Like some great writhing
sea-serpent, LunaPark with its sinuous heaving
scenic railway body, clattering to syncopated crescendo, and its leering
gigantic face, is set to gulp all comers.No other Australian building has been so prolifically depicted by
artists, never more tellingly than David Larwill’sLuna Park (1979) in black face and crazed
almond eyes, fronting turmoil of expressive gesture and in Albert Tucker’s Extinction Express (1988), where the
scenic railway train is headed at full velocity vertically downwards, taking
its passengers to certain obliteration.Here, LunaPark is not just for fun, but a
powerful image of the darkest emotions.No wonder it remained closed during World War I, just when Melbourne needed cheering up.
Sidney Nolan, born and bred in
St Kilda in the 1920s, was the most prolific and indeed joyful image - maker of
LunaPark.His first LunaPark works were painted in 1940-41,
when he kept a studio for a year at 5 Smith Street, St Kilda with John
Sinclair.At the end of 1941, his first
marriage broke up and he fled from St Kilda to be with John and Sunday Reed at
Heide, Bulleen.Then again in 1944-45,
when AWL from the Army, living at Heide but with a studio in Gatehouse Street
and painting the first Ned Kelly series, Nolan would frequently visit Albert
Tucker and his wife, artist Joy Hester in St Kilda (9). At this time of emotional turmoil for Nolan, he became obsessed
with depicting the GigglePalace.Yet even he described LunaPark as an ‘atmosphere of repressed
In the hugely enjoyable
exhibition ‘Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium’ at the Museum of Modern Art
at Heide in 1999, twenty Nolans were included,
depicting the Giggle Palace, the Big Dipper, the Carousel and the Scenic
Railway (but not the Face).His images
are coy and whimsical, recreating the world of childhood.Barrett Reid, the poet, recalled:
and I went a number of times to Luna
December 1946.He challenged me to
various acts of bravado such as standing up at the top of a curve, just before
the Dipper plunged down, going on the tall slide without a mat, etc.
The first artist to have chosen
LunaPark as a subject was Clarice
Beckett, with LunaParkin about 1919.It had only been open seven years and the
paint was still sleek and fresh.Other
famous Australian artists who have depicted LunaPark include:Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, Ian Burra, Jon
Cattapan, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, Kenneth Jack,
David Larwill, Geoff Lowe, John Perceval,
Robert Rooney, Michael Shannon, James Wigley and some
26 others.From the rich emotional
internalised metaphor of the 1940s, LunaPark came to be viewed from the
1950s as an icon of St Kilda, or of the Kingdom of Pleasure.
LunaPark has little in common with Tivoli in Copenhagen, Blackpool or BatterseaGardens in England, or the Prado
in Vienna.Its direct
inspiration was its namesake on Coney Island, New York, which opened in 1903.‘Luna Parks’ were immediately built all over
the world, including seven in Australia. Novelist Joseph Heller (born
1923) grew up on Coney Island in the Great Depression. He recalls:
Coney Island, with
its beaches, crowds, commotion, and a couple of hundred entertainments, has
always been magical to children and a gaudy magnet for adults.People came from everywhere.Early in this century, even Sigmund Freud
dropped in for a look on his trip to the United
States...The founding of
back to the last years of the 1890s.Both had long been established and were already in decline by the time I
grew aware of them.
two amusement parks, there seemed to be a near unanimous preference for Luna
architecture was a fantastic, almost nightmarish corruption of the Moorish and
Byzantine in circus-clown colours of chalk-white and cherry red with ornamental
stripes of black and bright green on minarets, spires and onion domes
After childhood, Heller’s next
experience of LunaPark, Coney Island was on his army discharge in
May 1945, at precisely the moment Sidney Nolan, away from the army illegally,
dallied in the GigglePalace and the Big Dipper in LunaPark, St Kilda.Heller writes:
holding on for dear life through the racing plunges and veers, and I tottered off with a thumping ache in my head and a wrenched
neck...After sixty missions overseas, I
was now selective in my adventures, and I had no doubt that I would never want
to ride that or any other roller coaster again...I was twenty-two.
