ON a winter Friday afternoon as the light rapidly retreats across the green, a large bouncing castle is being inflated in the encroaching shadows. There is not a ball or a jack or a white shirt in sight. Rather, a swarm of children has appeared and is darting in and out of the castle, a growing pile of little shoes on the grass.
The free bouncing castle pops up every second Friday of the month at the Petersham Bowling and Recreation Club. You can sense a communal exhale as parents sit down at the outdoor tables: the end of another week - time to put the feet up, as much as the rugrats will allow; to have a craft beer from one of the 20-odd on tap, order a pizza from the bistro, line up some chicken and chips for the kids.
It's a scene the all-male early members of this lawn bowls club, who with solemn moustachioed faces continue to look over proceedings from a large framed photograph in the clubhouse, could hardly have imagined. But it was the opening of the top green to kids in the mid-noughties that helped cement the fortunes of the club. "It instantly became a family destination," says long-time volunteer president George Catsi. "I call it a park with a bar attached." Getting rid of the pokies was another master stroke following a community takeover of the bowling club in 2006.
Tucked into residential Brighton Street, overlooked by houses of the same 19th-century vintage as itself, the club at the time had been on the brink of disappearing - a failing club "in a death spiral", as Catsi describes it. Its competitive bowlers were leaving due to its deteriorating greens, and there appeared to be little interest in engaging with the non-bowling community at its doorstep.
It was not alone in its battle to survive. New generations were failing to replenish the ageing membership of a sport whose heyday had given rise to clubs in virtually every suburb and town across the nation. But as a new century got under way, many of those clubs were closing or merging or being developed, and it looked like Petersham might join the list.
There are kids who have grown up coming here and are now bringing their bands in and playing here.- George Catsi
In 2004, a development application was lodged to demolish the bowling club's top green and clubhouse - an amalgam of a 1930s building with a 1970s extension out front - and build 17 townhouses. A new clubhouse would be built on the bottom green with a fake green on the roof.
The local community was having none of it. Catsi, an award-winning writer, performer and creative arts academic, who has lived in the same street as the bowlo since 2001, was among those who successfully fought the DA. By the time subsequent plans for a massive ABC Learning child-care centre on the bottom green were put forward by the club's board, many in the local community had become club members. When they succeeded in thwarting this latest plan, the old board resigned en masse, and a new board of nine volunteer community members - led by George Catsi - was installed.
"It was a great moment, in September 2006, when I was handed the keys to a bowling club. We had a board meeting, where we sat around and went 'right, ok, here we go'," recalls Catsi. "None of us were bowlers, none of us had been on boards before, none of us had anything to do with clubs.
"We sat at the meeting and said, 'Who can we get to come here?' We weren't encumbered by traditional ways of doing it because we'd never done it. We were kind of free." No one knew how to change a keg, or clean beer lines, or maintain a green. "We didn't know any of that, so we had to get people to help us."
Against all these odds, the club is about to celebrate 125 years of trading - and 15 years of being independent - with an anniversary ball on July 30. "I am really proud of [the club]," says Catsi. "I love the vibrancy it brings. I love the joy on people's faces when they come here. I think it is a fantastic community asset."
The Petersham bowlo's celebrations will come as the oldest bowling club in NSW, the Balmain Bowling Club on Darling Street, remains in "temporary closure". It amalgamated with western Sydney's St John's Park Bowling Club (SJPBC) in 2019 and has not reopened since it went into COVID-19 lockdown last June.
A notice on its website says that the club, formed in 1880, returned a net loss of $575,000 in the 2020-2021 financial year. The SJPBC, in its annual report for that year, says they are working on plans for urgent facility upgrades. "SJPBC remains committed to Balmain Bowling Club, its members and surrounding community and we look forward to re-opening this iconic Club soon," it says.
Former Balmain board member and now advisory board member Paul Cooper says that the greens are being maintained and the club's regular bowlers are still using them, and that it will definitely reopen to the public.
"[SJPBC] are probably the most successful bowling club in NSW, probably in Australia, and our amalgamation with them really assured us the longevity of the oldest bowling club in NSW," Mr Cooper said. "I am confident that had we not amalgamated, then the club would have been forced to close.
"There are fantastic visions planned for the club; those of us that are on the advisory committee that formed the previous board of the bowling club are very excited by their vision and very comfortable with it."
Merging with another club was an option Catsi and the new board considered in those early days, and rejected.
Instead, they secured a $30,000 overdraft and traded in the red for seven years, able to hire staff only after two years of relying on volunteers. It went through six different bistro operators in six years, finally striking gold with its seventh, Lizzie Chapple, a film-set caterer who has now chalked up a decade.
Turning to Clubs NSW early in the piece, the new board were advised to spend $20,000 of their overdraft on new poker machines to make it more attractive for people to come and play, then use that money to subsidise food and drink.
"And we went wow, so that is the business model - you want us to spend all our money on our poker machines to attract gamblers in here, and then exploit them so we can get a cheaper drink at the bar," Catsi says.
"So we made a decision during the first six months to get rid of the pokies ... they were the antithesis of who we are, we didn't like them.
"We were loud and proud about not having pokies, and we saw the business bump; people were starting to come into us to support us for being pokie free - they were travelling out of area to come to us."
The board also let go of competitive bowling, not least because of the costs associated with maintaining a competition-level green.
