PARK & RIDE

Barry Oliver checks out Syd­ney’s har­bour­side fun fair as it cel­e­brates a new lease of life

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

EX­PLO­SIONS rip through the dark­ness, strobe lights flash, there’s the oc­ca­sional blood­cur­dling scream, con­torted faces con­front us at ev­ery turn and evil-look­ing char­ac­ters ap­pear from nowhere, just as quickly van­ish­ing into the gloom. It’s a full-scale prison riot. Our chal­lenge is to find our way out of this may­hem, which is prov­ing no easy mat­ter.

Our first ef­fort leads to a dead end and an alarm­ing en­counter with a se­ri­ously dis­turbed in­mate. Our conga line, hands on the shoul­ders of the per­son in front, does a 180-de­gree turn; a war­den flashes his torch and shouts some­thing in­de­ci­pher­able amid the bab­ble and we file past a row of cells, flail­ing arms claw­ing at the cages. Af­ter 10 fum­bling min­utes we ar­rive at the exit, the door swings open and we emerge, blink­ing, into sun­light, to be greeted by the sight of Luna Park’s stalls and sideshows in full cry. Talk about a sea change.

Prison Break Live has just fin­ished a six-month stint at the park. New at­trac­tions usu­ally run dur­ing school hol­i­days but it was de­cided to cap­i­talise on the television show’s pop­u­lar­ity (it was li­censed through Hol­ly­wood) and go for a longer time scale. ‘‘ It was a bit of a test to see how it would go down and the pub­lic loved it,’’ says mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive Jeremy Nance. IT’S hard not to smile as you walk un­der Syd­ney’s most fa­mous face. But Luna Park’s gi­ant wel­com­ing clown hasn’t al­ways been so friendly. Early ver­sions — there have been eight since the 1935 launch — were a lot more sin­is­ter. ‘‘ Half the ex­pe­ri­ence is walk­ing through that big mouth,’’ Nance says. The Face, in its dif­fer­ent forms, has been ever-present, which is not some­thing you can say about the teeth. In the 1970s, six went miss­ing. Univer­sity stu­dents were blamed but the cul­prits were never traced; the same goes for the miss­ing mo­lars.

Luna Park, on prime wa­ter­front land at Mil­sons Point in North Syd­ney, has had what Nance calls, with con­sid­er­able un­der­state­ment, a che­quered past. It has suf­fered nu­mer­ous clo­sures, faced fierce op­po­si­tion from nearby res­i­dents, suf­fered a fire on its ghost train that claimed seven lives, and had rides bull­dozed, burned and auc­tioned.

But Luna Park is noth­ing if not a sur­vivor: on April 4 it cel­e­brated the an­niver­sary of its 2004 re­open­ing, hav­ing been closed since 1996 fol­low­ing res­i­dents’ com­plaints about the noise of its star ride, the Big Dip­per, which was even­tu­ally shipped to Dream­world on Queens­land’s Gold Coast (where it’s still op­er­at­ing).

Th­ese days the park seems to en­joy bet­ter re­la­tions with nearby res­i­dents. ‘‘ We’ve got re­stric­tions that we op­er­ate within,’’ Nance says. ‘‘ The peo­ple of Syd­ney are right be­hind the park and it’s keep­ing the area avail­able for them to come down and en­joy.’’

Dur­ing the four years since re­open­ing there have been 4.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors, the 36m-high fer­ris wheel, of­fer­ing dress-cir­cle har­bour views, has clocked up more than 500,000 ro­ta­tions and there have been at least 168 mar­riage pro­pos­als. The park is now pro­tected by her­itage sta­tus, along with its two old­est rides.

Nance stresses it’s not a theme park but an amuse­ment park. ‘‘ We con­sider it a precinct. We’re quite dif­fer­ent from the theme parks on the Gold Coast.’’

I’m re­minded of a sea­side fun­fair. ‘‘$ 5 cash, give it a bash,’’ re­peats the man run­ning the High Striker, where cus­tomers use a ham­mer to send a scale soar­ing sky­wards (but never quite to the top). ‘‘ Ev­ery lit­tle hit­ter wins a prize.’’

There’s no such spruik­ing on an­other stall where all-com­ers have to toss balls into gap­ing, con­torted mouths. En­ter­tain­ers — clowns on stilts, dancers, jug­glers — wan­der, or in some cases stag­ger, past. There’s a spe­cial Show­time de­part­ment where they are trained. Ap­par­ently the first thing that stilt walk­ers are taught is how to fall.

His­to­rian-li­brar­ian Anne Doughty says that al­though Luna Park was orig­i­nally mod­elled on a US amuse­ment park, it now has a dis­tinctly Aus­tralian flavour thanks to the work of Arthur Bar­ton, artist-in-res­i­dence from 1935 to 1970, and the present holder of that ti­tle, Ash­ley Tay­lor.