A map shows the region of
LunaPark, St Kilda in about 1865 as
wasteland, mainly lagoon.This was
drained in the 1870s, but remained vacant.The St Kilda Foreshore Committee first met on 22 June 1906.Its role
was to manage the CrownLand along the beach from Fraser Street south to Head Street, and promote its use.At this meeting, a vaudeville performer, E.S.
Sal ambo applied to lease the paddock north of Shakespeare Grove.
In 1906, the world’s first
feature-length movie The Story of the
Kelly Gang was filmed on this land which was to become the site of LunaPark.Later that year, Sal ambo opened Dreamland,
St Kilda’s first amusement park, over two hectares.It had a Mt Fujiama, the Rivers of the World, the Underworld, an
Airship and the Destruction of San Francisco.It lasted three years.In 1907,
(or 1909?) a figure-eight ride opened on the Palais Pictures (3) site, demolished five years later,
when the Palais was built.
The Greater J.D. (James Dixon)
Williams Amusement Company acquired the lease of the LunaPark site in 1911 and began
building.Chief designer/builder was
T.H. Eslick.Williams was a Canadian who owned cinemas in Melbourne and Sydney.Some of his team had experience at Coney Island.The visit of George V to India in 1911 is said to have
popularised and influenced the Mughal forms; and the
scenic railway, in a similar amusement park in Bombay.
In 1912, LunaPark opened, illuminated by 15,000
electric lights; (Coney Island had 250,000!) which was not a common sight in
1912.22,300 people came on the first
night.Live entertainment was the main
attraction: high wire artists, trick cyclists, unicyclists, a Swedish diver in
flames, performing animals and a band.Next year, Williams returned to America.His film production house subsequently grew
to become Warner Bros.
The Philips Brothers, also Americans, took
over.New sideshows were added,
including Aunt Jemina’s Washing Day where
‘hilariously’, a Negro woman sitting over a washing tub fell in to the water
when hit.By 1914, 8-10,000 people came
each Saturday night.The Scenic Railway
and the giant Bomarzo mouth attracted swarms of
Both the funfair mouth, and its
recent Post-modernist echo, the Sam Newman house (where cars enter through
Pamela Anderson’s mouth, (22), are
derived from the earliest pleasure garden giant mouth, at the extraordinary SacroBosco of the Orsini family, at Bomarzo,
north-east of Viterbo, Italy (1552). Here, the stern
strictures of the Church and of the Renaissance are enjoyably shattered.Similar frightening sensations of being
eaten, of entering the pleasurably transgressive delights of the Underworld,
like Orpheus, occur at both Bomarzo and St Kilda.
In 1916, the Great War closed
LunaPark.It did not re-open until 1923, when the
centrepiece was the Philadelphia Toboggan Company’s (PTC) Carousel.It is still the largest and most ornate of
the 24 carousels known to survive in Australia.It operated until 1991, and repainted 24
times. 80 PTC carousels were made between 1903-31.They were one of the most highly regarded
manufacturers and the last to stop making carousels.The LunaPark carousel (PTC number 30) was
one of the company’s finest four-row machines and the only one exported. Only
about 25 PTC carousels still operate. From 1977-2002 a $2,200,000 restoration
of the carousel was completed, under Nigel Lewis, conservation architect. All
68 horses, two chariots, 25 scenery paintings and 35 plaster cherubs were
fastidiously conserved. The carousel includes a band organ manufactured by LimonairFrčres, Paris in an impressive Art Nouveau
case. Its conservation is still continuing.
The first Dodgems (‘dodg’em’) ride in Australia, opened at LunaPark in 1926 and still operates; (Sydney’s Dodgems opened 1935).It occupies the first floor of the games
arcade, in a romantic Gothic Chateau.The ride was purchased in the United States by Leon Philips.It is not known what the first cars looked
like, but American equivalents (from c1920) were oval capsule tubs, not
In 1951, the Rotor was
installed and then, LunaPark remained generally unaltered
for thirty years.In 1981 fire destroyed
Nolan’s GigglePalace and most of the arcades and by
1983, both the RiverCaves (a fire risk) and the Rotor
(unpopular) also went.Even the Big
Dipper disappeared in 1988.Only the
Face and entrance towers, the Scenic Railway, the Carousel and the Ghost Train
remain from LunaPark of 1934.
