Luna century: 100 years of seaside fun

Melbourne’s much-loved fun park celebrates 100 years of rollicking rides and carnival capers, writes BEAU DONELLY

Two acrobats in an elephant suit are walking a tightrope strung high above a ferris wheel overlooking Port Phillip Bay. Below, crowds gather to watch sideshow attractions ranging from contortionists and trick cyclists to daring Swedish performer Miss Marie Thelin, who sets herself alight before diving off a15-metre platform into a small pool.

The year is 1912. Australia’s population is approaching five million, the Prime Minister is Andrew Fisher and an unsinkable ship is about to set sail from Southampton for New York.

It’s also the year that a team of engineers travelled from the United States to Australia to build the first of seven Luna Parks around the country. Only one has survived in its original glory. Five of the originals closed permanently and Adelaide’s was shipped to Sydney after the Depression. 

Next month, Luna Park in Melbourne celebrates its centenary having opened its gates on December 13, 1912.

Built on a wedge of swampy St Kilda foreshore, long before diversions such as televisionand Xbox came on the scene, it was modelled on the original Luna Park in New York’s Coney Island, and attracted more than 22,000 patrons on opening night.

For sixpence, visitors to Melbourne’s Luna Park were treated to circus-like attractions that would raise eyebrows at WorkSafe today.

In its heyday, as catchcries of ‘‘Roll-up! Roll- up!’’ competed with the resident brass band, children received carpet burns as they flung themselves down slides on hessian bags, romantics posed for photographs in front of an animated Waning Moon, and patriots hurled crockery at an effigy of German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm. Scallywags who wrought havoc at the park were kicked out, literally, receiving a boot to the bottom as they bent over to exit through a small door at the back of the Giggle Palace.

Early attractions included English conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton as well as 12-year-old Baby Ben who, long before the nation’s obesity epidemic, was crowned the “world’s fattest boy”, weighing in at 159 kilograms.

“It was a little bit carnival back then,” says Mary Stuart, Luna Park’s executive director. “There were all sorts of very quaint, fun forms of live entertainment. And some which were politically incorrect.”

Despite the decline in live entertainment over the years, the park still attracts about 800,000 visitors a year. These days, there are 18 rides and attractions, including old favourites such as the Ghost Train and Dodgem Cars, and a selection of contemporary rides such as the Spider, Enterprise and Pharaoh’s Curse.

Stuart joined Luna Park in 2005, but her link goes back much further. Her earliest Luna Park memory is of riding the Rotor, an upright rotating barrel, which closed in 1977 after 26 years. She recalls getting off and throwing up. Incidents involving children, junk food and spinning rides are known by staff as a “code rainbow”, and occur with “monotonous regularity”.

A former teacher and union official, Stuart says running Luna Park was never on her to-do list. But when trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and partner Virtual Communities Limited bought it for a reported $8 million in 2005, she accepted an offer to come on board. “The brief was to find out what the problems were, and fix it,” she says. “It needed, and it still does need, a lot of investment.”

The park has undergone major works since Stuart’s tenure began seven years ago. Lindsay Fox says preserving its heritage is important for future generations. “When we got involved it had been through a period where it hadn’t had a lot of love. We wanted to make sure it lasts another 100 years.”

“Luna Park has been good to me,” says Fox, who recalls sneaking on to rides for free as a boy 67 years ago. “I have rich memories of growing up in this place. I took my six kids there and they take their kids there now.”

In the longer term Fox says he’d like to make Luna Park part of a charitable trust that returns money to the community. He also plans to talk to the state government about incorporating Luna Park in a larger development of the St Kilda foreshore, similar to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, which has theatres, concert halls, and an aquarium in an 8.5 hectare park. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t do something like that here.”

But keeping heritage alive doesn’t come cheap. The park has a staff of 200, including specialists such as architects and engineers. The iconic Mr Moon Face at the entrance had a few facelifts before it was finally replaced a few years ago. The Ghost Train, built in the 1930s, needs regular maintenance.

Millions of dollars have been spent on the heritage-listed carousel. Built in 1913, the 68 hand-carved wooden horses and two chariots were painstakingly stripped back and repainted in accordance with their original plans, obtained on a trip to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company headquarters in Pennsylvania a decade ago. 

Like many attractions at Luna Park, the merry-go-round is a functioning museum piece as much as it is a form of entertainment.

Last year, part of the bridge under the park’s best-known ride – and the world’s oldest continually operating wooden roller coaster – the Great Scenic Railway, was completely rebuilt.

Luna Park’s longest-serving employee, maintenance manager Mark Harrison, compares the rollercoaster to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  “There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears over that thing,” says Harrison, who started out 22 years ago as a ride operator on the Disco Swing, now known as the G-Force. “It’ll never be finished. There’s always something to do to keep it up to scratch.” 

Still considered a feat in engineering, the rollercoaster’s track is perched atop 322 posts and held together with 12,800 screws. Unlike modern coasters, it operates on a cable car system where the train is winched to the highest peak before being released to the forces of gravity.

For 100 years, highly skilled brakemen (and, these days, brakewomen) have ensured the safety of thrill-seeking patrons – is good news considering the train can still reach speeds of 60 kilometres an hour.

Although the park lost it’s beloved Giggle Palace to a fire in the ’80s and no longer employs staff to scare visitors riding the Ghost Train, it has maintained a worldwide cult following.  

When film director Tim Burton visited Melbourne a couple of years ago and was asked by the state government what he wanted to do during his trip, visiting Luna Park was the one and only destination on his list.

JUST FOR FUN

Everyone’s invited to join in the celebrations as Luna Park marks its big birthday:

■ December 10: Luna Park says a big thank you to local residents and businesses with free rides for all in the evening. 

■ December 13: Catch Daryl Braithwaite, Anthony Callea and aerial acrobats Strange Fruit on the Centenary Community Day as the park marks its official 100th birthday. Visit lunapark.com.au by December 2 to enter the ballot for free tickets. 

■ From December 14 Spend balmy nights strolling the park with ice-cream in hand or hop on the Great Scenic Railway to take in the romantic night views. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights all summer. Kicks off with performances by Ainslie Wills and other local acts. 

■ December 15 and 16: Girls, throw on your flapper dresses, and fellas, tie on your suspenders as the big mouth becomes a time machine on the Back to 1912 weekend. There’ll be vintage stands, staff in costume, horses and carts, and Dixeland jazz. Be sure to visit the revived Tea Terrace. Saturday, 11am – 11pm, and Sunday, 11am – 8pm.

Members of the public can enter a ballot to win free admission and access to all rides at Luna Park on December 13. The community day, marking the park’s centenary, includes entertainment by Daryl Braithwaite and Anthony Callea. The ballot closes on December 2. Visit lunapark.com.au to register.

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