Bar­ton’s play­ful work — his nick­name was Art Bar­ton — is most prom­i­nent in Coney Is­land, a so-called fun house that dates back to the park’s be­gin­nings. It’s the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tion, pro­vid­ing what Nance calls ‘‘ sim­ple fun, a de­par­ture from sit­ting at home with the PlayS­ta­tion or watch­ing a DVD. It’s the part of the park that ev­ery­one seems to re­mem­ber.’’

Well, it’s hard to for­get. Even the ar­chi­tec­ture is wacky: out­side it’s a mix of Moor­ish win­dows, Rus­sian onion domes and what Doughty calls ‘‘ an Aztec-look­ing thing’’. She de­scribes it as ‘‘ a pot-pourri of de­sign el­e­ments that some­how man­ages to cre­ate an in­ter­est­ing build­ing’’.

Bar­ton con­tin­ued the fun inside with some slap­stick car­toon-like paint­ings. His Drunken Orches­tra is a favourite with Doughty. The post­card hu­mour is also re­flected in The Mother-in-Law Miss , where a man de­lib­er­ately misses a box­ing punch­bag in favour of a more tempt­ing tar­get.

The large mu­ral on the back wall is known as his Sis­tine Chapel piece be­cause of the time it took him to paint it. ‘‘ As well as a fun place to be,

it’s al­most a gallery of pop­u­lar art from the 1930s that hasn’t been saved any­where else. It’s a liv­ing mu­seum of art,’’ Doughty says of Coney Is­land.

A lot of peo­ple would prob­a­bly miss much of the art (though Doughty con­ducts his­tory tours). They’d per­haps be too busy with the wooden slides, talk­ing palmist, mov­ing floors, spin­ning Joy Wheel (last one re­main­ing wins), Bar­rels of Fun and crazy mir­rors that do weird things to your body shape. You can even have your sex ap­peal rated (from frigid to wow-we but I can’t vouch for its ac­cu­racy; (I’m ap­par­ently ice cold).

Doughty says fun houses were places with de­vices and amuse­ments that en­abled peo­ple to laugh at them­selves as well as oth­ers. They go back as far as 1890 but few re­main. She be­lieves that this is the only one in Aus­tralia.

The Ro­tor — ‘‘ Pro­fes­sor E. Hoffmeis­ter’s world fa­mous sci­en­tific theatre’’ — dates back to 1951 and is the worst of­fender when it comes to mak­ing peo­ple throw up. It spins at 30 rev­o­lu­tions a minute, cre­at­ing a 1 to 1.5 g-force, pin­ning rid­ers to the wall. Nance re­ports he sur­vived it with­out mishap. In fact, he has ex­pe­ri­enced ev­ery ride in the park. ‘‘ You have to know your prod­uct, un­for­tu­nately. But some I’ve only done once, though there are some real thrill-seek­ers on the staff who go on rides all over the world.’’

A more re­cent ad­di­tion is the vast Big Top, its truck en­trance hid­den by a size­able Tay­lor mu­ral. This en­ter­tain­ment venue, which holds up to 3000 peo­ple, was built for the re­open­ing. It’s sound­proofed to an ear-shat­ter­ing 120 deci­bels. There’s so much in­su­la­tion in the roof that the joke here is that it’s lined with $100 notes. The much older Crys­tal Palace, which is the sec­ond orig­i­nal build­ing (with Coney Is­land), holds 1300 and hosts smaller events such as wed­ding re­cep­tions and con­fer­ences. From the out­side it looks like a stone chateau. Don’t ask why.

Through the years there have been quite a few fa­mous vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing a cer­tain Prince Philip of Greece, now the Duke of Ed­in­burgh, who dis­graced him­self in 1945, while on shore leave, when he was es­corted out of the River Caves ride af­ter break­ing the rules by get­ting out of his boat.

There are about 600 staff, in­clud­ing ca­su­als, and about a dozen main­te­nance work­ers who not only keep the rides in shape but have a whop­ping 25,000 light­bulbs to at­tend to. How many Luna Park work­ers does it take to change those? Sounds like a per­fect sub­ject for one of Bar­ton’s wacky paint­ings.

Check­list

En­try to Luna Park is free; a wide variety of passes can be pur­chased for rides. Open Mon­day and Thurs­day, 11am to 6pm; Fri­day, 11am to 11pm; Satur­day, 10am to 11pm; Sun­day, 10am to 6pm. Closed Tues­day and Wed­nes­day ex­cept dur­ing school hol­i­days. More: www.lu­na­parksyd­ney.com.

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