Icon at Kensington
Fifty years since it began serving the gay community in various guises, the curtain is drawing on 83 Anzac Parade, home of Ken’s At Kensington. Historian Garry Wotherspoon looks back at the key moments that have made the site a Gay Sydney institution.
Who would have thought it would ever happen? That Ken’s of Kensington, one of Sydney’s best-known steam baths, one with a worldwide reputation, would ever close.
But it is about to happen, and it marks the end of a half century of gay history on what is a sacred site for Australia’s LGBTIQ communities. And perhaps everything from economics, changing social habits, and the death of a woman in Cairo have all played their part in this.
That site in 83 Anzac Parade, Kensington started out for the gay world as the Purple Onion, a drag venue opened in early 1962 by Dormie McIver and drag artiste Rose Jackson and some friends. It was part of an upsurge of camp venues that opened in Sydney in that decade, along with places like The Annexe and the Jewel Box in Kings Cross where, as one magazine article bitchily commented, “the sole entertainment is in the fact that the performers are men in drag”.
Then it was taken over in 1964 by Kandy (Ken) Johnson, who had previously run Kandy's ‘Garden of Eden’ Koffee House in Enmore Road, Newtown, and the Onion and the Garden then merged their performers and shows. Kandy’s mother, Mrs Johnson, continued her role of sitting at the entrance to the venue, collecting the takings.
Facing some financial problems relating to her pub, the Lord Roberts in East Sydney, Kandy sold the business in 1965 to Beatrice (David) Williams, and the Onion took on a new life. Beatrice’s shows, such as The Sound of Mucus and A Streetcar named Beatrice, were legendary, even being reviewed by theatre critic Katherine Brisbane, who saw the drag shows there in a very different light. Writing in Pol magazine, she said “The Purple Onion is one of my favourite theatrical haunts – a place where anything is possible and nothing is what it seems ... As it is just now it is exactly right”. She further suggested that what the Purple Onion offered was “a piece of rare and authentic burlesque; shrewd, witty, obscene, and always up-to-date; and in no other atmosphere could it possibly work so well”. Visiting celebrities – such as Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Sir Robert Helpmann, and Yma Sumac – were to be seen there on its Sunday night specials. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and police were prone to raid ‘gay’ places, it was the 'entertainment' aspect that drew heterosexuals like Brisbane to the Onion; but for those with homoerotic inclinations there was the added attraction that others like themselves would be there too, both as audience and performers.
Beatrice was considering going to London in 1969, and without her at the helm there followed a lull of a few years, in which different shows were tried, everything from a gay disco with gay boy bands and occasional appearances by Sylvia and the Synthetics, but all to little avail; there was strong competition now in the drag scene, from places like Capps and Ivy’s Birdcage, all more centrally located in Oxford Street.
Kandy still owned the premises, and she had also opened a steam baths, Ken’s Baths, in an existing gym in Randwick in 1971, and then transferred the licence to its current premises on the site of the old Purple Onion in 1973. It became Kens Karate Klub (aka Ken’s Karate Klasses). Located in suburban Kensington, it drew a diverse clientele, with students from the nearby University of NSW, workers from the local factories, and gay men from everywhere; it advertised in the international gay guide Spartacus, thus ensuring that it also attracted overseas visitors to Sydney as well.
Perhaps continuing the old Onion tradition, there were occasional spectacular shows and pool parties; there was even an attempt to have a regular lesbian night for our sisters – but that didn’t work out, for some reason.
In 1984, Kandy sold out to Nick Lorschy and his partner David Ross, the co-owners of the Roman Baths in Pitt Street in Sydney’s CBD. When they separated, Nick kept KKK, and when he died, his friend Shireen Smith inherited both the freehold and business at 83 Anzac Parade.
About twelve years ago, Shireen sold the business to its current owner, Reiner Becker, and Shireen died in Cairo about a year ago. Perhaps the premises are to be sold as part of the winding up of Shireen’s estate, and that accounts for why KKK is closing. But perhaps also it is the changing habits of socialising and cruising by gay men that have also had an impact; the use of Grindr and Manhunt have led to a decline in patronage in everything from gay pubs to sex-on-premises venues, as gay men change their ways of connecting with each other.
But whatever happens to the site, I’m sure that late at night the ghosts of both drag queens long gone and naked gay men will still wander around the new premises, looking for audiences or action…
Ken’s at Kensington, located at 83 Anzac Parade, will continue to operate until May 20.
Garry Wotherspoon is a Sydney-based writer and historian, whose books include Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History.
- Tags: Beatrice Williams, David Ross, David Williams, Dormie McIver, Garry Wotherspoon, Kandy Johnson, Ken Johnson, Ken's at Kensington, Kens Karate Klub, Nick Lorschy, Purple Onion, Reiner Becker, Rose Jackson, SX, Sydney
About the Author
Garry Wotherspoon is a Sydney-based writer and historian, whose books include Being Different: Nine Gay Men Remember, and City of the Plain, a history of Sydney’s gay subcultures since the 1920s.