He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.
Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.
You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.
And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.
But he knows.
We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.
Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.
But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.
A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.
And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.
“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”
As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.
Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.
In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.
Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.
He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.
His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.
A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.
“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.
I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.
“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”
He paused. It was difficult.
“They’d stop coming in.”
Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.
But now she’s gone, and so is he.
“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?
“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.
I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.
What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.
So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.
On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.
I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.
In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.
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 we were cast as 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 there was a time…for a couple of decades there we had 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 Barnesy.
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 concerned with copying his American contemporaries (for creative reasons, anyway), and his association with US-born promoter Lee Gordon was a mere facsimile of an Elvis-and-the-Colonel style relationship.
Gordon was largely forgotten at the time of his death in 1963, after years of declining fortunes, but his 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 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 Newton-John 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, Olivia Newton-John scaled Mount Celebrity with Grease, and Bon Scott, Australia’s most charismatic frontman up to that point, died alone in his car, a victim of excess.
Bands used these perceived slights as incentive 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 songs 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 is busy seducing the USA, ‘Heath’ and the surrounding flats are earmarked for demolition by council. Two years later, as Hutchence basks in the success of his biggest album to date, Woollahra Council approves a proposal to build a six-storey hotel complex on the site. ‘Heath’ is 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.
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 world 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…
But 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’ 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 four minutes. But Hutchence’s sexually charged delivery and very slick production values elevate them beyond sounding dated; sadly, anything from 1990’s X album onwards sounds painfully of its time.
There’s certainly nothing particularly Australian about INXS either, a factor which 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 Blance 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 from 1992 the luxury hotel began struggling financially. An October 1992 report revealed an average occupancy rate of just 37%. Remember that number.
So too had 1992 marked the full tilt slide in popularity for INXS. That year’s album Welcome to Wherever You Are had tanked, and 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 irrelevancy. But despite the lack of success, Hutchence still found himself a tabloid target. Perhaps the back-to-back unsuccessful albums were an 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 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. Once they’d left, 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 on the cusp of renewed 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 get 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
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)
Sydney is a multicultural city. From Bondi in the east to Blacktown in the west, from Narrabeen in the north to Cronulla in the south (well, maybe not Cronulla), it’s not hard to argue that the city has come a long, colourful way since the White Australia of the 1950s.
But long before even that decade, influences of another culture were finding their way into what was a very British way of life at the time, influences that have come to be embraced as the preferred way over time.
Prior to 1788, the British used its North American colonies as a penal dumping ground, auctioning off convicts to plantation owners and other slavery enthusiasts. But when the American Revolution brought that to a halt, the former colony quickly established its own identity as the Empire scrambled to find another outlet for their unwanted lawbreakers.
By the early 20th Century, the American style as we know it today was pretty firmly established, particularly through the film industry blossoming in Hollywood. The extent of the influence of American films around the world is so massive as to be unknowable, but we’re certainly going to know a little part of it today.
Smack-bang in the middle of the Grand Parade that marches through Ramsgate and Brighton-Le-Sands along the shores of Botany Bay is the broad cleft that is President Avenue.
Along the aptly named President Avenue, everything is presidential. From this palatial block of units reminiscent of Goldfinger‘s Miami…
…to this capital lodge…
…everything on the avenue fits the bill.
It’s the suburban equivalent of the kind of aged, staid, rich white guy we generally associate with the US presidency, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it borders today’s subject: Monterey, a young, small suburb that’s essentially comprised of four major streets.
Monterey’s insecure, slightly murky, and largely unofficial history finds its origins in 1877, when it was a piece of Scarborough Park. Jacob Marks, a prominent Jewish property developer, bought a parcel of land in the area, which was beginning to boom thanks to the popularity of the nearby Lady Robinsons Beach and Sandringham Baths. Marks had 13 kids (!), one of whom lived (and died) in California, so when it came time to name the streets in his property, things got red, white and blue pretty quickly.
Here’s where things get a bit cloudy – the street names were carved into stone by 1903, but it’s unclear who named them, and then it wasn’t until the early 1920s when the subdivision went up for sale.
The sale was orchestrated by a WWI veteran/motor racing enthusiast/socialite named Lance Giddings, who injected a healthy dose of American panache into the sale. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite take off.
