Tropicana Bob and the Min Min Lights The beating heart of Sydney’s wayward bohemians

Text: Toby Creswell

The Tropicana has been sold. As good as the calamari salad is, and as much as the Tropicana is still an institution on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst, it hasn’t been the same since it hit the big time and Sergio bought a big car.

It was started by the legendary Vince in 1980. The man who opened most of the Italian joints in Darlinghurst offering coffee (no skim, no soy) and toast, served by backpackers, students or young Chinese girls pinballing back and forth. I’m told it was Vince who introduced a machine that squeezed fresh orange juice!

Coluzzi was already established across the road and probably did make better coffee (in the days when the coffee in Sydney was actually beautiful). But let’s face it, Coluzzi attracted lycra-clad bicycle wankers, barristers and on-the-run psychiatrists.

For whatever reason The Trop – a hole-in-the-wall across the road from Coluzzi, with two rooms and indifferent spag bol on offer – took off with the local layabouts, the arty types and the small push of people-with-jobs who had just begun moving into the area.

Vince had to sell the joint after three years. That’s when Sergio took over Tropicana and made it jump.

Al fresco on Darlinghurst Road – outside the Tropicana Caffe

Outside the Tropicana Caffe, 1992. Photography by Andrew Taylor/Fairfax Syndication

When I think of The Tropicana I recall it in its earlier incarnation as the former petrol station with the laminex tables. I think of the two crowded rooms full of steam and people from all walks of life grabbing a pastry or some toast, and the less than full-bodied coffee and how, as Sergio pumped the java, the sweat poured off his forehead.

The Tropicana – rooms full of promises. Much of the morning clientele had arrived from the local 12-step meeting and others who nodded off and scratched their faces were on their way to recovery or the big sleep. Nicholas Pounder had a bookshop opposite and was always good for an amusing reminiscence about almost anything, volumes not for the faint hearted and wise advice for impecunious wannabe writers.

Have breakfast at the Tropicana and you’d probably run into Hobart Hughes who always knew where the place to be that night was going to be; or you’d see that Balkan art student that went off with my girlfriend. It was that kind of place.

A painting by Michael Saker hung on the wall there and Michael could always be found there holding court (often with Dr. Nick). Michael’s vivid pictures really summed up the times. So much so he was the star of a very early Tropfest Film Festival entry that almost won the top prize simply by letting him talk and talk and talk.

But most of the time I think of The Tropicana I think of Tropicana Bob. For a time, Bob was ‘partners-in-crime’ with the singer Peter Blakeley who really loved the place, before he sailed for Los Angeles and Ben Frank’s on Sunset. That was the Tropicana Dream – to cross the great water and make it big in show biz. In fact, Peter was so fond of both Tropicana and hire cars that he borrowed Austen Tayshus’s Hertz rent-a-car one time and was so reluctant to return it the comedian took up a permanent spot out the front of the cafe, hoping to catch the runaway choir boy. He sat there like a tennis fan, getting whiplash as the possible cars rolled by.

Peter also had a dispute with his record company. Being a man of no fixed address at the time, the court process server also took a pew there. Being square, as his job requires, the poor man stood out, thumb-like, and Peter would cruise past, probably in Austen Tayshus’s Hertz, and give a wave and smile to Sergio who would smile back and tell the court officer that, no, Peter hadn’t been by.

So, The Trop was filled with people who were gunna … gunnamakeamovie, gunnawriteaplay, gunnabeabigstar. They sat for hours having ‘meetings’ with pals and sharing dreams. The dreams as thick a cloud in the room as the steam from the frothy coffee machine.

I always thought of Peter Blakely’s pal, Bob Eagle as ‘Tropicana Bob’. He defined something about the place along with being so present there. He was always a week away from finishing his screenplay/musical/stage play. It had something to do with Min Min Lights and a spiritual journey in the outback.

Bob was talented enough – he gave his place at NIDA to “George Mad Max” he told us. He did never finish that script though. One day, sitting at the laminex tables, John Polsen, another gunnabeanartist, had this idea to marshal the skills in the room for a film festival of our own – and so the Tropicana Film Festival was staged across the two rooms with a few TV sets, some long VCR cords and a VHS player.

Before too long the hideaway under the Talk of the Town building was suddenly home to the international jet-set. Bob would still come by, but you know, it wasn’t our place our anymore. It got ‘rennavated’ and turned into a proper dining spot and the atmosphere went south. Now it’s been sold to some fancy restaurant-auteur and the coffee will probably be better – but the place won’t be the same again.


Tropicana Caffe, 5am to 11pm every day, www.tropicanacaffe.com

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