Suspensions of disbelief get a thorough workout these days. Whether you can’t believe there are Superman movies that don’t star Christopher Reeve, or you refuse to believe it when NRL stars run afoul of the law, you’re likely having a tough time of it in this, the dawn of the information age.
For a long time, I refused to believe that one area, nay, one stretch of road could support not one but two doll hospitals. So when the Doll Repair Centre at 444 Stoney Creek Road, Kingsgrove ceased to exist a few months ago, that suspension vanished, the disbelief came crashing down, and here you are reading my attempt to process a lifetime of astonishment and uncertainty.
In simpler times, kids played with toys. ‘member toys? Action figures, Matchbox cars, those lame wooden ones that barely moved…and dolls. Back then, dolls were seen as a “girls toy”, and the levels of attachment the little girls of the past had for their dolls was in the minds of many a by-product of “maternal instincts”.
I speak from experience when I say this: when an action figure broke, it went in the bin. Too bad, so sad. “Boys toys” were expected to take damage through rough play. A broken doll, on the other hand – be it a loose seam, a torn dress, or a missing head – was a tragedy, and required immediate repair.
And so it was in 1913, when a Mr Harold Chapman of Campsie established Sydney’s first doll hospital. The demand was there, and carried the business through to the late 1930s, when Chapman’s son Harold Jr moved the Doll Hospital to Her Majesty’s Arcade in the city. If you had a shop in the city at this point in time, you’d made it.
Her Majesty’s Arcade had a problem, however – it occupied a most plum piece of real estate on Pitt Street, and in 1968 plans arose that sent all tenants packing. The Doll Hospital ended up here, near the corner of Stoney Creek and Forest roads in Bexley.
The arcade was demolished, and by 1981 Sydney’s favourite 309m-tall resident stood in Her Majesty’s wake.
But back to the Doll Hospital, as it stands today.
Unlike most hospitals, patients line the windows, exposing their medical issues to the world.
Sorry, but dolls are creepy. Maybe that’s why this is going up on Halloween. There’s something about those glassy eyes and pre-sculpted faces that rub me the wrong way. The public’s tastes have also skewed away from traditional dolls in recent years, and toward licenced merchandise instead.
There’s no better way to brag about your mad surgeon skills than by showing off no less than three fully intact Humpty Dumptys, the most frail of all toys.
Handbags and umbrellas need love too, so they’re also welcome here. They don’t repair signs, I’m guessing?
That’s a double no, then. Honestly, I was surprised to find it’s still in operation. Imagine my shock when I saw this sign:
That’s right – if your doll’s blue in the face and unresponsive at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re shit out of luck.
Or are you?
Carmo’s got your back after hours, but I bet it ain’t cheap. Even with this safety net, don’t let your doll go for a big night in Newtown anytime soon.
The Doll Hospital wears its heritage proudly via its suit of signage armour. It’s still in the Chapman family: Harold Jr’s son Geoff runs the joint these days, and has a full team of dolly doctors on his staff. Though not everyone is a fan. Check out this “nit-picking whinger”:
Ignore the ominous green building and check out the sign on the western side of the doll hospital. It hides the identity of the building’s previous owner, but only just. If it ever comes down for an update (perhaps at the 180 years of service mark), we might get a look at that piece of blue and yellow history. But not today.
The building is old – “olde”, in fact – and in one place seems to literally be held together by a plank of wood. The signs boast that the Doll Hospital’s provided “Over 80 Years of Service”, but the sign above the awning says it’s “Over 100 years”. Get your story straight, guys.
The sign also makes the curious, almost defensive claim of being the “original” doll hospital. Is that to suggest there was at one time a pretender? An upstart that wished to usurp the Doll Hospital’s monopoly? A firebrand so ballsy that it would take up residence in the Chapmans’ own backyard?
The incredible answer is yes. This may be the “the Olde Doll Shoppe” of Sydney, and you should go and check it out. But imagine just for a moment, there was a doll shoppe that looked even olde-er…
Yep. This is where I’m gonna go when I need something repaired.