“The enthusiastic advertising copy and promotion produced considerable sales over the next six years but these sales did not result in building. While Council records list and identify considerable lot ownership after 1921, the Sands Directory of 1924 could only find a single Monterey resident, Mr Hugh Macan in Pasadena Street, for its listing.” – Fibro Moderne: Mid-20th Century Fibro Housing in Monterey NSW (Bogle, Pickett 2013)
Even by 1930, the suburb only had five residents. Imagine the parties! Fat bass gramophones uninhibitedly pumping out block-rocking beats of Whispering Jack Smith with the nearest neighbour at least 15 minutes walk away!
Inevitably, the post-WWII housing boom took hold in Monterey, and by the 1950s it was a bustling suburb; although not so bustling that it wasn’t partially gazetted in 1951 for a potential Southern Freeway extension from Waterfall to St Peters. Interestingly, it remains gazetted so today, so if you’re a resident, don’t get too comfortable.
Now, let’s take a look at those street names. When you’re heading south from President Avenue, the first one you come to is Banks Street.
And that’s American! Because banks are…American and…uh, evil, and…how does the rest of that go? Big banks? Big oil…
No, the real Monterey gets started further down, with Monterey Street.
The name Monterey has its origins in Monterrei, Spain. So revered was Gaspar de Zuniga Acevedo y Fonseca, 5th Count of Monterrey (as Monterrei had become known by the 1590s), that Monterrey, Mexico was named in his honour by the conquistadors. Subsequently, in 1602, when it came time to name a newly discovered bay in what is now California, the Spaniards went with Bahia de Monterrey, which eventually evolved into Monterey Bay, which itself lends its name to the nearby city of Monterey, which then became the capital of Alta California. When the United States won the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, California was annexed by the USA right there in Monterey. The city went on to be the site of the first theatre in California (a state now synonymous with show business), and is famous for its cheese. Whew!
Now look at Monterey Street, Monterey, with all the trappings of Australian suburbia. Does it bear the weight of all that history? Hell no.
Next up is Pasadena Street, and you’d better believe it’s full of little old ladies. Pasadena gets its name from the city in Los Angeles County, a city that dates back to 1886 and is named for a Chippewa Native American term meaning ‘of the valley’. I’m starting to feel that not a lot of thought went into these street names…
In fact, the most interesting thing I can say about Pasadena Street is that it comes out directly across from Botany Bay. Look at that picture above. That gap in the land is the mouth that flows out to the Tasman Sea, from whence the Endeavour, for better or worse, arrived in 1770.
Again, too much history comes down, crushing the street’s thin veneer of banality, exposing nothing beneath.
Inevitably, there’s Hollywood Street. At the time of its christening, 1903, Hollywood, California had only just been incorporated as a municipality. It wouldn’t get its first movie studio until 1912, so whomever named was showing some astonishing foresight.
Also astonishing is this house on the corner of O’Connell and Hollywood. Just look at it.
Look at it!
Finally, we have Culver Street. Culver City, back in Cali, is another one that didn’t really come to prominence until the years after this street was named. In Culver City’s case, it wasn’t incorporated until late 1917. Weirder still is that Harry H. Culver, after whom Culver City is named, didn’t even arrive in California until 1910! Who named this street?!
Sadly, the psychic who gave Culver Street its name didn’t foresee just how pedestrian it would become in later years.
Mystery still surrounds the naming of these streets. There’s no definitive record of anyone in particular having bestowed the names, and sources have varied throughout histories both official and unofficial over the decades. Even Rockdale Council has no idea, and it’s, like, their ‘hood. What gives?
In 1941, an attempt was made by council to name the suburb ‘Werribah’ for postal reasons. Rolls right off the tongue, don’t it? It didn’t take, and ‘Monterey Park’ was also rejected before settling on plain old Monterey. I mentioned postal reasons…that appears to be its own story, and we’ll come back to that another day. It’ll be worth the wait, I swear!
All the bickering over the name meant that the suburb’s designation Monterey remained unofficial until 1972, when the Geographic Names Board stepped in and shit got real. A local poll of residents of the four American-flavoured streets showed that Monterey was the preferred name for the area, and so it’s remained ever since. Now that was all quite interesting, wasn’t it?
Again, for better or worse, this isn’t the only instance of major American influence in the early days of Sydney. The origins of Monterey are an inauspicious start, but nevertheless interesting given how the whole Brighton area embraced the very Goldfingerian image of the USA from the 1960s onwards.
Shifting tastes, a tipping of the global power balance, and a propensity to bend over for Uncle Sam meant that quite a few changes – from the minor to the irreparable – were on their way.
For more reading on Monterey and the fibro houses within, check out Fibro Moderne. Early to Mid-20th century vernacular housing in Monterey NSW, without which I could not have completed this article. So blame them.
