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Behind the Bar: The Highs and Scams of Hotel Life

Back in the late seventies, I found myself in Fremantle, the proud co-owner of the Cleopatra Hotel, fondly nicknamed Cleo's by locals and out-of-towners alike. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill watering hole; Cleo's had an open-door policy, welcoming the indigenous community with open arms during a period when such camaraderie was not commonplace. They were generous with their spending, yet the problems they caused led me to wonder if the cost was justifiable.

I sat down with Tony McMenemy, my partner in the hotel, to map out our new roles in the Cleopatra hotel's grand scheme. The paint was barely dry on the 'Under New Management' sign, and the aroma of fresh possibilities was as heady as the disinfectant after a deep clean. Tony, with his knack for organisation, took on the Human Resources reins—or as we unapologetically termed it back then, 'hiring and firing.' Cleo’s, a grand dame of the hospitality scene, had a sizeable retinue of staff, keeping her bars bustling and her floors gleaming.

Tony plunged into the chaos of orchestrating our eclectic team with the kind of vigour reminiscent of a feline navigating a scalding rooftop. Yet, beneath his enthusiastic facade was a darker truth that would soon surface. In a manner not unlike the discredited Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, Tony had turned a secluded room into his own den of iniquity, holding staff auditions that were anything but professional. When this was unearthed, my response was swift and fiery, ensuring such outdated and predatory practices were extinguished, making it abundantly clear that the shadow of the casting couch had no place under our roof.

Amidst the whirlwind of taking over the Cleopatra Hotel, the existing staff were a mosaic of personalities and potential. As we sifted through, retaining the gems and bidding farewell to others, one individual stood out—Suzie, a striking English lass of Jamaican heritage. Her tall, slender frame was crowned with an Afro that danced as she moved, and her voice, a smoky alto, cut through the pub's din with laughter. Suzie was a spark in human form, her eyes twinkling with mischief and stories spilling from her lips. She quickly became a patron's highlight, her charm cementing her as part of the Cleopatra's soul. In fact, her presence was so integral that local Fremantle lore had it that Suzie was the 'Cleo' after whom the hotel was named. We let the myth weave through the streets unchallenged—after all, it only added to the mystique. And truth be told, Suzie was the heart of the hotel, her infectious spirit a constant amidst the ever-changing tides of our establishment.

Now, Cleo's had its share of characters, rough-and-tumble as it was, necessitating a solid squad of bouncers to keep the nightly revelry in check. In an effort to spruce up the joint and enhance its reputation, I instigated the shoe rule: no footwear, no frolic inside. Initially, it seemed to be a straightforward decree. However, I began to spot blokes wearing flip-flops, or barefoot, lounging about the bar. Puzzled, I grilled the bouncers who were adamant they had let no shoeless souls past the threshold.

Channeling my inner detective, I decided to sleuth out the situation, and, lo and behold, I unravelled their cunning plan. These clever rascals were orchestrating a sneaky shoe exchange through the loo window, rotating one pair amongst themselves. I couldn't help but admire their ingenuity and it's a caper that still tickles me to this day.

And then, there was Billy. Oh, Billy was quite the character. I caught him one day indulging in some rather intimate activities with a gentleman under the table in the lounge bar. Needless to say, I had him escorted out and banned for a month. But would you believe it, the very next day, there was Billy, cheeky as you like, back in the pub. When I reminded him he was banned, he shot back with, "I'm not Billy, you must be thinking of me brudder.” His quick wit was so unexpected, I was caught off guard. The cheek of the fella!

Tony had his own little shock. He cracked open the door to the ladies’ loo because the queue outside was getting a bit ridiculous. Nothing could've prepared him for the sight. There they were, the 'ladies', too impatient to wait, perched upon the washbasins. We were all gobsmacked. There are no words to accurately describe the scene, and it’s one of those images that’s stayed with me, as vivid as the day it happened. Cleo's was never short on surprises, that's for sure.

The local Indigenous folks were indeed a lively and integral part of our tapestry, continually nudging me to book an Aboriginal band to grace our establishment's stage. We needed a band, not just for the entertainment, mind you, but because it allowed us to keep our doors open until midnight, a neat little perk of the extended license that also meant we had to serve food.

Eventually, I relented, and an Aboriginal group known to many was slated to perform from 8-12 on a bustling Saturday night, thinking it would be a hit. And at the start, it was just that. The atmosphere was electric, a full house, the crowd was in high spirits, cheering and whooping along to the music.

But as the night wore on, and the clock struck nine, it was clear the band was enjoying the Swan Lager just a bit too much. They could barely stand, let alone play, and before long, two of them had tumbled right off the stage. It was utter chaos, and we had no choice but to haul them out. Only problem was, without a live band, we weren’t legally allowed to keep trading.

In a frantic effort to rescue the evening, we concocted a quick-witted scheme. We positioned a staff member by the jukebox, instructing them to sing heartily as the music blared at full volume. Coin after coin, they fuelled the jukebox, keeping the melodies flowing for three uninterrupted hours. It was an improvised solution, but it worked wonders. The Liquor Squad, dropping in for a surprise visit, conceded it was within the bounds of legality, but cautioned us not to test our fortune further.