It’s hard to read as the sign has cracked and rusted from years exposed to the elements, but once, this was the other doll hosp- uh, I mean doll repair centre.
Until recently, that is. Now it’s anyone’s, so if you want to challenge the might of the Famous Original Olde Doll Hospital, here’s your chance. You can’t do any worse than the last one…
From what I could discover, rash daredevils Peter and Mary threw caution to the wind a few decades back and tried to democratise doll rehabilitation.
“We repair, we care” says the card, bold in its implication. It’s not hard to imagine a time when raw, violent rivalry spanned the gap between the two surgeries, and I believe that may have bubbled over in 1992:
They couldn’t even bear to follow on from each other in the dot points! That the Doll Hospital placed a full three spots above the Doll Repair Centre tells you everything you need to know about the hierarchy.
Ultimately, Peter and Mary couldn’t hack the cutthroat world of doll repairing. The state of this shopfront was a sorry sight in the last few years; a battered old pram stood outside, attracting the wrong kind of attention. It was far from the lush doll dioramas of the Doll Hospital.
A look inside gives nothing away. They had a cupboard.
The signage above suggests this corner belonged to someone in a time before the divine feud. I can’t make out what it says, so if you know (or it was your corner), get in touch.
Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied by my as-exhaustive-as-I-was-bothered research, so, fascinated by the mysterious Doll Repair Centre, I went deeper. I found an old website, long since defunct. But thanks to our friends at the Wayback Machine, I was able to jump back in time. I had no idea what lay in wait.
What I found left me scandalised. Check out the layout of the Doll Repair Centre’s website.
Maybe it’ll seem familiar to you.
And maybe you’ll recall that old saying about staring into the abyss for too long.
So…any web designers in the house?
Goldfinger said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.’”
– Ian Fleming, Goldfinger (1959)
One of Australia’s greatest sins is envy. In the early years our aspirations cast us firmly in the role of Little England, and ever since World War II we’ve aspired to be Little America. Look around: we’re doing a pretty good job.
But for a couple of decades there we achieved what appeared to be a national identity, entirely based on the most valuable export of all – celebrity. Movies, personalities and music we could call our own. Our Kylie. Our Hoges. Our Mark “Jacko” Jackson.
Up until the mid 1960s, it seems as if Australia’s music scene simply seemed to coincide with what was going on overseas. Johnny O’Keefe wasn’t overly concerned with copying his American contemporaries (for creative reasons, anyway); his association with US-born promoter Lee Gordon barely qualified as even a mere facsimile of an Elvis-and-the-Colonel style relationship.
Largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1963 after years of declining fortunes, Gordon’s contributions to Australian pop culture remain relevant. These include opening Sydney’s first striptease club and drive-in restaurant (sadly, two separate establishments), and translating into local parlance the blueprint for rock’n’roll success.
O’Keefe, Australia’s first “homegrown” rock star, may seem tame by today’s standards, but in 1958 he was a revelation. “Wild One”, his signature tune, persists today, best known to stoners and the unemployed as part of the opening of ABC’s Rage music video show.
The Wild One was soon outpaced by others inspired by his lead, and in 1978 finally bowed out of the race. His death (from a heart attack) had come a year after that of his idol, Elvis Presley.
Throughout a life and death which could only be deemed “wild” by the mannered standards of Australian society, Johnny O’Keefe forged a path for others seeking rock’n’roll fame and fortune to follow. That Col Joye is still alive and O’Keefe is not should tell you all you need to know about how to make it.
For better or worse.
But JOK’s failure to crack the American music market haunted the Australian entertainment industry. It was as if his inability was seen as a national slight – if he was our best, our wildest, and HE couldn’t do it…who could?
And so began the tradition that continues to this day. Musical acts form in Australia (or New Zealand), play the pubs, clubs and RSLs, top the charts and try to take their act – and Brand Australia – overseas. Sometimes they make it big in Europe. Sometimes in Japan. But only rarely is someone from the great brown land able to part the Pacific and Atlantic, and access the pleasure dome of riches in between.