Australia Day – an excuse to get drunk or recover from a hangover while listening to the Hottest 100. But did you know that back in 1788, for approximately 1400 convicts, marines and British naval crew, Australia Day meant getting drunk or recovering from hangovers while listening to the hottest 100 complain about how bloody warm the weather was?
On the 26th of January each year (since about 1818, when Governor Macquarie declared the first official celebration of the anniversary), Australia Day/Invasion Day is celebrated/protested (depending on your point of view) all around the country. For Sydney, the event has a particular significance since it’s smack-bang where the unwashed and unlawful of the First Fleet made landfall all those years ago.
Round numbers make people happy, so when 1988 rolled around, Sydney pulled out all the stops in an attempt to mark the bicentennial occasion with a celebration people would never forget.
Well, maybe not all the stops. A proposed re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet in the works since 1983 (!) was nixed by the Federal Government on the grounds that it would offend Indigenous Australians. Needless to say it was a contentious issue. On one hand, Indigenous Australians could very easily find such a show highly offensive, while on the other the landing meant a great deal to many Australians of European descent. The event organisers believed that ignoring the landing would be akin to ignoring the suffering that subsequently befell the Indigenous people – a much worse scenario. But the money had to come from somewhere…
Throwing caution and their lengthy track record of racial sensitivity to the four winds, Sydney AM radio station 2GB stepped in to hold a fundraising appeal to ensure a go-ahead. Garish sponsorship of each of the ships made up the difference. The Federal Government elected instead to back a rival event, the ‘Tall Ships’, a comparitively generic show much more celebratory of multiculturalism, as it included ships from around the world.
On Australia Day 1988, corporate sponsored facsimiles of nine of the 11 ships of the First Fleet (led by the ‘Australia Post’ Bounty for some reason) along with the world’s brigade of tall ships sailed into Sydney Harbour en masse, right past a banner erected by the Indigenous community reading ‘WE HAVE SURVIVED’. A brief, tentative compromise had been reached…and then Prince Charles turned up, some planes flew over, and everyone got drunk.
Unleashed by the ABC later that same year, this video collects the highlights of the bicentennial birthday bash for anyone who missed it. It’s actually quite difficult to sit there and imagine the intended audience for this tape – did the ABC assume that everyone would be too blotto to remember the events of the day? Was it meant to be treasured with repeated viewings in years to come? Would the owners fire up the VCR in, say, January 1993 to relive the magic? Then again, I’ve just spent hours ripping and uploading it, and you’ve either just viewed or are about to view it (AREN’T YOU), so forget I said anything.
And all that would be perfectly understandable if the video contained anything remotely interesting, but sadly, it doesn’t. It’s 92 minutes of pomp and ceremony punctuated by a fireworks display that wouldn’t look out of place at a school fete these days (oh wait, can schools still have fireworks?). Oh, but still watch it. Don’t not watch it. Besides, all the shops are shut today. What else are you going to do?
Finally, if anyone at the ABC (or Tommy Tycho) wants to come at me over copyright, consider this: I paid a whopping 20c for just one of many copies of this tape at a Vinnies in Forster, so unless you plan to re-release the thing on ultra hi-def 4K blu-ray and charge $90 a pop, leave it up and let everyone enjoy your 80s production values.
ON WITH THE SHOW…
As World War II drew to a close, manufacturers that had concentrated on building for the war machine were able to turn their attention back to their original areas of expertise. The coin-operated machine industry, and amusement machines in particular, exploded during this time, with pinball experiencing a golden age it hadn’t known since the early 1930s. Advances in technology could finally be directed toward these seemingly frivolous amusements, with efforts explained away by a need to boost morale and joy in the post-war years.
It worked; by the 1970s, pinball was huge. The game had spilled out of the milk bars and the bowling alleys and into dedicated pinball parlours. These were massive halls, the kind that had once been filled with ballroom dances and Friday night formals, outfitted with a shitload of power points and crammed with the wide variety of pinball machines made to satisfy an ever-growing audience. Some players were casual, throwing a coin or two in while waiting for something even more exciting (like such a thing exists), while others were hardcore. To the uninitiated, these parlours were dark, smoky, forbidding, sleazy dens full of suspicious characters, illicit substances, wild music and an air of general unpleasantness. To true pinheads, they were heaven.
And then, in 1978, a thunderbolt.
