Caption: Chris at the entrance, imagining how the original 1968 Club she served meals in could fit inside today’s foyer.
In our ‘A Drink with Jeff’ series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. Chris Vardy Thomson is his latest face-to-face.
Chris Vardy Thomson can’t name all the famous stars she shined a spotlight on in 30 years at Campbelltown Catholic Club — but one performer she does remember well. He was 10 centimetres long, with big ears, whiskers, a tail and claws.
It all happened in the original 1968 auditorium, and one of Chris’ many jobs was keeping a light on singers as they moved around the stage. But when a mouse suddenly appeared above the stage one night, she couldn’t keep her gaze off it. Neither could the crowd… because Chris instinctively moved her spotlight up to follow the mouse scuttling along the beam.
“The boss ran over and said to me, what the hell are you doing!”
It was only then that Chris realised she’d left the big-name entertainer singing in the dark, as the whole room followed the exploits of the acrobatic rodent.
That remains one of her funniest memories of The Catho.
To me, the fact Chris remembers the mouse… but not who the big-name celebrity was… says a lot about her down-to-earth nature. In the annals of Catholic Club history, this former waitress, bar worker, supervisor, and jill-of-all-trades remains a star in her own right as a key staff member from 1968 to 2002. A true character (in the truest sense of that word), Chris is also the only person who has been mentioned by name in all five of the “Drink with Jeff” interviews I’ve done so far — with Peter Barron, Julie Burton, Alan Scott, Ruth McDonald and Kerry Hooton. So I decided to catch up with her for this month’s Q&A.
This was hardly a difficult task because Chris is also one of my favourite people. We met each other in the foyer with a big hug. On our way in, we chatted to the beaming doorman, Kevin, and I told him Chris was one of the original staffers of 1968. “That was the year I was born!” Kevin replied. Chris laughed. She’s not only a good sport but seems confident and empowered by the fact she’s no longer an amateur in life. I’ve heard many people recite that famous statistic that the original Club could fit neatly into today’s foyer, but when Chris Vardy Thomson says it, it comes with the built-in authority of someone who has lived that journey. A true eyewitness.
It was 10.30am, so I suggested we grab our drinks at Sage cafe, then head into a quiet corner of the newly-opened Harvest Bistro. Well, it was sort of quiet. Banging and drilling noises emanated from behind a barricade where the children’s play area is soon to open.
Chris said the new bistro looked great, and we tried to work out the exact location of the original dining room in which she served meals, picked up glasses, and made cocktails. I also wanted to hear about her work doing the stage lights with all the stars.
We laughed about prima donnas, tantrums, and egos. “I could drop a couple of names, but I won’t,” she said with her usual class. But Chris did name performers who were great human beings. Names like Col Joye and Normie Rowe, and she recalls how Johnny O’Keefe would climb onto the stage “after a few drinks” yet somehow still put on a brilliant show.
Winfred Atwell looms large in her memory. This Trinidadian- born pianist was the first black woman to top the British charts and put The Catho on the map in the early 1970s with a series of packed performances. “I rang mum and dad and said, guess who’s coming to The Catho? Dad didn’t believe me and said, ‘Oh what would Winfred Atwell be doing here in Campbelltown?’. But she was here, I said, for four nights, and I booked you both tickets. She was fantastic, of course. I also remember Tiny Tim coming to The Catho. Dad, when I told him, was unimpressed: ‘That galah, the one who sings Tiptoes Through the Tulips’. But dad came along and just loved it. In fact, all these tough blokes with beers in their hands were laughing their heads off. Tiny Tim couldn’t sing, but he was a true entertainer.”
There are two acts she remembers particularly fondly… One was in 1992. “I did the lights for four teenage boys from Hurlstone Ag who sang doo-wop harmonies as The 4 Trax. Nice kids, but they only won the StarQuest talent show because I did such a good job with the stage lighting.” Did they tell you that, I asked? “No,” Chris replied with a smile, “I told them that”. (Those four nice boys — Toby Allen, Phil Burton and brothers Andrew and Mike Tierney — went on, of course, to become Human Nature.)
