“I believe performance spaces are holy spaces”: Brunswick Ballroom has revitalized one of Sydney Road’s oldest venues

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“I believe performance spaces are holy spaces”: Brunswick Ballroom has revitalized one of Sydney Road’s oldest venues

Photo by Nicole Cleary
Venue Owner Andrew Kay (left) and Venue Director Will Ewing (right)
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Words by August Billy
Photos by Nicole Cleary

An iconic venue’s facelift for an even brighter future.

When The Spotted Mallard went up for sale in May 2020, local live music fans feared Melbourne had lost yet another huge music venue. Luckily for us, an enterprising duo – musician Will Ewing and former Live Performance Australia president Andrew Kay – had other ideas.

The pair visited the Sydney Road location shortly after it went on the market and, despite the music industry’s prevailing financial distress, they couldn’t deny the venue’s unique character. 

After several months of planning and refurbishing, the Brunswick Ballroom was born. 

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The former-Mallard has been fully restored and reimagined into a distinct entertainment and dining destination. Live music remains the venue’s core offering, but the Ballroom team have expanded the programming to include comedy, cabaret, theatre and art exhibitions.

Andrew Kay has been producing and promoting theatre, cabaret, music and children’s entertainment shows for 40 years. He’d been contemplating taking charge of his own place for more than a decade, but wasn’t interested in a  genre-specific venue nor a sticky-carpeted pub. 

“When I walked into [the Brunswick Ballroom], it was just amazing,” he says. “It’s an unassuming frontage of a building, but when you walk up those stairs and see the extraordinary skylight dome and the scale of the room… it just blew me away. So that’s when I decided I wanted to buy it, renovate it, fix it and give it a new life.”

Kay and venue co-director Will Ewing were inspired by the old Continental Café in Prahran, a linchpin of the Melbourne live entertainment scene of the ‘90s. They wanted to mirror the distinct atmosphere found at hip Manhattan theatre Joe’s Pub, and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London.

A number of cosmetic alterations were necessary in order to execute their vision. Most notably, they’ve moved the stage to the far end of the room. 

“It used to be in a position where, as a performer, you were looking straight at the bar and the audience was to the left and the right of you,” Kay says. “Now you’re playing to the length of the room. Your dressing room is upstairs and you enter the stage down the stairs into the centre of the stage.”

They’ve also built a double wall to separate the kitchen from the performance space, preventing noise and light from filtering into the main room.

“I believe performance spaces are holy spaces,” says Kay. “Artists are important people, you need to give them the greatest respect so that what they present onstage is given its moment to actually shine.”

To this end, all of the carpets have been replaced and the parquet flooring polished. The chandeliers have been cleaned for the first time in a whopping – and somewhat concerning – 15 years. They’ve replaced the old wallpaper and surrounded the space with red velvet curtains, known to improve the acoustics. 

A cynic might wonder whether all of this refurbishment might’ve blunted some of the venue’s unique character, but Kay politely disagrees.

“We’ve certainly brought it up a level, but I think for audiences today, no matter what they’re listening to, they actually do want to be comfortable,” he says. “It’s not gentrified to the point where it’s lost its soul.”

Perhaps most crucially, the co-directors made the wise move to appoint Music Victoria Hall of Fame inductee Mary Mihelakos as the Ballroom’s booker. Mihelakos’ decades of booking experience are evident in the vast depth and variety of events already locked in on the calendar.

Over the next couple of months, the Ballroom will host headline shows from contemporary local artists Bitch Diesel and Girlatones, as well as stalwarts like Tim Rogers, Kate Ceberano and David Helfgott. 

“I hope to book more shows which are multigenerational – adult children with their parents having a night out together at the venue, and equally enjoying the music. I’m also mindful of people having broader tastes these days, so the space will reflect this,” says Mihelakos.

The Ballroom will become a comedy club for three weeks in April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Meanwhile, its two-night opening gala comes in the form of a cabaret love-letter to Melbourne, directed by Dean Bryant and featuring MCs Eddie Perfect and Margot Tanjutco.

Mihelakos has lived around Brunswick her entire life and watched with pleasure as Sydney Road has transformed over the last two decades into an iconic entertainment hub.

“I love that there are so many live music venues within blocks of the Brunswick Ballroom,” she says. “It is important to me that we complement each other and collectively bring more people into the area. But I must admit that I am feeling pretty lucky right now as I’m booking the best venue in town.”

Kay can’t help but agree with this assessment. 

“The Brunswick Ballroom is now an extraordinary performance space that artists are going to love performing in. I can’t think of another place in Melbourne or Australia that’s like this space.”

The Brunswick Ballroom is now open. You can check out their upcoming events here.