Manning, I love you

Charles Firth, Anthony Albanese and other Manning alum pay their respects to the iconic bar.

A photo of the front of Manning Building at the University of Sydney on a sunny day Manning Bar has seen a drop in student numbers over the last decade.

For decades, the iconic Manning Bar was the heart of student life at Sydney Uni. We asked the (former) students who loved it to say their farewells.

Anthony Albanese: Leader of the Australian Labor Party, former rabble rouser

Manning Bar was the scene of Informals, band nights (including Mental As Anything, The Allniters, and Died Pretty) and was a great place for lunch or a beer. What the hell is going on at Sydney Uni when bars are shutting?! It is beyond my comprehension how closing down bars at a university cannot be an ongoing concern. Cheers for the memories!

Andrew Hansen consoles Charles Firth following an SRC election loss, from Uni (1997).

Andrew Hansen: Editor of Honi Soit (1996); Comedian, The Chaser

Since the announcement of Manning Bar closing its day trading, I’m hearing many stories of triumphant theatrical successes that left Manning audiences hollering in delight. But my abiding memory of Manning is quite the opposite. What I recall is the astonishing series of failed stand-up comedy routines I was subjected to there in the ‘90s. The Manning management (the Manningment?) launched a lunchtime program called ‘Five Minute Noodles’, where aspiring student comics could attempt a tight five at the mic to see how it flew. I recall one poor student whose routine was so poorly received, he started to gush with sweat. It came like a Biblical flood erupting from his head. But bless him, he forged on to the sweaty end of his five precious minutes regardless. The stage then had to be mopped.

“Five Minute Noodles” was also the first time I laid eyes on Chas Licciardello, who would later become a dear friend and colleague and nuisance. Unfortunately for those of us in the audience, Chas decided against sticking to the five-minute rule, instead preferring a slightly longer stand-up routine – namely, fifty-five minutes. Every one of them hell. That’s as long as a standard comedy festival show, but it felt as long as a standard comedy festival. Mind you, it was tough going only for the audience. Chas seemed to be having the time of his life. The other thing that struck me was that for reasons known only to him, and which never became apparent during the routine, he performed the entire thing wearing a sombrero. Which is why I assumed he was Mexican for about the first eight years I knew him. I can’t help wondering if part of the reason you now get cancelled for wearing a sombrero at a university is because it reminds everyone of Chas’s routine.

But the most catastrophic failure was mine. My confidence unreasonably bolstered by a fairly warmly received Arts Revue that year, I decided to treat Manning Bar to my very own tight five. Only I’d never written a tight five before, or even a tight one. I provided a true though embellished story of being unable to find a toilet at a party. My clueless efforts were justly met with quiet horror, even by the Manning Bar crowd who at that time offered Christ-like levels of forgiveness to weak performances. To mine, they offered Christ-like levels of crucifixion. And fair enough, too, as it was a lazy and dismal piece. It culminated in me describing how I used a rotating lawn sprinkler to wash my arse, circling around the stage doubled over and spreading my cheeks to my silent and dismayed peers. It was so bad, I submitted a written public apology to that week’s Honi Soit. On the upside, the experience taught me to swear off stand-up forever, which is why I remain a songs-and-sketches comedian to this very day.

I can’t help suspecting the eventual closure of Manning Bar’s daytime trading may well be traceable back to these dire performances. If so, please consider this my second public apology in Honi Soit.

Andrew Hansen’s first apology in Honi Soit (1995).

Amanda LeMay (1995-6): SRC Publications Officer

This is the wedding of Kirsti and Davis Claymore. Davis played in one  of the finalist bands of the 1992 Sydney Uni Band comp. Front End Loader along with Frenzel Rhomb. Neither won, except Davis won the bride. The cool kids of the early 90s Sydney indie rock scene were all in attendance. It was a lovely venue and we all definitely felt at home!

Kirsti and Davis Claymore’s Manning wedding.

Nathan Tyler: Manning Bar Manager in the early 2000s

Sad news that Manning Bar is to be no more. It really was the central hub of the campus from when the doors opened at midday. So many memories. Some of the most wonderful people I have met and known were a direct result from Manning Bar.

The “staffies” were awesome. We worked hard(ish) and played hard. We would pack up the bar after a gig and watch the sun come up from the balcony, drinking beer. The bar staff were all such good friends – we worked together and played together. A lot of the crew I used to work with are still really good mates 15/20 years after they worked at Manning.