While AC/DC was able to cross over (and stay there) by the late 1970s, the list of Australians to make a splash in the USA that decade is as short as it is dire: Helen Reddy, Olivia and the brothers Gibb. Were these really the ambassadors of Aussie music overseas, especially when there was so much good happening here?
In the following years, the dream seemed to die. The Bee Gees shattered records with their contributions to Saturday Night Fever, ONJ scaled Mount Celebrity with Grease; both acts were on the nose by the early 80s. AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, the most charismatic Australia had yet produced, didn’t even make it that far. In 1979, just as the band’s Highway to Hell was finally breaking through, he died alone in his car, in excess.
Bands used these cautionary tales as incentives to work harder and aim higher, but none quite topped the bill. Among those who came close were Dragon, a bunch of Kiwis who had the charisma and the attitude to make it, but none of the self-control. A disastrous 1978 tour of the USA, intended to break them, did just that, but not in the way they were hoping. When you learn what it eventually took to top the US charts, it’s clear how painfully close Dragon came.
That spectacular failure and the rise of a newer, more calculated sound crossed paths in this curio from 1982:
By that time, Dragon were seen as has-beens, having had their chance and blown it. You can see it in that video, in Dragon’s lead singer Marc Hunter. He’s trying the rock star act but without any real conviction. The shades appear to be shielding him (or us) from the regret.
On the other hand, quiet 22-year-old Michael Hutchence seems self-conscious, fidgety, totally unprepared for what the next few years will bring him. Given Hutchence’s babyfaced appearance and insular behaviour, we can file Hunter’s prescient advice to him firmly under coincidence.
1991. The land at 33 Cross Street, Double Bay has been in a state of development for decades. Originally, the property had belonged to a John Gray, who in 1857 constructed his grand manor ‘Heath’ on the site. By 1934, ‘Heath’ had been converted into flats, and a bunch of other unit blocks had popped up on the site. As the 1970s rolled around, the greed that buried Juanita Nielsen came to Double Bay, looking to commercialise New South Head Road and the surrounding streets, and Cross Street was right in the crosshairs.
In 1986, while Hutchence was busy seducing the USA, ‘Heath’ and the surrounding flats were earmarked for demolition by council. Two years later, as Hutchence basked in the success of his biggest album to date, Woollahra Council approved a proposal to build a six-storey hotel complex on the site. ‘Heath’ was immediately demolished.
Being constructed in the early 90s wasn’t a pretty thing for buildings. More often than not you’d end up with spiffy new brickwork that made you look like that kid at school whose uniform hadn’t been worn in yet and looked a bit too dorkily crisp. Pretentious Roman-esque pylons, entirely too much concrete and a feeble attempt at a futuristic aesthetic intended to distance big cities from the all-too-recognisable frontages of the 1970s were common crimes among the new generation.
And so it was for Double Bay’s new Ritz Carlton Hotel, which shortly after opening for business in December, 1991 was hired out in its entirety by then-US President George Bush for his Sydney visit. Read my lips: no vacancies.
Meanwhile, Michael Hutchence and his backing group, INXS, are beginning their descent from the peak of global rock superstardom. Their monster single ‘Need You Tonight’ had topped the US charts in 1987, the first Australian song to do so since Men At Work’s ubiquitous ‘Down Under’ in 1983. There wouldn’t be another until Savage Garden’s ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ in 1998, by which time we’d apparently settled on lame MOR AOR music as our primary export. And Hutchence…
Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
INXS had emerged from the same pub scene that had bred Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl and the Angels, all of whom had tried and failed to make it in America. But where those bands had brandished an idiosyncratic, very Australian sound which made for hard listening overseas, INXS drifted away from their earlier, quirkier hits and rough image towards something a lot more contrived.
Apparently overnight and entirely coincidental to the band’s quest for fame, Hutchence transformed from the shy boy in the above video into a feline rock god who seemed to effortlessly channel Jim Morrison. It was as if he had altered himself entirely on the whim of the band, which then found itself struggling to back him up.
Questionable visual appeal of the other band members notwithstanding, Hutchence’s image and the cool, slick grooves the band laid down provided the perfect package for American audiences who didn’t even know they wanted it. In a time of hair metal and butt rock, Hutchence provided Americans with a throwback to an era where rock and roll legends were born. Whether this was intentional on his part is unclear.