These new “video” games were took up less floorspace, required less maintenance, and ate coins at a much faster rate. At that time, the problem with pinball was that pinball wizards could make a single coin last a very, very long time, and that meant less money for operators because a. dudes weren’t putting in lots of coins and b. they were hogging the machines so no one else could either. Space Invaders’ novel touch was that the difficulty increased as the game went on, and soon even the most elite defender of Earth couldn’t keep up. Coin boxes overflowed, and suddenly pinball tables were looking quite dusty. The release of Pac-Man in 1980 – and the runaway success that followed – was the nail in the coffin. Video games burst into mainstream public consciousness, and “video arcades” rapidly replaced the pinball parlours of the past.
But of the many innovations of these video games, one proved crucial…and ultimately fatal to the industry: two-player games were nothing new, having been around since the original Pong in 1972, but advances in graphics and concepts meant that two player games could be competitive in a wider variety of arenas. 1984 saw the release of Karate Champ, the first one-on-one fighting game. Suddenly, you weren’t just trying to beat your friend at a lame approximation of tennis; you were trying to beat the pulp out of their virtual, and very human looking, avatar. If you won, you played on and awaited further challenges. If you lost, you’d better have some more coins if you wanted to try again. It rained money in these arcades.
In 1987, the concept of the fighting game was turned on its head with the release of Double Dragon, a game in which you team up with a friend to beat other hoodlums down. Who wouldn’t want to form a gang and take down all comers on the streets? It was this mentality that, in the eyes of concerned authority figures, started to bleed into the culture of these arcades. By the end of the 80s, the biggest threat for a kid walking into one of these places wasn’t that some creepy boiled lolly man would try and lure you to his house with the promise of coins…it was that you’d get bashed for real. Sydney’s Oxford Street banned arcades from its gay and lesbian areas due to the perception that they attracted young men prone to homophobic violence and petty crime.
At the dawn of the 1990s, the amusement industry fought back against this public image disaster by consolidating their efforts. Out were the independent parlours and arcades of the early years: Fonzies, Spacetacular, Westworld etc. In were group efforts by arcade operators and Australia’s biggest supplier and manufacturer of the machines themselves, Leisure and Allied Industries.
LAI had been around since the late 1950s, and promoted themselves as pioneers of the “Family Entertainment Concept™”. This near-monopoly had begun with the establishment in 1978 of their first Timezone family amusement centre, and as the public’s discomfort with the dodgy nature of video arcades grew, LAI stepped up and began selling the concept big time. Surely nothing would happen to you at a family amusement centre! You might get rolled walking into Spin Out or one of the independents, but Timezone had uniforms for staff! Bright colours! A brand to protect, an image to uphold! In an era of massive innovation, I think this move might have been the smartest. Pity it couldn’t last.
As the arcades tried to clean up, the video game developers themselves were doing their best to keep things dirty. In 1991, Japanese developer Capcom released Street Fighter II, a one-on-one fighter featuring eight hardcases beating the stuffing out of each other all over the world. The game is still counted among the most popular video games of all time, and it was an absolute sensation at the time. Every milk bar and corner shop had one, because all they seemed to do was generate insane profits from a minimal investment. Players were going nuts for a chance to prove their skills against each other, and since each round of fighting only lasted minutes, a large roll of coins was necessary to compete. Practice made perfect, which required even more money. As king of the arcades (and with many more machines on the premises), Timezone held local tournaments…then statewide ones. Then nationals. Street Fighter II was unstoppable.
Competitors rose in its wake, but none were more controversial than 1992’s Mortal Kombat. Yet another fighting game, this one had (for the time) photorealistic graphics that featured actors filmed and digitised into the game, providing a level of visual realism the cartoony SFII couldn’t match. It also featured perhaps the most controversial aspect of the entire arcade era.
At the end of a match in Street Fighter II, the loser was knocked unconscious, points were awarded, and you progressed to the next fight. In Mortal Kombat, victory was interrupted by a gleefully sadistic voice commanding you to “finish him”. Players were initially confused; “I beat him…didn’t I just finish him?” But they soon discovered that it was a prompt for a secret button input that would make your character brutally murder your helpless opponent. Once the media found out that kids were able to tear each others’ hearts out in these family amusement centres, calls for greater regulation and safety at these places reached a crescendo loud enough to drown out a thousand “finish him”s.
As for the players, they went mad for it. The game reeked of the arcade culture, and the money came thick and fast. Think about that situation though: “These places are creepy and violent, bad things happen there, bad people hang out there, we need to close them down,” versus “Hey, these places are our refuge from a society that thinks it knows what’s best for us! Nothing bad happens here, it’s just a place where we can hang out!” It’s easy to see both sides, and while bad things could and did happen at these arcades, the truth is that for many of the “rough” kids, home was an even worse place to be.