There are four children I know of as a result of staff meeting their partners at Manning. Mikey and Amy both met there as bar staff a few years before that and they have a daughter now. My wife Skye and I met there 15 years ago and we have three children.

David Killick (Editor of Honi Soit, 1992) at Manning Bar, 1987.

Rob Carlton: Comedian, actor, theatre sports host

My most potent memory of Manning Bar was the Theatre Sports finale in 2001, that was set to occur the night after 9/11. Theatre sports at that time was always sold out, everyone had been really looking forward to it. But we’d woken up to this horrible story, so it was difficult to imagine going through with it. We arrived at uni, and were thinking of calling it off. But I thought of Manning’s history. It’s a gathering place for students, regardless of race, or political or cultural background. It’s a unique notion to be a student, and Manning is the perfect place to be and gather, to grieve and find joy together. 

So we went through with the show. I opened the show differently, it was a quite sbre beginning. The whole place was quiet, not knowing what was going to happen. And I’d acknowledged what had happened, what a terrifying moment that was for the world, how dark it seemed. And then we went on with the show, to have one of the most joyful performances I’d seen.

Manning Bar c. 1970s. Source: University of Sydney archives.

Sam Crosby (2001-5): President Sydney University Union (2004), former Labor MP candidate

Manning Bar was the canvas on which friendships and careers were painted.

During the few years I spent there 2001-2005, comedians like Ed Kavalee and Jordan Raskopoulos kept audiences in stitches of laughter as they honed their craft during weekly theatre sports tournaments. Debaters, public speakers, and budding politicians came to hear then IR minister Tony Abbott debate the likes of firebrand union secretary Doug Cameron or Julia Gillard. Fuelled by large quantities of ice cold beer, the raucous gatherings were loud, but happy.

During the day, the Manning Bar balcony, shadowed by a large jacaranda tree overlooking sandstone edifices gave students the quintessential Sydney University experience. A friend could always be found, or a new friend made, as students squeezed in a drink and a chat in between – or sometimes instead of – classes. Student politicians would accost unwitting first years – unfamiliar with student elections. (Second years were older and knew better.) The earnest aspirant would learn the craft of persuasion and how to connect with voters.

A healthy proportion of politicians who now make up both the NSW and federal parliaments learned their craft in that bar. Musicians would do their bit in helping populate the balcony as they too worked on their art, driving potential audience members outside. But amidst the cacophony, occasionally genius struck. You were reminded that this was the place The Whitlams developed their skills only a few years before. Long debates were had. Philosophy or politics or art or economics or whatever. This is what sticks. The facts gathered in the libraries and lecture halls generally fade, but the friendships forged in that bar endure.

A packed Manning balcony from Uni (1997).

Dom Knight: Editor of Honi Soit (1999); Comedian, The Chaser

For many students, “going to uni” really meant “going to Manning Bar”. Back then the carpet was sticky, the beer was the opposite of craft, and the nachos technically constituted chemical waste, but it all added up to something awesome. The balcony was where lifelong friendships were forged, political plots were hatched, unlikely and/or unwise romances bloomed, and the brokest students could always earn enough for their next schooner by collecting a tower of empty glasses.

Bands comp, trivia and the biggest gigs took place in the evening, but we had entertainment every lunchtime as well, with indie bands like the Clouds and You Am I, to the Three Minute Noodles standup comp that launched a few lasting comedy careers amid many hilarious failures. Then there was the juggernaut known as Theatresports, which packed out the bar every week so students could laugh along as games originally designed to train aspiring actors in the subtle art of improvisation devolved into uproarious dick jokes. But many of those who jumped up on stage and had a go back then are still entertaining people for a living today. In the 1990s, that cruddy venue definitely didn’t look like a cradle, but in hindsight, it was.

The death of Manning Bar has been a long time coming – the Union’s renovation in 1999 expanded the space so it could host bigger, more profitable gigs that appealed to non-students, at the mere cost of the place’s atmosphere. When I was a grad student eight years ago, the campus comedy scene run by groups like Project 52 had already abandoned Manning for the much smaller Hermann’s in Wentworth. 

