Even those who don’t know his name usually know La Bohéme’s Paul Boylon by sight alone. The man with a fine moustache and a penchant for top hats is sitting outside his Grote Street bar, looking at the twinkling lights on this sleepy autumn night in Adelaide.
It is cold outside. Heavy curtains hide the warmth of the interior, but the glow sneaks out from the edges. The co-owner of La Bohéme, and founder of the Cabaret Fringe Festival, has worked the door in the same spot on 100 other nights just like this one, but tonight is special, for it will be his last.
As a couple of new patrons’ approach, he cracks the door to check inside. Music and laughter flow out onto the street for all of a moment. It’s mid-performance, so he holds off the newcomers for a few minutes.
“The last lot are having trouble letting go of the mic,” he says.
All the booths are packed and those in for La Bohéme’s closing act aren’t the usual Wednesday night jazz crowd. For a start, it’s a Sunday night and it is going to be a late one. Whole bottles of wine stand on tables. Those who can’t sit, stand in any available space.
A French flag hangs up high and the salon wallpaper gives it that romantic European vibe. Up the front is a stage, roughly three-by-five metres wide, with a step that no one uses. A well-worn red rug lays on top of it.
The woman on the mic having trouble letting go is Catherine. She is the lead singer of a five-woman cabaret group and is talking to the crowd about their history here. Several other venues have closed beneath them, she says, but losing this one is hard.
“You gotta celebrate it,” she tells the crowd. “I’ll cry tomorrow.”
Catherine breaks into a solo backed by Carol, the keyboard player. Together they sing Life is a Cabaret. When they close out their set, the jazz band moves to set up while everyone else moves towards the bar for another round.
Before small bars, there was La Bohéme. Named for the four-act Italian opera, the place opened its doors 12 years ago as a cocktail bar and live music venue.
The décor was opulent. The carpets were red. The stage lights could drench any act in any colour they needed when it came time for the room to go dark and the show to begin. It was a home for music, for cabaret, for comedy and occasionally poetry.
Then a few years ago, the original Adelaide arts venues around the city began to close. Sometimes they fell to mismanagement like punk venue The Squatters Arms. Others fell when the developers tore them down. The original Tuxedo Cat rooftop bar, the Jade Monkey and the Rhino Room were all bulldozed in the name of development.
La Bohéme kept the show going for over a decade until Her Majesty’s Theatre closed for demolition and redevelopment, cutting their patronage in half.
As the owners racked up $30,000 in debt, to keep it alive, they started a crowdfunding campaign that brought in $15,000 in a couple of days but in the end, they chose to call it a night.
It’s about eight o’clock now and The New Cabal are nearly ready to go on for the first of two sets. Among them is Chris Soole on saxophone, Lyndon Gray with his double bass glowing purple under the stage lights, Chris Martin on piano and Josh Baldwin on drums.
Every Wednesday night the jazz students, swing dancers and fans of the genre would come to watch them play whatever they were feeling. Their songs were covers or tributes to the greats, but also originals like the one about Big Mick, a La Bohéme regular.
Over the course of the night, other musicians join or drop out. Some get solos and the music flows like a dream. There is chaos and excitement. Heaving lows and winding highs that work themselves into a crescendo before falling away again. The last song they will ever play on that stage is Mr PC by John Coltrane.
When it is over the applause begins, and doesn’t stop. A man sitting at one of the tables uses the moment to slip two heavy-bottomed whiskey glasses into a bag. It’s hard to blame him for wanting to keep a little piece of the place for himself.
For when the music falls silent and the doors close for good, the stage will be taken apart. The furniture will be hauled away and the stage lights switched off for the last time.
Nothing will be left then, except maybe a cold, empty room and the faint green glow of the exit signs, standing out against the darkness.