Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Magic That Was Sheila’s.

For over 35 years Lyn McGettigan ran pubs in NSW. She didn't have much choice in the matter — she married Brian the Publican (as she still likes to call him). Still she made the job her own and has lived to tell the tale. 

Currently working on a book of her adventures in the hotel business, called Tales of  a Publican's Wife, Lyn is keen to gather stories from those who may have frequented her establishments. 
One of the ventures she managed was Sheila's Tavern in North Sydney, which became a famous watering hole for the famous, the infamous and ordinary punters from all walks of life. In this blog we present some excerpts from Lyn's book and invite any one who has stories from the Sheila's years to leave comments or contact Lyn. 

Rubik's Cube - symbol of the 80s.

 "Sheila’s Tavern opened in 1983 and was largely the brainchild of an amazing ideas man, “Crowie”  John Crowe. Sheila’s was the first of its kind and the prototype for many of the nightclubs and venues that sprang up around Sydney like mushrooms after the rain.
John Crowe’s nickname should be “The Magician” or “The Dream Maker”. Sheila’s was John's embryo. He fed it, nurtured it, watched it grow and then gave birth to it. It was his baby and it became the fantasy of the 80’s; the place where everyone wanted to be, where they could totally be themselves or invent a new persona.

Let's Get Physical and Stay Alive - Powerhouse Museum Exhibit.

 Some people may have dismissed Sheila’s as a “pick-up” joint. It was never envisaged as that, but if that was what happened, so be it. I think that a gentler, gentrified, truer description would be “where girls meet boys and where boys meet girls” and in particular where a female out alone could feel safe. This was what Crowie envisaged.
Crowie had owned Grey’s Bar in North Sydney. Grey’s was a success, so much so that the publicans in North Sydney, (Brian the Publican amongst them), complained so often to the Licensing Police that it was closed down. It was certainly not closed for breach of licensing conditions! That didn’t sit well with Crowie, and he determined to create something that would “blow them out of their minds” – a place so successful that they would rue the day that they crossed swords with The Crowe!
When Crowie decided that he would have the most successful place in North Sydney, he set about to do just that. Before long he had found a great, empty, desolate space – a vacant floor above Shopping World - a new complex in Berry St, North Sydney. It was a huge, with square metres  of columns and cement.

Not the actual space - but it could've looked like this.

Crowie’s vision created 2 bars, an outdoor, covered conservatorium, a 13 bay bistro with a fully-equipped kitchen complete with walk-in freezer, coolroom and dry-goods store. There was a problem with the design of the kitchen area though; the architects wanted to put the coolroom and the freezer outside the kitchen, next to the cellar.  At this time I was studying hotel management at Ryde Tafe and knew this was unworkable. The facilities had to be part of the kitchen. My reasoning fell on deaf ears - there was still a very strong “boy’s club" operating!
“If I can’t beat them, I’ll find someone who can,” I thought. So I went over to Centre Point where the executive chef, Herbert Berger, at that time, was the best chef in Sydney. I had met Herbert when I wanted advice on aspects of my hospitality work and he had showed me over the complex he operated and explained the economics of running a large kitchen. I explained my problem.
“Don’t worry, Lyn,” he said, “I’ll come over and speak to them." He did. The kitchen layout turned out exactly as it should have!
The two bars, one at either end of the tavern, were huge. As they had to be. It was normal that 600 people ate daily in the restaurant area and 1000 were served at the bars at night. On busy nights, there were 8 operatives behind each bar. The architect, Peter Mulroney and the builder, David Newman, did a great job bringing Crowie’s dream to life.
The name, “Sheila’s” did not come about entirely by chance. Crowie had everything in order, the space, the lease, but not the name. It came from a complete stranger; a lady who was sitting next to him on a plane.

“You seem rather quiet,” said the woman, "you must have something on your mind.”
Crowie laughted. He was always laughing. He has a great, infectious laugh.
“I’m trying to think of a name for a place that I’m building in Sydney.” he said.
“What type of place?” she asked.
Crowie described his plans in general, but said, “I want it to be a place where women can walk in, go to the bar, order a drink and feel secure and comfortable.”
At this time pubs were generally far from pleasant places to be in. A woman could drink in any bar, but often the language was not good and the area was inevitably filled with cigarette smoke. Not to be forgotten was the silence that often descended when a woman walked into the public bar, or the many sets of male eyes that followed her.
“I don’t want that kind of atmosphere,” said Crowie, “I want the surroundings to feel comfortable and look attractive.”
The woman thought for awhile.
“Why don’t you call it Sheila’s?” she asked. “If it’s to be upmarket and female friendly, then that would give the right vibe. There is a magazine called “Sheila, she continued, “Why don’t you get in touch with them? It could work well for both of you.”

So Crowie did. The editor of “Sheila” magazine was Pamela Noon and she and Crowie decided that some of the model photo shots could be enlarged and used on the walls.  These were enlarged to beautiful 163cm by 153cm shots and became part of the décor. They were magnificent works of art.
The next problem confronting Crowie was music for the venue, He decided to enlist the help of the Jacobsen’s. Kevin Jacobsen was a well-known show business entrepreneur and at that time was bringing the biggest names in international show business to Australia through his company, Jacobsen Productions. There was also another string to the Jacobsen bow - Col Joye, much loved entertainer and part of the Bandstand mob, who were like one big family. Jacobsen Productions could provide the entertainment and bring any big names who were visiting Sydney to the venue.

So, one Friday all the big names in the music industry met in Jacobsen’s offices. Some of the personalities present were Slim Dusty and Michael Edgley, amongst others. Crowie described his vision and his dilemma- what type of music would be most suitable?

Slim Dusty was involved in planning the music venue side of Sheila's.