I’m sorry, but when you go back and listen now, INXS’s 80s hits are indeed all style and no substance. They’re like animated gifs in music form: just one groove or riff repeated for an often obnoxious five minutes. Hutchence’s sexually charged delivery and very slick production values go a long way towards elevating them beyond sounding dated. At least, they did for a while; sadly, anything from 1990’s X album onwards sounds painfully of its time.
There’s certainly nothing particularly Australian about INXS either. At a glance, they could be American (or at least Canadian). This factor made them a target in the eyes of the Australian media of the day. Hutcho’s profile increased with each supermodel he dated, each paparazzi he punched out, and the media were there to hound him every step of the way.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine why he was such a drawcard for the tabloids. Perhaps his sudden rise and boring fall coincided with a boom in Australian tabloid media, which in the early 90s was caught somewhere between American sleaze journalism and hardcore British pap-rags. Maybe he was just more interesting than John Farnham or Daryl Braithwaite. Hard to believe, I know.
Speaking of celebrities, the Ritz-Carlton was, by coincidence, also proving to be a breadwinner for the Sydney paparazzi. Madonna rented several rooms in 1993 (hope they washed them afterwards), and larrikin former PM Bob Hawke married his scandalous amour/biographer Blanche d’Alpuget in front of 150 guests there in 1995 (REALLY hope they washed those rooms afterwards).
But what the Ritz-Carlton didn’t want you to know, with all their boasting of celebrity clients, was that even early on, financial struggles had accepted a permanent residency. An October 1992 report revealed an average occupancy rate of just 37%. Remember that number.
That was also the year that marked the full tilt slide in popularity for INXS. That year’s album Welcome to Wherever You Are had tanked; the accompanying Sega Mega CD ‘Make My Video’ title was beneath the treads. The band, unable to capture their Kick-era glory, were floundering. Hutchence in particular seemed wounded by the fall, with a strange event in August of that year exacerbating things.
During a night on the town in Denmark with his girlfriend, model Helena Christensen, Hutchence had become involved in an altercation with a taxi driver. Punches were thrown, and Hutchence hit his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. He lost his sense of taste and smell, and became, in the words of INXS bassist Garry Gary Beers, “a dick”.
While Madonna was justifying her love in the Ritz-Carlton in 1993, the band released yet another “comeback album”, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, the occupancy rate of which would have made the Ritz-Carlton proud. Production of this album was troubled, with the band finding itself at odds with an increasingly volatile Hutchence, who had become prone to violent mood swings and outbursts.
INXS laid low for several years, perhaps sensing its ever-increasing irrelevancy. But despite the lack of success, Hutchence still found himself a tabloid target. Maybe the back-to-back unsuccessful albums were intentional; a misguided attempt to dissuade the paps. Even if so, he didn’t do himself any favours when he shacked up with UK media identity Paula Yates.
Yates was the wife of Live Aid mastermind/Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof, but in 1995, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was a decade old. For Paula, it was time to trade up. In 1996, she became pregnant with Hutchence’s child and divorced Geldof, sending tabloid media into a foaming frenzy. I’d just like to ask, even with the benefit of hindsight: who really cared?
Meanwhile, the Ritz-Carlton was in the spotlight again, also thanks to a high-profile British divorce. No less than Princess Di occupied the Presidential suite in 1996 following her divorce from Prince Charles. Can I stop right here and ask why an Australian hotel needed a Presidential suite? Why can’t high rollers choose to stay in the Prime Ministerial suite?
Hotels are dehumanising places. Underneath the colours, they’re fake, temporary shelters; a place where you can be someone else and leave yourself at your real home. A place where people treat you like royalty because of how much you spend rather than who you are. You’re never truly yourself in a hotel, you’re just waiting for your next role.
Princess Di would have known it as she pondered what to do with her life following the most scandalous royal decision since the abdication.
President Bush would have known it, as he assessed his plummeting opinion polls and an all but guaranteed loss to a newcomer Southern Democrat.
