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Rediscovering Ultimo’s Phoenician Club

The Phoenician Club was a highly influential music venue in the eighties and nineties.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

Sometimes, on walks, my roommate will stop to take photos of the charismatic facades of buildings around the inner city. It’s hard to tell the life of a building from the outside, I think, because the outside can better conceal the markings of change. 

On the corner of Mountain St and Broadway, Gadigal Country, stands a three-storey cream-coloured building with brown trimming. On the top floor, a semicircle-shaped window displays a sign that reads, “FOR LEASE.” The building is not far from the University of Sydney, just across Victoria Park. But you may not have noticed it. Built in 1911, this unassuming building bears a fascinating history. It has been continually repurposed throughout its century-long life. Beginning as a cinema, it was converted first to a discothèque, then a ballroom, and most famously to the iconic music venue the Phoenician Club. 

173 Broadway, 2021. Image Source: Hugo Wilson

After the Phoenician Club shut down in 1998, the building was split into smaller, corporate and commercial premises. It is currently divided into a City Mart, a Wokmaster restaurant, and office spaces upstairs. Despite having been used as a large-scale entertainment venue for most of its life, the building is unlikely to ever be reassembled as one premise. Like many urban structures,  it has been repeatedly repurposed, each time adapting to its surroundings and attracting new demographics. 

I came to know 173 Broadway in high school. It’s perched on the corner of Mountain Street, just down the road from my school, and right near my bus stop. I would regularly stop at the City Mart to get gum, cheap American root beer and an opal card. I’ve since seen many photos of the building from years ago. The structure is substantially the same, only sometimes the colours were reversed; brown with a cream trim. The City Mart door is the original entrance to the Phoenician Club, whilst the entrance to Wokmaster has been carved out of the original building’s side wall. 

I discovered, by chance, a little of this building’s history last year. I was drinking Sambuca with my partner and his godfather Paul. Paul was playing us Jeff Buckley’s LP Grace. He recounted that the most mesmerising concert he had ever experienced was Buckley at the Phoenician Club in 1995. Not only was the concert so memorable, but Paul expressed that the building on Broadway will always, for him, be associated with that show: “Every time I pass by what was the Phoenician Club, on the bus or on foot, I always think of Jeff. I feel his spirit, our spirit, will always be there,” he said. 

The Phoenician Club was a highly influential music venue in the eighties and nineties, hosting acts like Jeff Buckley, Silverchair, Powderfinger, INXS, Nirvana, and My Bloody Valentine. There is, apparently, a commemorative plaque outside the building which notes its history, but in all my years of schooling I never spotted it. Intrigued by this deceptively average building, I scoured through online newspaper archives to uncover the secret lives of 173 Broadway. 

The building was constructed in 1911 as the Broadway Theatre. In this era, the Theatre bore a neon “BROADWAY” sign that ran vertically down the facade, beside the semicircle-shaped window. The theatre initially screened only silent films, however, in the late twenties it was adapted for sound. Families flocked to Broadway Theatre to see movies like Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life, The Wizard of Oz, and The Bride of Frankenstein. The Theatre was by far the longest occupant of 173 Broadway, running for nearly five decades. In 1952, misfortune struck the theatre. In 1952, the Theatre was the site of a two man armed robbery. At 9.45pm on a Thursday in May, the perpetrators entered the Theatre’s office and held a gun to manager Mr Williams. After leaving the Theatre with £115, they escaped by car and sped towards central. The car aroused the suspicion of nearby police as its interior light had been switched off. Police followed the car and eventually arrested the perpetrators on Harris St. As TV came to rise, the Theatre officially closed in 1960. 

In 1968, the building was purchased by 28-year-old John Spooner, then-owner of the popular teens’ discothèque John Henry’s. Spooner reopened the Broadway premises as Jonathan’s Disco, a venue catering to a more mature crowd than John Henry’s, and boasting impressive live brass bands. According to an article in The Bulletin, Spooner “spent $60,000 on silver walls, plush lounges, shaped Perspex lighting and a sound system of infinite complexity.” Jonathan’s became pivotal in the rise of iconic Australian band Sherbet. In 1970, the band played an eight-month residency there, tirelessly performing seven hours a night, four nights a week. It was during this residency that Clive Shakespeare, who would later become Sherbet’s lead vocalist, discovered the group. Tragically, the building’s time as Jonathan’s was brought to an early end, as a fire completely destroyed the interior in 1972. 

