Secret History of Fortitude Valley 2: In the evening


fortitude valley
The Whiskey Au Go Go fire.

Destiny Rogers recalls a misspent youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. In the mid-1970s, Fortitude Valley possessed two distinct identities – the day-time Valley and the night-time.

Fortitude Valley by day

Once a famed retail hub, local businesses still hoped suburban shopping malls would prove a passing fad. Perhaps Brisbane shoppers would again favour Brunswick Street.  However, for now, stores like Myer, Target, and Waltons catered mainly for shoppers from the rundown nearby working-class suburbs of New Farm and Bowen Hills.

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Also, hordes of elderly Italian women in widow’s weeds shuffled from shop to shop. Perhaps after all these years, my mind exaggerates their number, but they seemed omnipresent, shrouded in mourning black from head to toe. What happened to their husbands? I know I wouldn’t have dared cross those nonnas. For women who religiously caressed rosary beads, they also shot a fierce evil eye at anyone who roused their ire.

There was plenty in the Valley then to rouse ire in a conservative elderly woman. For a start… tits. By 1976, a liberated pair of breasts made not a political, but a fashion statement. Young women wore crop tops, bikini tops, and see-through tops. One newly invented garment, if one can describe a ten-centimetre wide shoulderless, strapless, elasticised circle of fabric as a garment, became popular as the Boob Tube. The level of exposure ranged from a mere hint of a nipple straining against fabric through to completely uninhibited boobs jiggling joyfully down Brunswick Street covered only by a teensy weensy bit of translucent textile.

Men too liked to show off their sexual attributes. Oh yes. The infamous 70s VPL – the Visible Penis Line. The VPL is a male version of the then, yet to be invented, camel-toe. In the crotch-tastic 70s, fashionable men wore tight jeans and shorts. Those britches crushed their cock and balls into a highly visible exhibitionist bulge that screamed: “LOOK AT ME!”

…many of us happily took up the invitation.

Fortitude Valley by night

By night, the Valley came alive with a whole different crowd patronising the nightclubs, massage parlours, and illegal casinos.

Rocky and I lived in the neighbouring suburb of New Farm. Ours was one of four flatettes in an almost derelict former boarding house. We shared two rooms, each with a ridiculously narrow single bed. A metre-and-a-half wide enclosed verandah connected the rooms. It housed a stove, a tiny table, two chairs, and a fridge.

With no TV, we played cards, read, or talked. The tenants of the flatettes shared a shower and toilet built in under the house. Three beautiful Torres Strait Islander girls lived in the flatette beside us. Rocky occasionally shagged one of them, a girl I’ll call K. I say ‘shag’ because ‘fuck’ was still quite a harsh word. Although we used it in impolite conversation, we preferred the use of gentler, kinder words like ‘shagging’ and ‘rooting’ for love-making.

Those girls K, T, and P, especially K, and Rocky taught me more about life in a few short months than I learned in the previous 17 years. Rocky was a bit of a homebody and only liked to go out about once a month. The girls and I, however, were like pigs at a trough. Whenever one of us got paid, we hit the town. Four nights a fortnight.

Fortitude Valley’s Hacienda Hotel and Siesta Bar

Diagonally across the corner from the Sunday Sun where I worked, was the Hacienda Hotel.

It housed the downstairs Siesta Bar, ruled by regular bar staff, Del and Paul. Paul was gay and mainly worked nights, famous in later years as Pernod Paul. Del was a matronly older woman who, despite her natural kindness and willingness to play Mother Hen to many of the LGBTIQ patrons, never quite approved.

The regular clientele comprised mainly gays, lesbians, transwomen and drag queens. However, the management and bar staff insisted on no overt displays of homosexual behaviour. So no one dared so much as hold hands, let alone kiss. No. Definitely not. Never!

A jukebox provided the only entertainment though Maria’s Room upstairs featured a covers band most nights. However, the bouncers upstairs seemed under instruction to not allow in obviously gay people. Thus, they welcomed transwomen who ‘passed’, along with masculine guys and feminine girls. But, they refused entry to anyone who appeared other than heterosexual. Unlike many bars in the Valley, Maria’s Room tolerated black patrons, so we went there often.

