The area on the eastern side of Prahran Station has a long history as a performance venue. In 1920 the famous Leggett’s Ballroom was built and became a dancing institution for decades to come. On the same site, The Continental Cafe at 134 Greville Street became a lynch pin in the Melbourne live music scene from 1993-2001. The story of what became affectionately known as the ‘Conti’ began at a time when both Commonwealth and State governments injected funds into the music industry with the establishment of initiatives such as Ausmusic and the Victorian Rock Foundation.
Poster advertising performance by Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter at The Continental Café, Prahran, Victoria
The proprietors of the Continental were ‘the Marios’ – Mario Maccarone and Mario DePasquale and the venue manager was Bernard Galbally. The venue was home to local and international acts, both emerging and established. It provided an alternative to the pub rock scene, creating a club vibe that embraced and showcased a diverse range of musical styles. The Cafe could accommodate about 500 patrons, with dining facilities and an upstairs music venue.
The Conti hosted regular household names including Paul Kelly, Mark Seymour, Vika and Linda Bull, Deborah Conway, Tex Perkins, Dave Graney, Colin Hay, Vince Jones, Stephen Cummings, Tiddas, The Blackeyed Susans, Chris Wilson, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Kev Carmody, Jimmy Little, My Friend the Chocolate Cake and many more.
The venue didn’t restrict itself solely to music gigs. Comedy acts also took to the stage with performers such as Austen Tayshus, Jimeoin and Bob Downe. The Conti held more than 100 exhibitions by local contemporary artists including Rennie Ellis with his 1997 photographic exhibition ‘Club Cred.’ Artists were never charged to exhibit their works. It was the venue of choice for the 1997 Ned Kelly Awards for crime writing with Shane Maloney taking out the gong with ‘The Brush-Off‘. Screenings of the Tropfest film competition were held in 1999 and 2000. Showing a political bent, the Conti also hosted a Labor Listens Forum in 1998 with John Brumby, Rob Hulls and John Thwaites and in 2000 Paul Keating gave a talk promoting his publication Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia Pacific. In the 60s Keating contemplated an alternative career path in rock and roll and managed a band called The Ramrods.
Poster advertising performance by Vika and Linda at The Continental Café, Prahran, Victoria
Sadly, in 2001, the famous velvet curtain was drawn for the final time. The void left by the closure has never quite been filled by any other venue in Melbourne. It was clearly in and of its time. The site is currently home to Boutique Night Club. The Marios still operate Mario’s Cafe, the sister cafe to the Conti in Brunswick Street. They remain strong advocates for local artists and continue to provide a warm and friendly place for art exhibitions.
Fortunately the legacy of the Conti lives on. In 2010, the Marios generously donated the entire collection of Continental Cafe performance posters to the State Library of Victoria. As well as being passionate music lovers, they also displayed aptitude as archivists, retaining one copy of each poster produced throughout the venue’s history. The posters feature a distinctive house style designed by Mario Maccarone and graphic artist Graham Barker and provide an extraordinary snapshot of the eclectic mix of musicians at the Continental throughout its nearly ten year history. The collection runs to almost a thousand posters and forms a rich resource for historians of Australian music and poster design.
Poster advertising performance by Jimeoin at The Continental Café, Prahran, Victoria
Written by Sarah Ryan
Librarian, Australian History and Literature