A Twisted Theatrical Twist
Having learned 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. Impossible to do these days due to fire regulations.
This made regular customers even more regular.
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. We 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. This was one of my favorite themes, particularly when even the vice squad visited, and all had a good laugh.
Early on, thanks to Jerry Harrington’s idea, 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 scenic painters and a props person.
I only ever painted one element myself, from scratch, the dragon adjacent to the DJ booth, during a hell theme. I was quite proud of my artistic ability, largely done while high on booze and substances.
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 knew when the changeovers may happen.
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”.
With the exception of private mid-week event nights (usually fashion shows), 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.
By 1985, The Beat was now a notoriously well known destination club. People from other cities would come to Brisbane in solidarity. Queensland anti-gay laws were the talk of Australia. The owners of both of Sydney’s most well-known openly gay bars Exchange and Patches on Oxford Street 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 it’s last bastion of homophobia.
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 my headliner, Trixie Lamont.
Thinking about these fabulous queens, The Beat maintained a bevy of major Queensland drag icons that enjoyed a cocktail or 10 regularly… For example, we enjoyed hosting the cantankerous bitch Freda Mae West (President of the Master Hairdressing Association), Dame Sybil von Thorndyke (co-founder of Brisbane’s annual Queen’s Birthday Ball) and the legendary showgirl from Les Girls, Toye De Wilde, who in 1987 was a candidate in the by-election riding the social tidal change that was in the air against Bjelke-Petersen’s regime. Each of these fabulous queens turned heads on arrival and were great company to listen to their stories.
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.
Politicians, TV & Radio personalities came to drink, party or play. Various music 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
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’.
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 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 Minnelli 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, David Bowie, Wham! (George Michael) arriving by limousine at the front door (and more often, quietly by minivan at our back door down Lucky Lane) making The Beat their discreet 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” alternative later night 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.
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.
Our door staff were predominantly experts in the Zen Do Kai freestyle martial art system that originated in Australia, whose philosophy encompasses the principle of “if it works, use it” and as such contains elements of a variety of other martial arts. They were uber gay friendly, reserved and protective of our customer set.
We stored signage and made space available upstairs of The Beat for creation of 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. Interestingly, both were anti-drugs.
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 and we expanded the space accordingly.