Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CLOUDLAND PT 1 - THE STORY OF T.H. ESLICK

BRISBANE'S LUNA PARK




It took a simple phone call to transport me back to the fifties, back to the good old days when girls dressed up to the nines for a night of dancing and the boys looked like department store dummies in tux and bow ties.

The phone call was from a third year film student at our local Queensland University of Technology.  Jessica was putting together a documentary about a particular Brisbane icon rudely removed from Brisbane’s skyline some years ago, had been given my name as an interested person and wondered would I mind being interviewed for her project.

Of course I didn’t mind.  But neither she nor I realised at the time her request would send me back even further,  to  the life and times of my American Grandfather ChasBert.

The entertainment venue was Cloudland and apart from being just one of many young people who thronged its ballroom I also had an obscure connection with its sneaky demolition; a midnight bulldozing that made a heap of people very angry indeed. 


But Cloudland wasn’t always known by that dreamy hyped up title.  Originally, in the early 1800’s, the site was bare bush, a tree studded hilltop overlooking the emerging settlement that eventually became Brisbane.

By the 1920’s it had become Montpelier Hill complete with a grand old house of immense proportions and structured gardens; a prime site overlooking the river between the city’s centre and the posh northern suburbs of Hamilton and Ascot.


The Cowlishaw Residence

The 1920’s was also the time my wily old Grandfather, entrepreneur, entertainer and one time pugilist Charles Brown Parker set up base in Brisbane, though not in the posh suburbs, staging fund raising carnivals for charities in Brisbane’s domain and in an open paddock area locals liked to call Luna Park. (A poor version of more famous venues)

 In fact Grandmother remembered the carnivals fondly and rather hoped Brisbane might be their home town for many moons to come.  (If you’ve been following their lives through my Ancestor series, you will realise this was wishful thinking on her part!)

Inevitably, Grandfather made his usual abrupt exit to fresher fields further north, but the tag Luna Park lingered  to be resurrected in 1938 by a gentleman whose background was every bit as mysterious as Charles Brown-Parker’s.

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ESLICK THE GENIUS


Thomas Henry, or T.H.Eslick as he preferred,  was a great front man, he loved to talk.  If we’re to believe everything he said, or for that matter everything written about him then the man just had to be a genius.

He was one of those ‘been everywhere, done everything’ type of man. India, South Africa, Russia, Canada, the USA, Europe, you name it and he had built, designed, created their biggest, best, most famous entertainment park  or fun fair.

I can tell you now, that like all believable liars, he didn’t do even half of what he claimed, but most of his claims held just enough truth to make you wonder if perhaps he had...

For now though, the year is 1938 and in Brisbane, Queensland he is beguiling local town fathers and businessmen to invest in a copycat version of Melbourne’s iconic Luna Park.




He has featured in the setting up and running of several big amusement parks in southern states,  Melbourne’s Luna Park, Sydney’s White City and now he plans to open his own Luna Park in Brisbane.  Several sites are suggested to Brisbane’s City Council, one in the suburb of New Farm another at Breakfast Creek before finally settling on the Cowlishaw estate at Montpelier Heights in near city Bowen Hills, and in March 1939 a prospectus for Luna Park (Brisbane) Limited is issued.




Obviously not the syndicates first choice but in the long run as events would prove, the hill top once known as the Cowlishaw Estate becomes the perfect site for an entertainment venue; one that generations of Brisbane youngsters would fondly remember as a favourite stamping ground, Cloudland.

The public issue of shares in Luna Park (Brisbane) Ltd sells for five shillings each, much of the capital investment coming from southern investors and work on the project begins in March of 1939. Though how Eslick or anyone thinks Luna Park could be completed and open for business in barely 5 months is anyone’s guess.

Had T.H. Eslick been clairvoyant and could see into the future he wouldn’t have touched this Luna Park business deal with a six foot pole.  For him, and the many people who invested in the grandiose project, Brisbane’s Luna Park was virtually doomed from the start.  

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Luna Park’s first sod is turned by Queensland’s Deputy Governor on March 19th 1939, a full 12 months after that prospectus was first issued; the Misses Cowlishaw, daughters of the original owners are present and a thousand pigeons set free to celebrate the event.  Typical Eslick showbiz style.

(Can’t you see Eslick organising the event, we’ll set 100 pigeons aloft. No! Hang the expense make that a thousand.)

