‘He looked after us’: Darwin gay icon John Spellman dies

Darwin mourns NT gay club pioneer John Spellman
Images: Supplied

Darwin’s LGBTIQA+ community is mourning the death of “controversial and brash” hospitality figure John Spellman, who ran some of the Territory’s earliest gay-friendly bars.

The gay businessman (pictured), who owned nightclubs and restaurants in Darwin for decades, died this month, prompting a flood of tributes from locals.

In 1969, John Spellman dressed in drag (above) as he opened the Pianola Palace, widely credited as the first gay-friendly Darwin club.

Cyclone Tracy destroyed the venue in 1974, but John kept it running as Darwin recovered.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, John also ran other popular venues including the Mississippi Queen and Dix.

Darwin-based producer James Emery from Drag Territory posted a tribute to the “gay icon and hospitality industry legend” after his death.

“Today we share the passing of a local icon, our elder and pioneer Aunty John Spellman,” he wrote.

“My condolences to all that knew John. To me and many other long-term Territorians, he was an icon.

“John did a lot for the queer community, owning several gay clubs, venues, restaurants… Creating safe spaces for us and a stage for the drags.

“I truly believe we wouldn’t have this amazing free life here in redneck NT without his generous hospitality.”


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A post shared by Drag Territory (@dragterritory)


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A post shared by Drag Territory (@dragterritory)

John Spellman was a ‘larger-than-life’ character

In another online tribute, Darwin business Salvatores Cafe said there was a “mixed bag” of stories and memories after the “brash and outgoing” businessman’s death.

“Some controversial, some hilarious and some cringeworthy … just as he’d expect,” the cafe wrote.

“Personally – he was entertaining and brash. Always enjoyed a chat with his witty sense of humour. A true character of Darwin’s past.”

Locals also recalled their memories of John and his impact on the queer community.

“He looked after all us young gays… thank god or we would have all been stuck in the cupboard drinking,” one person said.

“John was a larger-than-life character and played a big part in bringing life back into Darwin after the cyclone,” another local recalled.

“RIP John. You created many memories for many Darwinians,” someone else wrote.

“The NT has lost an icon.”

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Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

1 Comment

  1. Peter
    25 January 2024

    I believe that is the bar that had a sign in the 80s stating “Where the Men are Men and so are the Women”

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