The other act that Chris recalls with great fondness was The Supremes — minus Diana Ross. “She’d left them by then for her solo career, so it was Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, but they were great.” When Chris walked in at half time to give them hot black tea with honey and lemon for their throats, The Supremes were not only thankful, but engaged in lots of good-natured ribbing with Chris, who is quite tall. “They said in their American accents, ‘My God, they build them tall in this country’, and I said back, ‘That’s just because you’re so short.’ We hit it off. They were so famous, yet so real. They were a pleasure to work with, gave me an autographed poster, and even dedicated their last song on stage to me ‘for doing such a wonderful job with the lights’. Wow.”
I brought our conversation back to Chris joining the Club in 1968. The Vardys are one of the oldest pioneer clans of Campbelltown and Chris attended St Patrick’s College when it was still located in old St John’s Church on the hill. For many years her mother, Joyce Vardy, was the mayor and town clerk’s secretary at Campbelltown Council. So, to set the scene in 1968, Chris was 18 years old, just married, and a new mother (to daughter, Cheryl). “Bruce McDonald,” she explained, “was one of the early Directors of the Catholic Club, but also the Deputy Town Clerk and worked with Mum at the council. He said to mum, they need some waitresses at the [newly-opened] Catho, so you’d better send Christine down, just so she can get a couple of extra dollars to help save for a house.
“Leo Callaghan was the first manager here. I was so naive at the time, with no experience in hospitality, I had no idea — but very quickly learned. I started on New Year’s Eve and accidentally dropped a full tray of cups and tea pots and sugar and milk all over some poor lady. I didn’t know what to do, I was just a kid, and so embarrassed. But Mr Callaghan came across to apologise and offered to pay for the woman’s dry cleaning, etc. People backed you up. There were great mentors like Bruce and Ron McDonald, and Bill Meehan, they all took you under their wing.”
Caption: Chris at work serving tables in the early 1970s.
From little things big things grow. Within years, Chris was the dining room supervisor and guided a small army of waitresses in the 1970s. “Mum often said the best thing that happened to me was to work at the Catholic Club. You not only developed skills, but learned to stand up for yourself.”
One of the great characters of early Club life was Jack ‘Shagger’ Vardy — Chris’ uncle. He held court at the bar, sold meat raffles for schools, and Alan Scott described him as the unofficial PR manager for the Club, welcoming in strangers. “That’s true,” laughed Chris. “My dad, Bill Vardy, did the same thing up at the Bowling Club. If anyone walked in on their own, they’d form a welcoming committee.” (Note: If you look at the foundation members’ names on the poles at the front of today’s Club, you might spot Jack Vardy’s name — number 71.) “He treated me like a princess,” Chris beamed.
She gets nostalgic. “When I was walking in here today, I thought to myself that I worked here for just over thirty years, and it’s been 20 years since I left… but, gees, when I walked in looking around at the building, the pathways, the trees, I momentarily thought I was coming into work again. Those years have gone in a blink.”
Chris’ nostalgia was strengthened by the fact we bumped into Danny Gillette as we entered the bistro. Chris worked with him back in the old days, and was thrilled to see his familiar grin. “They were good days. You’d walk in and know everyone.”
Chris remembered very fondly the old Sports Bar from 1970 with the patrons playing darts, snooker and even carpet bowls. “I liked it small,” she said, but Chris also admits small isn’t always perfect. As a waitress she once had to once suffer the embarrassment of serving cereal and milk to a special breakfast function. No eggs or bacon, no croissants, no yogurts — just Corn Flakes out of a box. That’d never happen today, and she marvels at the modern offerings, from the new food court to Asian fusion dishes at Kyubi.
“We all knew the Club was going to grow, you couldn’t stop it. Every six months they were adding a new section, or knocking down a wall, and then they’d start all over again.” Chris makes a funny face at me as more drill noises emanate from the behind the nearby barricade, reinforcing her point. “It doesn’t stop, and makes you wonder what comes next.”
Chris says she is relieved that the Catholic Club now owns Campbelltown Bowling Club, which was a place so dear to her late father’s heart. “The Bowlo was on its last legs, and I’d hate to see it go. I went to some of the meetings to discuss its future and we had a couple of yahoos yelling out different things and complaints, but the fact is, unless the Catho took it over, it was dead — and these same yahoos wouldn’t be able to play bowls in Campbelltown ever again. I’m glad The Catho stepped in. Thank God someone professional has taken it over, and the Bowlo will survive.”
