In New South Wales RSL clubs are synonymous with poker machines. They’ve been part of the furniture for decades, and many NSW RSLs have become sprawling entertainment meccas by riding on the back of gaming machine revenue.
Unlike their northern cousins, however, Victorian RSLs have always had an uneasy relationship with the pokies. Maybe it’s because poker machines were a relatively late addition, only being legalised in Victoria in the early 1990s. Maybe it’s because clubs in Victoria have to play by the same rules as pubs, and don’t have a raft of advantages enshrined in law. Whatever the reason, poker machines have not, in many cases, turned out to be the financial saviour that Victorian RSLs thought they would be.
The reality is that there is not a single RSL in the top 50 Victorian poker machine venues by revenue. In Victoria it is the pubs that make the most money from gambling, while clubs are the poor cousins. Many have struggled to make ends meet, even with poker machines; in fact, the financial burden of operating unprofitable gaming machines has caused a number of RSLs and other clubs to close their doors for good.
But not every RSL has gone down this route. One club that has voluntarily given up its poker machines and sought a different direction is the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL, and that direction has proven to be a point of difference that no one could have expected.
In 2009, the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL was struggling to stay afloat. They had 16 poker machines that were costing them more money than they were bringing in, and with changes in the demographic of the local community and an aging membership, the future looked grim. But rather than folding under the financial burden, the RSL made a brave and visionary decision. They got rid of their poker machines and decided to try and survive without them.
At the same time, Peter Foley was looking for a new home for his live music initiative, the Caravan Music Club. The Caravan had been running at the Oakleigh Bowling Club for the past two years and was instrumental in bringing quality live music to the eastern suburbs, but it was rapidly becoming a victim of its own success. As the gigs became bigger and more popular, it became clear that The Caravan needed a new home, one that could sustain a permanent venue and meet the demands of a music-loving public.
The Caravan needed a home; the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL had an empty hall opening onto a beer garden. In the end, it was as simple as that. And while contemporary, intimate gigs from the likes of Deborah Conway, Stephen Cummings and Don Walker may not seem to be regular musical fare for an RSL, it’s a partnership that has stood the test of time.
I caught up with Peter Foley recently and asked him how The Caravan Music Club was travelling at the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL.
“Well… on Saturday night we had 250 people for Deborah Conway’s album launch. We had 300 on Friday night, 250 on Saturday night, another 150 yesterday; we had 700 people here on the weekend.
“This is the place where everybody launches their albums these days. It’s one of the best gigs in the country.”
Talking to Foley, it’s easy to get caught up in his passion for what The Caravan brings to the community. Their list of past and future artists reads like a Who’s Who of Australian and international rock; from its humble beginnings in Foley’s lounge room to its current home at the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL, The Caravan has become one of the most respected and prestigious suburban gigs in the country, luring the likes of Chain, The Celibate Rifles and The Tea Party’s Jeff Martin away from the city venues and out into the suburban fringe.
But it quickly becomes clear that the partnership between the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL and The Caravan Music Club has touched on something even deeper; a sense of history that resonates with the artists who are lining up to play there. Speaking of the hall where The Caravan now resides, Foley says:
“This is a great little room. This room has got a big musical heritage because it was… Ross Wilson, the show he’s doing on Sunday, he played here for the first time 47 years ago.
“It was a famous swinging little jazz spot in the 60s where bands like The Loved Ones, it was the Red Onions Jazz Band which later morphed into The Loved Ones who were probably the most loved Australian band… this was their home gig, this room.
“And that’s why Ross said he loves playing here, because he can feel the history in the joint.”
Foley laughs. “So it actually has a long history as a music room, but I didn’t even know that when I came here Tom, I had no idea. I’ve only learned this since I came here.”
Right now, The Caravan Music Club is going from strength to strength. In fact, this week they’re staging their annual Carnival of Suburbia; the Carnival is entering its third year and is getting bigger every year. And there’s no doubting that had the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL held on to their poker machines back in 2009 when their backs were to the wall, they would most likely have folded, and gone the way of so many other smaller suburban RSLs.
But they didn’t. They struck out on a different path, and the results have been as striking as they were unforeseen. And while it’s pretty clear that the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL has been the silent partner in their relationship with The Caravan Music Club, ultimately they’ve both had one major point in common: a love of the community.
“It’s really great to get people out from sitting in front of big screen tellies and get them out into their community and that’s what drives this gig,” Foley says. “I love doing it but I’m so grateful that people support it and they support it week after week.
“Music is the binding force. It’s not the main part, actually I think it’s the community aspect that’s the main part, and the music’s the great facilitator of that.”