In 1923 George Sklavos had been trading at the American Bar in Fortitude Valley for almost thirteen years. It had been one of those hot February days, and he was looking forward to closing, when a woman burst through the door just before 11pm. She was screaming. Astonished café patrons scarcely had time to take in the blood gushing from a gunshot wound in the middle of Gertrude Walter’s back when her husband appeared in the doorway brandishing a 22 calibre revolver. ‘It’s too late now!’ he cried, and fired a second shot into the cafe. Having heard the first shot, two constables arrived on the scene to find William Walter pointing the revolver at the ceiling. They wrenched it from his hand. ‘Just as well you caught me when you did,’ he said. ‘I intended to shoot myself as soon as I had finished her.’
George Sklavos was born in the Kytherian village of Mitata in 1882. He arrived in Australia in 1900, and worked in Lithgow, Katoomba and Sydney before opening an ice cream parlour at 276-78 Brunswick Street, about 30 yards from the Wickham Street corner. George had sojourned in America and was one of many Greeks who introduced American food-catering ideas and terminology here—the American Bar was one of the first milk bars in Brisbane (Conomos 119). Signage on the shop’s elegant façade advertised the fountain drinks on offer—milkshakes, sodas, and ice-cold fruit juice drinks, all dispensed from an electrically refrigerated unit that stored chilled water, soda water, milk, and ice cream. George sold the American Bar to David Webster around 1929.
At least as early as 1930, George had taken on the Atlas Café at 27 Adelaide Street, opposite City Hall. While this shop is long gone, two remarkable photographs remain as a priceless record of the décor one might have encountered in a Greek café: leadlight, potted plants, Art Deco carpet, tablecloths, silverware. The photographs of the Atlas Café are well-composed, richly detailed, and extraordinarily sharp, and in one of them the photographer is reflected in the mirrored back wall. He is standing on the sunlit Brisbane footpath beside a box-camera that is perched on a tall tripod. It is 11.14am. And he has just clicked the shutter.
George was passionate about heritage. He was an astute businessman and foundation Vice President of the Queensland branch of Hellenic Chamber of Commerce of Australasia (1928). Also a generous donor of public works in Mitata, he built its first schoolhouse, and after his death in Brisbane in 1949 half of a £13,607 estate was devoted to restoring the village church—the project was finished by filmmaker George Miller, whose family (Miliotis) comes from the same village. According to his nephew, Patty Peter, George was the kind of bloke who mastered anything he put his mind to, including photography. He had been in business in Brisbane since 1909 when the photographs of his shop were taken. Documenting the Atlas Café, and his place in Brisbane’s business history, was as important to him as preserving the village church in Mitata.
George Sklavos, proprietor of the American Bar, was called as a witness in the case of the Walters shooting. The couple had been estranged for six months when William confronted Gertrude at the candy bar of the Wilston Picture Theatre. Gertrude refused to speak to him so William waited, followed her when she left work, and shot her in the back. At the Valley Police Station in the hours following that fateful night, police asked William why he shot his wife, and he replied, ‘Because I love her.’ George had heard the shots and, doubtless, helped to stop the blood that was gushing from the victim’s back. He also watched as Gertrude refused to testify against William. Within a month the couple and their four-year-old boy were living together again. Was this true love? Or did single mothers have fewer options in 1923?
Telegraph 16.2.1923 (7); Telegraph 17.3.1923 (7); Telegraph 17.4.1923 (7)
Denis A. Conomos. The Greeks in Queensland: A History from 1859—1945. Brisbane, 2002