But the main reason why students no longer drink at Manning is surely the dramatically different economics of student life. With degrees costing far more than they did when I was an undergraduate, and housing costs spiralling ever upwards, especially near campus, who can afford to devote hours to lunchtime comedy fiestas, or just kicking back on the balcony and enjoying a cheap mass-produced beer?

I once wrote a novel about a student election called Comrades, and set the first scene at Manning Bar on a sunny afternoon, because it was absolutely the heart of the campus when I was a student. I assumed it would always be that way. Without Manning, I wonder how much heart the university has nowadays. And I pity the students who won’t get to ‘enjoy’ the sticky-floored, messy, disreputable but unforgettable delights of Manning Bar – which is still the first place that comes to mind when I think about uni.

Anne Britton (1977-81): SRC councillor, (1978-9) Sydney University Senate Fellow (1980), Nina’s mum (1997-)

Yeah there were the “big events” – the bands, stand-up comedy, the parties — and as widely reported, they were fabulous — but my fondest memories of Manning Bar was simply hanging out, between and often during classes. There was a never a shortage of friends and acquaintances with whom to waste what now seems like an obscene amount of time discussing (and pretending to understand) literature, the meaning of life, the internecine struggles of student politics, and the latest outrage perpetrated by the Spartacist League who once labelled me in their weekly newspaper as a ”bilious bourgeois reformist with less morals than Trotsky’s assassin.”

For me, those salad days were to end when I moved to finish the final years of my degree at the unlamented Phillip Street Law School, a miserable light-deprived building in the Brutalist style.  Young people are now criticised for wasting time on social media. They come a very poor second to my generation of students. Vale Manning!

Rebecca de Unamuno (1993-8): Comedian, actress, theatre sports legend

This news makes me really sad. Manning Bar was where I performed stand-up and Theatresports for the very first time It was playing trivia, watching Corky and the Juice Pigs and other amazing comedians at Tuesday lunchtimes, rehearsing big dance numbers for revues, watching Battle of the Bands, eating $2 chips and gravy, collecting empty glasses for 20c until you had enough money for a schooner. It was where student election results were announced, SUDS mail-outs were collated. Where romances began and ended and where life-long friendships were made. I owe so much, including my career, to Manning Bar.

Victoria Zerbst, preparing for Hack Revue (2016) at Manning.

Victoria Zerbst (2014-7): Editor of Honi Soit (2016); Comedian, The Feed

Manning Bar was everything to me.  My first ever date with a uni guy was at Manning Bar. That year (2014) I also played Schapelle Corby in Schapelle! The Musical on the Manning Stage. The musical also starred Alisha Aiken-Radburn as Renee Lawrence and featured legend journos Lane Sainty and Astha Rajvanshi in their stage debuts. 

I spent a week in 2015 writing sketch comedy from 8am-11am in Manning Bar for the Great Engo Revue of 2015 – Engo Aid. In 2016 I went to Manning Bar to watch the results of the US election (the pics made the SMH). That year I also pissed my pants with joy watching my best friend get elected to board (Count on Courtney!) In 2017, Mary Ward (now at SMH) and I hosted Hack Revue, an ICONIC display of tragic hack sketch comedy for the USU election results. It featured an absolute banger about Cameron Caccamo sung to the song “Say Geronimo!” by Sheppard.  I ate so many chips there. Drank so many beers. Watched too much theatresports and got loose at a couple of parties. 

Manning Bar was where I first wrote a sketch by myself for the first time. I sat by myself at a table with a beer in the middle of the day and pumped something out. I can’t remember what but it was definitely bad.

I also recently found a performance studies essay I wrote about the USU Soap Box at Manning Bar in 2017. There is some analysis about the space and its relevance to student life. Weirdly the essay got an HD which makes me sad reading back because it’s mostly bullshit. very poor second to my generation of students. Vale Manning!

Shapelle! The Musical (2014).

Peter McGrath SC

Manning Bar was a bit like Switzerland but much more fun, a centrally located lunchtime oasis of bad sandwiches, worse coffee and alcohol in which the various university faculties and tribes sought alcoholic refuge in unarmed neutrality…or maybe more like the last African waterhole in a drought. Many an afternoon lecture was missed, or at least misunderstood.

The music was a highlight. All free. Vague memories of Ann Kirkpatrick playing in the corner while no one noticed. A Friday evening residency by a band called Terminal Twist. One standout end of term party where Flowers covered every glam rock tune of the entire seventies and we all danced on the tables

Over forty years after I left campus my daughter took me back to see a gig by the Smith Street Band. A big production, unrecognisable from the simple seventies. Not worse, just different.

