Finding words to describe the place this bar holds in my own life is hard enough but summing up the feeling of those who were there on Friday the 18th of June 2010 to turn off the tap on one of New Zealand’s most famous watering holes is perhaps the hardest challenge a writer could face. How to do justice to such a legendary almost mythical place is maybe akin to writing a eulogy for Mother Teresa.
As I strode into Gardies for the final time on Friday night the carpet was familiarly sticky, soaked in memories it complimented the worn yet familiar looking decor that gave Gardies its comfortable living room appeal. Gardies first retro brown brick was mortared into place in 1969 and the completed 5500 Square Foot tavern opened shortly after as a popular local pub for North Dunedin residents. Designed with large drinking and serving areas which reflected the change in liquor laws in the late 60’s allowing for longer operational hours its large car park is testament to the countries attitude towards drink driving at the time. Student flats didn’t have the reach of today’s sprawling campus and hence the Scarfie culture that became synonymous with Gardies would have to wait a few years to be born.
The Gardies of old was a classic locals bar, live music, free flowing beer, sports on the telly and even according to one lucky lady a 1970’s first date that lead to a still successful marriage. Like any good local there was the odd dust up and a few hard nuts to be found leading into perhaps Gardies most infamous night which occurred in 1974, when a fight between pub patrons and the local biker gang at the time ‘The Coffin Cheaters’ saw shots fired in the car park a number of those involved emerge with serious gunshot wounds. What may shock many is the fact that upstairs at Gardies was once home to a boogie nights styled glass dance floor with flashing lights. Former managers from those earlier days Arthur Waide and Mark ‘Messy’ Medlicott joke that it’s probably still under the floor boards somewhere. Most of those who remember Gardies through the nineties and earlier this decade will know that dancing was virtually banned but like mullets, jean shorts and skateboarding Gardies went full circle with a wooden dance floor and DJ booth being introduced almost by accident while the carpet was being replaced around 6 or 7 years ago.
The 10pm closing of the 1970’s and 1980’s saw peoples socialising shackles released and crowds flocked to the Gardens Sports Tavern to enjoy many a live band and a decent boogie. I know we often hear stories of kids being left in the car while the parents were at the pub but Gardies had this licked and Joe and Jason Waide, sons of former manager Arthur Waide reminisce fondly over the hours they spent playing space invaders at the downstairs bar, beats the back seat of the car every time. Things got so busy in those early days that staff would need to sneak mates in the through the back door bundle them in the small service lift accessing upstairs and the action as to avoid causing a riot amongst the other patrons.
As the 80’s wore on the university grew and students crossed the Dundas Street barrier to inhabit northern Castle Street, Leith Street and Howe Street, surrounding Gardies and eventually infiltrating the local watering hole. Gardies joined the Captain Cook Tavern, Bowler and the Oriental Hotel as a major player in the Student drinking scene a position it would hold until its closure. Messy informs me of the first ever Orientation Week Promotion in 1986 where Speight’s put up a branded Austin A35 car which was lowered into the Garden Bar by a crane and each jug purchased gave the merry student drinker a chance to win a set of wheels for the year. This sparked off the long and often controversial tradition of large O-Week promotions run by local bars such as the Cooks Cook-a-thon and Orientals/The Last Moa’s Tanker Day. The boogie nights dance floor disappeared later in the eighties and was replaced upstairs by a country and western styled bar compete with a covered wagon. Deregulation of the alcohol industry in the early 1990’s saw the beginning of some tougher times for the iconic student boozer as bars in town were able extend their hours while Gardies located in a residential area was stuck with 10pm closing, eventually this was pushed out to 12am on Friday and Saturday and 11pm on weeknights.
In 1992 Current owner Peter Innes Jones headed south from running student bars in Christchurch hearing that there was an opportunity to take up the challenge at the helm of Gardies. Pete embarked on the longest tenure of any manager steering the bar through its high profiled nineties period and into the somewhat more troubled recent times. Despite many murmurings of discontent amongst the students of the 1990’s who point fingers at the current generation for failing to support the venue and lament over the dissipation of its huge popularity Innes Jones said it wasn’t quite the case and the bar always had its ups and downs. “We rarely had two good years in a row but neither did we have two bad ones”. Jones and his crew came up with many an innovative promotion to hold ground in the very competitive student bar market during this era. Cheap ‘Scarfie Meal Deals’ were introduced in the 1990’s and in response to the Otago Rugby Team’s penance for drinking crates of Speight’s, Gardies lead the charge to sell the good old Kiwi swapper crate over the bar. Other popular promotions were Seven Deadly Sins, where by the willing scarifies would down seven shots each named after one of the well know seven deadly sins such as lust, gluttony, greed, or envy etc and receive a t-shirt for their troubles another favourite was toss the boss, where by the customer upon buying a round of drinks could engage in a game of coin toss with the duty manger at the time, should you win, the drinks were on the boss. It would be fair to say that a few bosses have cost Pete a fair amount of coin.
