Stephen Russell spoke to two of the key players of The Market about the end of an era
As the final flecks of glitter settle on the ribbon-strewn dance floor of The Market’s final night party on May 28, Melbourne will wake up to a gay scene that’s sadly diminished and facing an uncertain future.
Almost twelve years ago, 43-year-old Spiro Condos had a grand vision when he purchased the Commercial Road nightclub then known as Three Faces. He wanted to create an outstanding venue where gay clubbers could experience some of the world’s top international DJs, raising the profile of the place from just another of Melbourne’s many drag show venues to something far bigger, bolder and brighter.
It wasn’t necessarily an easy transition. For one thing, Condos had zero hospitality know-how, hailing from an IT background. “I chose the best people in the business to run it for me, because I had no idea how to run a club,” he laughs. “I just knew I wanted a great dance floor, fabulous sound system and fantastic lights, and to bring out some of the best artists in the world, like Louis Vega, Frankie Knuckles and Dave Morales.”
Convincing the regulars that Three Faces’ change was for the best was a hurdle. “At first people were taken aback by the change in direction, and they were a little intimidated by the big sound. They hadn’t heard or seen anything like it before on Melbourne's scene.”
Thankfully the scene caught on quickly and by 2000 the crowds were huge. Condos was savvy enough to package things right, getting performance artists involved in live dance acts, whipping the club goers into a frenzy. “We used a lady who would come up with amazing acts we could put into the shows. The music never stopped, they were a part of it.”
The Market Hotel, complete with heritage facade, dates back to 1870. It saw two name changes, Three Faces and Checkpoint Charlie, before Condos reinstated the original name. She's undergone a few facelifts over the years, most notably with the inclusion of a huge roof terrace with stunning city views. Condos laughs when I say that sometimes you go up there for a cigarette and forget to come down. “That’s exactly why I never put toilets or a bar up there, so you have to go back downstairs.”
Despite repeated rumours over the years that the fabled venue would close its doors and become luxury apartments, a Bunnings or even a Coles, Condos says he had no intention to sell until September last year. “Almost twelve years is enough. It’s time for me to relax and let someone else take the reigns.”
Unfortunately the question of just who, exactly, that is and what they’ll do with the venue has erupted into something of a scandal. Despite assurances the club would remain gay, the new owners, including AFL player Glen Archer, have subsequently hinted that it will, at best, be ‘gay-friendly’.
“They’re holding their cards pretty close to their chest,” says Condos. “I don’t think it will be a gay space as we know it now. I don’t think you'll feel comfortable holding hands with or kissing your boyfriend. That’s one thing The Market always gave you.”
With the final night looming on May 28, many in the gay community are beginning to realise what they had just as they’re about to lose it. Commercial Road’s days as a hub of Melbourne’s gay dance scene are over. The two remaining gay clubs, Collingwood's The Peel and St Kilda's Greyhound, are pop-driven, drag focused and have a totally different vibe, though the latter has cunningly undergone massive renovations and extended to accommodate the Market refugees.
Working the Market door since day one, Brett Willis says the sense of loss is palpable. “A lot of patrons are saying you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” he says. “People get complacent and only come out when they have friends from interstate. It’s going to leave a big hole.”
He's seen his fare share of interesting sights across the years. One trend he `argues led to the decline of gay clubbing is the inexorable rise of Grindr, the GPS-enabled cruising app. “Grindr has taken a lot of business from us,” he says. “I had a friend staying in the hotel across the road and he was going to come over until he found there was someone in the room above him, so he never made it out.” Willis laughs recalling one time he went up to the roof terrace and witnessed a gaggle of gay guys furiously checking their Grindr. “I felt like saying ‘look up’.”
A big fellow, Willis says he’s lucky to have the gift of the gab when it comes to diffusing hairy situations, though he did once have to physically manhandle a guy off his nut on drugs. “He was going feral and security couldn’t handle him, so I had to physically restrain him. I’d just got a new jacket and when I stood up I'd ripped the sleeve.”
Usually his cheerful charm is more than enough to keep folks in line, though he has heard every excuse in the book. “You get the ones who say, ‘don’t you know who I am?’, and you can always tell who is from Sydney too. They have a definite attitude and will walk to the front of the queue. I always say, ‘see the long line, that’s the Sydney one’. You can pretty much say what you like as long as you have a big smile.”
Willis has met many celebrities over the years, some more down to earth than others. “Zoe Badwee is really nice, and footy player Russell Robertson once turned up with his wife for a mate's birthday, but the worst one was Christine Anu – total diva. I was a fan of her music and asked if I could get a photo with her. She said no and turned her nose up. Not a fan anymore. You’re paid to be here, so work the room."
Some of the biggest surprises have come when his gaydar hasn't functioned properly. “Sometimes it looks like you have two straight thugs in the queue, and it turns out they’re boyfriends.
Then you get straight guys who look like thugs who turn out to be the most gay-friendly guys you’ll meet.” So is Willis dreading the chaos of the final night? “I’ve worked a few insane nights over the years, so luckily I know what to prepare for,” he says. “It’s already one in one out, and people who’ve never queued before in their life will have to. People are desperate for tickets. I bet they end up on eBay.”
Condos has many fond memories and, like many who have known and loved The Market, he says it’s often the random nights with no big draw card that stick in mind. “We were always sure the nights like Morales, Vega or Renee Geyer would go off, but some of the best were the low key ones with good friends and a local crowd that was just electric.”
When the last night rolls around, the electricity is set to short the switchboard and will blast on bleary-eyed until 11am the following day. Nineties dance star Alison Limerick is set to perform her mega hit ‘Where Love Lives’, an oft-quoted mantra on the club's promotional posters, as well as two top secret guests amidst a plethora of performers, from fire eaters to stilt walkers, including one set piece with 40 dancers crammed onto a catwalk. One thing's for sure, The Market will not go quietly into the night.
The Market Hotel, 143 Commercial Road, South Yarra 3141, 03 9826 0933