Fisher Library still smelt the same though!

Verity Firth, Jane Caro and Julia Gillard at Manning Bar (2016).

Verity Firth (1992-8): Former Labor MLC

I remember being swept off my feet (literally) by Robbie Carlton as we stormed our way to the Theatresports finals in ‘93. Gabbi Milgate of “you’re terrible Muriel” fame was also in our team.

I first met the Sydney University Labor Club on the balcony of Manning Bar. We were all reclining on the balcony after the results of the Honi Soit election. I was in the winning team – a “trot” ticket –  and we had beaten the ‘Labor Left’ ticket of the day. That team was headed up by John Graham, now in the NSW Upper House. Although I was part of the winning team I remember being intrigued by the Labor Left team. Later that year I joined the Labor Club and entered the life of student politics.

I remember doing university debates at Manning, drinking far too much when I should have been at lectures, and seeing I don’t know how many performances of “Puppetry of the Penis” – a show that seemed to have a semi-permanent Manning Bar booking.

Once an adult, I returned to Manning Bar in 2015 to host a ‘conversation with Julia Gillard’ – once again the bar was packed. It had barely changed in 20 years. It was like coming home.

Manning Bar is an icon of Sydney University life. I can’t believe it’s going. Vale Manning Bar.

BandComp candids in Honi Soit (1987).

Caleb Cluff (1984-9): Journalist

I was part of a push of students in 1983-84 which included some brilliant people: Matt Ford (Pinky Beecroft) and Tim Freedman were among them. Matt realised Union funds were available to formally organised clubs and so formed The Love Club, to gain finances for libations.

There were the band comps, in which my band Darlings of the Press competed and were promptly disqualified for having certain members of well known Sydney bands appear on stage with us. Ensuing uproar saw the night finish with all the members of competing bands that night get on stage to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

There was another night where about 50 guitarists got on stage Concrete Blonde played a gig there. It was so dangerously full Johnette Napolitano stopped the show. I was down the front and it was surging so much my glasses and cap came off and she stopped playing until they were returned. The Wimmin’s Collective would meet on the top floor. I learnt so much about how the world actually worked from some of those wimmin. Diane Dadich and others.

It was a great place, and always full.

Sketch of Manning Bar in Honi Soit (1992).

Jason Monios (1994-2001)

Ode to Manning Bar

O Manning Bar, student bar, student union.

You were my youth, my childhood dreams of studenthood,

self-righteous wankery that gentled me towards adulthood,

schoonered me across the sea of peer groups and sobriety.

First they tore you down, ripe for renovation:

sanded your edges, cramped your spiky style,

the best graffiti in the southern hemisphere taken.

Then they broke the student union.

A place to congregate, you had lost your congregation.

The synapse never bridged, no leap from the lion’s mouth

across the corporation’s scaly neck.

The character of a nation’s youth middle-manned, Howardised.

Gig economy students broken by debt will never know

your endless afternoons. You were always more

than a beer-soaked carpet, more than a student bar.

You were my union of students.

Students on the Manning Balcony, 1988. Source: University of Sydney archives.

Dr David Smith: Lecturer, Department Government and International Relations

I remember Bob Ellis giving a talk there one lunchtime back in early 2001. He was so drunk he could hardly stand and he opted to read us an article he’d just written for GQ. In the Q&A he predicted the imminent end of the Liberal and National parties (they went on to win the election a few months later). 

The crowd found him boring and incoherent but were keen to get him to do some of his famous rabble-rousing. Someone asked him what he thought of proposals to cut funding to the arts. He said the people responsible were like the Nazis. Cheers from the crowd. That they were like the perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia. More cheers. Then he thundered “THEY ARE JUST LIKE THE PEOPLE WHO TOOK ABORIGINAL CHILDREN AWAY FROM THEIR PARENTS!” Dead silence. He mumbled something about denying human potential and wandered off. 

Charles Firth in Manning Bar, from Uni (1997).

Charles Firth: Editor of Honi Soit (1995); Comedian, The Chaser 

The first time my wife ever saw me, I was standing on a table in Manning Bar. It was about 10am and I was, for reasons I still don’t quite understand given my general lack of integrity, the chief adjudicator of the 1994 Easters Debating tournament. The trendy, hip event on campus.

