Kings Cross evokes many responses these days. Some will tell you the area is dead, killed off by the lockout laws and ever encroaching gentrification. Others have a more positive outlook and look to the precinct’s remarkable history as a blueprint for its resurrection. Somebody very much in the latter camp is curator Olivia Ansell who has put together a series of twelve highly entertaining talks for this year’s Vivid Festival under the banner of ‘Kings Bloody Cross’.
It’s fair to say that KC runs in Olivia’s veins as she hails from a long line of musicians, dancers and magicians – many of whom were associated with the halcyon days of the Cross.
She remembers how her “Dad would come home from playing the late night shift at the Bourbon & Beefsteak. He’d have fists full of burnt $100 notes. Underworld figure Lenny MacPherson had been in and demanded the band play a few encores – with flaming $100 tips thrown one song at a time. I became fascinated with the stories of the Cross – so many legends, from Les Girls to Abe Saffron, Kenneth Slessor, Juanita Nielson and Carmen the Snake Dancer.”
Under three different categories, ‘People‘, Bohemia’ and ‘Place’, Olivia has assembled an impressive cast of writers, journalists, dancers, radicals, musicians and personalities – all with a wonderful story to tell. No discussion of the Cross, past or present would be complete without the involvement of longtime residents Louis Nowra and Mandy Sayer, the current torch bearers of the area’s literary legacy that includes writers such as Patrick White, Kenneth Slessor, Barry Humphries and Frank Moorhouse. As Nowra notes:
“Every important Australian writer at one time stayed here or wrote about it”, citing Kings Cross as a source of inspiration for some of Australia’s most notorious scribblers.
Likewise, whilst many of the Cross’s notable characters are long since deceased, the indestructible Vittorio Bianchi continues to hold fort, in what is probably the last bastion of the bohemian era, his much loved Piccolo Bar in Roslyn Street. Along with his neighbour and actor Vashti Hughes, Vittorio with his almost photographic memory will recall five decades of the tiny coffee shop’s incredible history.
The criminal milieu has always been inseparable from the Cross and journalist Kate McClymont will host The Underbelly Experience, with former KC police constable Deborah Locke and Screentime’s Greg Haddrick. Whilst street walkers are now almost extinct along the glittering mile they were once a fixture in the 70s and 80s. ‘Sex & The City’ will feature Julie Bates, Principal of Urban Realists, and one of the first female sex workers to tread the boards at the Nevada – the infamous Kings Cross brothel on Bayswater Rd that boasted the the biggest bed in the Southern Hemisphere,
I asked Olivia, despite the gangsters, the punch ups and the at times sordid episodes – why do you think Sydneysiders still have so much affection for Kings Cross, albeit if much of it is based on nostalgia? She explained:
“Because, Kings Cross gave Sydney its personality. The flamboyancy, flirtatiousness, underworld and risqué activity made the joint exciting. After the conservatism of the Menzies era, Sydney was ready for change, which the Whitlam Government infamously paved. The golden years of the Cross, where live music, variety shows, exotic dining and all night entertainment kept the city alive. Everyone minded their own business and respected their neighbours, turning a blind eye was part and parcel of running a successful establishment.”
That certainly sounds like a blueprint for the future and who’s to say that this quintessential part of Sydney’s culture and history will not once again flourish like it did in the 60s, 70s and 80s. We can only hope.
May 27-June 11, Various performance times. The World Bar, 24 Bayswater Rd, Kings Cross. $50. Tickets & Info: www.hiddensydney.com.au