Goodbye Prince

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Luna Park’s smile is frowning on St Kilda this week as the remnants of a once thriving alternative community reel from the news that the Prince of Wales has been sold with an uncertain future.

John and Lisa Van Haandel, who bought the whole building alongside Frank Van Haandel in 1996, have just sold all the businesses to the Melbourne Pub Group. These businesses include The Prince Bandroom, Mink, The Prince Public Bar, and Circa. For those unaware of what a loss the sale could end up being for Melbourne its best to look at the eclecticism of what this great entertainment hub has achieved….

The Bandroom at the Prince needs no introduction; any music lover in Melbourne has found themselves there at some point in their life. In recent years the stage in there has turned The Cat Empire from playing for beer to playing for a career. It propelled One Love from a club night to a global brand and hosted the last shows of Roland S. Howard (which were both a sellout) in the final 3 months of his life.

The Bandroom’s recent past, in the 1970s and 80s, is littered with just as many great musical contributions to our fair city by the bay as it is now. So much so that to mention any one of the performances back then would be callously degrading to the rest. The Prince Bandroom is a stand-alone icon of the south sides music scene and has received a lot of attention since news of the sale broke last week. What hasn’t been reported by the media though, and may never be, is what lies downstairs beneath it.

The brass bell that calls last drinks in the Prince Public Bar has echoed through the terrace houses of Acland St and the clamor of Fitzroy St for more than seventy years.

Famed cartoonist and all round St Kilda guy, Fred Negro, had his first drink there in 1971 and surmises the venue by saying; “it’s a place where the young and the old, the tattooed kids and the war veterans, can wax lyrical on rock n’ roll, war stories or anything in-between”. Willy Bohndjak migrated from the USSR and started drinking there around the same time as Fred; “I loved it,” he passionately remarked on the first time he went there, “Even people like me were welcome… and we still are!”.

Jimmy, a bouncer who first worked there in 1984 talks to me whilst eyeing off the crowd and checking his radio for a call to arms from any other security officers; “We had a simple rule back then: Everybody is welcome until they make themselves unwelcome”. That motto, however unintended, was a huge driving factor for the many disenfranchised punks, rockers, and other creatives of the 70s and 80s who made themselves, for lack of a better word, a club house there. The home these misfits ended up making is the subject of many rumors, half truths and drunken stories about what is now fondly remembered as a slice of ‘old St Kilda’. Although a lot of it has gone there are still pockets of it around, and being kept alive through the live music of bands like Smoke Machine and The $10 Souls.

Dave Mohll, a highly respected and skillful local musician makes the point that “This (the pub) is one of the last bastions of rock n’ roll this side of the river”. Playing in bands like ‘The Fuck Fucks’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ at the Prince since 1983 he takes a sip of his beer and claims with the utmost of conviction; “If they turn it into a restaurant I won’t be eating their tucker”.

Willy the Russian sums it up best in his hard-not-to-smile-and-nod broken English “if this place goes then all of St. Kilda will go with it”.

It’s not just the crims and creatives on the one side of the pub who made, and make, the old art deco front bar so culturally significant though. On the other  side of such a rough and ready room lies the longest running gay bar in Australia. The saloon bar at the Prince has been gay friendly as early as the end of world war one, as some reports would suggest. Back then, and for a long time since, being openly gay meant you would most certainly be ostracized from your friends and family. The saloon bar provided a sanctuary for those who came out and those not necessarily ready to come out.

Birds of a feather flock together so the saloon became a place of mutual support, where people who hadn’t experienced much in the way of self expression could finally let themselves be themselves.                                                                                                                               “It was a place where we all felt safe,” explains Craig Futcher, a manager of the pub who had his first drink there in 1972 and has remained since.

One of the Prince’s biggest contributions to our country’s queer scene is the infamous Pokeys, where some of the girls from ‘Les Girls’ put on their drag performances every Sunday night. Pokeys was a world class drag show that would never end up being replicated anywhere else in Australia. Renee Scott, one of the star performers back then, remembers it as “a celebration of being gay,” “It was the first time transsexuals, gay boys and lesbians mixed in Victoria”. The last show ended in 1992 after a near fifteen year run. Before, during and since then the saloon has remained more than vibrant underneath that rainbow flag. Monday nights at the bar are still legendary, and old school patrons point out that the only reason the gay pride parade takes place on Fitzroy St is because of the Prince and their early support for alternative lifestyles.

Local patron Neil McNeill, an accompanying pianist for the Australian ballet school, said that to lose the Prince would be to lose “a symbol of the struggle for the Australian gay identity”. Neil, Renee and other locals still play on the piano in there some nights. Sometimes the likes of Gerry Connolly stop by to almost compete with the renditions of favored classical pieces. The fire that was lit in the 1910s may not be as bright as it once burned but the aura and dynamic of such a historical room still lives on.

So this pub which, for about 100 years, has had a bunch of queens in one half and a ragtag bunch of misfits, from skinheads to hippies, in the other is a very rare and special place. The amount of creative force that has emerged from those doors over the years is truly mind boggling.

When the Melbourne Pub Group takeover in mid December let’s hope they can recognise such a significant heritage to the struggle for happy alternate lifestyles and work towards not letting it die. Until then, go and have a drink at the Prince to support the venue which has supported so many of Melbourne’s ‘off the beaten track’ type of people.

Back at the Prince, Renee Scott, (who has kept her affiliation with the Prince for over 33 years) is still working behind the Saloon Bar, I asked her what it would feel like if she were to lose the place: “It would feel like losing a dear, dear family member,” was her only reply as she ran off to serve one of her long standing locals another pot of beer.

by Ethan McLaren

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