WHEN Newcastle Museum director Julie Baird recently walked into the Castanet Club exhibition taking shape in the Honeysuckle facility, she was left speechless.
"Woah!," was what she recalled uttering.
Which was pretty much the reaction of Newcastle audiences to that wonderfully unruly group of musicians, comedians and actors who emerged from local living rooms, pub stages and theatre companies in the early 1980s and turned the city's gritty working-class image on its head. Or, at least, dressed it in bright clothes and took it out for a good time.
"It was just that youthful energy," recalled Castanet Club member Glenn Butcher, who on stage was Lance Norton, the suave cabaret singer in the velvet suit.
"Why would it not work? What could possibly go wrong!?"
For the best part of a decade, the Castanet Club could do no wrong, as this creative collective with the big show tunes and even bigger characters sashayed off a tiny Newcastle stage and into venues around the nation and overseas, and even onto the big screen.
Crowds would queue along Burwood Street then cram into the club to be part of an experience that gleefully jumped over genres. A Castanet Club show was part-cabaret, part-vaudeville, part-stand-up comedy, part-costume party, and all daggy fun.
"They were a feral version of the Mickey Mouse Club with collective action and socialist tendencies," said David Hampton, the curator of the Newcastle Museum's exhibition, with the suitably whacky, and COVID-appropriate title, "Castanet Club: an exhibition you can dance to (if you were allowed)".
The Castanet Club may have ended 30 years ago, but with the exhibition, the group's name is once more shining out in dazzling colours. And the artist applying those colours is acclaimed artist Michael Bell.
As an art tutor, Bell created the original Castanet Club sign and other promotional material, as the group took over the Classy Lady Disco behind the Clarendon Hotel in Burwood Street and created an arena for their performing dreams - and a place where Novocastrians could let their hair down.
The art school Bell had attended was next door to the Freewheels Theatre-in-Education company, where a number of the Castanet Club members, including Glenn Butcher, worked.
Inevitably their paths crossed and, before he knew it, Michael Bell was up a ladder one Saturday afternoon, installing his attention-grabbing sign, which was loaded with pop culture references.
"I knew they [the fellow Castanets] were big fans of American TV shows, so I tapped into that love," explained Bell. "And a bit of Las Vegas."
Cultural history is repeating for the exhibition.
Michael Bell is helping recreate the Castanet Club in the museum, painting walls and the stage with his characters, and unfurling about 150 metres of bunting, just like in the old days. And because the original sign has gone - "It was last seen in a garage in Glebe in Sydney" - he has made a new one.
"It was daunting when I first walked in here," said Bell of the exhibition space. "This is more like 'Rolling Stones stadium' scale rather than the Burwood Street club. But hopefully it will feel intimate."
The idea of an exhibition grew from a pile of donated memorabilia, retrieved from the storage shed of former Castanet Club manager Jodi Shields, who these days is a top talent agent in London.
But the museum's Julie Baird knew static displays would not fully tell the story, let alone capture the atmosphere, of the Castanet Club.
So as well as reincarnating the club, the exhibition will include a recreated 1980s Cooks Hill share house, where so many of the ideas and characters were hatched.
"We wanted to create the feeling you were there, the sensory experience of being in this exciting, creative time," Julie Baird said.
While the atmosphere of the Castanet Club is being conjured in the museum, memories of what it was like to be in the group, and how that experience changed lives, have been captured in a new book.
The Castanet Club book is filled with photographs and anecdotes from those who were on stage and off.
"It's kind of like herding cats, getting 25-plus people to record their memories," said Stephen Clark, the co-editor of The Castanet Club and a member of the "artistic collective".
As a young man who loved community theatre, Stephen Clark gravitated to the "get up and have a go" attitude of the Castanet Club. As well as making posters and T-shirts for the group, he was a dancer.
"There was not a real hierarchy, there was no, 'I'm too good for that'," Clark said. "Everybody had a turn at everything."
In his foreword to the book, Neil Armfield, the celebrated director who was at the helm of The Castanet Club movie in 1991, recalled coming to Newcastle in 1983 to see the group.
"It was like a new kind of theatre - one which grew from the backyard and carried such respect for each other and for their friendship," he wrote.
The friendship extended to the audience. As two of the Castanet Club's mainstays, Stephen Abbott (Johnny Goodman on stage) and Warren Coleman (Bowling Man), noted in the book, the Newcastle audiences gave the performers a "licence to fail" as they found their feet.
"Audiences forgive initial failures, because frankly there's not much else going on and besides, they know everyone up on stage," they noted.
"The audience was incredibly receptive, and there was a lovely feeling of tolerance and acceptance," recalled Stephen Clark.
"So everyone was shouting out and heckling and contributing to the night. The barrier between the stage and the audience was non-existent."
In the book, the term The Castanet Family is used. Glenn Butcher believes the audiences were very much part of the family.
"On stage, we were just having a great old time. You feel like The Beatles for a minute, but when you see the photos of the audience, I just think it's amazing."
"I think they're their own family as well. There's no under-rating those things in your life."
"I think it was so new and fresh at the time, no one had seen anything like it," said Michael Bell. "There was a sense of real excitement and enjoyment for a lot of people."
Those who were there believe the Newcastle of the early 1980s helped create the Castanet Club. There was cheaper housing, a university and teachers' college with thriving arts programs, the booming pub rock scene, local theatre companies, and, as Glenn Butcher said, "a lot of crossover between the visual arts and performing at that time; there was a lot of cross pollination there."
Threaded through it all was a self-belief and "do-it-yourself" approach.
"I think the Castanet Club is the perfect example of Newcastle as a creative incubator," said Julie Baird, arguing that the feel-good approach of the group was powered by a punk attitude in what was still the steel city.
"Even though there was a veneer of candy pink and the great American songbook, really it was quite punk rock, it was going against the grain."
Many of those who were in the Castanet Club have gone onto careers in TV comedy and radio, appeared in major theatrical productions, films and, for Warren Coleman, even ended up at the Oscars. He was a co-director and co-writer of the Academy Award-winning movie, Happy Feet.
"It really changed the face of Australian comedy in the 1990s and 2000s," Julie Baird said of the ensemble's impact and legacy.
Glenn Butcher, who recently appeared in comedian Kitty Flanagan's TV series Fisk, said he still spent time with many of his fellow Castanet Club members, so "it feels like it's never ended".
However, as for the chances of a reunion, "I'd say nil to zero," Butcher said. "The disappointment potential would be so great!"
While both the Castanet Club projects journey to another time and to almost another place, they are seen as more than a nostalgia trip.
Much has changed in Newcastle, and some of those elements attributed to helping nurture the Castanet Club have gone, including the Burwood Street venue. But those involved in the book and the exhibition believe there is no reason why something similar can't emerge in Newcastle today.
"You'd never say never, you just need the right bunch of people with the right attitude," Glenn Butcher said.
"Newcastle is a fantastic city, and all the creative and talented people there are just the same as then," said Stephen Clark. "People could do it again. There's still the same talent in Newcastle as there always was."
"Castanet Club: an exhibition you can dance to (if you were allowed)" opens at Newcastle Museum on July 11.
Book information: castanetclubpress.com.au
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