegal casinos and massage parlors and admitted making $1 million a year from gambling while police turned a blind eye.
The Beat at it’s core
It was now a national destination, with people from Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide coming to Brisbane in solidarity. Queensland anti-gay laws were the talk of Australia. The owners of both the most well-known openly gay bars Exchange and Patches on Oxford Street in Sydney came up and offered their support in any way to me. They placed promotional materials in their own bars and held raffles to win a bus trip to The Beat. It was Priscilla ahead of its time.
The Australian gay community was rallying against the Queensland government, and unexpectedly (and fortunately), The Beat became somewhat its command centre.
Young gay boys came out of the closet to become activists, protesting the Queensland government, joining local Queensland chapters of National Groups such as Campaign Against Moral Persecution (C.A.M.P.). Fashion designers incorporated pink triangles into leather jackets and customers brought VHS recorders to the club to videotape the police
Brightly colored and massively sculpted wigged drag queens upped their fabulously couture and silly games and left The Beat at 6am to hang around conservative church doorsteps in their churchgoing finest on the Sunday mornings including resident drag personalities Bambi, Chanelle, Tiffany Jones, Hazel LaBelle, Brandy Renee, and Trixie Lamont.
The ‘Sisters of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence’ a Sydney based facetious anti-religious, sarcastic pro-gay group setup a Brisbane chapter, based at The Beat after a consecration ceremony, with my now assistant GM nicknamed “Patch” being ordained as ‘Mother Inferior’. It was here at The Beat that I too was ‘ordained’ as ‘Mother Mame Dennis’, a pun on the musical MAME, for my ‘carefree, fun spirited, galivanting, globe-trotting, intoxicating, highfalutin, bon vivant leadership’.
Even journalists would regularly come to The Beat hoping to catch a police action against our customers or us.
One of these journalists, an undercover reporter for the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) was a regular at The Beat, and while initially engaged to report stories to try to bring us down, converted to becoming a loyal supporter and refused to file the stories that the ABC wanted resulted in becoming a lifelong friend.
Additionally, politicians, TV personalities and film actors came to drink, party or play
The Boy from Oz, Peter Allen, was a quasi-fixture at The Beat when in Brisbane to/from his retreat in Oak Beach, Port Douglas. By late 1985, the opposite of his stage persona, the quiet and reserved bi-coastal Peter was living in Encinitas, Southern California, but still called Australia home. Since his divorce from Liza Minnelli (whom Judy Garland had connected him with), his post-Liza partner Greg (who was also Peters tour & lighting manager) had passed away from AIDS, and he met my boyfriend of the time, Shaun (another big-haired model) at The Beat. The 2 of them hit off, and Shaun abruptly dumped me to head off with Peter up to his Oak Beach retreat and then back to SoCal. Upsetting at the time, as it turns out, this was a godsend since it freed me up to meet the love of my life a few years later.
Years later, I would go on to work with Liza Minelli twice, both in concert and in my Broadway musical VICTOR/VICTORIA.
Over the years, other entertainment personalities such as Harris Milstead (Divine), Culture Club, Keith Haring, Wham! (George Michael) arriving by limousine at the front door (and sometimes quietly by minivan at our back door down Lucky Lane) making The Beat their place late at night after local concert engagements.
The Park Royal Hotel (where 99.9% of all pop stars routinely stayed) whose manager was a regular, considered us the new “in” club, and would privately recommend us to his V.I.P. guests. Sometimes they came just to drink, and sometimes to show solidarity with our cause, and nearly always, both.
Even the New Zealand All-Blacks Rugby team came, and partied, and had respectful fun, which caused a parking lot bloody fight with the Queensland Rugby Players wanting to ‘poofta bash’. Fortunately, the All-Blacks won.
Early in the days one fabulous night a few weeks before Christmas was when band members Earl, Steve and Carlos, apparently bored with the promoter Paul Dainty’s (later my friend) formal party at the Park Royal Hotel after David Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” concert at Lang Park stadium, decided to grab Bowie from the bar where he was apparently drinking alone at the Crest Hotel and come over to The Beat now infamous back door in Lucky Lane at about 2am.
It was a mid-weeknight, so the club at that hour was relatively quiet (much to the dismay of regulars in the days that followed). They had a couple of days off before the Sydney concert, so they decided to drink “hard” until about 8am, in the darkness of our rear lounge, quietly inviting certain boys and girls to join them.
Lucky of Lucky’s Trattoria was often seen screaming in an animated Italian way at the anti-gay bashers at the parking lot across the street from his restaurant to anyone he deemed homophobic at the time.
After many years building the success of The Beat I moved to the USA in late June 1987 to pursue my Broadway career, after this cartoon of me appeared, sitting behind my desk, throwing cash in the air, (alongside my Assistant Manager, “Patch”), blocking traffic in the middle of Ann Street, with a silhouetted line up of patrons entering my club.
With too much parental, government, and media pressure on me, I chose to buy a one-way ticket to return to the U.S.A., with no visa, with my money tied up in real estate, alone, cash penniless, but with a dream to return to my first love from my QTC days, and aim for the theatrical pinnacle, Broadway. I handed the keys to my apartment to Patch asking him to sell everything and send me the money (he didn’t), and with reluctant approval from Vic and Gerry, I gave Patch the keys to The Beat, after a staff meeting to handover.
At a farewell party June 14, 1987, I was given the first dollar we received across the bar in 1983. This is an extract from a farewell gift book the staff put together for me when I left for the U.S.A. including funny photos and descriptions from my staff.
All’s well that ends well
The Fitzgerald Inquiry (a judicial inquiry led by Queens Counsel Tony Fitzgerald) was commissioned in May 1987 by the Deputy Premier Bill Gunn (while ‘old Joh’ Bjelke-Petersen went to Disneyland), to investigate corruption, bribery and misconduct in the Queensland Police force, and the entire system of government. One of its recommendations was that a newly established Criminal Justice Commission review the laws governing consensual sexual behavior, including gay activity.
This proposal became core focus in the 1989 election. The National Party which was heavily implicated in corruption by the Fitzgerald Inquiry, tried to solidify conservative support using his party’s opposition to the legalization of gay conduct claiming that his party’s corruption was a “secondary issue” to moral issues like homosexuality.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry spent years investigating long-term police corruption. Significant prosecutions followed the inquiry leading to 4 ministers being jailed and numerous convictions of other police.
Former Police Commissioner Sir Terence (Terry) Lewis was convicted of corruption, jailed, and stripped of his knighthood, and former Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury.
It also led to the end of the National Party of Australia’s 32-year run as the governing political party in Queensland.
Shortly before his defeat, Premier of Queensland, Russell Cooper (and Police Minister) of the National Party said, a Labor victory would, “open the floodgates and see a sea of sodomites flooding into Queensland.”
The new Labor Government buoyed by a landslide victory swiftly implemented changes in the Criminal Code which repealed the anti-homosexuality laws on 19 January 1991.
In 1991, Gerry Bellino and Vic Conte were charged with tax-avoidance offences. Gerry Bellino, a friend of Jack Herbert (the bagman collecting bribes for police commissioner Terry Lewis), was jailed in 1991 for 7 years after The Fitzgerald Inquiry for paying bribes of $17,000 a month to police as part of the ‘The Joke’ scheme. He was released in 1999. Vic Conte was also jailed in the aftermath.
With the departure of Gerry & Vic, John Hannay acquired The Beat and his family have operated it since.
The Beat is still in operation today, indeed it’s the longest running club with the same name in Australian history, and in its own way, is a landmark in LGBT Queensland history.
Today, Australia is one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world.
All’s well that ends well.