Summer in the Sydney suburbs brings still hot days and long afternoons when the hours seem to move slowly in the humid air. On the hottest of days there can seem to be little respite, and the only thing that might offer some relief is a cool drink from the Mixed Business on the corner, a big BIG drink.
Of all advertisements Coca Cola’s are the most ubiquitous, decorating the awnings and walls of almost every corner store that ever was. They’re so pervasive that it’s easy for the eye to skim over them, and usually mine do, although there’s something stoic about these big cans that captures my attention. Here, stranded above an ex-corner store in Summer Hill that now sells bodybuilding supplements, is one such big can, still advertising the “Mixed Business” that was once below. As I look at it I imagine a giant lumbering up Old Canterbury Road, thirsty, reaching out to wrench the can off the side of the building …
Over in Maroubra is another Big Can, on a long-shuttered Mini Mart. The white cord leading down from it makes me wonder whether the can once lit up at night. While the big cans are familiar to me, I have no memory of seeing them softly glowing atop the awnings when I was a child in the 80s, surely the era of the Big Can.
Other big cans have been repurposed, such as this one on Booth Street in Annandale, now promising pizza, a somewhat less enticing proposition when available in a can. The pizza shop is on the corner has turned into a chicken shop these days, which means it probably, unlike the examples above, sells Coca Cola.
Sydney’s most famous Coke sign is, of course, the one that has been at the top of William Street since 1974, and was recently restored. When it was taken down off the wall in 2015, some obscure painted shapes were revealed. These were discovered to be the remains of a 1973 artwork by Roger Foley, a.k.a. Ellis D Fogg, who had been commissioned to “project images of moving liquids” on the wall.
Some preferred this to the Coke sign, but now the sign is restored to its previous intensity, its neon glow a beacon to those approaching from the west. Some of Coca Cola’s other initiatives – such as the 1996 Coca Cola Quayside museum at Circular Quay, have been less enduring. For the $5 entry you could drink as much Coca Cola as you wanted at the “Fountain of Drinks”, discover the history of the beverage and buy trinkets from a gift shop in the shape of a Coke bottle. There is scant information about this short-lived museum online, although this 1996 review from Architecture Australia provides an arch overview of the experience:
The museum’s content is equally straightforward and presents an almost fetishistic, single-minded focus on the product. Its manufacturing and marketing history fills a sequence of handsome ash-veneered showcases, whilst aurally and visually dominating the centre of the museum is the video wall—showing, to the irritating accompaniment of an animated narrator who ensures that our attention span is limited to 30 seconds, the history of Coke and its advertisements against a backdrop of 20th century events—war, sport and pop music predominate.
Back in the present, I am on the search for more Big Cans as I travel around the suburbs. Last night was the hottest on record, and summer is far from over. I will need some big refreshment to get me through.
Update: some additional Big Cans of Sydney, thank you Kirsten Seale for tipping me off about the Kingsgrove Can:
And Kylie for the Bexley Can:
At night the only place open in Summer Hill was the Rio Milk Bar. It shone like a gem in the dark street. I’d go in there sometimes – years ago when I used to live nearby – to buy things like a can of lemonade or a packet of jubes. One evening I went in and George, the owner, was sitting behind the counter as usual, grinning at an episode of the Simpsons which was playing on the tv. I was surprised to find George, who was in his 80s, watching the Simpsons. The store with its displays of milkshake paraphernalia and chocolate bars was such a trip to the 1950s that the Simpsons seemed shockingly contemporary.
The Rio was a cheerful place, with its window display up of handmade tinfoil signs, chocolate bar packets and collages of pictures of ice creams cut out from their boxes. On the front window in faded letters “The Rio Bar” was hand-written like a signature. Inside the displays were decorated with streamers and stars cut out from hologrammatic foil. On one wall was a faded illustration of an 80s dude in Raybans, clasping a large milk shake drawn on white paper, added in by George.
George opened the milk bar in 1952 and worked there every day until he passed away in May 2015 at the age of 92. In the 50s he was one of the many Greek migrants who ran milk bars across the suburbs, many of them near the local cinemas that were also once plentiful. That the Rio, like its prominent inner-west neighbour the Olympia, had such longevity seemed like a kind of magic.
Recent pasts are all around us, in bits and pieces, traces and rumours, but there are increasingly fewer places where it’s possible to enter their atmospheres. One of the few places where the recent past is preserved is Sydney’s old shops – the milk bars, shoe repairs, barbers and delis that have remained unchanged for decades. They seem charmed, as though their surprising persistence has made them eternal. But over the last few years many of the stalwarts have gone. The Oceanic Cafe in Surry Hills recently closed after being open since the 1930s, after the death of Nellie, the owner. The real estate sign on the roof has SOLD emblazoned across it, but the details inside are still as ever: the hat hooks on the walls and the Tip Top chalkboard with the daily specials, beef rissoles and lamb’s fry.
The Rio has been closed for almost a month now. In the days after George’s death people left flowers on the milk bar’s doorstep. In that same week news articles, radio shows and online commentary paid tribute to his long life and dedication to his store and community. Now things at the Rio are still. The store still looks as it has for so many decades, with its blue and white paint and twinkling tinfoil decorations. At night the shop is dark apart from the one lighted sign, promising Sweets and Smokes to the empty street.