By Peter Dewar
The wild thing’s a shadow of her former self and ready to pass over – up for sale and headed for redevelopment as high-rise most probably. It’s a shame; she helped forge the Australian entertainment industry and bore witness to some of its most notorious moments. Besides, some of us had a blast in the old, lonely brick shed in West Melbourne.
Not so long ago, Melbournians queued at Festival Hall in the thousands. We drove in from the west and turned left at Dudley Street. Wide-eyed and fidgety, often in lines stretching ‘round the corner, we waited our turn to shuffle through the accordion timber doors.
I asked around for recollections. Here’s a sample: “Cars were lined up, packed with teenagers being dropped off to see the Bay City Rollers”; ‘I can still feel the squeeze of Mum’s hand as the crowd chanted ‘Gough’ at Labor’s 1975 election campaign”.
A friend “confessed”: “I went to see Liberace wearing my long white socks and pinafore. He invited all the little kids to come up and adore his sparkly costume and jewellery”. The club is no more, but in 1986 a Fitzroy Football Club fundraiser was held at Festival Hall. Kylie Minogue sang a cover version of ‘Loco- Motion’ for the first time: the song became the highest-selling single of the eighties.
The West Melbourne Stadium was built in 1915 and belonged to a nationwide stable of sporting stadiums owned by John Wren, controversial businessman, fictionalised as John West in Power Without Glory. Nicknamed, the ‘House of Stouch’, the shed became the go-to venue for boxing and wrestling events. Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon fought for titles in a stadium that was unwilling to be KO’d. After a suspicious fire in 1956, it might have been destroyed, retired hurt. Instead, the West Melbourne Stadium was rebuilt and renamed Festival Hall ready for the ’56 Olympics.
Come Sunday morning in the sixties, Jack Little’s ‘World Championship Wrestling’ was televised in black-and-white from Festival Hall. Compelling viewing for young boys sitting in lounge-rooms across Melbourne who were convinced it was impossible to fake a body slam. I was a bit young to enjoy the unrehearsed boxing, but ‘TV Ringside’, another local weekly institution, was also broadcast from Festival Hall.
But it was as the original House of Rock n’ Roll that Festival Hall would be forever seared into a generation’s memory. Of course international, top billing entertainers were needed to attract hordes of fans to fill the seats. The credit for that, and securing Festival Hall’s place in music and social history, goes to an unlikely source: an entrepreneurial American business graduate. Arguably, Australia’s greatest concert promoter.
In his biography, showbiz promoter, Harry M. Miller, refers to Lee Gordon as the pioneer. A 1961 photo of dark-haired Gordon walking through Kingsford-Smith airport shows him smiling, well-dressed in polo and dark slacks. Stocky, built like a bricklayer, and carrying four luggage bags, Gordon strides with a movie star’s aura.
Gordon lived like a man hell-bent on seizing the day. He hires national city venues from John Wren for ‘Big Shows’. Then Gordon persuades international stars, the likes of Bill Haley and Buddy Holly down-under. He launches Johnny O’Keefe’s career. His promotional antics are legendary. Two-for-one offers and distributing leaflets from an aeroplane were previously unheard of. Behind the scenes, his social connection to Sinatra and Kings Cross crime-figure, Abe Saffron, suggest Gordon enjoyed a colourful personal life. ‘Everybody in the music business has a Lee Gordon yarn,’ writes journalist, Stuart Coupe, in The Promoters. His favourite: Gordon sleeping in a coffin. However, there’s a sad end to an Australian career spanning only nine years. In 1963, Gordon is a runway impresario, charged by Australian authorities with attempting to obtain pethidine illegally, when he’s found dead in London.
The Australian entertainment industry had shifted gears and there was no turning back.
Promoter Kenn Brodziak lucks the 1964 Beatles tour. It famously turns Melbourne’s CBD into a grid of hysterical girls. The noise at the Festival Hall was apparently so loud, John, Paul, George and Ringo complain of being unable hear themselves playing.
