Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial

6: 'Hurrah for Playland!'

page 87

6: 'Hurrah for Playland!'

Politicians, educators and businessmen promoted the Centennial Exhibition for its propaganda, educational or commercial potential, but most of the 2.6 million people who filed through the Exhibition turnstiles went there simply for entertainment. Even officialdom liked to let down its hair and be taken for a ride. Governor General Galway and his family rode the big machines while the press watched and took notes. Architect Edmund Anscombe's colour movie of the exhibition, one of the first shot in New Zealand, largely passed over the Government Court displays, the overseas pavilions, and even his own architecture. Instead he captured happy, jerky images of civilians and off-duty soldiers riding the Octopus and the Cyclone or cavorting amongst the collapsing floors, mazes and distorted mirrors of the Crazy House, one of the star attractions of Playland, the exhibition's big amusement park.

The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company Ltd always knew that it had to put on a good show in the fullest sense. The politicians' speeches may have emphasised imperial unity, national identity or educational and scientific advances, but British and American exhibition organisers had known for decades that 'education did not pay, but that entertainment did'.1 Nowhere was this more important than in the careful selection of the key rides—the roller coasters, crazy houses and the like— that caught the public imagination while lightening its purse. Choosing them was not child's play. Built and marketed by British, German and American companies, the big devices cost big money and rose and fell in favour like hemlines or trouser cuffs. While visitors expected a core of firm favourites, each exhibition had to have what we would now term 'signature rides', attention grabbers that would lure patrons back for the return visits that really made exhibitions pay. Visitors might not want to see a government display twice, but an exhilarating ride stood a fair chance of enticing them back, hopefully dragging along their friends as well.

In 1937 the exhibition company sought the advice of the German and American consuls, wrote to a couple of concessionaire companies 'in the Old Country' and sent its chairman and general manager to the Glasgow Empire Exhibition.2 There the middle-aged men made themselves thoroughly familiar with anything that whirled, swooped or spun. Back home, however, the company's finances were dictating an ever more cautious approach. The company dropped several supporting page 88
The fun park. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, PAColl-3036, F-36214-1/2.

The fun park. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, PAColl-3036, F-36214-1/2.

activities, most notably expensive fireworks extravaganzas off Lyall Bay.3 Another casualty of economy was a large display of fashions and costumes including some royal robes and dresses, which had been a success at Glasgow (although Rongotai did display replicas of the Crown Jewels and plate of Britain and Europe.)4

But it was the big rides that really counted. In October 1938 the company awarded the concession to the Double Grip Tubular Steel Amusement Devices Company Ltd, subsidiary of the equally clumsily named London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Company Ltd. Double Grip offered three choices: purchase of large rides outright; purchase eight, but be guaranteed an agreed salvage cost refund after the exhibition; or give Double Grip exclusive rights to operate the main rides, paying the exhibition company a percentage of the gate. The package included the letting out of sideshows and special attractions. Double Grip also offered, if required, to 'include an Empire Lilliputian village, and several novelty attractions of a type not previously seen in New Zealand'.5

The company directors chose the third option. They haggled over terms (inserting a 'war clause', to the surprise of the British), but had little room to manoeuvre, because the expected liquidity problems made it easier and less risky to bank Double Grip's £10,000 down payment than buy costly rides and build stalls. Not everyone page 89 was happy. G. Mitchell protested strongly about the decision being taken out of the hands of the Amusement Committee (which in October 1937 had recommended that the company operate all but the biggest rides), arguing that the deal would cost the company revenue. He also regretted that 'the whole of the NZ Showmen are placed at the mercy of the Concessionaire company'.6 Architect Edmund Anscombe also seethed. No doubt he remembered his Dunedin experience, where he claimed that directors had procrastinated for too long over the amusement park and that he alone had saved the day after general manager Charles Hainsworth had failed to show leadership. 'I would have appreciated the opportunity to confer with the Directors on the lay-out of the Amusement park for our Centennial Exhibition5, he circularised the directors on 26 September 1938. 'I want our Exhibition to be the financial success we (especially the Shareholders) are entitled to look for.' He testily reminded the directors that he had selected Dunedin's seven major rides, submitting an alternative plan and picking apart Double Grip's: the scenic railway and dodgems took up too much space, water dodgems were passe, its cabaret proposal exceeded Kingsford Smith Road height restrictions and its plans for Kiddieland were confusing. Anscombe condemned a Crazy House as a secondary attraction and stated that 'I look upon a Fun Factory as an absolute necessity'. Other items on his list were: a Scenic Railway, River Caves, Dodgems, Carousel, Swooper, Loop-o-Plane, Jack and Jill, Falcon, Crazy Cottage, Strat-o-Ship, Whip, Shooting Gallery, Cabaret, The Fly, Death Valley, along with a Kiddieland and eighty-seven stalls for minor concessionaires.7