Jonathan’s Disco’s interior post-fire, 1972. Image Source: City of Sydney Archives.

For four years the interior was left in its dilapidated condition, while the outside remained deceptively intact. In 1976, the premises caught the eye of Sydney’s notorious baker, ballroom dancer and bulldozer Keith Whatman, possibly the most interesting character associated with 173 Broadway. Whatman began his career as a baker, but was forced to quit after developing an allergy to flour. Eventually, he found great success in his demolition company Whatman Is Wrecking Pty Ltd. The Sydney Morning Herald described Whatman as “short and nuggety, built much like the bulldozer he operates as if it were an extension of his body.” He was affectionately nicknamed “the Godfather” by his employees. Nevertheless, Whatman must have had a certain grace, as he was an accomplished, medal-winning and passionate ballroom dancer. 173 Broadway was his passion project. He converted the fire-damaged building into a large ballroom where dance lessons were held. Unfortunately, Broadway Ballroom only lasted four years. Its failure, according to Whatman, was due to the emergence of new dance styles like disco, which turned people away from dance lessons. Whatman was heartbroken by his ballroom’s failure, so devastated that he admitted to The Sydney Morning Herald, he always avoided driving past the building, despite the inconvenience. 

In 1980, the building was leased to Sydney’s Maltese community, who named the building the Phoenician Club. The Club hosted numerous social events; reunions, fundraisers, and in 1986 a chess tournament featuring Women’s International Master Diane Savereide and joint Australian champion Craig Laird. With the Club’s license to sell liquor and relatively large capacity, it was able to derive the majority of its income from live music events. Their most famous gig, without doubt, was Nirvana’s performance in January 1992, just two weeks after their infamous Saturday Night Live appearance.

The Phoenician Club, mid 1980s. Image Source: City of Sydney Archives

At the time, Nirvana was riding the immense wave of success following their sophomore album Nevermind. The Phoenician Club show was one of those rare occasions where, between a show’s booking and its date, the band blew up. Nirvana could have sold out a venue three, maybe ten times bigger than the Club, which only hosted around 1000 people. A video of the full concert is available on YouTube, and it is as crowded, chaotic, entrancing and bootlegged as you’d expect. Audience members began stage diving just two minutes into the opening song. “[T]he downstairs area was an elastic mass of churning, leaping and slam-dancing fans from the first note,” Jon Casimir wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. It was Nirvana’s first Australian gig. And with the lucky intimacy of the venue, many claimed the show was one of Nirvana’s best.

Though the Phoenician Club didn’t officially close until 1998, it was events that occurred three years earlier that ultimately shut it down. By this stage, the Phoenician Club had garnered a grimy image, having attracted attention for regularly hosting raves inspired by the dance scene in Manchester. In October 1995, fifteen-year-old Anna Wood passed away in hospital, two days after taking ecstasy at a Phoenician Club rave event. Her cause of death was hypoxic encephalopathy, following acute water intoxication secondary to MDMA ingestion. 

Wood’s tragic death intensified pre-existing public anxieties about the overlapping of raves, youth and drugs. On the grounds of breaches of the Registered Clubs Act, the Phoenician Club was fined $100,000, and its function authority was suspended for six months. Further restrictions from the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing followed, and the club finally closed in 1998. 

The walls of 173 Broadway have provided stability and continuity to the building over the years. The inside has been burned, ripped up and renewed many times, but the walls have stayed the same. Within them, pairs shyly approached each other on plush lounges whilst Sherbet performed “Cassandra” under Perspex lights. Some may have found freedom in the mosh of the Manchester-inspired raves of the early nineties. Gigs at the Phoenician Club may have left impressions that haven’t subsided in decades. And, occasionally, schoolkids come there to buy root beer on humid Friday afternoons. 

Last night, my roommate showed me a photo of a terrace behind the Lansdowne. I wondered who once shared that house, and whether they frequented the Phoenician Club, or Jonathan’s, or even Broadway Theatre. I wondered how many invisible ley lines might cross the city, between the Phoenecian Club and the homes of all the people so drawn to it for so many decades.