But oddly enough the financial pinnacle of this era of blood and thunder came in 1993, with the release of two…sports games?! The first was a basketball game released in 1992, NBA Jam. A simple, two-on-two basketball game featuring the biggest NBA players of the era…only with no fouls, plenty of shoving and a healthy dose of smack talking. More than any other, this game reflected the culture that had grown in the petrie dishes that were the arcades. At no time was basketball bigger than the early 1990s, and this game was in the right place at the right time. According to just about every source you can find, NBA Jam made more money than Jurassic Park, generating over $1b in quarters in the USA alone.
The other big success story was Daytona USA, a racing simulator by Sega. You still see (and definitely hear) DAY-TO-NAAAAAAAAAA setups in bowling alleys and cinemas all over the country, a testament to either the game’s staying and earning power or the weight of the machine. Both of these games made an insane amount of money, and when something like that happens, big money starts to take notice.
Kerry Packer was a man who never seemed to miss an opportunity to say “I can do it better,” and then back that up with some serious splurging. No other decade had taken splurging to the X-TREEEME like the 1990s. Nothing was as X-TREEEME as video arcades. It was…the perfect storm.
I think that last paragraph is the most revealing: “the company hoped to take advantage” of consumers. As the article says, Packer and Village’s unholy union resulted in Village Nine Leisure, a concept so insanely commercial it could only have existed in the 90s. In Packer’s signature extravagant style, VNL wasn’t just going to run some ratty arcades with Daryl Somers cutting the ribbon – these were going to be suburban indoor theme parks. As VNL managing director Gary Berman puts it,
We’re banking on the fact that people … are becoming more discerning about what they’re doing with their leisure time. What we’re doing is … creating a critical mass of entertainment that we think people will embrace.
A critical mass of entertainment. Gee, if Spacetacular had thought of that one, they might still have been around in 1999.
It’s clear from the language of the article that VNL didn’t care about what the public actually wanted – they were going to tell them what they wanted. They were going to make a place so hi-tech, so cutting edge, so…X-TREEEME that the public couldn’t help but turn up and empty their pockets.
Timezone weren’t exactly shaking in their boots, however. Despite the impending competition, Timezone felt pretty comfortable that they’d remain a place for “core” arcade gamers to go, an attitude that seems completely at odds with the family image they’d been bending over backwards in the years leading up to 1994. But they had three things going for them: the brand recognition, that Timezone was where you went to play the latest arcade games; the edgy “street” image of regular arcades they secretly revelled in, knowing that the kids coming in to play the violent games were the ones spending a lot of money; and finally they were owned by LAI, who would have to supply the VNL initiative with machines. In the 90s, there were no losers.
Oh, except these guys.
By 1994, Norman Ross was essentially done. A pioneer of Australian appliance retail, they’d gone into liquidation in 1992 after spending a decade under the ownership of Alan Bond. Insert your own obvious joke here.
The departure of Norman Ross (centre real estate previously occupied by Nock and Kirby’s) had left Hurstville’s Westfield with an abundance of free space. As we’ve previously learned, Westfield Hurstville was a trailblazer in many ways, and consciously or not, VNL’s decision to make Hurstville the site of their first indoor leisure park maintained that reputation.
The VNL crew spent the next year (and $150m!) behind closed doors at Hurstville, meticulously sculpting what was being hyped as the evolution of the arcade. In fact, the absence of the word “arcade” from any promotional material felt like a conscious effort. Just as video arcades had taken pinball parlours one step beyond, so too would Packer’s entertainment venue venture into the next millennium.
Intencity. A name so 90s it puts World 4 Kids to shame. A name so 90s it might as well be wearing a Hypercolor shirt and Oakleys. A name so 90s it took spellcheck three times to get it right. Millennials, am I right?
To get a sense of just how epic this place was, we’ve gotta take the full tour, and to do that we’ll need some help. When PBL and Village joined forces, they each threw into the mix every arm of their respective conglomerates. This meant that much of the non-virtual entertainment would be provided by Packer’s Channel 9 or Village’s Triple M radio station, and it also meant an advertising blitz spanning the same gamut of entertainment outlets. If you weren’t hearing commercials for the place during ad breaks on Village’s Triple M, you were seeing the TV ads on Packer’s Channel 9 programming like What’s Up Doc. In the weeks leading up to the April 5, 1995 grand opening, the public was treated to a vague, cool, edgy marketing blitz, punctuated by ads like this:
Packer even got his ACP magazine publishing company in on the act. By 1994, video games had reached such cultural prominence that a handful of magazines dedicated to the industry had popped up, the most prominent being the multi-platform Hyper. But “I can do it better,” so Packer introduced Gamestar, a shameless knockoff that hoped to beat Hyper at its own game by adding the advertising muscle of ACP, expensive freebies…and in the June 1995 issue, an exclusive preview of Intencity.
