The pub piano


THERE was nothing unusual to hear the boisterous voices of men bellowing from the bars of Australian pubs during the war years and beyond.

Pubs were the principle venues of entertainment for men during the war years, which continued in varying degrees after peace was declared.

From simple singalongs at the bar, to paid musos belting out favourite songs of the era on the piano, the pub was the place to be entertained prior to the rise of licensed clubs.

Some “localised scribble” I received in the late 1990s from an anonymous 77-year-old correspondent recalls the days of the pub entertainer at the Bellambi Hotel, in the coal mining town of the same name, on the NSW South Coast in the 1940s.

“I have been living here, near the hotel for over 50 years and remember a young man entertaining customers at the hotel every Saturday,” he wrote.

“There was lots of singing between the radio broadcasting of horse racing, while the bookies were taking bets. The bookies were always keeping a watchful eye for police raids. The Piano player, named “Ted”, lived nearby and he was paid by the publican with a bottomless mug of beer, which always sat in arm length on his trusty instrument. Ted used to play in Sydney for the soldiers during the war before they left for Europe. Oh how the miners loved the old time songs, a lot of singing and dancing till closing time at 6pm.”

Jim Orvad Piano

Ron Muir (on sax) and James “Double” Orvad (piano) entertain the crowd at Woonona Bulli RSL in the 1950s.

My grandfather, Jim “Double” Orvad also ‘tickled the ivories’ at the Bellambi pub, and other local watering holes during the 1940s and 50s. He couldn’t read a note of music, and played his tunes ‘by ear’…  Give him a few bars, and off he went.

Most pubs had an upright piano sitting in the corner of the public bar, at the ready for any talented musician to tackle, as long as you didn’t disturb the broadcast of the horse racing over the wireless set.

– The Sydney Sun reported on Sunday March 2 1952:

A beer-proof piano

After a 14-month test, a new type of piano was ordered this week for Army canteens in England and abroad. The piano has been tested, not for tone and appearance, but to see now it would stand up to cigarette burns and stains from beer bottles and pint pots. The pianist has his own beer and cigarette parking niche on his left; it is glassed over for protection. “The keys, made of nylon plastic, are cigarette-burn proof. On old-type pianos, soldiers liked to remove the bottom board beneath the keys and hang a dartboard on it. Now the panel is fixed with sliding doors, not detachable.

The pub piano at Eveleigh Hotel, Redfern, Sydney. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Discovering a Prodigy

LITTLE Nancy Weir, the 13-years-old pianist who has been “discovered” by Shura Cherkassky — himself only three years older —was discovered also by another visiting musician, Friedman, last year. But it is Nancy’s mother who really discovered her marvellous ability as a pianist and her soul for music. Nancy was born at Lockhart, in the Riverina, where her father and mother conducted the Lockhart Hotel. Then her parents transferred to an hotel in Dandenong. I know Mrs Weir very well. She is a brainy, cultured woman. At her invitation I journeyed out to Dandenong over two years ago to hear Nancy play. The child performed on the hotel piano, which had been spoiled “by all ignoble use,” but the touch of the true artist was easily discernible when Nancy played. Mr and Mrs Weir went back again to Lockhart to their old hotel, but Nancy remained at school at the Presentation Convent in Windsor. She will certainly go far, the best judges are agreed.

The Walrus.

Table Talk (Melbourne) December 6 1928


George Bowman, piano tuner, 131 Danks-street, Albert Park, was charged with being on the licensed premises of the Hotel Victoria on Sunday, 14th April. Constables Bunce and Hall deposed that when they visited the hotel on Sunday morning they found the defendant in the bar parlor talking to the mother of the licensee. Defendant said he had gone to the hotel to tune a piano. The licensee, Mr. J. McGregor, who was called as a witness for the prosecution to give formal proof that he was the licensee, said he had told Bowman a week before to come and have a look at one of the pianos, which he had previously tuned, and which had gone slightly out of tune again. The Chairman, in dismissing the case, remarked to defendant, “We give you the benefit of the doubt, but be careful, for the future. Don’t go to an hotel on Sunday, or you will drop in.” (Laughter.).

– Record (Emerald Hill, Vic.)Saturday 4 May 1907

Read about Percy Grainger, world famous pianist and composer, who entertained an audience at a bush pub in South Australia in 1924, HERE.


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Categories: NSW hotels

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