Western Sydney Icons 1 – Panthers

With all the to-ing and fro-ing about the asylum seeker policy, it is very tempting to just run away and ignore the stupidity and narrow mindedness of both sides, as suggested by Annabel Crabb last week. And that is what I am doing with the blog for a while. I am going to address what I think is lacking a bit in our “national conversation” and that is an actual working understanding of what is called “the western suburbs” in the media and by politicians.  It is hard to escape the conclusion at times that we really an amorphous mass and easy to pigeonhole by journalists who, for the most part, seem to rarely venture by choice beyond Leichhardt – unless it’s for a one off visit to write a broad brushstroke piece about people who live near train stations or stand in Panthers watching a visit by Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard, as happened in the 2010 election. It was pretty amusing to watch the tweets of journalists having to come out our way those days. So, these blogs will seek to provide some details about the cultural icons of the western suburbs of Sydney. The first will be that club deemed so important to Gillard and Abbott – Penrith Panthers.

Penrith Panthers was a new style of club in Sydney – the super club. The canny directors of times old bought a vast tract of land west of Mulgoa Rd, when it was disused farming land and not used for very much. They waited until the 80s to build what became a massive entertainment complex, of a size that threatened to dwarf even the St. George Leagues, Parramatta Leagues and Souths Juniors, then the benchmarks for club behemoths.  They had more land to play with than any of those. Therefore, they built a mini golf course, aqua golf, a 9 hole Par 3 course, a cable water ski park (which was originally going to have bungee jumping, before it was deemed illegal by the NSW Government, forcing all the bungee jumpers to go to NZ for the experience) and a water slide park. Eventually, the land also contained a marquee that doubled as a convention centre, a set of cabins called Nepean Shores, the Penrith Tourist Information Centre, Australia’s first Krispy Kreme franchise, McDonalds, KFC, a Lonestar Steakhouse, a Sizzler Restaurant and a 216 room hotel.

In other words, an entertainment smorgasbord for the people of Penrith and surrounds. And I haven’t even mentioned inside the club as yet.

The club has changed a bit over the years, reflecting the money that has poured into the region over the decades. It used to be a functional brown building, but has recently become a glass fronted “classier” joint

Inside, however, is the real business. In the 1990s, it was the place to be for young men and women out for a good time on a Friday or Saturday night. It still is. But in the 90s, it was almost the only option. The Penrith Hotel tried to get a nightclub going, but it faded quickly. Panthers had a number of nightclubs in the 90s, with named like – Reflections (otherwise known as Infections) for the slightly older crew (with a significant number of cougars), Reactor One, the Evan.  Reactor One was the place to be for the young, hot and sexy.  It breathed fire, it seemed to me, and was a heaving meat market.  It wasn’t the place for me. I instead was inspired by Reactor One to write this poem, where I imagined what it would be like if poets were at that place. The spirit of Reactor One is now revived in a club called Minx, which is just as fuelled by alcopops and premixed bourbon and cokes as Reactor One. Only now it has added orange and Ed Hardy.

The Evan was a curious nightclub space, as it was designed for concerts, musical theatre and plays. I once saw a fantastic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there. However, not many plays were on in the Evan nightclub in the 90s – there was too much money to be made by converting it into a nightclub space, where the girls dressed to impress and the blokes didn’t dance until Khe Sanh was put on. Khe Sanh was a song every single nightclub space had in common. The DJ would put away the beats and on it would come.  These days, the Evan is a place where concerts of cover bands, faded Australian Idol contestants and the like are put on – a similar roster as Rooty Hill RSL’s fare.  For example, there’s the upcoming Buble Meets Sinatra concert and for all those Taylor Dayne fans out there, she’s performing there.

I remember from my days as a drastically unsuccessful babe catcher from those times seeing Penrith footballer Mark Geyer walk through the club after a match across the road at Penrith Park (now Centrebet Stadium), into a special room with the rest of the Panthers. Someone called out his name and he turned around, giving a look that I imagined at the time was the same look a gorilla gives when a noise confuses and slightly aggravates him. I have since realised that the bloke must have heard his name called out a lot, everywhere, and he must be been a little tired of it. These days, his face can be seen everywhere – in the vast lobby, on advertising on club merchandise. He is a local hero, more recognised than pretty much every Penrith resident – and not necessarily a bad thing. He is a positive role model for people in the community and his statements on the MMM breakfast show are mostly positive and non-judgmental – if he is negative, it is usually when he feels that changes need to be made to protect his family. In that, he represents the views of his Penrith brethren.

The rest of Panthers caters for a range of people these days, especially families. There is a vast array of video games for kids to play, bistros, a Panarotti’s franchise, a Chinese restaurant, an outdoor BBQ / play area as well as an excellent gourmet restaurant, Osso, which is the best restaurant in Penrith, complete with a knowledgeable sommelier, aged steaks and desserts equal in quality with many one hatted restaurants in Sydney. There’s also function rooms and other facilities that make other clubs unable to compete.

Fuelling all this, however, is a feature that has remained virtually unchanged since the building of the club. The poker machines. In Panthers, they sit in a vast pit that can be seen from most of the club, except from Osso or from the kids’ video game area. My mother, when asked what she thought of Panthers at first sight, likened it to hell – from everywhere you could see the slavering gamblers.  As a result, I can’t help but think that no matter the shiny facade, the thing that drives it is a diseased beast – the gamblers. And these aren’t family people you see around the rest of the club. These are the same middle aged to elderly people (some younger people) that have always been there. It’s a horrible sight to behold and a lot of the patrons scoot very quickly past it.

But it is that reality that gives the current campaign against Wilkie’s push for Pre Commitment legislation such weight. The families that go into Panthers know that people in that pit have gambling problems. However, their money funds the facilities that the families enjoy as well as the sporting competitions their children play each weekend. That is not excusing their indifference, but for people who rarely display an interest in federal political issues, the possible impact on kids’ sport and local entertainment facilities is a strong point to make.

Panthers stands as a symbol of the modern Western Sydney on many fronts. It does show an emerging interest in culture and food, the ways of entertaining people in the western suburbs as well as a local meeting point for people of various ages. It also shows just how the poker machine growth in the state has created a club that staggers the visitors from interstate that visit.  It acts as both a positive and negative force for the region and will continue to do so, no matter what happens in Canberra.

2 thoughts on “Western Sydney Icons 1 – Panthers

  1. rasqash says:

    Hailing from NSW and having spent more time than I care to remember around poker machines and having several of my friends suffer huge losses from gambling addictions due to Pokies I know exactly what is meant when you liken a club’s Poker Machine floor to hell. No one likes to admit it, but the money swindled from its hapless occupants is what allows the pleasanter parts of the club to exist. This is exactly why it’s so important for these pre-commitment laws to come through, to allow these hapless gambling addicts to get some semblance of their lives back. It’s really time for NSW Clubs to wean themselves off their addiction to pokies and try and invigorate their industry via some other medium. Perhaps fostering live original music instead of cover bands, and maybe relaxing the liquor licensing laws a bit to allow bars to pop up in every nook and cranny like they have here in Melbourne. Honestly, if I never see another Poker Machine again in my life it will be too soon.

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