At this point, a smiling Catho Club staffer arrived to clear away our empty coffee cups. We notice that she is wearing a newly- introduced style of Club uniform, and I’m reminded of the fact it was actually Chris who was responsible for introducing the original Club uniform! Prior to 1992, staff generally wore black and white ensembles of their own choosing – until, one day, an employee turned up wearing something completely inappropriate. “Have a go at that, I said, and Steve Muter [the Club’s General Manager at the time], said to me, ‘Well, do something about it, CT! Get me a proper uniform.’ So, Di Hayes and I called a uniform company to come in and we selected a black skirt with blue-and-white stripped blouse and a nice white collar with a scarf or tie.”
Many longtime Club members can still recall that first smart- looking ensemble. “It was lovely,” Chris nodded. “Steve Muter loved the scarf. Some people didn’t like it, some of the boys hated the long sleeves, but everyone did look really smart.”
We chatted about the strict dress codes for club members in the early days when (believe it or not) men with long hair were banned from entering! That ban, however, was quickly lifted and there is a 1974 photo in the Club Archives of Chris serving a male diner with flowing locks down to his shoulders. (Historical note: Most of the Collegians football players had long hair and wanted to enjoy a beer in the Club they were representing on the sporting field so they rightly demanded entry. In opening the doors to themselves, they opened the doors to others and long hair ceased to be an issue.)
Chris told me she feels confident for the Club’s future with people like Dave McDonald (Bruce’s son) and Julie Burton sitting on the Board of Directors, both of whom once worked picking up glasses in the Club. “I also used to mind David and the other McDonald kids when I was a teenager,” Chris added. “Peter Meadows [another Club Director] also grew up next-door to me.”
Steve Carter is also a Board member Chris greatly admires, as a fellow down-to-earther. His cheeky but community-minded style reminds her of the early style of Directors she once knew so well. “I only saw Steve a few months ago, and he offered to hire me at the Club again! That’s not going to happen,” a happily-retired Chris laughed, “but it was nice to hear.”
Chris also mentioned the Club’s Marketing Manager, Graeme Derrig. “He was born the same day that I was married in 1968,” she said. “He went to school with my daughter, Cheryl, and then he worked here at the Club serving drinks, and so did his brother and his mother. Now Graeme is the head of Marketing.”
Chris also spoke fondly of one of her old boss, Bill Benson, who was known for his strict standards. “I didn’t realise how good he was at his job until after I left The Catho and worked elsewhere, and saw how poor the standards were. Bill is still a good friend of mine today.”
Who was the best General Manager of The Catho?
“Oh, I knew you were going to ask me that!” she chided.
“I knew them all, so it’s hard to judge, but I think I’d have to say Steve Muter [1991-2006]. He had a certain class. Professional, and more importantly he treated everyone the same. Then again, Steve originally started here in the original auditorium in 1968. He was serving drinks and I was waitressing on the tables. Steve was always very approachable, and he is still my friend today.”
As we left the bistro, Chris said she would have liked to have recognised a few more old faces, but time marches on. Which made our departure so funny because near the sign-in area we bumped into Bron King, who is also from an old Campbelltown clan, with her daughter Mackenzie. They were popping in for lunch and during our impromptu chat, we spoke about how Bron’s other daughter, Tess, has just become a vice-captain at John Therry Catholic College. Chris noted her grandson, Harry Polglase, was captain of the same school in 2016, and her cousin, Robyn Vardy, was its first captain 41 years ago. I then add that my own sons, Rob and Tom, were captains of John Therry in 2012 and 2014. We laugh at these threads of community that so often bind Macarthur people together, and the communal campfire of The Catho is no exception.
The icing on the cake came, as we were leaving. Chris got chatting to Evy and Ash, two of the friendly front desk receptionists. It struck me as a truly wonderful scene, these two young staffers of today engaged in such happy banter with a 1968 original.
Perhaps, in another half a century, someone will be interviewing Eve and Ash about their memories. New stories and new careers at The Catho are as certain as the next round of extensions.
If you are a member of Campbelltown Catholic Club and have a story to share, you could be featured on A Drink with Jeff. Contact us at email@example.com