Fortitude Valley’s Silver Dollar

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Down a couple of blocks, in a basement nearly opposite the railway station, the Silver Dollar operated almost openly as a gay club. However, the Queensland government made no provision for nightclub licences, so like all clubs, it pretended to be a restaurant.

When the Siesta Bar closed at 10 pm on a Friday or Saturday night, or at 6 pm after the Sunday Session, gay customers paraded down Brunswick Street to the Dollar.

Patrons paid a small cover charge which included a two-course meal. The main course at the Dollar consisted of a choice of spaghetti bolognese or chicken and salad.

For dessert, one could choose either a canned peach slice atop a lime jelly or a canned peach slice atop a raspberry jelly. Those jellies belonged in a museum. They were petrified. But the liquor licence required a meal served to every patron so some, finding their table bereft of an ashtray, asked for just a dessert and stabbed out their smokes on the fossilised jelly.

The government disallowed amplified music on Sundays so once a week a lovely Fijian lady named Emma played the piano. Regulars gathered around, beer in hand, for a sing-along.

Lovely as she was, Emma preferred to ignore the sexuality of the patrons as she tinkled the ivories. Nevertheless, her fingers crashed to an immediate halt whenever she felt the need to chastise anyone displaying too obvious a preference for their own gender. She became accustomed however to the effervescent presence of Clara. The ever-popular Clara favoured a uniform of normal male office attire, high heels, and a feather boa as he tap-danced joyfully around the piano.

The hits of 1976

On other nights, a DJ provided the music. Although same-sex couples danced together, management discouraged public displays of affection, except for the final slow dance of the night. By tradition, lovestruck couples then waltzed cheek to cheek by the light of the silvery disco ball to the latest ballad, You’ll Never Find by Lou Rawls, a particular favourite that year.

There were some sexy songs in 1976: More, More, More by the Andrea True Connection, You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate and Love To Love You Baby by Donna Summer. It’s a strange thing, the psychology of music. Years later I noticed if I heard songs from that year while drinking, I became seriously horny. That’s The Way (I Like It) by KC & The Sunshine Band could transform me into a raving nymphomaniac. I began to suspect that deep in my subconscious those songs took me back to a time when I was young and hot and sex was taboo and exciting and easy.

Later, when I managed strip clubs, on nights when the customers proved reluctant spenders, I had the DJ estimate the average age of the room, and play the sexy hits of the years those guys first started clubbing. Worked every time. So much for people who claim spending your life drinking and slutting around is a dead end. It can actually prove very educational!

Fortitude Valley’s Pinocchio’s

Pinocchio’s on Ann Street attracted a very mixed crowd and was notably rough.

It stayed open until 3 am. When the Dollar closed at midnight, the less genteel of our communities made their way there. The club attracted crims, sex-workers, gamblers, the horseracing crowd, people thrown out of every other club, and the more daring members of the LGBTIQ communities.

The booth seating and dim lighting allowed for discreet sexual activity, something one never saw at the Siesta Bar or the Dollar. Compared to Pinocchio’s, those two places were like church socials. When you walked past a table at Pinocchio’s and noticed someone sitting alone feigning an interest in the band, you knew someone else was busy under the table.

At Pinocchio’s, there were occasional glimpses into the corruption that lay under the surface of the Valley nightlife. Middle of the night grog deliveries seemed an unusual way of doing business. However, that was standard business practice at Pinocchio’s. Suddenly a truck would pull over onto the footpath out the front and Ron, the cranky old manager, and his kitchenhand would run trolley loads of boxes through the partying clubbers to the cold room out the back.

On other occasions, a police car, sometimes marked, sometimes unmarked, would pull over to that same spot on the footpath, and after terse negotiation, Ron would load a few cartons of complimentary beer into the boot of the car.

The casinos

The illegal casinos were perhaps the least visible of the Valley’s illegal establishments. Always upstairs, they carried no signage to indicate the nature of their business.

One operated just up the stairs from Pinocchio’s. I patronised Pinocchio’s for a few years without knowing of its existence. And I had been up those stairs. Because two businesses operated up there.