Anscombe failed to rain on Double Grip's parade, for the deal had been cut.8 Henry Seff organised the arrangements for Playland, which took shape rapidly after Rongotai College made its playing fields available on 1 April 1939. The proposed star rides were to have been: the Cyclone Gravity Ride, the Dodgem Track, the Scoota Boat Pool, a Jack and Jill ride, the Brooklands Miniature Electric Race Track, the Falcoln ride, the New Whip and the Crazy House. Double Grip later replaced a Water Dodgem with the Octopus ride, added a Ghost Train and Highland Fling rides and obtained permission to sublet its five lowest-earning rides. The flagship ride, the £15,000 Cyclone, cost more than the three next most expensive devices, the Crazy House and Scoota Boats (£4500 each) and the Dodgem Track (£4000) combined.

Those big, noisy rides turned in mixed performances. Mechanical troubles sidelined the Highland Fling for weeks and when it got going it enticed few paying bums onto seats. Also disappointing was the large helter-skelter, the Jack and Jill. This device had done well elsewhere but local enthusiasm seems to have dampened after some patrons slipped off their mats and suffered friction burns.9 As a group, nevertheless, the big devices dominated the gate takings, even if they may not have made a true profit. The star performer was the much publicised Cyclone roller coaster, whose three three-car trains took in over 30% (£25,343) of the £78,000 earned by page 90 Playland's nine star rides. Next best at the box office was an attraction dismissed by Anscombe, the Crazy House (£19,280), followed by the Speedway (£12,581) and the Ghost Train (£8560).10 They were the stars of an impressive show, promoted noisily thirteen hours a day by a mechanical barker, the Laughing Sailor, imported from the Glasgow exhibition. He sat over the main door and filled the entire grounds with the sound of his raucous laughter.11

The sailor had a lot to promote. According to the official history, Playland's 40 hectares of grounds were 'the largest that had been built in the Southern hemisphere, and though smaller than some overseas amusement parks, it had just as varied attractions'.12 The book rattles off the statistics. It had cost £114,692 to build and another £50,000 to buy the imported rides and materials. Motorised 'Kiwi Trains' carried 114,829 fare-paying passengers around the grounds. In addition to all this there was a 'giant scenic railway', whose 1000 metres of track swept and soared along the northern boundary of Playland, and the Coronation Scot model train that carried children around a 1500-metre track in Kiddieland, the 4000 square metres of Playland set aside for children.13

Double Grip's bigger devices captured public attention but there were plenty of other attractions to soak up its shillings. A large cast of operators leased and ran Double Grip's lesser rides, as well as the regular attractions found on the Australasian Christmas carnival, agricultural show and winter show circuits. Sixty of them plied their trade in Playland, not always in harmony with big brother. In March 1940 Double Grip took several stallholders to court for non-payment of fees. Edwin Lay of Hastings, the owner of a fish-pond game, countersued, claiming misrepresentation by Seff. He told the court that Seff had assured him that there would be just thirty-five stalls, not the ninety that Lay alleged had opened.14 Double Grip and the stallholders even feuded over the chocolates given out as prizes for the games of skill that dominated the concessionaires' stands. The New Zealand Biscuit and Confectionery Manufacturers' Association had secured its exhibiting members a monopoly on prize supply, but some stallholders ignored regulations and shopped elsewhere. When the biscuit barons complained to Double Grip, it got the Centennial Exhibition Company to threaten them. On 21 March 1940, F. Rumble, operator of the Dart Game at stand 87N, and the owners of twelve other attractions were solemnly warned that 'unless this [practice of buying non-approved chocolates] is discontinued at once it will be my most unpleasant duty to stop the admission of any goods into the Exhibition on your account'.15