Bob and Blanche would have known it as they faced a future viewed not as former PM and author, but as adulterer and home wrecker.
Madonna…no, that’s too easy.
And so too would 37-year-old Michael Hutchence have known that gloomy feeling of dissociation and temporary anonymity as he checked into the Ritz-Carlton in November 1997 under his nom de plume. “Mr. Rivers” headed up to room 524, dumped his stuff, pocketed a few fancy soaps (probably), and headed out to rehearsal with INXS.
That evening, he had dinner with his father at Flavour of India at Edgecliff, where he spoke positively about the future, particularly about the prospect of spending Christmas with Yates, their daughter, and her three other kids.
When Hutchence returned to his room, he found himself despondent. He called some friends up to chat and get high, but they didn’t stay the night. Left to his own devices, his personal life imploded, and the tide went out for Mr. Rivers.
Is it coincidence that Hutchence’s final cry for help should place him in the pantheon of tragic rock star deaths, despite his intentions?
Is it coincidence that on the site of a manor named ‘Heath’, a drug-addled, troubled Australian should die alone in his room while riding a wave of international success?
Is it coincidence that in the years after the fates of Hutchence and the Ritz-Carlton became intertwined, both the hotel and Hutchence’s band changed frontmen several times in vain attempts to recapture their former glory?
Where American hotels that play host to scandalous deaths, like the Chateau Marmot, revel in the sordid fame for years to come, the Ritz-Carlton took the very Australian route of distancing itself from the tragedy. For the next three years, there was no tribute, no signifier of what had occurred there. By refusing to capitalise on the by-association fame Hutchence had bequeathed it, the Ritz-Carlton had relegated his rock-star death to the realm of coincidence. ‘He would have died anyway, it just happened to be at a hotel,’ it seemed to say.
In 2000, the hotel itself experienced that feeling of dissociation when it changed hands and was renamed the Sir Stamford Hotel Double Bay. The Stamford Hotels and Resorts group was formed in Singapore in 1995, and named after the city’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. I get what they were going for, but which fun-hating devils among us wouldn’t want to stay at the Raffles Hotel?
Here’s where things get a little…strange.
The Sir Stamford closed in 2009, with plans in place to demolish the hotel and replace it with 14-storey twin-tower apartments, presumably to keep Double Bay looking like the rest of Sydney. But Woollahra Council, bless ‘em, dared to be different and refused to listen like thieves, canning the proposal and leaving the Ritz-Stamford – and the once-prestigious Double Bay – to sink into destitution.
Illegal parties, prostitution rackets and Russian cabaret dinners all allegedly took place in the husk of the hotel for four long years, dragging down the reputation of the area just as Bondi Westfield dragged out all its money. For the blue bloods who believed Double Bay was still the beacon of avarice it had been in years past (as if that was something to be proud of), this came as a shock.
Now, when I was a kid, Double Bay had the dubious honour of being known simultaneously as “a really rich area” and “a place where smackheads steal VCRs”. Even with my mind conjuring up visions of the Foot Clan emptying delivery vans along New South Head Road, it was cemented for me as a place not to go. Rich people were trouble, “smackheads” sounded like trouble (no kid likes getting a smack, and especially not in the head), and the shops were all boring.
It’s amazing to me that in just 12 short years, Double Bay had gone from being a slam-dunk venue for a world-class luxury hotel to an absolute bomb site. Coincidence, then, that Michael Hutchence’s death had been the match that started the fire? Or maybe it had been destined to fall this far all along. Elegantly wasted, indeed.
In 2013, some extremely optimistic investors saved 33 Cross from the swing of the wrecking ball, and today, it operates as the InterContinental Double Bay, in the same building that played host to presidents, rock stars, Russian hooker parties, and all that other shabooh shoobah.
It wasn’t enough for me just to take some dodgy photos of the extremely difficult-to-shoot frontage; I had to get inside, and short of specifically asking for room 524 (let’s leave that kind of thing to the experts), I explored.