The other was a Devonshire Tea House. The little old ladies who ran it served the most decadent afternoon or morning tea. Patrons sipped tea from delicate china cups and gorged on scones piled high with jam and fresh cream.

Lovely as it sounds, the teahouse was a hive of criminal activity – and the old lady who ran it – a notorious criminal. When the police pounded up those stairs, they arrived to bust her den of iniquity, not the illegal casino.

Renowned as the wowser state, Queensland banned homosexuality, striptease, pornography, prostitution, most gambling… and fortune-telling.

And at that tea house, elderly soothsayers loitered in corners ready to prophesise happy futures to any willing to cross their palms with silver. In truth, the foretold futures were a little pedestrian, always awash with happy marriages, abundant children and even more abundant grandkids.

Sadly, the seers were rather ordinary – no gypsey scarves fringed with coin – just frumpy little old ladies who would not look out of place at the bingo or a CWA meeting.

Only one of the psychics had pizazz.

Claude was a weary old man of a theatrical bent, notable mainly for his exuberant boyish mop of hennaed orange hair. He was a ho-mo-sex-U-arhl, as he announced occasionally to startled old ladies. Claude never spoke. He always announced.  No tea leaves or crystal ball for him. He divined one’s destiny by way of a battered deck of ordinary playing cards. But who cared? A fate foretold with such delightful Shakespearian cadence was surely unquestionable.

Who knows what life he led before fate hastened him up those stairs to proffer reassurance of the future for the price of a silver coin to supplement his pension? Few in those days documented the life of the ho-mo-sex-U-arhl other than clerks of courts.

Fortitude Valley corruption: The Whiskey Au Go Go Firebombing

At the time I arrived in the Valley, corruption was not openly on view. A few years before, fifteen people died in the firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub on the corner of St. Paul’s Terrace and Amelia Street.

The Whiskey burned down after weeks of newspaper articles about Sydney standover men, extortion rackets and gangland violence. Two other Valley premises burned down in the months previous, club managers found their cars fire-bombed and venue owners posted armed guards.

The day following the crime, Police Commissioner Whitrod announced police had narrowed down the suspect list to a handful of people and were close to catching the killer.

He also mentioned their inquiries into people associated with the club.

“Police,” he said, “knew one former staff member as a supplier of drugs to young people, an embezzler, and a homosexual.”

That person left town soon after. Over the years, he burned too many bridges – or paid to have them burned. He only returned to Brisbane once the Fitzgerald Inquiry kept many of his former business competitors otherwise occupied.

Another gay angle

Commissioner Whitrod never made mention of another gay angle the police followed up.

Apparently a witness remembered three drag queens leaving the Whiskey twenty minutes before the fire erupted. So, the Queensland Police, never adverse at that time to a bit of poofter-bashing, took the opportunity for some sport. They dragged various local drag queens and transwomen into the watchhouse to ‘help with their inquiries’. Three of the local girls, after being stripped naked, bashed and humiliated at the watchhouse, took off to Townsville for a couple of years.

Tina, a local drag queen bartender, who famously went home at the end of each shift to her wife and kids, copped the worst of it. The police held a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun contained no bullets. However, this went on for hours. Traumatised by the experience, she packed up the wife and kids and moved to Sydney. There she ran first Tina’s Bar and later Tina Louise’s.

It is unlikely the police genuinely suspected the drag queens and transwomen. They simply needed to show themselves occupied by a rigorous investigation while they decided how to resolve the situation without causing damage to themselves.

Who was responsible?

Despite ongoing controversy, there is little doubt the two men jailed for the crime, lit the fire. However, the identity of the person who paid the arsonists supposedly remains elusive. That is quite honestly bullshit. A perusal of Matthew Condon’s superb trilogy on crime and corruption in Queensland will leave the reader in no doubt what occurred. A read of Geoff Plunkett’s The Whiskey Au Go Go MassacreMurderArson and the Crime of the Century will also prove illuminating.

I suspect, and hope, we will one day have the opportunity to read a further volume from Matthew Condon on that horrendous event.

After the commotion caused by the Whiskey firebombing, the crims and corrupt cops laid low for a while and things were still fairly discreet in 1976. Of course, as we all know, it would not stay that way.

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