Johnny Allen was born in Glen Innes in the early 1940s and soon after his parents moved to Sydney to provide educational opportunities for their children. His working-class family sent Johnny to a conservative Catholic school but as soon as he was old enough, he headed to Kings Cross. Here he met other ‘outsiders’ at the Bohemian coffee shops who shared similar attitudes, particularly to gay culture. He immersed himself in culture, theatre and concerts.
From the 1960s Johnny ran ad hoc music venues in Surry Hills, including the Arts Factory which became a very popular alternative venue. He talks about the various bands and singers who were regulars at the Arts Factory. This experience was a springboard for Johnny to tour bands and political figures like Richard Neville around the country. He reflects how the Whitlam Government changed the cultural landscape and created a ‘utopian’ wave of optimism that ignited many festivals including Nimbin Festival.
Inspired by gay liberation politics of the day, Johnny set up the Gay Men’s Rap and Gay Theatre Company, Cabaret Conspiracy and the first gay film festival amongst others. He discusses the success of them, the people and performers who attended, how the events and parties evolved and moved from venue to venue in the Darlinghurst and Oxford Street areas over the years.
Yes until the early ‘80s. It [Cabaret Conspiracy] kind of didn’t die – it kept sort of having sort of odd revivals. We occasionally did some big shows. We took over Maxy’s in downtown George Street and did what I described as a spectacular with the cast of thousands and budget of 20 cents.
(Interviewer Scott McKinnon) During that time period, late ‘70s into early ‘80s, can you give me a sense of what Oxford Street was like on a Saturday night for people arriving or people leaving Cabaret Conspiracy?
There was a lot of street life and sort of actual sort of, you know, when you went outside on the street it was, you know, there was quite a lot to see and experience. So Friday and Saturday nights it would be pretty much teeming and until quite late, well after 12 and two or three in the morning was still pretty much alive. Nothing would surprise you. There’d be prostitutes, there’d be gays, there’d be occasional straights walk in or sort of, you know, metaphorically or otherwise, throwing stones – a real mix.
One of the aspects that was pretty interesting – I mentioned that there were these various squats around and some of those squats would put on shows. The old Marist Brothers school for example would put on shows including Cabaret Conspiracy from time to time, and at that stage a friend of mine from my university days had – was an architect. Had bought an old decaying mansion in Liverpool Street. It was actually built as a governor’s mansion in 1830 in the early days of the colony. It was an old sandstone place and like most of the places in Darlinghurst at the time, it was just being sat on for later development but it was quite a big place. It was virtually a whole block, so a lot of the Cabaret moved in, me included. Fifi L’Amour, Boom Boom la Bern etcetera all moved in and there were 30 or 40 people living in the house. When the house threw a party, that could expand to a couple of hundred and again it was that sort of very communal we’d all sort of roll down the hill to do a Sunday night show and roll back up the hill for a party.
There was a strong senses of community and forming community mores and meeting places etcetera amongst that community. I mean what sort of, you know, the Arts Factory and Garibaldi’s and Palms etcetera had in common for me was that they were, you know, they were regular meeting places, watering holes at sunset for people of a like mind.