My wife claims I was dressed in a terrible flannie and a bit drunk. But – come on – it was 10am. Wasn’t everyone?

I’ll be straight: my aim in writing this piece is to argue that Manning Bar added no value to the economy of Australia, nor did it benefit the careers of those who treaded its beer-drenched carpet. My aim is to strenuously argue that the countless hours I spent out on that balcony attempting to flirt with girls by impressing them with my knowledge of undergraduate-level feminist theory was a complete waste of time (it certainly felt like that at the time).

And the cumulative days I spent trawling through that dank bar, lined with the tattered posters of famous bands who’d passed through there, searching for empty schooner glasses to return to the bar to collect the 20c deposit was also a waste of time. Joyous and crazy. But it was time off.  (And it did allow me to buy one more beer for the onerous price of $2.20).

And the weeks and months of time I spent on stage there at lunch, trying out stand up (“Five Minute Noodles”) and doing Theatresports, or crafting new and innovative ways to offend the trots in the next cabaret night, were not a net-positive to the Australian economic output.

That was not its purpose. Its purpose was to provide a place to meet, pickup, and most importantly, play.

When I first heard of the passing of Manning Bar, I found myself justifying my sadness in terms of its productive output. From a cultural perspective, it’s undeniable. Without Manning Bar, Tom Gleeson might not have won a gold logie. Sarah Kendall might not be pumping out high quality BBC narrative comedies. I might have ended up becoming the feminist theorist I was training to be.

Worst of all, without Manning Bar, Andrew O’Keefe might not be Australia’s top rating game show host. Without Manning Bar, where will Australia get its game show hosts?

The bar was always packed on Tuesdays. That was comedy day. My 11am lectures were inevitably across the other side of campus at Merewether, and so I had a mad dash at 12 to make to Manning Bar in time for the start of Theatresports or Five Minute Noodles or whatever the Union had dreamed up. I did consider switching degrees to Education, which was closer to the bar, but the Education Revue was always the worst, so I stuck with Arts.

 Tom Gleeson’s first standup performance at Five Minute Noodles was brilliant. He didn’t tell anyone what was about to unfold. He just told Adam Spencer (who was MCing) that Adam should just keep calling out “Malcolm? Malcolm?” to try and find the next act, the character Tom had dreamed up – a nerdy loser with a thick, ginger wig.

Adam did this, looking as confused as he could, and then the audience heard someone in the toilets next to the stage “I’m coming, I’m coming” yelled the voice from the toilets. A few thumps and bangs and out of the toilet spilled “Malcolm” with his pants around his ankles, falling onto the stage in a mad scramble. At the time we thought it was ground-breaking work. Barry Humphries was nothing compared to this genius.

In a slightly different category was Andrew Hansen’s first stand-up performance. It was a five minute performance so ahead of its time that it put him off doing stand-up for three decades. He opened with a guitar piece singing “Piano Man”. (I personally thought it was the single funniest thing I’d ever seen. The rest of the audience didn’t seem to have a funny bone that day.)

I remember making it through to the Five Minute Noodle Finals one time, and I thought I was a shoo-in, at least for a place. I decided to seal the deal by launching into a highly distasteful and offensive bit about how someone should make a disaster movie about cleft lips. The audience enjoyed it. The judge, not so much. He had a cleft lip.

In management theory, companies spend millions on consultants, getting them to tell them how to create moments of spontaneous, serendipitous collaboration between colleagues. That’s what Manning Bar created for free (as long as you collected enough empty glasses)

At least it did, until 2012. After that, apparently its relevance faded, when smoking was banned, even on the balcony.

My initial reaction hearing about the smoking ban was “so what?” There are plenty of substances that have been consumed in that bar over the years that were banned. But apparently it was quite strictly enforcedIt was evidence-based health and safety policy that brought Manning Bar down. Damn.

Except. We all know it’s not what brought it down. There is no measure for what Manning Bar adds to Sydney University. Modern universities don’t count spontaneous, serendipitous collaboration of students on their spreadsheets. They don’t count play, or making mistakes or meeting the love of your life. Their models don’t take into account that wasting time is good simply because it’s fun.

Instead, they count money. And, it would seem, only money. Just like the rest of the world. Damn.