A Brief History
of The Imperial’s Journey To Now
For 35 incredible years, The Imperial Hotel Erskineville has flown a rainbow banner in support of Pride and LGBTQI rights. The history (or her-story for Drag Race fans) is rich, colourful, diverse and little bit naughty… Safe to say that the importance of this venue is a huge responsibility, and everyday we thank our lucky stars, ghosts and fore-mothers for the opportunity to hold the keys to the Queendom.
Like any story, there are highs and lows, heart-ache and victories – so buckle up buttercup, here is the Brief History of an Institution:
1881: George Henry Wright purchased the lot where the first hotel was built. In the late 19th Century the inhabitants were originally market gardeners, though brick makers and tanning became the dominant industries. Developing into a working class inner city suburb, with a proud history of resistance and less proud history of street violence.
1940: The Imperial Hotel we all know and love was constructed to the design of architect Virgil D. Cizzio. And to quote the history books it was a “…fine example of an Inter-War Functionalist Style hotel” and a classic example of art deco that was famous in the day. Post WW2, the Greek and later Yugoslav migrants found it an affordable suburb to settle in changing the dynamic of the area to be much more multi-cultural.
1940 The Public Bar > 2018 The Front Bar on Ground Floor
1940 Ladies Lounge > 2018 Priscillas Restaurant
1940 The Saloon Bar > 2018 Passage to Basement and Priscillas
1970’s: Erskineville and Newtown underwent gentrification with the new residents being attracted to the village atmosphere, proximity to the city and public transport links. The Gay and Lesbian community playing a big part of the first wave.
1983: The Imperial Hotel and Newtown Hotel were purchased by Dawn O’Donnell, a prominent Sydney entrepreneur and supporter of the Sydney LGBT community. Born in 1928 in Paddington, Dawn was a promising international ice skater, however her career was cut short due to an injury. Following a marriage that lasted “all of two months” she ran a butchers shop in Ultimo, before purchasing The Trolley Bar (off Broadway) in 1968, followed by a gay bath-house in Bondi Junction, and Capriccio’s in 1969. Capriccio’s was a gay nightclub on Oxford Street, famous for its drag shows and popular among celebrities worldwide.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Dawn built her legacy among the Sydney bar and club scene in Oxford Street and East Sydney, catering to the gay and lesbian community and providing a safe space to “come out”. Dawn was notorious for posting bail to release gay men who had been taken into police custody (homosexuality was still a criminal offense in NSW until 1984).
Photos of Dawn courtesy of Brian Williams.
“It was 1984, ‘transexuality’ didn’t exist. I was just a gay man who hated my body and hated myself…” Those early days in Sydney were tough, she says, but by the time she found herself living in Newtown, she quickly learned she wasn’t alone. “I was a freak sure, we sort of internalised that idea I guess, but we all had each other and we were all freaks––back then I was a ‘cross-dresser’, a ‘transvestite’.” She pauses. “And The Imperial that was the centre of my life, the centre of my freakness, my friends’ freakness”. Vicky, from The Life and Death of an Institution
“I became a great friend of Caroline’s (Clark) and I helped her make costumes for the Imperial. When she started the Priscilla show in 1993 Wyness Mongrel-Bitch was out fundraising for World AIDS Day and she kept getting drunker and drunker. They were ringing her and ringing her, and eventually there were some friends who lived next door and they shook her and woke her up. Wyness you’ve got to work, you’ve got to go to the Imperial. Caroline’s there, Rose is there, what’s missing? Talent. She ignored them.
So that’s how Wyness got the sack and I started working with the Imperial.”
Mitzi MacIntosh, from The Star Observer Online
In 1993, a low-budget feature film crew shot its glittery opening and closing scenes in the Front Bar of the Imperial. With Australian actors Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce lip syncing to “I’ve Never Been To Me” on the bar top dressed in drag. The crew then drove from Sydney to Alice Springs with a truck full of sensational costumes and a pink and lavender bus, producing a film that would become a worldwide smash-hit and a watershed production for the LGBT movement.
