Canberra Citizen of the Year
Augustin Michael Petersilka (1918-1994)
Gus Petersilka outside his cafe on Bunda Street, Civic, 15 November 1974
SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 00261, Canberra Times Collection. Photographer CAPIX.
Café owner, restaurateur, businessman and raconteur, Gus Petersilka was both a very public and a very private man. Much of his early life has been described in his own words, telling a good story while still keeping secrets.
Gus was born on 20 July 1918 in Vienna, the son of Rudolf Petersilka (1881-after 1951) and his Jewish wife Josefine nee Kohn (1888-1975). His sister Else (Elizabeth in the electoral rolls) married Josef Storm and migrated to Australia some years before Gus and their parents arrived.
Before World War 2, Rudolf ran a large entertainment restaurant, called Rudolf Petersilka's, with music and dancing, variety shows and stimulating conversation. But Gus also remembered it as the cradle of the labour movement in Vienna. "Many of the unions were formed there and when strikes were on that is where the unions met—and to get something to eat", he said.
Gus was a teenager during the Austrian civil uprising in 1934, and was involved on the side of the socialists against the government. Later, after the Anschluss in 1938 when Germany occupied Austria, he was forced into a labour camp where he soon realised that he was helping Hitler so began to sabotage the machines. German investigations convinced him to flee to the Alps where he reportedly worked as a farmer until the end of the war. After a brief period helping the Americans identify Nazi collaborators, he decided to leave the depressing atmosphere of Europe and migrated to Australia in 1950. His parents followed in November 1951.
He spent the first year with his sister Else in Willoughby, Sydney, then until late 1954 ran a small dairy herd at Boonoke, a famous merino stud near Deniliquin, that supplied the property with milk and cream. His next venture, in timber cutting, ended when a serious accident put him in hospital for nearly a year. He then returned to Sydney and worked as a delivery man for a dry-cleaning business.
In 1962 he came to Canberra to visit a friend, liked the place and stayed. He first worked as a storeman at the Causeway warehouse of Ingram’s Hardware in Lonsdale Street, and in 1964 for McEwan's Hardware in Kingston.
Thetis Court was at that time under construction in Manuka. The typical Australian café then was a milk bar, but Gus envisaged a Viennese-style coffee house and persuaded the developers to give him credit until he was established. The project started uncertainly but within months Thetis Court Café, Canberra’s only late-night drop-in place, was popular with both singles and families.
In 1965 the Canberra Theatre Centre opened, and from July 1969 Gus took over the Balcony Room and established Canberra’s first successful dance restaurant. However, he was refused an extended licence to serve liquor after midnight, so in 1970 he moved on again to open Gus’s in Bunda Street, Canberra’s first footpath café. Despite consistent opposition from the Department of the Interior, both public outcry and Gus’s persistence won him the right first to use the footpath, then to provide musical entertainment and finally, in late 1974, to erect a canopy to replace individual table umbrellas.
A year after opening Gus’s, he started another business in Bunda Street – the Alouette restaurant and night club. It offered gypsy music in an international ambience, and in the lead up to the 1972 federal election it hosted Gus’s next innovation, a political cabaret. Once again he was refused extended opening hours and closed.
Gus had a love-hate relationship with Canberra, declaring his love of a place that allowed him to speak out and gave him a fair go, but also expressing his disgust at its over-planning and narrow-mindedness and, albeit briefly, removing his business to Queanbeyan in late 1978, and again leaving to return to Vienna in 1984. While in Vienna he wrote a letter to all Canberrans via the Canberra Times, stating that “whatever shortcomings Canberra has, its good points outweigh them by far”. He came home to Canberra in 1985.
Gus sold Gus’s (including the rights to the name) in 1984 when he returned to Vienna. Other businesses were started in Queanbeyan and Canberra but failed to prosper. His last was Café Augustin, again in the Viennese coffee house tradition, which opened in 1991 in Garema Place near Gus’s and closed with his death.
He became a legend in his own lifetime. He had opinions on a wide range of social topics and expressed them freely, both in print and in conversations with customers, and on signs in his café windows. Nonetheless, he was willing to give window space to those with opposing views.
The first of hundreds of his Letters to the Editor was published soon after her arrived, on 7 July 1962. The letters were mainly on contentious social issues such as fluoride in drinking water, anti-smoking, poker machines, self-government, public transport, abortion, rent control, services for tourists, holiday and late-night trading, and skateboarders.
By March 1963 he was spokesman for the Austrian-Australian Cultural Society’s venture in presenting only the second foreign-language play in Canberra. In June he organised the Queen’s Birthday concert at the Albert Hall to raise money for charity.
He was on the committee organising the 1965 Canberra Day celebration, and in 1970 proposed building a sound shell for outdoor performances. From 1979 to 1984 he was Convenor of the Small Shop Owners Action Group ACT.
Gus opposed what he saw as a permissive society and was deeply concerned about addiction and suicide among young people. Equally, he opposed what he regarded as excessive red tape and engaged in frequent battles with the Canberra bureaucracy. In unfailing hopes of being in a position to change these things, he stood for election in 1970 for the Advisory Council, several times for the House of Assembly, and for the first Legislative Assembly in 1989, all without success.
Married four times, Gus had no children. However, quietly and without expectation of anything in return, Gus was generous to many, mostly young, people in financial or emotional distress.
At Gus’s cafe in Bunda Street he used to have a sign: "Do it now. Tomorrow there may be a law against it." That reflected Gus's attitude to life and all he did to bring life, heart and a touch of his native Vienna to the nation's capital. His legacy is in every outdoor eatery in Canberra.
Gus died from cancer on 23 October 1994 at Woden Valley Hospital. After a funeral at St Christopher’s Cathedral, Manuka, he was buried at Queanbeyan Lawn Cemetery.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1978 Canberran of the Year
- 1998 Plaque in the footpath near the Bunda Street café which bears his name
- 2002 Petersilka Street, Gungahlin named for him
Pro Patria [dramatic work] copyright registered 4/09/1957
1978 ‘ “Gus”, a walking enigma, nominated for title.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 3 March, p. 3, viewed 19 November, 2015, http://la.gov.au/nla.news-article110885752
1994 'Features.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 2 October, p. 21, viewed 20 December, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article118288900