So just what was Intencity? The name gives almost nothing away. What happened there? If it was just another arcade, why all the hoopla? Let’s hear from Gamestar’s David Smiedt as he took the tour just prior to its opening:
Eight individual zones, each packed with the latest games, rides or virtual experiences. These are the Wide World of Sports Centre, The Chameleon, DiMMMensions, Virtual World, Wizards, The Lost City, Vocal Recall and Hide & Seek. Best of all, because there is no entry fee, you only choose to spend your cash on what grabs you. You can visit every zone or just hang in one or two.
In case you actually have time to think about stuffing your face, there are also three food areas where they whip up some seriously humungous pizzas, shakes and fries. There’s also the groovy Instyle shop, where you can pick up a street-hot Intencity cap or sweatshirt, the latest CDs or even a few computer games to take home.
Smiedt describes the Wide World of Sports (very subtle, Kerry) zone as being full of virtual sport games, most of which are featured in the above TV commercial. You get a sense that it wouldn’t have taken long for the “undesirables” to wear the place down, and sure enough, I have vivid memories of playing an arm wrestling machine that had long since lost its lustre due to five or six dudes at a time piling onto it. You spoiled it for everyone, fellas.
The Chameleon was a fully immersive pod-based ride which, according to Smiedt, combined “the speed and spills of a show ground ride and the best 3D video graphics you have ever seen on any game”. Once you’d chosen your scenario (high speed car racing or futuristic exploration) the pod would rumble and jostle you around as the game played out. Interactive…to a point.
Virtual World seemed to be the same thing: you’d choose one of two scenarios (Red Planet or Battletech) and embark on another virtual journey of immersion, sound and fury. “You’ve never seen presentation, interactive brilliance and a games challenge that comes close.” gushed Gamestar. Except for, gee, I dunno…the Chameleon, perhaps?
I don’t know about you, but so far I’m not all that buzzed about going there. Next…
Wizards, as should be obvious, was a pinball parlour, featuring 17 machines from the past and the present. It’s interesting that they’d bother incorporating such a large pinball zone into the place, seeing as the games were so far removed from the futuristic angle they were going for. Gamestar reflects Intencity’s disinterest by relegating only one unenthusiastic sentence of the five page article to describing it as a “pinball paradise”. In fact, so boring was Wizards to Gamestar that they neglected to take a picture. Gee whiz.
If you were looking for “a get-me-some-dollar-coins-NOW collection of the latest, greatest slot games you’re likely to see in one Australian venue”, you’d be heading to DiMMMensions, sponsored by the good folks at Triple M. I seem to recall their standard arcade being named NRG, so maybe Triple M withdrew early. Says Gamestar, “There are X-Men and Tekken terminals everywhere and the whole place is kept pumpin’ by huge video screens blasting out Pearl Jam, Diesel and a host of other faves from Triple M.” Imagine if it were still around – it’d be nothing but Pink and Nickelback.
Speaking of terrible music, Vocal Recall (a diabolical pun, and that’s from someone who knows) was a private recording booth capable of letting you record one of 900 songs onto a cassette tape. Somewhere out there, someone’s got one of those tapes. Get in touch.
The article ends with the usual “AND SO MUCH MORE” pronouncement describing Intake (the restaurant), The Lost City (a prize game section) and Hide & Seek (for little kids, and designed by the guy who created McDonald’s playgrounds). It’s sad that today’s arcades are pretty much all Lost Cities (in every sense of the term), but that’s where the money is. Everyone wants something for their investment, and cassette tapes just don’t cut it anymore.
Intencity has it all. Unreal virtual worlds, hot video games, old favourites and a whole lot of stuff you’ve just never seen before. For the foreseeable future, this type of interactive entertainment is sure to be the IN thing.
Interesting that Smiedt should end the article on such an uncertain note. Perhaps even he could see the ‘city limits?
By all reports, Intencity was an instant success. “200,000 people through the gates in the first weeks of operation,” screamed TechTonic. “In four weeks, Andrew Brown, 24, has spent almost $1000 at Intencity,” gaped the Sun Herald. The marketing worked (it certainly worked on me), with the image of all-ages-yet-slightly-adult-skewing interactive entertainment hitting the zeitgeist on some subconscious level…at first.