Work wouldn’t actually start until March of the same year but it will be eighteen long months before Luna Park’s Cloudland ballroom will be opened for business. Much of the ensuing work was put to tender, a local firm Evans and Deakin supplying the estimated 64 tons of constructional metal need for the skeleton frame and roof.  Eslick made much of the fact that over fifty local artisans would be employed for the finer details.

(A tiny coincidence, the Mr Deakin of this partnership for a very short while was my mother’s second husband’s father.  I did warn you it was a tenuous connection.)

At this stage Mr Eslick was concentrating on the amusement park side of his plans, promising the public that £24,000 worth of new attractions had been contracted for the park including Australia’s first Electric Racecourse.  Twenty full size wooden horses electrically propelled, racing along a 600ft track with riders controlling the speed of their horses. Wow!

A huge big dipper ride would be built, and in time an Alpine Scenic Railway to transport the public from Breakfast Creek Road up the Montpelier Hill’s steep incline to the Luna Park attractions. 

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A DREAM BECOMES A NIGHTMARE

When T.H.Eslick and his consortium first mooted the Brisbane Luna Park, a world war was no doubt farthest from their minds, but by 1940 it became very much a reality, though at that stage still logistically a long way from Australia.  But even so warning signs of shortages in supplies and manpower must have begun to surface.

A further series of events slows down, but doesn’t altogether stop construction. In June 1940 a fire breaks out in the ballroom construction area, a night-watchman is assaulted and then shoots at his assailant, who escapes. A newspaper report at the time states the building, then in construction, was worth £15,000 and insured for £12,000.  Police believe the fire was deliberately lit, while Eslick claims little damage had actually been done.  The mystery man was never found.



Then six months later scaffolding and frame work for the scenic railway is wrecked by strong winds resulting in £2000 worth of non insured damage. Now, that probably was a genuine accident.



Apart from the fire and the damage to the scenic railway there were union problems with workmen and with angry sideshow owners obviously looking to a firm completion date.  They have a long wait ahead.

Finally on a balmy August night in 1940 Cloudland, the Luna Park ballroom, is opened.  The huge arched dome towering from the heights of Bowen Hills, its myriad twinkling lights clearly visible from virtually every part of the city.  Over 100 invited couples take to the floor, dancing to the music of Billy Romaine’s orchestra.

Brisbane’s vice mayor is effusive in his opening speech congratulating Thomas Henry Eslick for his vision and skill in creating this ballroom, the best ballroom in the Southern Hemisphere.


 
Cloudland limps on for a while, the war has escalated and news from overseas is not good.  Eslick attempts to drum up trade for the faltering enterprise with vaudeville acts, dancing lessons for the public and zany advertisements featuring his own personal tag line, one he has used for many years, Radiantly Yours...


But nothing will stop the downward slide,  the Luna Park concept, tried and true in the southern states is good, but the timing is bad.  By April 1941 those shares bought for five shillings have fallen to a paltry six pence.


 
The Luna Park rides and side show part of the business has never gotten off the ground, the completed Big Dipper ride never used; the park closes permanently in January of 1941.

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1942 AMERICA ENTERS THE WAR

American troops march past Brisbane’s City Hall

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Australia and the Pacific become a war zone. Work on the fun park on top of Montpelier Hill comes to a standstill.  The Big Dipper is dismantled, never having been used:  The scenic railway is closed down and Luna Park, including the ballroom is put up for sale.


The fun park, officially opened in August of 1940 has lasted only six months.

But in the current uneasy financial climate no bids are received. Eslick is bankrupted, investors have lost a great deal of money. The American Army takes over the entire hill top using the huge ballroom for highly sensitive war work.  Desks and stretchers and office equipment now fill the huge ballroom and huge search lights are placed on the buildings roof.



They will remain there until the end of the war.

Thomas Henry Eslick will face the messy business of bankruptcy and sequestering of property.  But that court case will in time reveal a previous bankruptcy and a curious history that includes a dual identity.  That of Tollmache Heriot Eslick  and a Walter Mitty type background that held just enough truth to make it almost believable.

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CLOUDLAND SPRINGS BACK TO LIFE


Then finally in 1947 Cloudland is resurrected, the ballroom reopens and for the next thirty years becomes a rite of passage for countless Brisbane teenagers.  Me included.