The seventies arrive and Australia hits adolescence. Germaine Greer publishes The Female Eunuch. A socially progressive, ‘It’s Time’ Whitlam government is elected, only to be dismissed by the Queen representative. The Vietnam War, and conscription, ends.
It’s left to Festival Hall to provide the setting for an incident that would ignite a controversial, madcap chain of events. Frank Sinatra had come to Aussie shores years earlier. But what takes place during his ’74 is often regarded as emblematic of a rollicking Australian decade.
Old footage shows mafia-connected movie-star and crooner, Frank Sinatra, relaxed as he saunters from an aeroplane onto the tarmac. Gold sunnies and pressed jacket can’t disguise a middle-aged paunch, doughy face and dodgy hairline. Frank’s best days are clearly behind him. In the weeks ahead, mysterious forces and strange characters will conspire to overwhelm Frank, prompting Ol’ Blue Eyes to say upon his return to America, “I made one mistake … getting off the plane.”
Local Australian press, on foot and in cars, chase Sinatra, pestering him about links to organised crime. A journalist dresses up and masquerades as his wife: a ploy to get close to the international star. In hindsight, the way Frank decides to handle the situation is probably understandable.
During his first Australian concert, at Festival Hall, Frank sits on a stool, sipping honeyed tea. Chatting to the audience, as if working a Vegas crowd, he drawls: ‘Broads that work in the press are the hookers of the press … I might offer them a buck and a half …’
The union reaction is immediate and forthright: Mr Sinatra must apologise or stay put in Melbourne.
Using a false name, and carrying his own bags, Frank charters a commercial flight and escapes to Sydney. Sinatra’s entourage obviously don’t like being on the losing end. They plot together. Perhaps, “Jimmy” Hoffa, head of the Teamsters Union, can place a black-ban Australian goods on American docks? As it turns out, the hotel’s public relations manager knows the Prime Minister’s son. A phone call reaches Gough Whitlam. His reply: ‘There’s only one person who can get you out of this fix.’
Bob Hawke, then president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, is drawn in political cartoons of the time as an eagle. His laser-like stare is menacing. Pauses in Bob’s speech are filled with ‘errs’: he sounds like an idling chainsaw. And while Sinatra dresses with panache, the man who will become Prime Minister looks knockabout. Still, Bob Hawke is resolute. To television reporters, he says: ‘Well, err …. in recorded history, there’s only one person I know of ever walked on water. Unless Frank has developed that skill … err … members of my affiliated unions … err… will determine whether the ship will leave or the plane will leave.’
There’s little doubt who’s Chairman of the Board at a meeting convened at night in Sinatra’s hotel. The wording of Frank Sinatra’s apology takes hours. It’s disingenuous, but who cares. Bob Hawke – and Oz – are on the rise.
So am I. On a wintry July evening, soon after a 15th birthday, my father drives me in the family sedan down Footscray Road to Festival Hall for my first concert. I’m in-between school friends seated in an elevated tier left of stage. We have an unobscured view as strange characters in trench coats walk on and off. “They’re band members,” someone whispers. And in the dark we’re swept up in a chanting, clapping, nervous mob.
Twenty-something Ian Meldrum describes Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick performance in pop newspaper Go-Set with unbounded exuberance that is to become Molly’s signature: ‘Many words could be used to describe the leader of the group, Ian Anderson. Let’s start with GENIUS and throw in MASTER OF SHOWMANSHIP, the second WIZARD OF OZ, the most lunatic of MUSIC MASTERS, HYPNOTIST, a brilliant flautist, superb singer, the idiot CONDUCTOR. Never have I enjoyed a concert more.’
I simply remember Anderson leaping across stage with such abandon he has a teenager in tan, polyester flairs and platform shoes watching starry-eyed, believing anything in life was possible. There were more Festival Hall concerts: Alice Cooper, Bob Marley. It was never the same.
I owe something of my making to the old shed. Melbourne does, too. I can’t decide if that really matters. Or, if it does, what should be done. One thing is for sure: I’d give anything to feel immortal again, even for a fleeting moment.