Over the past 30 years, a lot has changed at the Penguin Entertainers Club, but there has been one constant – the music. Oamaru Mail reporter Gus Patterson finds out more about the true musicians’ own venue from some of the people involved throughout the years.
The trouble with recalling the history of the Penguin Entertainers Club is “if you remember it, you weren’t doing it properly”, Bill Blakey says.
“It is a bit like the ’60s,” Blakey said.
The club, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has become a second home for many musicians in Otago, attracting members because of its dedication to live music.
It all started in 1990, when a group of Oamaru musicians was using an old annex of a grain store in the Victorian precinct as a practice room. They decided it would be a good place for a party, and the idea to turn it into a live-music venue grew from there.
Mr Blakey, who is now the club’s secretary, was a member of that group.
In November of that year, they organised a gig at the Five Forks Hall which raised $200 to get the ball rolling and give the Emulsion Lane space a lick of paint, he said.
There were plenty of helping hands. In those days, some freezing workers had an off-season which stretched out for six months, which was an attractive lifestyle for a musician, Blakey said.
Around the same time, the council started to relax liquor-licensing laws, allowing for private liquor licences, he said.
“We were one of the first to get a licence. I think they used us as guinea pigs.
“It was rough as guts at the start. We had to build toilets and all sorts of nonsense.
“We had a licence until four in the morning – the police seemed to think it was nice to know all the loonies were in one spot.”
Once the bands started rolling in, they did not stop.
The club’s location and atmosphere meant it sold itself.
Some weeks there would be three gigs on, Blakey recalled.
“We would take any band that wanted to come through.
“It was all volunteer-run so there was a bit of burnout.”
Elemeno P, the D4, The Feelers, Anika Moa, The Chills and Supergroove are some of the big names to have played at the club over the past 30 years, and their promotional posters still adorn the walls today.
But it was also great place for local musicians to get their first taste of performing on stage, Blakey said.
“It is like playing in your living room but in front of people,” he said.
“It’s a non-competitive environment and a good place to cut your teeth.
“There are some hours that go into it but I wouldn’t call them all work.”
Asked whether he thought in 1990 the Penguin Club would still be going 30 years later, Blakey said he “doubted very much” whether he would be alive in 30 years, “let alone the Penguin Club”.
“It’s a living thing and basically the music keeps it going,” he said.
Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust chairman, and former Penguin Entertainers Club president, Graeme Clark has also been involved with the club from the start.
These days, it mostly hosted local bands, but around the turn of the millennium, it was most frequented by touring musicians, and had about 550 members, Clark said.
“I think it was the ambience of the place, the friendliness, the audience energy [that attracted bands],” he said.
“One of our mottos was don’t ask people to play here, they ask us’.”
Over the years, he estimated volunteers would have put in tens of thousands of hours to keep the club running.
“We were like a big family .. that was my social outlet .
“We had a lot of fun.”
The club was “a special place with a special atmosphere” – and that had not changed over the past 30 years, current president Coll Fraser said.
Fraser has been involved with the club for the past 26 years.
“This is where I come to relax, this is my lounge,” he said.
“It’s somewhere to come and play, for those of us who aren’t professional musicians, and even some who are.”
The culture of the club has inspired generations of musical talent.
“Per head of population, there are more musicians in Oamaru than anywhere I have ever been.”
At present, “jam nights” are held twice a month – on the second and fourth Fridays.
The club has from 150 to 200 members. Fraser said new members were always welcome, and he encouraged past members to renew their memberships.
“We are a bit short on memberships after Covid-19, but they are starting to come in.
“We had 60 here last [jam night], which is a good amount.”
The club is a tenant of the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last month.
In November, they will both hold official 30-year celebrations.