Neil McLucas: the icon behind early Brisbane gay bars


neil mclucas the sportsman

Neil McLucas is an icon of the Brisbane LGBTIQA+ scene. Owning some of Brisbane’s first gay establishments, he continues to provide locals with a safe space at The Sportsman Hotel.

A Renegade Child: Public Nudity and burnt down Dunnies

Neil grew up in the rural town of Roma in central-west Queensland. An illegitimate child, he spent his early childhood passing between family members. Eventually, his mother married a Catholic. Neil was never his stepfathers’ favourite child. Perhaps for good reason, he says. Neil describes his younger self as ‘terribly out of order’. He earned local renown for running around town nude and burning down a couple of dunnies – two things that he hopefully didn’t do at the same time. Neil couldn’t be quietened down. Not only because of his rebellious ways but also for his love of performing and his artistic passions.

The Carmen Miranda of the Outback

Destiny Rogers wrote in QNews Magazine 462 of discovering newspaper mentions of Neil during his childhood. Though not for arson. The Western Star and Roma Advocate documented Neil winning the Mad Hatter’s Ball costume competition at the local Hibernian Hall.

“What a night it was! With everyone pumped from lashings of Cottee’s Raspberry Cordial, the shindig got off to a raging start when young and old faced the flag with hand on heart and sang God Save the King, the 1940’s equivalent of TubThumping (I Get Knocked Down.) Of the 200 costumed participants in the Grand March, Neil managed to attract singular attention by wearing a bloody great sausage on his head.

“Not content to rest on his laurels, the triumph of the oversize sausage inspired him to greater heights. He returned to the winner’s circle two years later dressed as Carmen Miranda, the Latina Hollywood star famous for decorating her turbans with entire fruit orchards and the odd stuffed parrot.

The organisers of the ball, the saintly Sisters of Mercy, hesitated to describe their prize winner as a cross-dresser or baby drag queen. No doubt they worried that might lead him into a lifetime of sequins and facepaint. They, therefore, described his attire to the local press as a ‘Plate of Fruit,’ which, of course, led him into a lifetime of sequins and facepaint.”

Moving to Brisbane at age 24, Neil became a member of the arts theatre, spending lots of time on stage. He also performed in the Mark Twain Theatre restaurant in its early years. During the day, he worked at the hospital as an X-ray technician. At night, he owned and managed some of Brisbane’s first-ever gay establishments.

neil mclucas the sportsman
Image: Amsnel Gorgonio

Neil’s Gay Establishments

In 1971, Neil held gay afternoons at the Story Bridge Hotel. The waiters served drinks wearing short footie shorts and long socks. An early member of the CAMP Club, he’s been a highly visible presence on the Brisbane gay scene since the 1970s.

In 1974, Neil came across a basement restaurant known as Old Rowes in Edward Street, the City. Just months after the Australia Day floods, the restaurant was boarded up. Looking through the windows, he saw that the entire place was caked in a thick layer of mud. Neil approached the owner of the building, “What’s the go with this restaurant? I want to rent it.” To which the owner replied, “I’ll tell you what, if you want to run the place, you can have it free of rent until we pull the building down, probably in a couple of years’ time.” Neil and his business partners ran Old Rowes for seven years rent-free.

Old Rowes featured grand chandeliers, carved wood furnishings and a red telephone box. It was a popular lunch spot for the classy ladies of the city. Not known to the women who lunched there, at night, Old Rowes turned into one of Brisbane’s first gay discos. For an entry fee of $2, the gay community of Brisbane came together under a mirror ball three nights a week. In the 1970s, under the conservative Joh-Bjelke Petersen government, male homosexuality remained illegal, as was the promotion of homosexuality. All advertising for the Old Rowes gay disco happened through word of mouth, which proved highly effective in the pre-social media era.

Gay Clubs and the Law

In 1981 Neil opened The Terminus restaurant in Fortitude Valley. He never openly branded the establishment as ‘gay’, but everyone knew it was. Neil says the Terminus received some heavy attention from the police. They would strip drag queens outside to make sure they weren’t wearing women’s underwear. They also had raids, questioning groups of four or more congregating at the bar. Neil always made sure to look after his customers. “I’d say, I own this place, these are my customers – I always faced the police – I was never afraid to say something to them.”

‘G-A-Y’

 In 1991, various hotels across Brisbane were going up for auction. On the corner of Leichhardt and Hope Street sat The Sportsman. Neil thought, “What can I do to make sure I get this hotel?” So, with a four-gallon tin of pink paint, and a giant paintbrush, he set out to ensure that the hotel would be his. In pink paint, across the auction sign in three great big letters guaranteed to scare off even the bravest of prospective publicans, Neil painted ‘G-A-Y’. NO driver on Leichhardt Street could miss it.

On the day of the auction, all the other hotels sold and eventually, the auctioneer asked for bids for The Sportsman. But before he could take any, Neil raised his hand. “Excuse me- isn’t that the pub on Leichhardt Street with GAY written all over the front of it.” The sale of the pub did not proceed on that day.

Neil went home and sorted out his finances. A few days later, he walked into the agent’s office, “I’m here to buy the Gay pub on Leichhardt Street.

The agent looked him up and down, “Oh, it’s you.”

After handing over a cheque for $40000 less than the asking price, Neil left as the proud owner of The Sportsman Hotel.

“I’ve never looked back since – in those days, three letters were terrifying. No one would be seen at a gay hotel.”

“Sporties”

At 88 years old, Neil still owns The Sportsman, affectionately known as Sporties.

Unlike bars in the 1970s and the 1980s, Sporties radiates Queer Pride, including an iconic rainbow footpath out the front.

“I always wanted my own place where the gay community is recognised and for it to be a safe place. I ended up getting it at the Sportsman Hotel.”

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Brooke Tindall

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

3 Comments

  1. Ian
    31 December 2022
    Reply

    I have so many affectionate memories of my early clubbing days at Old Rowes, and coming out in 1980, and of course, my first heartbreak. I will always associate The Pointer Sisters song ‘He’s so shy’ with that club, and that first infatuation.

    • Peter Turner
      31 December 2022
      Reply

      The LGBTQI + Community of Brisbane owes a huge debt to Neil.
      After coming out at the ripe old age of 14 I found friendship and support and an awful lot of fun at Old Rowes , The Terminus and later at The Sporties.

  2. Scott
    13 March 2024
    Reply

    Old Rowes was my first gay outing (1979) with my older boyfriend. I only went once. I still remember the décor. I had the best time 🙂
    Then the Terminus was my local for years. I found all my school buddies there, lol. We all came out at the Terminus.
    I worked in The Sporties cocktail lounge 1990. It’s different now tho. My memories are still fresh, it is like yesterday.
    Thank you Neil, you legend! We met a few times along the way.

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