The chap at the front desk instantly denied any knowledge of anything that had remotely occurred on the premises prior to the moment I’d addressed him. In fact, he seemed almost terrified that one of the great unwashed had found their way in. Poor guy. They must have had a lot of stickybeaks coming in to see where it happened, so it must be in their training to deny everything.
Inside, the hotel looks quite vintage, so when I informed him that I was a guest, that I’d stayed there as a kid and wanted to know more about what the hotel was like then, he was much more forthcoming. He seemed quite proud of the place, despite only being the front desk guy – the finest loyalty money can buy. When he finished his spiel I turned to leave, anxious to go and take pics while I had this guy’s tacit approval. He called out after me, “Hey, what was your name, sir?”
The renovation work at the Intercontinental was pretty shoddy: most of the place was plastered up and looked quite tacky. I was convinced there had to be some evidence of the past here somewhere. You couldn’t go this long stagnating under the guise of “closed for renovations” and cover everything up. I was sure they would have changed the room numbers to confuse would-be trophy hunters, but there had to be something.
I found it in the retail warrens that criss-cross beneath the hotel proper. It’s not much, but it’s all you’re getting.
A country with a bad case of identity crisis, Australia backed its boy when he was on top of the American world, stuck the knife in when he wasn’t, and all but forgot about him once he fell on it. By Michael Hutchence, the coincidental rock star, the promise of Johnny O’Keefe was fulfilled. Ever since his death, once an Australian hits the top, they know where they’ll end up: falling down the mountain, end up kissing dirt.
Lifeline 24 hour crisis support number – 13 11 14
It’s an Australian tradition – a summer holiday where you all pile into the family car and tolerate each others’ company in close proximity for several hours before stopping at a beachside town for a week or so of fun, laughter, awkward silence, teen angst, Bubble O’ Bills, arguments, bitterness, shifting allegiances, charcoal chicken, backstabbing, fishing, violence and ultimately, relief at returning to the social fold.
Or was it just me?
Forster Tuncurry is one of those towns, like Ulladulla or the Entrance, usually associated with that summer pilgrimage, and fortunately, it’s well equipped to handle any needs you may have during your trip. Forget one of those creature comforts? Head over to Tuncurry Plaza, they’ve got you covered!
Or do they?
Gee, it’s looking a little…sparsely populated right now, but it does tick all the boxes. Hair salon?
Uh…is it Sunday?
You’re making me look bad, Tuncurry Plaza! You gotta at least have some thoughtful things…
Aw, come on!
Tuncurry Plaza’s plaque claims the centre opened in 1996, but the architecture suggests a time decades earlier. Maybe they renovated and extended it in ’96 to handle all the *snort* extra customers…
As it stands, the place is a tomb. The women in the pharmacy asked me what the hell I was doing taking photos, but when I explained what I do, they were much more forthcoming. A familiar soap opera of local egos, greed and apathy explained why things are the way they are here, but that’s not the interesting part, is it?
No, it’s that sense of total abandonment, like they could have just walked out yesterday. In a world becoming more and more populated by the day, to find a place that’s completely empty and silent is a rare treat. Behold:
No more picking up a Dan Brown or Kaz Cooke to half-read on the beach while you tan, only to spill sand all over your bed when you try to finish it back home…
No more watery coffee and stale scones while you wait for him to buy a replacement for that torch he swore he packed but is sitting on the kitchen table at home…
While we’re at it, no replacement torch.
Definitely NO toilet breaks.
Some of the tenants had moved out to the street where, y’know, people are.
…while some had vanished without a trace.
There’s plenty of parking, natch.
Though this bastard stole my spot.
Although we can’t take the failure of Tuncurry Plaza as a standard for such places across the country, it’s certainly something you’re seeing more and more. Just look at Newcastle – a city-sized Tuncurry Plaza, which has required government intervention in order to live again. Look at Holbrook, where not even a submarine could save it from going under. Port Macquarie, which is dangerously close to being renamed Port Macarthur.
The need for expedient travel is killing places like this. As we live longer, as work demands more of us, and as the internet is making it easier to plan trips for ourselves, we’re trying to cram more into our leisure time. Once upon a time, you’d brag about your summer trip to Tuncurry. Now, unless you’ve been to St. Barts or Mauritius, you keep it to yourself.