That’s a very young me in the photo at the beginning of the story, the girl on the left.  I remember shopping with my mother for that dress, a strapless confection I wasn’t entirely convinced I could keep up.  It cost a small fortune and was bought on the never never, in those days time payment or wear as you pay.

I didn’t meet my Reluctant Traveller at Cloudland; no, he’s not the tall young man beside me in the opening photograph, but the nights spent dancing did introduce many other young girls to their spouses. 

Cloudland was home to the jitterbug and rock and roll. The early years saw big bands  and performers like Buddy Holly and Midnight Oil. A young Keith Urban performed there in 1980. 

I remember learning to square dance, wearing an impossibly full and layered skirt.  Young girls made their debut at Cloudland and a succession of bands kept Brisbane’s feet tapping for a number of years until finally, in the 1980’s, Cloudland was sold to developers.

 
This was a controversial sale.  Brisbane had become accustomed to seeing the huge arched dome rising above the city, had become fond of the rainbow lights pulsing in the dark sky.  To many, Cloudland was an institution, an intricate and much loved part of their lives. 

Public opinion was heavily against its demolition.

So you can imagine the outcry when Brisbane awoke one morning in 1982 to find a bull dozing crew had levelled the hill completely, not a wall was left standing.


 Cloudland as it was...



Demolished to make way for this....



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DEMOLITION – NO QUESTIONS ASKED

The midnight demolition job was contracted to a Brisbane company, a family concern that received a great deal of flack from the public for many years to come.  Even today the demise of Cloudland brings about much gnashing of teeth and anger. 

Which brings me to my final coincidental moment regarding Cloudland.

This particular moment in time took place back in 1975, and until Jessica Middleton, the film student contacted me, I hadn’t really given this encounter another thought. 

The day had been a hot one and we, husband, 16 year old son and 14 year old daughter had been swimming in the pool, but now were relaxing in shorts and flimsy tops in front of the television.

A very large car pulled up in our driveway and out spilled an Indian family of father, mother, four or five daughters and if memory serves me right an elderly aunt.   The ladies were dressed in colourful sari’s, the head of the group in the modest dress of a Muslim man and all proceeded up our front stairs.

I recognized none of them and while we made the entire family welcome, I couldn’t imagine why these unexpected strangers were visiting our home.

It happened I had recently returned from a trip to Fiji where my Grandmother still had kin, and while I was over there had met and befriended an Indian family.  They were related to this family who were now delivering a gift to me from them.

We made these rather solemn people comfortable, trying to overcome the long silences.  Our teenage son in boxer shorts only, even went so far as to offer the sole male in the group an icy cold beer, which of course on religious grounds he politely refused.

Constant eye contact with my son failed to produce a shirt at least and after a while of chit chat, soft drinks and a certain amount of head waggling this extremely polite family departed.

Over the years I had forgotten the encounter, but once I spoke to Jessica about doing an interview it all came spilling back.

The Indian gentleman was one of the Deen Brothers, a member of the same family company that in 1982, some seven years hence, would completely and utterly demolish Brisbane’s most revered icon on the hill, Cloudland.

Life is indeed made up of odd encounters.

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THE ALMOST UNBELIEVABLE MR ESLICK

 In the telling of my story about Cloudland I came across the charismatic T.H. Eslick.  That name of his bugged me, where on earth would a name like Tollemache come from?

Naturally I saw a certain parallel to my Grandfather ChasBert’s life.  He too lived his life with an alias and was prone to telling huge whoppers.

Actually as I probed further into Eslick’s life I realised that compared to Grandfather Brown-Parker, this man was a giant in the Big Lie department. And some of the big names from Grandfather’s life also featured in that of Thomas Henry Eslick.

You could almost say they were birds of a feather.

 But was Eslick actually the genius he claimed to be?  Did he travel the world building fun palaces in cities from Delhi to New York,  Ottawa to Moscow?

I’ll let you decide when you read the next instalment about the Curious Life of Tollemache Heriot Eslick.

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Robyn Mortimer ©2011

Link to Part Two of Thomas Heriot Eslick - genius or fraud?

CLOUDLAND PT 2 - T.H. ESLICK FRAUDSTER.

Further ahead: Back to the Ancestors: The Quakers in my Life...