According to a June 1995 Sun Herald article, Intencity had found its audience relatively quickly:
There was one guy we were particularly watching. He had been sitting in the seat of a racing car game for more than two hours.
Later we found out his name was Scott Tinge, and he was 15. He had spent more money than he’d ever dare mention, yet he didn’t consider it until he saw that he had beaten last week’s score.
We asked Scott if he cared about the money he spent weekly on these machines. He replied: “I work at Kentucky. I got the jeans I want, I saw Pearl Jam when they came out, and I love playing the games. They’re fun. Sometimes I think about the money, like it could have been saved but I don’t care to think about it too much.
“I reckon I’m entitled to spend my time here when I’m not at school. It’s my money, and I choose what I want to do with it.”
Besides the regular hangers, like Scott, there is another type of people who visit Intencity, and they are the observers, like girlfriends, fathers and those who like to have a go but aren’t sure what they’re doing, because the concept of all the gadgets and joysticks is too advanced for their prehistoric brain – that’s us.
As you can see, not everyone was as impressed by the glitz as Scott “Mr. 90s” Tinge. In an article in RealTime magazine’s June-July 1995 issue, writer Leigh Raymond suggests there were greater forces at work:
Intencity’s location in a shopping mall and the involvement of the developer Westfield in its operation is significant because the design and management of Intencity enables some forms of social control. It’s like McDonald’s meets the video arcade.
While some of Intencity’s games can offer the same kind of subjectivity that old video arcade games did, the environment in which they’re placed is far more tightly regulated, and the ‘guests’ or users who might go to a video arcade might not find the Intencity experience that attractive. It’s safe, sterile, (if brightly coloured and shiny), family oriented and heavily staffed, unlike a video arcade.
The games are designed for an environment which is safe and sterile. Both the games themselves, and their physical and simulated environment, have many of the characteristics that George Ritzer argues, in The McDonaldization of Society, are being built into a fast food world: rationality, efficiency, calculability, standardisation and predictability.
Wherever possible, he argues, this McDonaldization removes the human. Staff become integrators, a role which is at least partly scripted and for which they are trained.
When integrators and actors step outside their roles, things become more engaging. Wandering around the corridors of games we meet up again with the young man who introduced us to the Chameleon. He asks what my score was and I say it’s so pathetically low I couldn’t possibly tell him, he’d just laugh. He laughs anyway.
Did I like it? he asks, and because he wants me to like it because he identifies so strongly with it, I say yes, sure, it was cool. But I’m not used to it. It made me feel, well it made me feel sick, I tell him.
He says he’s had hundreds of goes on it and you get better the more you do it. I want to say that like any reality, it probably looks better after a drink, but then I remember the vomit button in the cockpit pod and I start feeling clammy and nauseous again.
Likewise, the SMH’s Sacha Molitorisz had something to say about Intencity’s gender politics in September of 1995. It seems that despite all their efforts, Intencity didn’t have the kind of unisex appeal its creators were aiming for:
The gender gap yawns open at an early age. Look at how teenagers spend their pocket money. While boys pay to pound each other in video games such as Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter, girls tend to seek out less violent pastimes such as shopping or the cinema.
“I think it’s because boys are lazier than girls,” smiles Samantha Brincat, 15.
Damian Marshall, a 16-year-old from Haberfield, is not lazy, but he does like video games. He has about $60 a week to spend, most of which he earns by refereeing basketball games. He admits he and most of the boys at his school spend a lot of their time and money on video games. The girls he knows do not.
Whenever he comes into town to visit the movies, he stops at a video arcade. And he would regularly visit Intencity, Village Nine Leisure’s arcade at Hurstville, if it was not so far from where he lives.
If he did go, he’d have no trouble spending a lot of money. From traditional games such as air hockey and pinball machines, Intencity has virtual reality rides that cost up to $10.
Here flashing lights assault the eyes and pop music clashes with the aggressive sound from dozens of games competing for your attention.
Although Samantha Brincat has about $100 to spend each week, she has never been to Intencity. “I’m not really interested in (video games). Most of my girlfriends aren’t either, but most of the guys are. We usually go out shopping instead while they stay home and play their Sega.”
At least in this case the stereotypes weren’t being dictated by Intencity.
