Olympia Milk Bar


My beautician – a woman with deep reserves of beauty and guile, an abiding love of cherry red Mixmasters and the proclivity to whip up a salted caramel body butter at the merest hint of dry skin – suggests we meet at The Olympia.

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Through concertina doors we spill into the gloom, the Tin Lid’s chatter silenced briefly, replaced by his breathing, suddenly audible and rapid.

Lodged in the gullet of Parramatta Road, Stanmore, the Olympia Milk Bar is the stuff of legend. It is papered in memory, glued together by nostalgia and flapping tape, and within seconds I can sense the layers of story and tale, myth legend and rumour rife. The Beautician lays a perfectly moisturised hand on the formica table and asks what we’re having? The Tin Lid needs no further encouragement and quickly finds his voice, stumbling over itself to order a caramel milkshake. I order tea…

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She has been coming here for years, since solo Sunday dates to the Stanmore Twin to watch the $10-double screening at the age of 15. That was in 1991, and in those days the Olympia was fully lit, with chocolate in the display boxes that now lie barren, flapping disconsolately in time with the tape. The owner was moribund then, she reckons, watching warily from behind the counter…

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I dig deeper, curious about this curiosity, scratching a surface rich in supposition, like the skin on gold-top milk, taut with creamy expectation. A social media swoop offers up the Olympia Milk Bar Fan Club on Facebook, complete with over 2000 members. Woven into the threads are warnings to show respect to the proprietor, a Mr Fotiou, who has often asked no photos be taken of the place.

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The Beautician says she can see the old fella, over the Tin Lid’s shoulder. He can see my interest, and watches as I capture this shadowy world on ‘film’: on this occasion, he seems to take no offence.

I mean no disrespect Mr Fotiou – this space, your space, is an arrhythmia, a staccato beat within the daily drone. It is a thing of quiet, faded beauty, patterns repeated until the lino wears so thin it shines.

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And in this space is the rubble of a life picked through by time. I know as little as everyone else about Mr Fotiou’s story, and he remains tightlipped, serving the added-on ham and cheese sandwich to the table in mute fashion. The notes he returns with, to balance the red twenty I hand him, are cool and folded, from deep within his apron.

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Originally a billiard room – part of the skating rink that once stood next door, the previous incarnation of the cinema, now, too, ripped out at the roots – the Olympia Milk Bar opened in 1939 in association with the Olympia Picture Theatre, which replaced the skating rink. It was, in turn, replaced by the Stanmore Twin, upon which site now squats cookie-cutter apartments that jar against the history of this place.

Courtesy of f8 Group

Courtesy of f8 Group

Upstairs was once a hair parlour, known as the Olympia Salon, and reportedly run by Mr Fotiou’s wife and sister-in-law. Because Mr Fotiou has not always been the sole proprietor, alone in his workplace in the dark. He had a brother…

According to Janice Rowe, who skated at the rink in the ’60s, the Fotiou brothers who ran the Olympia – John and Nick – knocked through the walls so the skaters could slide up to the counter without having to leave the rink. Turns out it didn’t work out so well, with plenty of spilt milk and bruised pins, so the wall was reinstated, the skaters forced to remove their skates before ordering a milkshake.

There were glory years for a while, the Olympia packed with milkshaken teens and bursting with light, laughter and sound, crowded with late supper-eaters and smelling of steak.Those times didn’t last, though. they rarely do.

Legend has it that one of the brothers made a promise to the other on his deathbed, to never change anything of the milk bar that they once ran together. Which explains the vault of faded history on display, and why no-one knows if Mr Fotiou is Nick or John…

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Some people consider the Olympia a glitch in the matrix, a haunted spectre of a long-dead age.  And they may have a point: George Poulos – known as The General – was the proprietor of the Olympia’s sister milk bar in Summer Hill, The Rio. He recently tumbled from this mortal coil, aged in his 90s and his death marks the steadfast passing of an era, finite resources from the past sifting away on the winds of time.

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But to those of us who treasure the dank dark corners of the past, who relish a boarded-up beauty and the quiet solitude of a man who knows not only many ages but the bus timetables for Parramatta Road, the Olympia is a haven. Long may she last.



A Midnight Star

I have a memory, floodlight with nostalgia, of an achingly cold building lost in the suburbs. Yet though her eyes were blind and haunted, dark slots in a weathered face crumbling with decay, the heart of this one-time beauty still pounded.

Her glory days were over, but that night a mob milled beneath guttering street lights out the front, the bell was pressed, the side door opened and we were ushered deep into the guts of a swirling, pulsing riot of sight and sound.

