Some years ago my partner Rob and I spent an enjoyable day at Sydney’s harbourside Luna Park. It was only enjoyable because I refused to venture onto any ride liable to make me sick. An unfortunate previous experience on the Rotor Ride had made me wary. For the uninitiated, the Rotor is a giant barrel. It spins so fast that when the bottom falls away, pale faced riders are stuck to the sides by centrifugal force. OMG!!
I felt a stab of envy that day when Rob told me that, as a child in the nineteen fifties, he was given rolls of free tickets for all the rides and sideshows. His maternal great- uncle, David Atkins, had brought Luna Park to Sydney from Adelaide in 1935.
In 2010, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Steve Meacham wrote a piece celebrating Luna Park’s 75th birthday. After interviewing the Park’s archivist Anne Doughty, Meachem commented on the move to Sydney;
Sadly, we owe our good fortune to those wowsers in Adelaide who so objected to showman David Atkins’ attempts to expand Luna Park in Glenelg that he switched his attention to Sydney. Atkins, who died of a heart attack in 1957, is the forgotten hero of Luna Park, according to Doughty.
But let’s go back to when Luna Park began operations at Glenelg. In the photo below, the park is being laid out.
OPENING DAY IN ADELAIDE!
A report in the NEWS (Adelaide) September 13 1930;
Mr David Atkins (Managing Director) is most optimistic with regard to the success of Luna Park, which will be opened at Glenelg on Wednesday, October 8. He stated that a large sum of money had been expended on the plant.
Attractions included; the big dipper, a giant ferris wheel, river caves, a scenic railway, and a ‘goofy’ house’ where perceptions were warped to confuse and amuse patrons . There was also a Noah’s Ark. I suspect Rob’s great uncle was employing a little poetic license when he stated that it was, ‘designed from the original ark, and has all the animals complete! ‘
During those early years it was Rob’s mother Jean and her sister Lila who received free tickets. Jean was just six years old when the Park opened, but she remembers her visits with great joy.
According to Anne Doughty, David Atkins was the visionary among the directors. Ted (Hoppy) Hopkins was the engineer and draughtsman.
A tragic incident occurred at the park early on New Years Day 1932 when a woman plunged to her death from the Big Dipper. An inquest found that she had deliberately unfastened her seat restraint before falling. It was David Atkins who had the dreadful task of removing the fatally injured woman from beneath the ride before the ambulance arrived. A letter written to the woman’s friend the previous year was produced at the coroner’s inquest . It revealed that she had been very unhappy in her marriage, and that the most likely scenario was that she had committed suicide.
In 1934, after attempts to expand the Park were unsuccessful, the company went into voluntary liquidation. David Atkins and his fellow directors subsequently purchased all the equipment at auction and transported it to Sydney. After a lengthy search for a suitable ‘home’, Luna Park was reassembled on a five acre site beside the harbour at Lavender Bay. Previously the area had been used for workshops, during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The grand opening was held in September 1935. A letter to the newspaper a few weeks later revealed that local residents were feeling the impact; ‘Each night there are upwards of two dozen peanut and hot-dog merchants between Milson’s Point station and Luna Park. A cornet player and a crooner roam between the two places. Pedestrians had to move off the footpath in order not to disturb a man with a jumping doll….’
The multi-talented Hopkins had drawn up the Park’s layout, and he built many new rides in the years that followed. However, Doughty explained that it was David Atkins who knew how to draw a crowd. He ensured that most youngsters went home with a prize; a guarantee that they would be pleading with their parents for another visit. Ted Hopkins once paid tribute to David’s generous spirit, saying; “One time a child, who came from a very poor family, stole something. I saw David take money out of his pocket and say to the child, “Don’t steal, come and ask for it. Now here’s a bunch of tickets for the rides, and there’s some money.” * (see footnote)
LAUGHTER…… AND TEARS!
People from all walks of life worked part-time at the Park. In 1946 an employee of the Supreme Court told an interviewer that he had signed up in 1935, and had been in attendance on opening day. He spoke of the pleasure his long-term, second job provided; ‘I see so much that is sordid and tragic in the courts everyday that I look forward to seeing people happy and enjoying themselves. The excitement also gets me.’
‘LUNA PARK – JUST FOR FUN’ became a well known advertising slogan in Sydney, but sometimes that slogan had a hollow ring. Disaster was narrowly averted on April 13, 1947 when one of the park’s great towers caught fire. It was a Saturday night and 10,000 patrons were enjoying the attractions. Miraculously, David Atkins was the only casualty. He gashed both hands when he desperately smashed the glass cover of the fire alarm. After David Atkins died suddenly in 1957, engineer Ted Hopkins continued as manager until 1969.
There was another, far more serious fire at Luna Park on the night of June 9 1979. It broke out in the Ghost Train, one of the original rides brought from Glenelg. Seven people died, including six children. The park was immediately closed and subsequently much of the equipment was demolished. It did not reopen until 1982.
Despite changes of management and controversy over development applications since the re-opening, Luna Park operates on the site to this day. It provides passengers on Sydney’s ferries with a magical sight, especially at night.
It has become such an icon that it has featured in Sydney’s annual Vivid Festival, with images projected onto the shells of the Opera House. My word, great uncle David would have enjoyed that.
Luna Park has also inspired a unique set of chess pieces. Rob and I saw the chess set on display at the Museum of Sydney this year, in an exhibition of old toys. Note the dreaded Rotor Ride in the top, right hand corner.
* This quote is from a delightful book by David’s niece Lorraine Masters, published in 2010. It is called Just for Fun; At the Bay, Luna Park Glenelg 1930-1935. You can still buy copies at Glenelg Beach.