Ain’t nobody wanna see this on their feed:
First off, let’s get the past out of the way. Or one of them, anyway.
Believe it or not, people used to visit the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield by choice, mainly because there were things to do there. In 1908, Fairfield consisted of a train station, a sawmill and, of course, a pub – the Railway Hotel.
As has happened so often throughout Australian history, those milkshakes brought all the boys to the yard…but those in charge knew that if there wasn’t any entertainment for them when they got there, Fairfield would fall prey to anarchy, social upheaval, communism and all those other agents of chaos that happen when we’re not given the option to spend money.
The Carter family of Smithfield identified that risk, and in 1910 did the community a solid: they built a timber and corrugated iron hall.
Do you know how much fun a timber and corrugated iron hall can provide?
…it was a different time. Moving on…
After the hall caught fire (see? fun!) it was rebuilt as the Fairfield Picture Palace in 1914, wherein each Saturday up to 2000 punters could pay their bits and turn their brains off for an hour or so.
Not to be outdone, local transport and carrying baron John James Woods decided he could screen dodgy 16fps slapstick comedies for drunks better than the FPP, and in 1916, on Fairfield’s own Crescent, the imaginatively named Crescent Cinema was born. Or built. Or…you know what I’m talking about.
But Woods’ heart just wasn’t in it, and it changed hands a bunch of times before it was condemned as unsafe. Usually that’s where I’d come in, but this occurred in 1928. Maybe Fairfield just wasn’t meant to have fun?
The Crescent (the cinema, not the crescent) was rebuilt, renamed (as the Plaza), and opened to huge success. The new owners, a flamboyant (is there any other kind in olde-time theatre ownership?) couple called the Christensens, used some unorthodox promotional techniques to advertise their theatre. Beside the usual train station and back of the bus adverts, Eric and Cecilia Christensen would dress up as movie characters and swan about Fairfield handing out flyers. C’mon Event Cinemas, bring that back! I want to see Captain America and the Ghostbusters staggering around Cabramatta trying to convince people they’re not insane and that they should spend time in a dark room with them. In this social media age, it feels like a lost opportunity.
By 1934, the Depression had taken its toll on the Christensens, so in came visionary A. J. Beszant. Just look at that article. Fairfield was crying out for a modern theatre, one that wasn’t promoted by dodgy Laurel and Hardy impersonators, and Beszant replied “I’ll give them one”. “Criptic” indeed.
Beszant’s mad plan for world domination seemed to involve building a theatre in each of Sydney’s western suburbs, a plan that almost worked. It was just a bit beyond Beszant’s scope, and by 1944 he’d merged his company with our old friend Hoyts. With that in mind, you can guess what happened next.
Today, the Crescent (the crescent, not the cinema) isn’t a very pleasant place to be. Fairfield’s population has boomed since Hoyts, the KAOS to Beszant’s CONTROL, closed the cinema in 1967, and the focus of the suburb is no longer the train station. The theatre itself now sits in that lonely part of town, decaying and defiled.
I wonder if any amount of cosplay could get people to come by here these days.
Why do I get the feeling this is probably the part least used as a toilet?
Regents Park, Bankstown…Shanghai?
Although it existed as a split amusement parlour/roller rink in the 1970s, the Crescent Cinema has gone the route of all buildings this size – discount furniture warehouse. The glory days are long behind it, and it’s only a matter of time before the developers show up with a bulldozer. In this case, however, nature might beat them to it.
Perversely, the underground billiards club was named Savoy, a name traditionally associated with cinema and entertainment. Do you really think any entertainment went on here?
Especially when the door leads to nowhere?
Inside, it’s a far cry from the 2000 seat era. Dare to compare?
Remember, you’re looking at the exact same space.
Around the back, the stormfront of progress encroaches upon a wasteland. Marvel’s comic book characters are on-hand as ever to witness the death of cinema.