The year was 2002, the heart belonged to the Midnight Star, a derelict deco theatre left to waste on Parramatta Road in Homebush, and the celebration was a wild night of bright lights, big sound and thudding escapism.

Time I went back to see what this slice of Sydney looks like now.

With the secretary in tow we cruised the strip, neglected, decrepit and dank. This main artery west emits a sense of morose despair, of having fought and lost. Clinging to the asphalt the boarded windows clutter shoulder to shoulder,  their purpose lost to a more prosperous time.

Glancing up at the boarded-up front of the Midnight Star, once the epitome of elegance in a working class suburb, it’s hard not to shudder at her demise, the sad culmination of time marching by.

Once the audience’s muse, who can claim to love this place now?

Built as the Homebush Theatre in 1925, in its heyday the Midnight Star encouraged crowds that snaked around the block, flickering flights of fancy the taste of the future. Renamed the Vogue Cinema this place had a palpable sense of owership, of belonging. Yet in 1959 the reels stopped rolling and the Star became an ice rink, before being refitted again and turned into the Niterider Theatre Restaurant, promising the world:

The old girl’s last incarnation was as the Midnight Star Reception Centre, which clung on until 1996 before the site slumped into derelict resignation. And that was when it was loved, briefly; as nature ripped at the seems and the cold closed in, the building became the heart of a community again. Coined “a theatre for the dispossessed” the Star was embraced by the Social Centre Autonomous Network, (‘squatting activists who occupy and organise around squatted buildings’) and in 2002 the Midnight Star Social Centre was born, an experiment in autonomous direct action. It was a non-residential space focused on creating a space outside the control of the state and market, a reclamation of public space that ‘no longer exists under capitalism’.

Featuring a pirate cinema that screened unusual and rare films, including Hindi films for the local Indian community, the lobby became home to a phalanx of hard rubbish computers, sparked-up and ready to surf, the downstairs bar a clamouring meeting space for activist groups and the cavernous ballroom – soaring ceilings lit by vast chandeliers and ruby-red velvet drapes – a venue for gigs and thumping sound and dancing tribes.

The halcyon days of this new life were short-lived, but for 10 months the Star thrummed with activity again. Inevitably, in the post-Olympic security frenzy and in the face of fractured WTO protest, the media wrongly identified the space as a nerve centre for anarchists and violent and politically motivated dissent. By December 2002 SCAN were forcibly evicted and the theatre left empty again, echoing sadly.

Today the Midnight Star shines inwardly and only to herself, a translucent memory of a happier time. The stutter of her heartbeat is barely audible and could be mistaken for pigeons in the roof.

Across the road the deliciously insalubrious Horse and Jockey pub squats ungainly on the corner. It’s an old-timers joint, tiles slick with age and Friday arvo teetering totty, collecting glasses and tips in their knickers.

But it is a place to meet in a strip that sags tiredly, beset by the clang and hiss of never-ending traffic.

The name Homebush is thought to refer to the pastures that drovers would camp in en route to the saleyards, located in what is now Flemington Markets. Reaching the end of their journey through the bush the drovers would settle in the lee of the yards and adopted the name ‘home bush’. Today there is little that speaks of home here but a kind word from a random stranger,

“Are you looking for something? Oh. Homebush? There’s more over there, the other side of the tracks.”

piques our interest and we scuttle away from the screaming road towards the other Homebush, shaded beneath vast gums far from this dust-choked despair.

It is a tidy town, huddled quietly along a street at right angles to the train tracks. While not entirely integrated Homebush is far from discordant. It is a quirky mix of blue-rinse perfection in a timely fashion and the scented glory of an ingrained Indian and Sri Lankan Hindu community, ripe with the spices of another life and happy to share.

From a neatly ordered line-up of Federation and inter-war fronts, tidy shops spill onto tidy pavements where passers-by step aside for the tin lid and his trolley. Tidy front yards display prize-winning blooms and the scent of cardamom spins my head in search of its source. We stop for a sticky-sweet cup of chai and glance around at a world from the past. It is peaceful here, a calm systematic amalgamation of very different worlds. The houses have a simple elegance, muted, functional and conservative:

Perhaps the shy, staid elegance on show here is thanks to the suburb being shaded by Sydney’s white elephant, the echoing Olympic Park. Vital for the Olympics, no-one seems to know what its purpose is now. Aside from creating a shadow. And spawning a rash of boxy housing developments that lack not only character but increasingly tenants. But this little suburb, once the writhing, bellowing stock pen for Sydney’s meat market, benefits from its relative anonymity next to the elephant. From here Homebush can continue its leisurely stroll into the future.

If the Midnight Star had been located here she might still shine as gloriously as she once did, protected and cherished as the heart of the community.