The current St George Leagues Club had its official opening on Saturday, 20 July 1963. In its report of the festivities, which began at 11am and culminated in a dinner and floor show, The St George Leader described the club as
‘one of the most modern and palatial in the southern hemisphere’.
It quickly became one of Sydney’s top entertainment venues, with big Saturday night stage shows rivalling those in the city. The waiting list for membership extended up to 18 months.
The original St George Leagues Club was established a decade earlier. It was located a little closer to the city, on the corner of Princes Highway and Rocky Point Road, Kogarah.
From the start, the club’s board of directors was a Who’s Who of the St George District Rugby League Club. These men brought the same entrepreneurial spirit that drove their football management to the operating of their licensed club. The Leagues Club foundation secretary was Baden Wales, who had been a member of the very first St George football club committee, back in 1921. Wales also served as football club treasurer and secretary. Other directors with strong ties to the football club included Reg Lawes (the foundation chairman), Alex Mackie, Frank Facer, Dick O’Connor, Jack Proops, Frank Scotten, Laurie Doust, Clem Madden and ‘Tiger’ Black. Glyn Price, the rugby league club’s treasurer from 1951 to 1965, became secretary/treasurer of the Leagues Club in 1956, having given up many hours on an honorary basis prior to his appointment. Arthur ‘Snowy’ Justice, who served the football club as player, captain, coach, selector and committeeman, was a long-time manager of the Leagues Club. The first Leagues Club patron was Jack McGrath, Labor member for Rockdale and Government Whip in the Legislative Assembly, and also patron of the football club.
It was September 1952 when Baden Wales first advised that work would shortly commence on a new St George League’s Club. Wales promised
‘one of the most attractive buildings in the district’,
which he said was being modelled in some respects on the recently completed Wollongong Rugby League Club.
Nine months later, Rugby League News reported:
‘It is expected that within the next week the first floor of the St George Leagues’ Club will be completed and ready for the club to move into. The working bee last Sunday did a grand job in clearing the front portion of the premises and from behind the debris has emerged a palatial building. Applications for membership continue to pour in.’
The club officially opened on 4 July 1953. Before this, those who stood at the bar used to remove their shoes and socks and go barefooted, because, with the building only part completed and the bar located in the cellar, when it rained there was nothing to stop the area from filling up well over ankle deep with water. Business began on a ‘modest scale’, but by 1962 the Leagues Club was one of two clubs — after the NSW Leagues Club in the city — to announce a profit of more than £100,000 for the previous year. Much of this revenue came from poker machines. Early on, when there were only two machines on the premises, the Leagues Club had relied on the football club to keep it afloat; now, the Leagues Club was ensuring that the Dragons could retain and even improve its star-studded line-up.
The dream to move to a new, bigger location took hold in 1960. The Leagues Club directors looked to a five-acre site on part of the old Prince Edward Park, once a venue for many junior sports, including rugby league and soccer, which sat on the south-eastern corner of where the Princes Highway and Jubilee Avenue crossed at Kogarah. The Dragons’ home ground, Kogarah Jubilee Oval, was located on the opposite, north-western part of this intersection. Work began in 1961, and the Leagues Club moved into its new premises on 1 July 1963, a little less than three weeks before the official opening. The initial cost of the new Club was estimated at £800,000, with expectations that it would increase to more than £1 million when plans were eventually completed. As well as the building itself, there were two bowling greens, squash courts and plenty of parking.
The week before the grand opening, St George were confirmed as winners of the NSW Rugby League’s Club Championship for the seventh time in nine years. This was the year that the Dragons would win the premiership in all three grades. Reported Rugby League News:
‘St George cannot be beaten for the Flowers Memorial Pennant [awarded to the Club Championship winners] again this year and it will flutter proudly from the new club just opened at Kogarah.’
One new member proudly exclaimed that the club was ‘as glamourous as a luxury liner’. As the story goes, Australian Rugby League president Bill Buckley walked through the new club on the opening night and said, eyeing the marble surrounds,
‘This reminds me very much of the Taj Mahal.’
There is no evidence that Mr Buckley had ever been to India, but the nickname stuck. Initially, there were rumours that the new club was not going well, but this was put to rest when financial results were published. The club was able to announce a first-year profit of more than £180,000.
‘It was said that the new premises would be too big but already it has been discovered that they could be even bigger, such is the unprecedented popularity of this club,’
wrote Rugby League News. Membership was already past 14,000 and the directors announced it would be capped at 15,000.
There was a range of dining areas, lounges, games rooms and bars in the Club. The main ballroom/auditorium was more than 40 metres by 25 metres, and comfortably held more than 1000 patrons, who in the years that followed were able to enjoy performances by leading Australian and international celebrities, such as Olivia Newton-John, Glen Campbell and Tina Turner, and major shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and My Fair Lady. The Club staged regular movie presentations, and professional boxing and wrestling nights. There was a barber’s shop, and the sauna and gymnasium were, according to the Club journal, ‘second to none’. A collection of clubs based themselves on the premises, including cricket, lawn bowls, squash, fishing, photography, chess, golf, snooker, prawning and darts. The ‘old time dance club’ had more than 600 members by 1966.
The Leagues Cub became a community in itself, a place for locals and visitors to eat, drink, gamble and be entertained in style. The sheer scale of the club was a large part of its appeal. It was a marked step up from the local pub, and like the unrivalled success of the football team, the Club added to an enormous pride that was felt throughout the district. From the day the Taj Mahal first opened its doors, the name ‘St George’ became associated with winning on a grand scale in more ways than one.