Arts / Music

Ballroom Blitz

Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Spotted Mallard, Brunswick’s newest music venue has a long and storied history. Mark Phillips speaks to the owner.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Inside the Brunswick Ballroom, with the Leonard French stained glass dome in all its glory. Photo: Brunswick Ballroom

THERE’S a neat symmetry about the location of Sydney Road’s newest venue, the Brunswick Ballroom. Cross the tram tracks 20 metres to the other side of Sydney Road and you arrive at the site of the legendary Bombay Rock, which during the late-1970s and 1980s hosted a who’s who of Australian music royalty, from INXS to Cold Chisel to the Boys Next Door along with international acts like Bo Diddley and The Knack.

No doubt, the two men behind the Brunswick Ballroom — Andrew Kay and Will Ewing — would like for their own venue to leave that kind of legacy one day. But for now, they are just happy to have successfully opened a new music venue after a year the performing arts world would rather forget.

On March 13 last year, Ewing, an actor and musician, had just embarked on a national tour with the Farnham Band, making it as far as Geelong, when like everyone in the industry he was immediately sent home by government public health directives which shut down all live performance in a bid to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Kay, veteran theatre producer and concert promoter who has spent decades bringing world renowned artists to Australia, similarly found himself in limbo.

Another victim of the forced closures was the Spotted Mallard, the popular live venue in the upstairs ballroom at Metropolis House at 314 Sydney Road.

One thing led to another, and now the Spotted Mallard has been converted into the Brunswick Ballroom, which held its official opening gala on March 4 with a night of cabaret hosted by Eddie Perfect and Margot Tanjutco.

The venue had quietly opened its doors a fortnight before with early shows including a tribute to Roland S. Howard’s Pop Crimes album, featuring Howard’s former Birthday Party comrade Mick Harvey, and an intimate solo show by the much-loved Tim Rogers.

“When COVID hit, it sent my career into a bit of a holding pattern as it did for so many industry people in Australia and basically, Andrew Kay, who’s the father of my partner, and I got together and thought let’s do something a bit creative, a bit interesting and a bit mad,” Ewing says. “In this current climate, you’ve got to be creative and turn lemonade out of lemons.

“I’ve lived in North Fitzroy the last 12 years, so I’m a local, I knew the venue, I knew its potential and I knew the bones of the place, and Andrew definitely did also, and saw what could be, and here we are.”

The partners have leased the space from the building’s owner John Apostolakos, who in another piece of historical coincidence, also ran Bombay Rock in its heyday. Originally a hat factory built in 1923, Apostolakos established the venue as the Metropolis Ballroom in the 1960s, and over the years it has been used for wedding receptions, a French restaurant, and in its most recent incarnation, a live music space.

Looking across Sydney Road at the Brunswick Ballroom from the front of the former Bombay Rock venue. Photo: Brunswick Ballroom

After taking over the lease in November, they immediately set about renovating the building. Ewing won’t say how much he and Kay spent on the refit, but they have effectively refurbished it from top to bottom. The stage has been repositioned from the centre of the room to the far end and state of the art lighting, sound and mixing desks have been installed.

“Extensive renovations were needed,” Ewing says. “We’ve reconfigured the stage, complete brand new kitchen, toilets have been refurbished, accessibility has been improved. The complete design and layout of the room. Everything’s been repainted, replastered.”

Plush red velvet curtains and a dark paint job give the interior a David Lynch ambience while Kay’s wife painstakingly cleaned the two huge chandeliers with vodka. Another highlight is the two stained glass domes in the ceiling, supposedly designed by Leonard French, responsible for the stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria, which had to be fully restored as they were so dirty that daylight couldn’t penetrate them.

Among the friends from the music industry who helped with the fitout was You Am I frontman Tim Rogers, who spent several days with a paint brush during summer. Fittingly, Rogers was one of the first artists to perform at the venue with a solo acoustic gig to a full house on March 3. Most of the staff also have music or acting backgrounds.

Tim Rogers and You Am I bandmate Davey Lane performing at the Brunswick Ballroom on March 3.

Ewing says the venue’s total capacity is 300 (reduced to about 200 while COVID restrictions remain), and it is flexible enough to host a seated dinner and show, or a stand up rock gig, such as next week’s album launch by the highly touted three piece Bitch Diesel during the Brunswick Music Festival.

The opening of the new venue has for some artists been their first opportunity to perform in front of a live audience in the flesh for 12 months, resulting in some “anxious moments”, Ewing says.

“Big names, small names and everything in between — I’m talking massive anxiety, about ‘wow, I haven’t done this for ages, this is crazy’.”

Upcoming gigs also include the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Kate Ceberano, and a rare performance by classical pianist David Helfgott (immortalised by Geoffrey Rush in the acclaimed 1996 film Shine). Music Victoria Hall of Famer Mary Mihelakos is the venue’s booker.

“I want the Brunswick Ballroom to be one of the premier live music venues in Australia. I want it to be a home to many different genres and a welcoming and inviting place to everyone,” Ewing says.

“We want it to be a place that has an eclectic curation but also, you’ll see some names on our bill and wonder ‘Who is that? But we trust the Brunswick Ballroom to book and curate incredible acts even if we haven’t heard of them. We know we can go on the off chance and just have an incredible night’.”

The venue is also partly inspired by the Continental Club, the legendary venue in Greville Street that left “a gaping hole” in Melbourne’s entertainment scene when it closed in 2001.

In addition to the main room, there is a bar downstairs and space for exhibitions of photos and artwork, beginning with a small show of classic black and white photographs taken in the 1980s by David Parker, whose subjects included Molly Meldrum interviewing Prince Charles, a young Michael Gudinski, Skyhooks, AC/DC, and Cold Chisel performing at Bombay Rock in 1981. Before he moved into film-making beginning with Malcolm and The Big Steal, Parker was the official behind-the-scenes photographer for Countdown.

Preparation for the exhibition resulted in a “spooky moment”, Ewing says.

“We were just hanging up Michael Gudinski’s frame and Andrew walked down the stairs and announces to David Parker, who knew Michael well, and to John Apostolakos who started Bombay Rock across the road, that Michael’s just passed. We were just putting it [the photo] up. It was really spooky.”

Perhaps the man known as the Godfather of Melbourne’s music scene was watching over the Brunswick Ballroom as another chapter was being written in the scene’s history.