Beszant died in 1950 (and buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery, of all places!), the Christensens and Woods long before that, and with them died the dream of entertaining the west. All we seem to want to do these days is house people, but there’s no thought about what they’ll want to do once they’re settled. With pubs closing earlier than ever and options like this no longer viable, perhaps now is the time to start thinking of alternatives? Not everyone’s a gambling fan, Mike.
In East Hills, an unfinished unfinished thought drifts across the side of an otherwise unremarkable little building. If you wanted to nitpick (and if you don’t, why are you here), you could argue that today’s East Hills Take Away & Bakery doesn’t actually offer any videos, and the sort-of mural outside is nothing but elegantly inscribed false advertising.
You’d be right.
But ask yourself this: do you actually want a video? Because if you do, go across the road.
This shop, or Fred’s, as it’s known to the locals, is the video headquarters of East Hills. If you want 1988’s Black Eagle, 1989’s The Experts, or the double cassette Malcolm X from 1992, and you only want them for up to three nights, you come here.
I can’t help but ask. “So…does anyone actually still rent these videos?” I did it for you.
Fred doesn’t miss a beat.
“Mate, all the time! I had a few come in ‘ere this week even.” He gestures to the videos lining the walls. “They come in, they borrow them, and they bring ‘em back.”
But do they rewind them, Fred?
Fred is 79, and fresh out of hospital. I’d come by the week before and found a sign on the locked door: ‘Closed Tuesday, maybe Wednesday’. It was Thursday.
But now it’s Saturday, and here but for the grace of the video gods is Fred, ready to vend Mr. Bean Volume 1 to whoever hasn’t upgraded to DVD yet. Behind the counter is a menagerie of ancient video posters and promo items, and most startling of all, a dedicated rewinding machine. Be kind, eh?
“But they’re not as popular as the games,” Fred continues with a hint of pride. I think he might be referring to the arcade games in the room next door, standing like terracotta warriors amid piles of random junk, but no. He’s talking about the Sega games.
On the wall are dozens of games for Sega’s Master System console. For those of you unfamiliar, the Master System was released in 1987. Sega exited the home video game console business entirely in 2001. Fred could be the only one in the country still renting these games out, and he seems to know it. When I ask if the games are for sale, he snorts.
“Gotta be joking, mate.”
Uh, which one of us?
Inevitably, I ask about the shop across the road, hoping for a story of bitter rivalry between two video shops during the golden years of the format, something in the vein of Used Cars (available at Fred’s for $3 a night). Not for the first time in his life, Fred disappoints.
“That other shop used to be mine, I moved here about 25 years ago.”
Oh. So what had this been?
“It was a hardware shop, and next door was a newsagent. I got that not long after, and painted it up with me murals…”
He sure had. I’m not sure if decorating is the right word, but his tributes to the Sydney 2000 Olympics…stained the walls of the arcade next door. The piles of junk did their best to cover them, but the damage was done.
Why had he left the neat, compact comforts of the shop across the road?
“The video business just got too big,”
Stifling laughter, I nodded.
“What I don’t get,” he started. Oh, this ought to be good. “is why they left the sign up. Let me tell you, mate, I put the word out at the local school that I wanted a sign painted. A little girl offered to do it and I said righto, she done it, and after she goes, ‘I want three shillings,’.”
Hold on. Shillings? VHS became a viable home entertainment format in 1976, ten years after shillings got the heave-ho. Suddenly, Fred had become an unreliable narrator. Nothing could be trusted. Even my eyes could be deceiving me, I thought, as I eyed the can of creaming soda I’d bought. What had the expiry date been?
I left the shop, knowing there was nothing more to glean from old Fred. I probably couldn’t even get an article out of it. I squinted in the afternoon sun as my eyes adjusted from the dark of the shop, and that’s when I saw it. Just up there, on the pub side of Fred’s building. The remains of a painted sign.
It said ‘HARDWARE SHOP’.
Across the road, the undeniably handsome three shilling work of the little girl caught the sun. I’d been pondering the ellipses following the word. Had it been Fred’s direction, or the girl’s own flourish? Had she even known what a video was?
In the time of shillings, this word brought the promise of a high-tech future to the backwater East Hills, and Fred delivered it. And now, in that very future, he still does.