Gardies didn’t just become famous overnight and along with all that had gone before a certain period during the nineties when the bar was frequented by the Otago NPC team who held regular court sessions at the venue and mingled with the public, really catapulted the Bar into folk law. Brendan ‘Chainsaw’ Laney recalls that era as a special time and said it meant a lot to the players. Laney laments “The reason it was important to us as players was you felt you were just another person in the pub, it also got us close to the people who came and supported us every game and because we actually knew them and vice a versa it meant they were really interested in us doing well on the field”. Another famous ex Scarfie and Otago rugby player Marc Ellis rose to fame while still a regular at the pub and his endorsements and support along with the rest of the Otago team helped publicise the bars character to a wider audience making it a must stop venue for anyone wanting a cold beer or a good time in the city.
Like any bar if the walls could talk what a story they would tell, in Gardies case the walls could talk and chalk boards installed in the toilets bore witness to many a humorous comment about someone’s mum, sister, girlfriend or sexuality. Gardies had it all, cold Speight’s, sport on the big screen, friendly and often easy on the eye bar staff, comfortable and non intimidating surrounds all capped off with an atmosphere second to none. Music, events and students engaging in all sorts of entertaining activities such as the naked ski jump, naked pool and humorous take the piss dances like the raptor, lawnmower, box dance and caterpillar made it unique. “We sold good times” Innes Jones states and it was all washed down with a fair few Speight’s.
As the 2000’s wore on cheap super market booze, rising costs of student living and constant pressure and scrutiny from the University and licensing authorities saw student drinking pushed into the home and the crowds waned a little. According to Innes Jones the business no longer remained a viable commercial entity in its current state with the current environment. “I was embarrassed to have to sell the Gardies” Innes Jones confesses “it was so hard to see it slipping away like watching your grandparents with Alzheimer’s”. It was such an Icon and I could see from his expression it was not a decision taken lightly. There were all sorts of rumours around offers to buy the bar but Innes Jones categorically states that the only realistic and concrete offer he ever formally received was from the University of Otago. He has no regrets and enjoyed the ride over the years especially the vibrant young people he has met and staff he had the pleasure of working with. He notes current manager Johnny Miller as one of the nicest people he knows and a great manager “I have never seen anyone work the floor like Johnny, he had a great manner and I never saw him angry”. This author can certainly vouch for Miller here and also that the big guy who had become a constant of the student drinking scene over the past decade had some of the best stories about Scarfie life I’ve ever heard.
The crowd on the final night was well intentioned and of a good nature, there were a few big bots smashed in typically Scarfie fashion and the odd larrikin after a memento but overall the affair was a well managed and suitable send off for the Iconic old boozer. Innes Jones said it was the best night commercially for over 2 years. There was any number of well known’s in attendance, Josh Kronfeld, Aaron Pene, Tom Donnelley, Craig Newby and Alan Whetton all made appearances, not to mention the Cutters Club who have been having $5 Friday lunches with jugs of coke and raspberry put on by Pete at Gardies for nearly two decades. A live band rocked upstairs and beer flowed much as it had in the heyday. The taps finally dried up around 11.00pm and the bar ran completely dry shortly after. The crowd dispersed remarkably quietly into the night, a respectful farewell indeed.
So what now, the University has another bar to convert into offices or study space and the students of the university have one less place to engage in the famous antics that has made them unique and made Dunedin such a draw card for New Zealand’s youth. Brendan Laney is worried as am I that this is another nail in a rapidly closing coffin for Dunedin’s unique Scarfie culture. Pete and former All Black and Otago star Josh Kronfled admit it’s sad to see such icons disappear and that places such as Gardies offered a supervised environment for students to flourish and earn their rite of passage to adulthood. Kronfeld always the wordsmith surmises “University is a developmental experience, socially, mentally and culturally for the individual and its better for this to occur in a managed way, bars like Gardies offer supervised environment for this exciting time in people’s lives”. Innes Jones hopes that the University and the community of Dunedin recognise how important the student culture is and that places like the Captain Cook survive these turbulent times to carry the baton for the future. “The kids have a right to 4 or 5 years of enjoyment before they have to worry too much about the grind of adult life” is a well put summary by Innes Jones who reckons he would love to go off and open a Blues club but in this current environment where cheap off license booze is killing large taverns and iconic student bars alike he should actually open a supermarket with a bar in it!
So Gardies is gone, I’d like the university to remember this line when deciding the fate of any future bars or elements of student culture they deem undesirable, “Otago University has one massive point of difference that is, you can get a degree anywhere but you can only be a Scarfie in Dunedin”, for how much longer only time will tell.
Author: Mark Wilson
Photos: Mark Wilson/Mark 'Messy' Meddlicott
Copyright 2010, for information on reproduction of this article and or images or for information on how to purchase the rights to publish please email mark wilson
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