Playland also included a Devil Plane, Wall of Death, a Shark Pool (displaying live sharks caught off Sydney Heads), Waitomo Caves, a graphology stand, Pat Gamble and May Wong the 'Daredevil International lady Stunt Motor-Cyclists', and human freaks in the 'Odditorium'. Heavyweight superstar of the freak show was 54-stone [343kg] Mexican Rose, 'the world's fattest girl'. Mexican Rose had come direct from America on the Mariposa and her advertising boasted that 'a sling page 91 and a winch was used to land this beautiful Fat Girl in New Zealand'.16 Then there were Willie Camper, the seventeen-year-old 'world's largest boy', with his size thirty-two shoes and height and girth to match, and Bush Bluey, an eighty-one centimetre tall African Pygmy. Not to be outdone, the Chinese Theatre of Living Wonders promoted 'Chang the Midget Man'.

Elsewhere more conventional artists competed for the public's shillings—these included the popular 'St Moritz' skaters as well as the usual range of magicians and variety acts. Some operators attempted to bridge the gap between amusement and education. H. C. Harcourt from Taumaruni displayed his 'Little Theatre' to raise funds for the Crippled Children's Toc H Clubs. It had taken him eight years to build this seven-metre long miniature theatre, perfectly detailed right down to tiny dressing rooms, an 'Orchestra of the Fairies' with miniature musical instruments, and a working electrical elevator.17 L. A. Bowler's exhibit 'Life', on the other hand, was too realistic for one customer. 'Old Fashioned Girl' told organisers that T did see it, unexpectedly, and being happily married with babies, I wish to say that I think a little more preparation is necessary for ever so many people, who are not advanced enough, yet, to see life in a purely scientific way. Really, it is enough to make one shudder, and even prejudice women against having babies . . ,'18

Bowler had many more people shuddering over another of his exhibits, the
The Cyclone roller coaster—far and away the most popular sideshow. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, PAColl-3036, F-36212-1/2.

The Cyclone roller coaster—far and away the most popular sideshow. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, PAColl-3036, F-36212-1/2.

page 92
Charles Haine's psoter for Playland. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eph-E-EXHIBTION-1939-01.

Charles Haine's psoter for Playland. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eph-E-EXHIBTION-1939-01.

page 93 Waxworks and Chamber of Horrors. These morbid galleries of crimes and criminals were a common attraction of the time. The centennial chamber had twenty exhibits, most of them of New Zealand crimes and criminals.19 No one objected to historical figures such as Winton baby-farmer and murderer, Minnie Dean, or to Lionel Terry, but topical ones provoked a different response. Within days of the opening Wanganui lawyers had complained on behalf of relatives of victim Thomas Murphy about display number eleven, 'a realistic replica of the Police Cell, Petone, with a man shown hanging by the neck with his head thrust through the bars of the Cell, the caption alongside being "The Police Cells Petone 19—"'.20 Another complaint, this time from the family of the female murder victim portrayed in the Wanganui 'Manly' display, provoked another banning order from exhibition company general manager, Charles Hainsworth.21 He was becoming thoroughly sick of this so-called 'attraction'. Even before opening day the Commissioner of Police had objected to three items in the chamber.22 Company directors decided that a chamber of horrors was not desirable, but it appears to have opened anyway. Three months later they were still complaining, instructing Seff to remove the 'Bailey' and 'Kinsella' exhibits, and by then the Society for the Protection of Women and Children was also writing in.

