Since opening in 1984, Tilley's Devine Cafe Gallery has become a Canberra icon. It is recognised as an internationally acclaimed live music venue, and has hosted more than 400 performances from the best Australian and international artists. Including Luka Bloom, The Go Betweens, Paul Kelly, Renee Geyer, Brian Kennedy, The Church, Mary Black, Ron Sexsmith, The Whitlams, The Animals, Jose Feliciano, Canned Heat and many many more. See the full list of performers here.
Tilley's was the first licensed outdoor venue in Australia and the first bar to ban indoor smoking. When it open in 1984 it could seat 60, yet 420 people turned up. It has been extended 5 times and has a great outdoor seating area, with plenty of wooden booths and tables inside. Tilley's prides itself on using the best Segafredo coffee and fresh locally sourced produce.
By Roslyn Russell, Museum Services, and funded by the ACT Heritage Unit.
Named after the colourful Tilley Devine, Sydney's infamous madam and 'Bordello Queen' of the 1920s, the café was established on the corner of Wattle and Brigalow Streets in Lyneham in January 1984 by owner and manager, Paulie Higgisson. On opening night a seating capacity of 60 was swamped by an eager crowd of 420.
With elegant, dark wood fittings, a moody, deep red colour scheme, and soft jazz wafting between the old-fashioned booths lining the walls, there are some things essentially nostalgic and cinematic about Tilley's romantic atmosphere, reminiscent of a Hollywood film noir. Its timeless in a way that's hard to emulate in a youngish, fickle town like Canberra, where high turnover of night spots seem inevitably dictated by the relative hip-factor of the décor, the DJ and the cocktail menu.
However, Tilley's has achieved more than just create a creative ambience and space of effortless charm; it has been blazing a trail on multiple fronts from its inception. Initially established to create a safe and comfortable environment for women, Tilley's caused its first commotion by banning groups of men drinking inside unless they were accompanied by at least one woman. 'I just didn't want a room full of blokes', Higgisson told the Canberra Times in 2003. Despite the uproar (generated generally by men) this door policy was maintained for two years, solidifying a non-threatening atmosphere, a considerate client base, and in the process unintentionally racking up a good deal of free publicity.
Tilley's is also in a field of 'firsts', being the first licensed outdoor venue in Australia and the first bar to ban smoking indoors, eight years before any laws were introduced to enforce such a scenario. As a mecca for serious music appreciation, Tilley's has over the years developed a formidable reputation within the industry and wider public. An awesome array of Australian and international artists have presented a continuous program for twenty-one years. Again an idiosyncratic policy of not serving food or drinks during performances so as not to detract from the show through the hubbub of drinking and dining marked Tilley's as a connoisseurs' choice.
While not originally conceived as a live music venue, Higgisson's skill and background as a music producer and sound engineer meant this side of the operation grew almost by osmosis. As an offshoot it became a remarkably strong trump card with Higgisson maintaining, in keeping with the Tilley's legend, that in the last eighteen years she has never had to try and book a musician. Instead there has been a steady stream chasing her - among them have been guitarists Jose Feliciano, Slava Grigoryan and Karin Schaupp, Canned Heat, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, legendary acts like the Animals, and songwriters like Jimmy Webb.
Unfortunately, this approach has become a victim of its own success - 'Keeping Music Live', at least on a regular basis, is now untenable. As Higgison explained in an article in the Canberra Times, 'The day the music died', 'We've had a fabulous reputation for our concerts and one of the reasons is that we keep the place pin-drop silent. It's an environment that both artists and audiences won't get anywhere else, except perhaps in a theatre. But by definition, it's financially an unproductive time for us, all in the name of the civility of the gig.'
For this reason, plus escalating overheads and the unrelenting nature of planning such a series of events, Tilley's famed weekly schedule of concerts ended with the 'Last Hurrah' on Sunday 30 October 2005. The news of Tilley's live music demise has been greeted with much dismay across Canberra and beyond. However the stage has remained and Higgisson intends to stage live gigs from time to time, such as for the Multicultural Festival in February 2006.
This entry was prepared by Roslyn Russell, Museum Services, and funded by the ACT Heritage Unit. It appears on the Australian Women's Register here.
By Sally Pryor, from The Canberra Times, 16 January 2003.
Tilley's Devine Cafe Gallery should be a compulsory first port of call for people who are visiting Canberra for the first time. Central, yet out of the way, completely Canberra and yet so different to anything else on offer, the place seems guaranteed to imbue our fair city with a positive vibe that will hopefully linger with newcomers for the rest of their visit.
With elegant, dark wood fittings, a moody, deep red colour scheme, and soft jazz wafting between the old-fashioned booths lining the walls, there is some things essentially nostalgic and cinematic about Tilley's romantic atmosphere, reminiscent of a Hollywood film noir. Its timeless in a way that's hard to emulate in a youngish, fickle town like Canberra, where high turnover of night spots seem inevitably dictated by the relative hip-factor of the decor, the DJ and the cocktail menu.
It's ironic, really, that such a sense of timelessness should be associated with a place that has been a pioneer in so many different ways. And there are plenty of numbers and statistics associated with Tilley's, as I discovered when I spoke to owner and manager Paulie Higgisson. When Tilley's opened its doors for the first time in January, 1984 (which brings it to the ripe old age of 19 this month), it could only seat 60, and yet 420 people turned up.
Since then, each year at Tilley's has been bigger than the previous one. It has been extended five times, eventually taking over the entire block. It was the first licensed outdoor venue in Australia, as well as being the first bar to ban indoor smoking, which occurred eight years before there were any actual laws in the place.
"I just didn't want a roomful of blokes," she explains simply, and having woman around would inevitably "modify their behaviour". And of course, she adds, "Unintentionally it brought Tilley's the kind of advertising I couldn't buy."
And, as most people will know, for the first two years of Tilley's existence, groups of men were, famously, banned from drinking inside Tilley's unless they had at least one woman among their number. Predictably, this rule provoked the ire of many people (mostly men), but was keeping with Higgisson's objective, which was to create a generous environment that was both harmonious and safe for women.
Tilley's was not intended to be a live music venue in the very beginning. Higgisson opened the business initially "to feed my kids". However, Higgisson's skill and background as a music producer and sound engineer meant that the musical aspect grew almost inevitably. No great surprise then, that for the last 16 years, Higgisson has never had to call a musician to ask them to play. They've all come to her.
But it's the music-loving audiences at Tilley's which are its greatest asset, inspiring awe among the endless line-up of musical luminaries and internationally acclaimed acts who have performed there over the years. It appears that, even in the most well-known music clubs throughout the world, it's unusual to find people willing to shut up and listen in a place which is primarily a bar. But shut up and listen they do, which is what has so many artists beating down Tilley's door.
If you ever attend a concert at Tilley's, you might notice that the back of your ticket carries a printed warning: noisy people, and people with noisy children, will be asked to leave. This may seem like a touch of music fascism, but it is, of course the main ingredient in what has long been a very successful recipe.
And Audiences and performers alike just can't get enough of it. Many bands, when asked, will speak of Tilley's with a strange kind of reverence, despite having just played to a packed house. Too right: Tilley's is officially booked out for performers until June. Paulie Higgisson can now say, "quite shamelessly", that she has long had the luxury of being able to say yes to performers who will do justice to Tilley's legendary audiences.