After that fiasco, I decided that was it—no more Aboriginal bands. It was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, but it's these sorts of stories that make the tapestry of pub life so vibrant and unforgettable, even if they do give you a bit of a headache at the time.

Cleo's was as rough and ready as they come. When the customers had one too many, they’d often get that glint in their eye, the kind that usually meant trouble was brewing, especially when I'd cut them off, refusing any more alcohol. I had a knack for talking my way through these situations, quick-witted and quicker on my feet, always sober, which probably saved me more than once. I prided myself on never letting it get to blows, even though many had tried.

Poor Tony, my partner, though, he was a different story. One night, while he was in charge, he ended up on the wrong side of diplomacy with a group of Nyoongar women. After he unceremoniously booted them out, they waited for him after closing and didn't hold back. A couple of them had even slipped off their stiletto heels to use as impromptu weapons. Tony didn't stand a chance. By the end of the fracas, he was in a sorry state and had to be taken to hospital. It was a stark reminder of just how quickly things could turn south at Cleo's. What a mess indeed.

In the slanting golden light that heralded the evening's approach, a familiar face graced Cleo's. She was a Nyoongar woman, known to us as much for her laughter as for the tales she wove from the fabric of her days. I liked her. Married to a white Australian bloke, a staunch member of the Painters and Dockers Union, they were as much a part of Cleo's as the bar stools and the sticky carpet. She'd stroll in, sometimes on her own, other times in the company of her husband, each visit a vignette of the life they shared.

That particular evening, as the sun dipped low, she came to the bar, a mischievous glint in her eye. With a flourish that was all her own, she made a demand that could have flustered even the stiffest upper lip. Pulling down her top she flopped her ample bosoms onto the bar in front of me, saying “Whaddya think of these?” Yet, in true British fashion, I admired her spirit more than I was perturbed by the spectacle, and with the decorum of my homeland, I commended her boldly and asked her what she’d like to order. Such moments were the unpredictable heartbeat of Cleo's, a pulse we had all grown to navigate with a blend of humour and equanimity.

Not far behind in the tapestry of pub lore was the tale of another couple, regulars who, like clockwork, shifted from public displays of affection to public declarations of disagreement. One such argument escalated with cinematic flair as a jug of beer became the centrepiece of their tempestuous dance. She hit him over the head with a full jug, which shattered, a golden cascade drenching him, yet the man's reaction was as subdued as if it were a scene rehearsed — a mere "Ouch!" Made me realise how tough our Aboriginal friends are.

And then there was the cocktail bar, my brainchild in a moment of imagineering brilliance. Envisioning a haven for the gay community, we transformed the space, and it flourished under the velvet night. But as the patrons toasted to new freedoms, the undercurrent of intolerance from the other drinkers surfaced, ripples turning into waves of confrontation. My vision, while bright, had perhaps been cast without full foresight, a lesson in the delicate balance between innovation and the existing fabric of societal norms. Cleo's, ever the microcosm of the wider world, reminded us that for every step forward, there was a dance of complexity and courage that must be navigated with care.

Buying the leasehold of Cleo's, along with its fixtures, fittings, and stock, was an adventure Tony and I embarked on with spirits high and hopes even higher. The seller, a rather flexible chap, offered us terms payments. At the time, it seemed like a blessing—later, I'd realise it was a warning sign in disguise.

Pubs back then were valued on how many kegs they shifted each week. Cleo's records boasted 18, with profits looking right as rain. The dockets from Swan Brewery seemed to back this up: 18 full kegs delivered, 18 empties taken away a week later. It was a neat, profitable cycle on paper.

But reality hit us hard and fast. We were moving just six kegs a week, nowhere near enough to keep the lights on, let alone turn a profit. When confronted, the seller, who was as upright as a lamppost and also the President of the Australian Hotels Association, had the gall to suggest we were mismanaging the place. But the truth was far more scandalous.

Turns out, this paragon of the pub community had another establishment, The Wattleup Tavern. He'd been playing a shell game with the kegs: 18 would come into Cleo's, 12 would mysteriously make their way to Wattleup, and the next week, Swan Brewery would collect what they thought were Cleo's empty 18. A grand scam, indeed.

My accountant revealed this wasn't the seller’s first rodeo—he'd pulled the same stunt on previous buyers, reclaiming the hotel when they couldn't keep up with payments. But I wasn't about to let him add us to his list of conquests. We stopped all payments to him and decided to make our exit, but not without taking our pound of flesh. We cleared out the stock from the bars and took every last removable item we could lay our hands on. By the end, we'd broken even—though the taste of victory was bittersweet, tempered by a lesson learnt the hard way.

As the sun set on our tenure at Cleo's, it became a trove of hard-learnt lessons and laughter-etched memories. For every trick of the trade discovered, for every plot foiled and pint poured, the experiences shaped us. Our time at Cleo's may have ended, but the stories we'd gathered would warm many a night's conversation.

The moral, if one were to be drawn from this rich seam of life, might be that the true measure of success isn't always found in profit or renown, but perhaps in the resilience to navigate the rogues' gallery of life's challenges, the wisdom to chuckle over its absurdities, and the foresight to always look beneath the surface. Because sometimes, the true worth of an experience is the collection of tales you're left to tell and the chuckles they bring, long after the doors are closed and the kegs are empty.

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