As 1995 became 1996, VNL followed through with their promises to open more Intencities. Parramatta, Tuggerah and Broadway followed suit, with the Parramatta Intencity in particular taking up a whopping two storeys. Despite the undercurrent of naysayers inevitably attached to any Australian initiative of this scope, Intencity’s mix of old arcades, futuristic virtual reality, processed food and cross-market entertainment seemed like a hit.
Certainly enough of a hit to put the fear into Timezone, which responded to Intencity’s big plans to open outlets in Malaysia by threatening to open a chain of its own arcades in Indonesia. How’d that work out, guys? Oh.
But by the end of 1996, the sheen was starting to wear off. While it’s easy to point the finger at the Hurstfield effect, there’s a much clearer explanation for the sharp decline in Intencity’s fortunes.
You may have seen it as self-indulgent wankery, but the reason for the extremely long winded history lesson about video games at the beginning of the article was to give you context on the changing face of the fledgeling industry, something Intencity’s planners could have benefitted from. If they’d known, perhaps they would have picked up on a very significant growing trend: home consoles. Since the mid 1970s, video game consoles were available for homes with enough money. From Atari to Nintendo to Sega, these consoles offered watered down versions of the games you’d find in the arcades with only a one time fee attached. However, the relatively weak hardware meant that the games weren’t 100% facsimiles of their arcade cousins, forcing players to seek out the real deal…until 1995.
In September of that year, Sony launched the Playstation, a system that was widely seen as the first finally powerful enough to accurately emulate the arcade experience. Suddenly, kids didn’t need to go to Timezone or Fun n Games to play the latest Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat; they could play them in their bedrooms. This had the knock-on effect of the developers slowing production of arcade games and focusing on these home systems. No new arcade games means no new reasons to visit places like Intencity, the rides at which could only hold their novelty for so long. In fact, the most forward thinking part of the Intencity initiative was making the rides the backbone of the enterprise. Unlike Timezone, they somewhat tried to avoid the arcade games being their bread and butter. But obviously, since it’s appearing on this blog, it wasn’t enough. The rides had to be long enough to justify the price, and the longer the ride, the less sessions you could hold. It was pinball all over again, but this time the stakes for the operators were much higher. Of course, no one felt this sting worse than Sega…but that’s another story.
With attendance (read: revenue) dropping faster than a dollar coin down a slot, the bean counters at VNL started to sweat, while the bean counters at Westfield started to tighten the noose. With the ever-shifting face of the retail game bearing down, and the red finally swallowing the black, time was up for Intencity, and that hefty amount of real estate made it an extremely easy…well…
There’s little to say about Target and the homogenised shopping experience it offers (uh…the floor out the front’s still the same? Aaand so’s that ceiling sprinkler?), so let’s turn our attention to a post-mortem of Intencity. With that logo, that attitude and well, that entire concept, it was a foregone conclusion that it would never reach the new millennium. Once Hurstville closed in 1997, PBL’s enthusiasm began to wane. Parramatta soon followed, and in 1999 PBL sold its stake entirely, leaving Village holding the bag.
According to a November 1998 SMH article, it wasn’t until that year that Intencity finally turned a profit – after four years of operation. Not good. In that year alone, coin-op machine revenue had fallen 30% from 1997. Ouch. VNL chief exec John Anderson told the SMH that:
“Intencity became very fragile because it relied on virtual-reality attractions to bring people to the centres and it became apparent the formula was wrong given the Australian marketplace and the games that had been selected,” Mr Anderson said.
“Virtual reality will come . . . but it will be a minimum of five to 10 years until you see it in a format that drives people into entertainment centres,” he said.
Mr Anderson attributed the decline in revenue from coin-operated machines to the emergence of the high-technology computer games for the home and increased use of the Internet – a situation which has also affected VNL’s 50 per cent-owned machine-distribution business.
You don’t say?
In the years since, arcades have essentially become a thing of the past. Anderson’s prediction of virtual reality entertainment centres by 2008 did not come to pass, to say the least. Where George Street was once peppered with video arcades of every size, only one remains today – Timezone. Perhaps by soldiering ahead with the same business plan they’ve had since 1978, they were able to weather the storm that decimated the industry. It’s not what it was, despite what their website would have you believe. Today, Intencity claims to have 14 “family entertainment centres” across eastern Australia, but if you’ve ever been to one, you’ll know they’re traitors to the name, having become the very thing they tried so hard to push the industry beyond so many years ago. If nothing else, the failure of Intencity is a testament to a lack of forward thinking by both the suits behind it and the public they hoped to take advantage of.
Game over (ugh), Intencity. The 90s were never 90ier.