In addition to the fixed displays, exhibition organisers put on a range of games, competitions and small daily events to encourage return visits and to add to visitor interest. They used newspapers, brochures and the new medium of radio to push their activities. Occasionally even the war, which cast such a heavy shadow over proceedings, could be harnessed to breathe a note of topicality into Playland. Much was made of the visit of the victorious crew of the cruiser HMS Achilles, and also of the U-boats: 'Death-Dealing Monsters of Hitler's Hate. See these weapons that our Navy has to face day after day while at sea. Showing at Playland', the Dominion's 'Exhibition Highlights' column advised its readers on 2 March 1940. The night before the newspaper had sponsored a 'Mystery Man' competition. Winners had to carry a copy of that day's Dominion and accost the mystery man with the words 'Hurrah for Playland!' They do not seem to have been very good at it. The mystery man entered Playland at 8 pm, but was not accosted for 45 minutes, when a woman at the Shark Pool forgot her lines. Fifty minutes later in the Crazy House a youth got the greeting right, but had forgotten his newspaper. Not until 11.10 did the first Dom-toting patron get her lines right.

By then the crowds must have been thinning out, for Playland closed at 11.00 each night. By that time anyone with the energy to burn would be at the exhibition cabaret where Manuel Raymond and his all-star radio orchestra had made it the 'Rendezvous of the Bright Young People'.23 Much of the exhibition publicity, however, seemed to assume that lower energy levels prevailed. During daylight hours the Exhibition Restaurant Cafeteria offered restorative morning and afternoon teas for 1s 6d and luncheon for 2s 6d. Its advertisement showed sophisticates enjoying its 3s dinner along with a glass of wine, but candles would have been superfluous page 94 that summer, since in keeping with the practice of the times, dinner was served only between 5 pm and 7.30 pm.24 For the humbler palate, cDustin the Pieman3 supplied less exotic fare. The very tired could treat themselves to ten minutes pampering at the Foot Comfort Station, opposite the cafeteria.

The newspapers reported big turnouts at Playland on all but the wettest days but said little about how individual patrons enjoyed their experiences. The happy faces in Anscombe's film and the absence of complaints to the newspapers strongly suggest that most did enjoy themselves.25 And the statistics, so loved by exhibition organisers, confirmed that the Laughing Sailor had every reason to live up to his name. Over the summer of 1939-40, a total of 2,870,995 people£200,000 more than the total number who visited the exhibition—spent their pounds and shillings in Playland, 1,687,958 of them patronising the eleven largest rides and 1,183,037 buying tickets for the other special attractions.

page 97

1 Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universalis, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs 1851-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p.20.

2 See New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company Ltd (NZCECL) Archives, box 1, file 19. In October 1937 the Amusement Committee recommended the following arrangements: Class A—at least one or two new major rides were required in addition to proven favourites. Class B—in Dunedin the company ran these smaller attractions. Class C—kiddies, devices, which should be erected by the company. Class D—leased stalls rented out on a weekly basis as done at Dunedin.

3 General Manager's Report, February 1939, NZCECL Archives, box 1, file 94.

4 See NZCECL Archives, box 3, file 120. E. H. Symonds from the British Fashions and Fabrics Bureau had sought half the gross takings (guaranteed to a minimum of £3000), but Anscombe's estimate of £2000 for fit-out scuttled the plan.

5 Lord Strabolgi to Secretary NZCECL, 10 August 1938, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 268.

6 G. Mitchell, memo 17 October 1938, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 270.

5 Lord Strabolgi to Secretary NZCECL, 10 August 1938, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 268.

7 Edmund Anscombe to Secretary NZCECL, 26 September 1938, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 270.

8 The terms for income sharing were for Double Grip to pay 25% of gross receipts over £80,000 and up to £150,000, rising on a sliding scale to 50% on gross receipts over £150,000. In addition, the exhibition company would get half the salvage proceeds, minus a deduction of £10,000 if gross proceeds did not exceed £150,000, a deduction of £7500 if they exceeded £150,000 but not £160,000 and a deduction of £5000 if they exceeded £160,000 but did not exceed £170,000.

