Oxford Street in 1983.
© Vintage Image / Alamy Stock Photo
Nightlife

The oral history of The Albury, one of Sydney’s most legendary gay bars

In episode two of If These Walls Could Talk, Red Bull’s new five part podcast, we get to know the venue that lit up Oxford Street in the 80s and 90s.
By Al Grigg, Laura Brierley Newton and Katie Cunningham
Published on
If These Walls Could Talk is Red Bull’s new five part podcast about the venues, parties and people that shaped Sydney’s nightlife. This season we focus on the city’s LGBTQI party scene, and everything that came together to make it the nocturnal destination it is today. This article is adapted from episode two of If These Walls Could Talk. To hear the full story, listen wherever you get your podcasts.
The Imperial. Stonewall. The Colombian. These are some of the spots that spring to mind when you think of Sydney’s iconic gay bars.
But until 2001, another establishment was a hotspot for the city’s queer nightlife. It was The Albury and in its heyday, it was Oxford Street’s crown jewel.
The Albury first opened in 1980, on the corner of Oxford and South Dowling. It was known for huge parties, celebrity clientele and fabulous drag, and it’s legacy can still be seen today in drag shows across Sydney.
When authorities started regulating how many people could safely fit in a venue, The Albury was capped at 160. But before then, it would regularly cram in 300 or more at a time. So popular was the venue that crowd overflow from the bar even turned the adjacent pub, The Beauchamp, into a gay establishment.
“But they didn't have the shows the Albury put on, so it was more or less a men's cruising bar,” remembers Craig Petrie, otherwise known as Polly Petrie, who managed the bar and lived upstairs from it for twelve years.
The Albury did a lot of shows and they did them well. The venue went the extra mile with events -- they’d hold beach-themed parties where they’d put a pool in the middle of the room, then have a truck come in and fill the rest of the bar with sand. But it was drag The Albury became known for.
A drag show at The Albury Hotel on Oxford Street Sydney.
A drag show at The Albury Hotel, Sydney.
There was no stage -- the drag queens would perform on the bar, or in the middle of the room. Despite the small space, the crew at the Albury didn’t hold back from putting on huge productions.
One of the most famous drag events they ran was The Kylie Show -- a tribute to, of course, Kylie Minogue. In fact, Kylie herself is quoted as saying that it wasn’t until she snuck into the Albury and watched the drag tribute in the early 90s that she realised she’d become a gay icon.
The Kylie Show attracted A-list onlookers.
“One Sunday, The Kylie Show was on and I saw this tall gentlemen come [in]. And I thought oh, that’s Pierce Brosnan,” Petrie recalls. “He was there just happy on his own -- didn’t want a drink, just standing there watching the show. But then these English backpackers recognised him and they came over torturing him and he went ‘sorry mate, I've gotta go’ and left.”
During her 12 years at The Albury, Petrie filled almost every role possible. She started as a glassie, worked behind the bar, did a stint on security and eventually started managing the venue alongside business partners Nanette Theakstone and Leigh Jennings. But Petrie’s greatest role debuted in 1991, when she launched a now-legendary drag show called Polly’s Follies.
Straight people wouldn't walk on their own [on Oxford Street] because they'd be intimidated by the crowd and carry on
Polly Petrie
Back then, Oxford Street was a different place.
“The gay bars in those days were gay bars,” says Petrie. “And if a straight guy was seen walking around Oxford Street you'd be sent up gutters… I'd hear it from other friends, they'd say ‘oh, did you see so and so. What were they doing on Oxford Street?’ Straight people wouldn't walk in there on their own because they'd be intimidated by the crowd and carry on and all that.”
Drag queen Craig / Polly Petrie, who worked Sydney gay bar at The Albury on Oxford Street for years.
Craig / Polly Petrie, who worked at The Albury for years.
In the mid-1990s, this started to change. The popularity of the film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert suddenly made drag more mainstream and brought in onlookers from outside the gay community. Stigma around sexuality slowly began to ease and, as everyone knew that the LGBTQI community threw the best parties, Oxford Street became a place anyone could enjoy a night out.
In 2001, The Albury’s owners, Nanette and Leigh, decided to sell. But Polly’s Follies lives on, with Petrie moving the show to the Venus Room in Kings Cross and then to the Exchange Hotel, before landing at the Stonewall Hotel. Today, Polly’s Follies is still a place where anyone who wants to try drag can get up and give it a shot.
“It's not a competition -- mine's where you can come up and have a go,” Petrie says. “Someone might dare you to get in drag for a party, a birthday or something. You can come up and do a few numbers and I give them free drinks. And so there's no competition, so there's no pressure.”
It still runs every Sunday, where you can see Polly herself perform as well guest acts from drag legends -- and the next generation of drag performers.
“That's what this Polly's Follies is about -- bringing out the gift,” Petrie says. “I don't give a stuff if you stuff it up, don't worry, do it next time. Try, try, try, try, try and give that a go.”
“And if it doesn't work, try it another way.”
If These Walls Could Talk is Red Bull’s new five part podcast about the venues, parties and people that shaped Sydney’s nightlife. This season we focus on the city’s LGBTQI party scene, and everything that came together to make it the nocturnal destination it is today. This article is adapted from episode two of If These Walls Could Talk. To hear the full story, listen wherever you get your podcasts.