In an exclusive interview with the Sentinel, the manager of Australia’s biggest gay nightclub says: ’We’re coming back!’ And so is its famous neighbour, the Bodyline Spa & Sauna. Gary Nunn reports.
The rumours over the past year have been rife.
“I’ve heard them all!” ARQ’s manager James Mavety says, laughing.
“That Home nightclub is taking over ARQ. That it’s been sold to a promoter. That Justin Hemmes or John Ibrahim have bought it. One ‘very credible source’ told everyone it’s being made into apartments!” he says.
The Sentinel can exclusively reveal all these rumours are false: ARQ – which has been closed for over a year – is coming back as the cherished LGBTQI nightclub it has always been.
And it’ll be coming back with a bang: freshly renovated, with a grand reopening party.
Many have been asking staff attached to ARQ if it’ll open as soon as dancing restrictions ease in NSW next week, and the short answer to that is: no.
Mavety is meeting with Shadd Danesi, the nightclub’s owner, next week to confirm finer details, but he believes it’ll be “probably at least three months” before the venue reopens.
Caps and curfews remain
Part of that delay is due to ongoing restrictions. The NSW Government this week made the surprise announcement that dancing is back from next week. But there are still caveats: one person per two square metres. It effectively halves the capacity of venues – in ARQ’s case, 900 people permitted inside would drop to 450 or fewer – depending on how its area is calculated.
In addition, the hangover of lockout law restrictions remains: alcohol can only be served till 3.30am, limiting the takings a nightclub like ARQ can make for every hour it stays open after that.
“That [3.30am] cap on the service of alcohol needs to go,” Mavety says. “It stifles the night-time economy and encourages dangerous binge drinking. Scrapping it will support our embattled hospitality sector and encourage slower, more sensible and spaced out drinking.”
The manager of Australia’s largest gay nightclub was “bombarded” with calls and messages when the easing of restrictions was announced from partygoers eager to know if ARQ will open next week.
“It’s not as simple as that – we’ve been closed for a year,” he says. “It’ll be like starting up all over again.”
Unlike Sydney’s other LGBTQI venues like Universal, which pivoted to drag performance spaces during COVID, ARQ’s famous revolving doors remained static.
“The owner felt it wasn’t worth opening as a seated entertainment venue during COVID – he’d had to invest a lot of money in renovating, and that wasn’t viable for him,” Mavety says. “He’d rather close up and wait.”
Right now, there’s some water damage in ARQ after the recent storms, and part of the downstairs ceiling has collapsed. These will be fixed along with some “big plans” for a renovation.
Bodyline to reopen
Will that include an expansion into the now-closed Bodyline sauna?
The answer to that is also no – partly because ARQ’s renovations will be cosmetic but not structural.
But also because, the Sentinel can reveal, Bodyline – also owned by Danesi – will be reopening around the same time ARQ does, and will also be newly renovated.
The final renovations will be announced in the coming weeks, but a new colour scheme and fresh lighting ideas have been mooted.
Not only is ARQ Australia’s largest LGBTQI club, it’s also one of its oldest: it celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019 – no mean feat for a gay scene that, even pre-COVID, faced a perfect storm of factors that were transforming once thriving gay villages into pink graveyards. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents, hook-up apps like Grindr, ‘chemsex’ parties hosted in homes, stay-at-home drugs like ice overtaking dance-floor drugs like ecstasy in popularity and equality, assimilation and integration were named as challenges to LGBTQI nightlife. Other legacy venues like The Green Park haven’t survived – despite community pushback.
But queer culture has proven resilient to complete assimilation, choosing to champion, rather than erase, difference. Fittingly, the ‘Q’ in ARQ’s name represented ‘queer’ when it opened in 1999 and reflected a newfound confidence of Australia’s LGBTQI community to claim their safe spaces, reclaim past insults and celebrate their lifestyles.
“We’ve been extremely lucky we’ve survived so well – there’ve been so many obstacles, from lockout to lockdown,” Mavety says. “ARQ is such an iconic club. When we’re open, we’re always busy.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this”
That newfound confidence is being mirrored today as NSW moves towards a new era of COVID normal.
Party organiser and DJ Dan Murphy tells the Sentinel this week’s announcement also took him completely by surprise – and the appetite for a dance seemed clear. “My phone, emails and texts went absolutely mental,” he says. “I immediately announced two new events and they both sold out in under 24 hours! I’ve never seen anything like it in over a decade of producing events.”
He describes the heavily restricted capacity of less than half pre-COVID levels as a “catch” – one he hopes won’t deter venues from reopening.
In many ways, recent rumours are a more intense repeat of what Mavety has heard for the past 21 years he’s worked at the club – starting as a bartender and working his way up to the position of manager, a role he’s held for 21 years. He’s a familiar face to anyone on Sydney’s clubbing scene, with his trademark impeccable style: blazer, neatly coiffed hair and sartorial sharpness.
“As soon as one of those rumours gain momentum, they spread like wildfire through the club industry,” Mavety says.
“[Danesi] cannot wait to welcome the gay community back with open arms.”
But what has kept Mavety in a position that means he hasn’t had a weekend off in two decades?
“I love my job,” he says. “I’m passionate about the gay community. They deserve a safe space they can come to every week to be themselves and not be judged and have a great time. I love providing that atmosphere for them.”
It’s a passion that would’ve started long before equality became the norm – especially from straight allies. Where does that come from?
“I think it stems from school,” he says. “I hated seeing others being judged for who they are. And I never really fitted in,” he continues. “In some ways I still don’t fit in now. That’s why I love managing a place that encourages you to be yourself.”
He adds that it’s hard work and long hours. “But God, I miss it,” he says.
Judging by the influx of hopeful and excited calls and messages he received this week, that feeling is very much shared.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.