9 Seff dismissed as impractical the NZCECL's suggestion of strapping patrons to their mats.

10 The amusement company earned £28,183 from the sale of space and collected another £11,702 from sublicensees in addition to the £78,057 that it received from its nine feature rides. Under its agreement with the exhibition company, it paid a further £9,485 12s 11d in addition to the 1938 deposit of £10,000. N2CECL Archives, box 11, file 463. Adult ticket prices were 1s 6d. (Cyclone, Is for repeat rides), 1s (Speedway, Dodgems, Ghost Train and Crazy House) and Is, children half price for the rest. It is difficult to assess the profitability of Playland. The official history gives costs of £114,692 to build and another £50,000 to buy the imported rides and materials, but Double Grip would have been able to dismantle and use the rides elsewhere; nevertheless, it cannot have been happy with the results.

11 Dominion, 8 November 1939, reported that the sailor had a ginger-headed girlfriend who could deputise for him if required.

12 N. B. Palethorpe, Official History of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, 1939-1940 (Wellington: New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company, 1940), p. 116.

13 Ibid., pp.116-17.

14 See the Dominion and the Evening Post, 2 March 1940. Lay alleged that a stallholders' association had been formed within five days of the exhibition opening to protest about the proliferation of stalls, many of which competed directly with each other. The official history (p.117) said that there were sixty sub-concessionaires.

15 H. E. Avery to F. Rumble, 21 March 1940, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 271.

16 Dominion, 6 November 1939.

17 Figures have not survived for the sub-concessions. A statement of gross receipts to 2 March 1940, however, gives an indication of their relative popularity. By that stage, Double Grip's nine star rides had taken in £50,405, with the Cyclone leading at £16,148. The sub-concessions totalled just £6,710. Within that large group, the Scoota Boats (sub-let) had pulled in £1,315, the Chinese Theatre £1,079, the Waxworks £734, the Shark Pool £640 and the St Moritz Skaters £554; low, but still respectable when compared with the company's high-profile Highland Fling (£212), Jack and Jill (£1,212) Whip (£1,405) and Octopus (£1,466).

18 Letter from 'Old Fashioned Girl', 27 November 1939, NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 270.

19 A list of items survives in NZCECL Archives, box 6, file 278: 1 Pyjama Girl Mystery, Australia; 2 Mrs Dean, baby-farmer; 3 Lionel Terry; 4 McMahon, Auckland; 5 Etienne Bosher, Petone Salvation Army; 6 Cooper, Newlands baby-farmer; 7 Tui, Johnsonville murderer; 8 Frederick Mouatt, killed and burned wife, Christchurch; 9 Kinsella, beheaded mate, Wanganui River; 10 Manly, killed Miss Gladys Cromarty, Wanganui; 11 Petone Police Station; 12 Diva Kala, beheaded Bill Barrett, Pahiatua; 13 Dennis Gunn; 14 F. W. Eggers, Runanga tragedy; 15 Talbot and McKay, Piha case; 16 James, killed woman and son, Ohiro Road; 17 S. G. Thorne, shot victim in bed, Auckland; 18 William Bayly, Ruawaro tragedy, Auckland; 19 Patience—current case; 20 Shark Arm Mystery, Australia. For an account of many of these crimes, see Sherwood Young, Guilty on the Gallows: Famous Capital Crimes of New Zealand (Wellington: Grantham House, 1998).

20 Kirk, Harding and Coles to NZCECL, NZCECL Archives, 21 November 1939, box 6, file 270.

21 General Manager NZCECL to Double Grip, 29 January 1940, box 6, file 278.

22 NZCECL Directors' Minutes, no.2, 4 September 1939, NZCECL Archives, box 10, file 456.

23 Dominion, 11 November 1939.

24 Ibid., 1 December 1939.

3 General Manager's Report, February 1939, NZCECL Archives, box 1, file 94.

25 In 1939 and early 1940 correspondents to the Dominion were more worried about a threatened tea shortage than any goings on down at Rongotai. During November and December 1939 the Dominion printed just two letters about the exhibition—one man complained about the company not replacing the season ticket that his wife had accidentally thrown in the fire, the other about the exhibition cabaret catering only for modern dancing.