The club was on its own, and it set about becoming viable. A stage was built where the pokies once were and, many years later, a second, more intimate stage was created in the windowless basement, a former locker and storage room.
Like other bowling clubs that endure in the inner west, it is a thriving live music venue, offering the stage to everyone from first-time local bands ("there are kids who have grown up coming here and are now bringing their bands in and playing here," says Catsi) to international acts. There are also performances of poetry, comedy and cabaret.
"Young people feel nostalgic for something they don't even have an experience of, so they kind of love its aesthetic."- George Catsi
"I had done events. Because I had owned Flickerfest, the short-film festival, I knew how to put on shows - I had an aesthetic and I understood an audience, and I see my customers as an audience. It's all a big show," Catsi says.
"For me, it has always been about trusting your instincts; think about it, research it, trial it, give it a go and promote it."
In those early days, there was Sunday Jazz on the Green, then deejay sessions on the green, called Greenbeats, which didn't go down so well with the neighbours. There were a couple of medieval days involving battle reenactments and pigs on the spit.
Taking $3000 over the bar was really good in those first, hard years. Today, "that would be a disaster", Catsi says. The last COVID-19 lockdown was gruelling, but there is still money in the bank. "We have got cash reserves. We are definitely way down, but it is starting to pick up. It has really been our toughest year since our early tough years, but we are actually fine."
Fifteen years on from the takeover, the club pays homage to its roots. Inside is like a time capsule where the honour boards remain on the walls, as do historic club photos, and a badge collection that Catsi says is "priceless". The bar is brand new, but you wouldn't know it; it vibes with the existing aesthetic, which includes vintage 1970s carpet and dining chairs that were snapped up 12 years ago from a western suburbs Chinese restaurant that had gone out of business.
"There is a nostalgia there. The music brings new people in who say 'wow, this place, how come I didn't know about this' - young people who feel nostalgic for something they don't even have an experience of, so they kind of love its aesthetic, so we're very mindful of that. It's shabby chic."
And even through the club's focus may be more on "recreation" these days, the bowling remains integral to goings-on. "It is completely precious - we are really mindful of that," Catsi says. The green is heavily booked on weekends, popular in particular with twentysomethings. "It can go across ages and genders and skills - you don't need to be strong or fast to play it. You've got to be measured and controlled and think a bit," says Catsi, who back in the day would get whooped by his then nine-year-old son.
As to what keeps Catsi involved after so many years as president (aside from a few years off in the 2010s to complete his PhD), "I think it totally satisfies on a personal level my inquisitive curious mind, my love of ideas. For me it such a playground," he says. "It is also about ensuring it sustains itself and keeps going.
"On the social level, I am a big believer in communalism. It is kind of the secret of a healthy society that we all meet each other, we bump into each other, different parts of our society, and we interact. It's the only way we learn about each other.
"So I love it because it is a small club and it has lots of disparate groups come through and we all have to figure it out."
The inner west has a treasure trove of historic bowling clubs that have pulled out the stops to stay afloat - and even thrive. Here are some of them:
Pratten Park Community Sports and Bowling Club
Established in Ashfield in 1915, with a gorgeous art deco clubhouse that dates from the 1930s, pokies-free Pratten Park has a legendary 93-year-old licensee in Gladys Barnes, and culturally diverse music nights twice a month through a partnership with the Cultural Arts Collective - next up is cellist-dancer-singer trio Ark on July 2. The club is open Fridays 5pm-9pm "for food, sounds and space for the kids to play", and on Saturdays from 1pm for barefoot bowls. The club has also been hosting a monthly Polish Club pop-up featuring Sto Lat Restaurant: upcoming dates are July 9-10, August 20-21 and September 17-18.
Marrickville Bowling and Recreational Club
The original 1905 clubhouse still stands as an integral part of the building at this Sydenham Road "club under the flight path". The club is still a hub of competitive bowling as well as offering barefoot bowls on one of its two greens. It's open seven days a week with Rita's Bistro serving "club classics" such as chicken parmy and a $27 Angus rump. This bowlo has also lured a young and hip generation through a focus on edgy live music, hosting gigs Friday to Sunday. Coming up: inner west punk rockers Punish launch their album on June 25. On July 2, the Psychotic Turnbuckles take the stage.
The Leichhardt Bowlo
Like the Petersham club, the Leichhardt Bowling and Recreation Club sits on a quiet residential street, and bills itself as the only club in the inner west with an outdoor children's playground. The 88 on Piper bistro serves modern Australian meals and has a $15 curry night every Thursday (last week's special was fish kofta). The live music here is more middle of the road than at Marrickville, but a load of fun with nostalgia thrown in: think Jan Preston's Boogie Circus (July 2), The Music of Bonnie Raitt (July 8) and The Flaming Stars rock'n'roll dance band (July 23). Meanwhile, back on the green, this club also retains competition bowls, and barefoot bowls for all-comers is $10 a head.
Ashfield Bowling Club
Situated within the sprawling Ashfield Park on Parramatta Road, the Ashfield Bowls Club has a proud 132-year history - which now includes a successful Guinness Book of World Records attempt for longest bowls game in the world by member Don, who bowled constantly for 32 hours last month. As well as competition and barefoot bowling, there is trivia every Wednesday, drag bingo on the first Thursday of the month, meat raffles on a Friday night, and $18 Sunday roasts in the bistro (open Wednesday-Sunday).
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