Photos L-R clockwise: Opening scene of PQOTD (MGM), Mitzi, Wyness & Farren at Imperial in 2002 (The Guide), Mitzi for BINGAY fundraiser at Imperial in 1999 (Star Observer), Lizard Costumes PQOTD (MGM)
Priscilla Queen of the Desert put the spotlight on the drag queen scene in Sydney, with The Imperial Hotel being recognised for playing its part for drag and performance in pub bars. The story of Priscilla, the character Mitzi based on Sydney drag icon Cindy Pastel (portrayed by Hugo Weaving in the film). Cindy Pastel a prominent advocate for AIDS awareness in the 1990s, has always struggled with the fame that came with Priscilla and regrettably some bitterness towards her involvement with the film, not having benefited financially from the further commercialisation of the franchise.
“Post-Priscilla, all the (Oxford Street) pubs became very commercialised. Heterosexuals were coming to gawk at what this Priscilla film was all about. It ended up changing the entire scene. Destroying it really. From then most queers would go to Newtown, because they didn’t want to be gawked at as part of some big commercialised thing.” Paul Capsis, from The Life and Death of an Institution
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Newtown and Erskineville were still relatively grungy with a punk influence, The Imperial playing home to drag shows and infamous sex parties: “Once upon a time the basement was an illegal cruise sex club. Think sawdust floors, a room full of bathtubs, a motorcycle, slings and a ‘none more black’ darkroom.” Jonny Seymour, The Life and Death of an Institution
Photos L-R clockwise: Mitre 10 King Street 1980s, Reclaim the Streets 1999, Punks ar Railway Square 1980s, King Street 1980s
As the city moved into the noughties, with this the venues ownership changed hands multiple times, suffering under Sydney’s changing laws and legislation around the nightlife scene. From 2007 – 2010, it underwent a multimillion dollar renovation a 24 hour license, increased capacity and an extended basement/club space. At the same time, the Inner West undergoing another wave of gentrification with soaring house prices and developing retail areas – pushing out the Newtown grunge culture of yesteryear. Locals to the area were concerned for potential negative impacts on the neighbourhood placing the Imperial in a cultural predicament.
Come 2015, the venue was famously shut down by the council before being snapped up by Publican Fraser Short (Sydney Collective) and Scott Leach (The Rose of Australia) – “Thinking back about what the venue used to be, Seymour told me this was “school-ma’am tame in comparison to the venue’s debauched past”. Paul Capsis, The Life and Death of an Institution
This brings our humble tale to present day. As the glitter settles on the momentous anniversary of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, celebrating 40 years of love and protest for LGBTQI rights and equality – after an 8 month renovation The Imperial is lovingly restored to her former glory. Paying tribute to the buildings art deco heritage, retro inspired soft furnishings, performance and drag elements, a platform for new talent both on and off the stage, and a safe space of inclusiveness, to be enjoyed by all.
Photos L-R clockwise: The Huxley’s, Farren Heit, Riot, Broken Heel Festival
Reopening on the eve of Mardi Gras (by the skin of our teeth!), with the Broken Heel Festival queens performing their Priscilla Tribute Show, All Sorts Blackout Divas and the Miss First Nations Finalists and Imperial legend Farren Heit and Felicity Frockaccino welcoming back regulars and newcomers alike. The new look introducing a restaurant and dining area, aptly named Priscillas to pay homage to the film, with a vegetarian forward menu using local and seasonal produce. The venue brought to life with performances and Gay and Queer friendly events 7 nights of the week, and having Mitzi MacIntosh giving her blessing in the opening week in early March 2018.
Photos L-R clockwise: Soil-To-Plate dishes at Priscillas Restaurant, Rahda La Bia, Krystel Kleer, Yazqween and guests, Crabless Crab Fritter and Rose
As we welcome this new era, we look forward to the following acts of the new show. Featuring a wedding chapel for same-sex marriages, a cocktail lounge and rooftop garden bar – there is no limit to what this old girl can do and we are humbled by the overwhelming support and love from the community.
This iconic pub is so important to the history of the LGBTQI community, thank you for the honour and the privilege in allowing us to play our part in this iconic story.
7th November 2008, Scott-Patrick Mitchell https://www.outinperth.com/the-colourul-life-of-dame-cindy-pastel/
12th August 2016, Ben Winsor https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/sexuality/agenda/article/2016/08/12/definitive-timeline-lgbt-rights-australia
30th July 2008, Harley Dennett http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/national-news/new-south-wales-news/honour-for-drag-icon/1016
17th June 2015, Luke Buckmaster https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jun/17/the-adventures-of-priscilla-five-things-you-didnt-know