The Ghost Train is technically
a Pretzel dark ride, bought from the hugely successful Pretzel Amusement Ride
Company of New Jersey in 1934.It derived from the first single rail ‘dry’
dark ride developed by Leon Cassidy in Bridgetown, New Jersey in 1928. Cars were guided on a
double-flanged wheel on electrified track, emitting showers of sparks in the
dark.By doubling back repeatedly via
hairpin bends, a long track is compressed into a modest rectangle. Patrons in five
to seven cars in the form of toy steam trains experienced ‘fun devices’:
skeletons, ghosts, ‘noise makers’ and hung black thread to scarily brush the
face of passing patrons.In the 1980s it
was renamed ‘the tunnel of terror’! About 65 dark rides are known to survive in
During the ‘brown-out’ of
lights during World War II, LunaPark continued to operate, popular
with American servicemen.It became, as Nolan observed, associated with sexual desire and
looser morals.By the 1950s, it
was a favoured rendezvous of Bodgies and Widgies.In 1957, Harold and Leon Philips died.Control passed to their financiers, the
Abraham brothers who sold the lease to their relatives, the Hyams
brothers who operated it until 1987.
Luna Park Entrance, c.1981
In 1981, LunaPark was classified by the National
Trust and registered by Heritage Victoria six years later. Community
realisation of its cultural significance instituted action to support its
conservation and the Friends of Luna Park was formed in March 1993. In 1998,
BCR investments, (or BCR Asset Management) an Adelaide Superannuation Fund, bought
the lease.That year, the towers were
repaired in colours of the 1950s, chosen by artist Leigh Hobbs.The first plaster face was discovered partially
intact underneath an unfortunate concrete layer of the 1960s.This was used as a basis for a new
glass-fibre reinforced face in a form, and with a complex expression, not
visible for 70 years.
View of Scenic Railway from Shakespeare
A $60 million redevelopment
scheme was scrapped in favour of a $10 million version: theming
has replaced big gestures.New rides
include the Spider, the Red Baron, the Enterprise, the Odyssey ASI Simulator and
The City of
St Kilda adopted the image of the
Scenic Railway as its corporate identity.
LunaPark’s face became a recognised
meeting place for a good night out, something similar to ‘under the clocks’ at
Flinders Street Station. US soldier M. Sam Burkes 87, met
his Australian partner in 57 of years marriage, Elma May there in early
1942.In July 2001, Mr Burks brought his
daughter Toni and granddaughter Sydney back to St Kilda to reminisce.
Now, the face is not only the
most recognisable icon of St Kilda, but was one image of Victoria shown to British and worldwide
television audiences of up to one billion, to introduce Melbourne as the site of the 2006
Adams, Brian. Sidney Nolan: Such is Life.Hutchinson, Melbourne 1987.
Albert Tucker. LunaPark. 1945. Oil on composition board. HeideMuseum of Modern Art.Gift of Albert and Barbara Tucker.
Albert Tucker. Extinction
Express. 1938. Acrylic on hardboard. Private collection.
Australian Heritage Commission.Register
of the National Estate.No
Carousel.Exhibition. Linden Gallery,1990.
Clarice Beckett. LunaPark 1919.Oil on board.Private collection.
David Larwill. LunaPark.1979. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Fried, Frederick. A Pictorial History of the Carousel. 1964. Appendices.
Heller, Joseph.Now andThen. A Memoir.From Coney
Island to Here.Simon & Schuster.London 1998.pp. 28, 29,
Holt, Stephanie. Murray, Julia, Phipps, Jennifer.,McDougall, Ian & Marshall, Sam.LunaPark and the
Art of Mass Delirium.MuseumofModern Art at Heide.Bulleen 1999.Catalogue of the art works mentioned here.