36 Pitt Street
The WAC at 36 Pitt Street was reached by an external narrow rickety wooden staircase above Nicolas Fatouros' wine bar which sold cheap plonk, the drink of choice a “fourpenny dark”. The building’s caretaker lived in a dark hole under the stairs, and drunks sometimes managed the steep climb to wander into the club.
The main room had a red entry curtain, bare boards, a makeshift stage within coffin-like confines, an old upright piano, a wood-burning heater, and wooden forms to seat up to 100 people. It served as a workroom for building sets ~ and May Day floats, meaning a struggle to manoeuvre an enormous framework down the narrow steep staircase. Left-wing literature was on sale. A dressing room contained storage units made from butter boxes and space for socialising and sewing. A noticeboard was covered in pictures and items of interest to members. (The progress of the Second World War was tracked with maps and newspaper clippings on "The Wall".) From late afternoon people began drifting in after work, to read, rehearse, make costumes and paint sets.
Opening the windows provided the only ventilation but this brought in the sounds of dance halls and dustbins being emptied – and the trams which rattled past every few minutes, drowning the actors’ dialogue. In a packed audience on a summer night the atmosphere was suffocating, especially when the windows were closed and patrons lit up their cigarettes and pipes. The only escape was up another stair to an unstable outside platform among the iron roofs.
Office assistant and artist’s model Joan Bretton (born Johanna Breitenberger) was up there once and fell straight through a skylight, landing bolt upright in a chair in the room below, to the amazement of a man working there.
“Are you all right?” he asked after a few minutes’ shocked silence. “I will be after a few brandies”, responded Joan as she left for the local pub, probably the Ship Inn at Circular Quay where you could get drunk quickly on a bottle of cheap spirits (“no corkscrew required”) in an area where sailors chatted up painted girls amidst the smell of horses, beer dregs and off prawns.
The WAC’s roof became an improvised kitchen in 1933 when Harry Haddy, playing a toreador in a Carmen burlesque, wanted something more realistic than parsnips for the bull’s horns. He got hold of a bullock’s head from an abattoir and began boiling it down in a portable copper on the flat roof. After a week – the smell reaching as far as the GPO and attracting every stray cat in the neighbourhood – the head, with horns still intact, was doused with disinfectant and thrown into the harbour.
At the back of the WAC was a stone courtyard piled high with wine vats. On the Quay side was Madam Gertrud Bodenwieser’s ballet school and Mischa Burlakov’s studio where WAC members drank rough red wine while watching a floor show. Burlakov dancers in turn staged gipsy and Cossack items at the club. The smell of stale wine was pervasive and the thump of the ballet mistress’ stick a familiar sound.
On the waterfront was number 7 wharf where during the Depression the unemployed lined up to get their chits which they had to exchange for food at the Benevolent Society near Central. This took all day for those who couldn’t afford the tram fare. Carrying their sugar bags, they dropped in at 36 Pitt Street for a free cuppa.
Applicants for the dole had to fill in a form with 32 questions, many of which were seen as ridiculous and demeaning, and public bonfires were made of the forms. The unpopular questionnaire was the subject of Nellie Rickie’s sketch Weights and Measures. Jean Devanny often interrupted theatrical performances to call for volunteers to help those suddenly faced with evictions.