The guys argued. Finally, they said to Crowie,
“Look John,” we could argue here all day and not come to a decision, We could charge you a fortune for a piece of paper that would mean nothing. So, we will leave it up to you.”
With that, Crowie decided that it was time for a beer and lunch. With later thought he decided that 60’s music would be the most appropriate. Crowie was miles ahead of his time in the Sydney music scene. He owned the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills which was the “birthing’ place of many great bands. Crowie knew what he wanted so he set out to make “Sheila’s” the music venue of Sydney. In actual fact, it was probably THE music venue of Australia and many great bands such as TheCockroaches, One Hit Wonders and many, many more, played there.

The Cockroaches played at Shelia's
 It also hosted stand- up comedy nights. One comedian I remember was Vince Sorrenti,  who was one of  many. To do this, Crowie built a fully set-up stage, lights, sound, curtains, with a mixer box and a DJ. There was a huge parquetry dance floor in front. This wore out within one month and had to be replaced with marble. This marble was too soft, so had to be replaced, after a week, on one frantic Sunday night by a team of workmen, with harder marble. It lasted! The bands were not forgotten; there was a band room out the back with lounges for their breaks and of course, occasional tables for their “riders”. “Riders” was a list of the drinks that the band wanted (within reason), and these were supplied by the venue.
Beside the stage were two video screens, one on each side. Especially selected videos were played 24/7. These videos were selected on a weekly basis , made especially for “Sheila’s” and regularly rotated. Some of the songs that I particularly remember were those of Annie Lennox and the Eurorhythmics- notably “Sweet Dreams are Made of This”.  The sound and videos were managed by a super DJ called Bret, who was the bane of everyone’s life, but they were also the bane of his!

The Eurythmics clips played on the video screens.

I thought that Brett was really kind and considerate. He knew that I loved the song, “Oh What a Night” sung by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and he stopped whatever he was playing and put it on when ever I walked onto the premises.
“Do you remember Brett?” I asked my mate Bernice the other day as we were reminiscing over old times and I was waxing lyrical on what a great staff we had at “Sheila’s” and how they were always industriously doing their job whenever I walked in unexpectedly at night to check up.
“You know, he knew that I loved “Oh what a night” and always played it when I arrived. I thought that was really nice.”
“Did you?” responded Bernice. He played that to alert the staff that you were on the premises. You were pretty tough in your day.”
“Oh!” was all that I could reply as my mouth remained open.
Now, before the building started, Crowie had most of his team- the architect, the builder, the show biz gurus. But he needed someone to run it. He approached his accountant, Kevin and outlined his ideas. He wanted to complete the compatible partnership of seemingly unlikely people (Crowie was running his own hotel); an entrepreneur to bring celebrities there and a builder.

“Mate, do you know a good bloke to run this?”
Kevin did! Brian the Publican.
Brian was the ideal choice- he was larger than life and was a great PR person and he had a hard-working wife- me! Brian the Publican also had the advantage of being well known in North Sydney- to bankers, advertising, radio and TV personalities, footballers and police.
So with the stage set, the meeting was convened in the dining room of the Union Hotel- where, after a few ales had been consumed downstairs in the Corner Bar of the Union Hotel, made for a very amenable meeting. In this amiable mood all agreed to be part of this new concept and were prepared to give it a go. When word of what they were doing got around the hotel industry, the general consensus of old-style publicans was that it would be a failure.

Crowie spoke to a radio announcer and described his concept, right down to the shocking pink baby grand piano and the chauvinistic coasters. I doubt that the name; chauvinistic ”Sheila’s”, with its bright pink logo of hat, rose and champagne glass could ever have been used today. Neither could the coasters with their ”Sheila's, naughty but nice, “  “Sheila’s, the best pick up in town”, “Climax your week at Sheila’s”. There were twenty of these!!
 “It won’t work, mate," said the radio announcer to Crowie the day before the opening ,’I’ve just surveyed 100 people. 99 said they would never go near a place with a name like that”.

This didn’t worry Crowie. He came in laughing to tell the “boys”. It didn’t worry them- they were the primal, confident eternal optimists or else they hid their worries well!
 “It won’t work”’ repeated the hard-nosed publicans.
Crowie had the last laugh.
He was having a drink with his mate Colin Tidy, the well-known Sydney bookmaker, on opening night as they watched the place fill to overflowing capacity.
“Looks like it will be a success, John. The place is really firing.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret. This is how to get people in –free entertainment, free food, free grog!”
It wasn’t necessary, but was a brilliant opening stunt. Sheila’s was the greatest Sydney success of that time. Opening night only presaged the amazing success it was to be!

This blog was prepared by Jan Cornall, editor for Tales Of A Publican's Wife, by Lyn McGettigan.
Jan and Lyn are preparing the book for publication in 2014.

Please leave a comment or get in touch HERE if you have a Sheila's story to tell.

(c) Lyn McGettigan 2013


  1. Remember the night well. Was living in Canberra and working in Sydney Monday to Friday. Not sure of the month (or even the year!) but the night...another story. It had a cast of thousands and was the talk of Sydney. I knew Lyn (always Bewsey to me) at Bathurst Teachers College in 1964/5 and caught up again when she was running The Union Hotel on Pacific Hwy North Sydney. Managed a few tours of Sheilas when it was being fitted out, prior to opening. Lots of trial and error stuff as the whole idea was state of the art concept. Not a lot to copy from as it was bigger and better than anything else. Opening night was a real buzz. I was in early and it was free drinks all night. People everywhere. A few speeches and lots of drinking. No idea what the queue was like outside. Inside, it was great.

  2. Thanks for your comment Frank. I will pass it on to Bewsey!