In 2005, Melbourne’s Moomba Festival became half a century old. Since its establishment in 1955, the festival has become something of an institution, unfolding in the city’s parks, along its streets and on the waters of its YarraRiver. The festival is as familiar to post-war Melbourne as the AFL and the Melbourne Cup have been for more than a century. Moomba has touched the lives of millions; it has had hundreds of administrators, tens of thousands of performers and legions of spectators. It is the event at which numerous teenagers have stolen their first kiss, at which the streets have come alive with colour and fanfare, and at which fireworks have lit up the night sky.
Moomba provides something for everyone and has at times had up to 200 different events spread over 11 days, and most of them free. From the flower and cat shows of the early years to the world music of more recent years, from waterskiing to parades of decorated trams, and from street theatre to world-class opera, Moomba has sought to respond to the times and to engage a diverse audience in a popular community festival. It is of little surprise that it has been subject to criticism for its populism. But Moomba’s success can be best measured by the great numbers of supporters who come to the city annually to participate in the entertainment.
Moomba is marked by both continuity and change. It has reinvented itself through the years to remain relevant and vibrant to festival-goers, who, since the mid-1980s at least, have had no shortage of events to choose from. With its changing festival directors, administration and funding; its backdrop of shifting social, cultural and political environments; and the inevitable criticisms to which such populist events are subject, Moomba necessarily has a rich and complex history. The story of Moomba is in effect a composite of many stories. But there are some continuities that form a core to the past of this outdoor festival. These relate primarily to place and the nature of the events that have occurred, and still do, in those places.
For many festival-goers the most memorable experience is the grand parade down Swanston Street, which has served historically as the defining event of Moomba. At its height from the 1950s until the 1970s, it drew hundreds of thousands of people to central Melbourne. In the early years these pageants embodied the glitz and high times of the 1950s, livening up what was a lifeless city centre. Horse- and tractor-drawn floats sometimes swan shaped or festooned in flowers created an incongruous procession against the grey, Victorian facades of Swanston Street. Women with wooden perambulators pushed their way through crowds to catch a glimpse of the scores of clowns or of Blinko the Bunyip. Men in hats held babies in bonnets to watch a procession that would include a float of a colossal Merino sheep made of plastic blooms or gold prospectors celebrating the founding industries of Victoria’s economy. A clown on towering stilts, Alexander Jurman, was a regular in the early years of Moomba, as were the flamboyant floats of Myer Emporium and the Gas & Fuel Corporation.
The crowning of Moomba royals a festival tradition from 1955 until 1998 and the months of devoted float preparation culminated in a visual feast seen by thousands on the streets and on television. Moomba has always been connected to, and in some ways a product of, television in Australia, which was introduced in 1956, the year the Olympics were held in Melbourne. The selection of Moomba sovereigns and the themes of many floats were often determined by popular television shows. The first parade to be televised was that of 1957.
AlexandraGardens, on the south side of the YarraRiver, has long hosted a key element of Moomba. It is here that the carnival has traditionally showcased its Ferris wheel, gaping-mouthed clown heads, fluffy toys and vertiginous thrill rides. Virtually from Moomba’s inception until 2002 the Wittingslow family ran the carnival. Close to AlexandraGardens, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in King’s Domain has staged several Moomba music concerts. TreasuryGardens, too, has been home to Moomba events, most notably the Herald Outdoor Art Show, established as an independent event in 1953, and the Garden Party, which took place between 2000 and 2002.
If Swanston Street and the inner-city parks are seminal places in the history of Moomba, so too is the Yarra. As Melbourne has come to appreciate this central artery, Moomba has embraced the Yarra and the new urban developments that flank it. Historically much neglected and maligned, the muddy river that runs through the city’s heart has been the stage for many sporting feats and aquatic displays; for example, the Moomba Showboat, the Dragon Boat Races, the Moomba Masters and the Birdman Rally.
One of the largest and longest-running festivals in Australia, Moomba has survived in spite of its critics, and it commands a strong place in the social history of the city. It often unflatteringly reminds us of where we have come from and what we have become, but that too is part of its charm. For generations it has been an event where Melburnians celebrate their sometimes-conflicting cultural identities, but to embrace Moomba is to affirm its inclusive philosophy.
While at its inception it was a commercially driven festival, Moomba has always sought community involvement. In early festivals post-war migrants typically displayed their ethnicity through traditional costume and performance, and in the mid-1960s, with a turn towards a more arts-oriented program, Aboriginal, Jewish, Italian and Latvian arts featured prominently. Multiculturalism has been widely accepted since the early 1990s, and from this period particularly cultural diversity has been well represented in Moomba. In accordance with council’s City Plan objectives, this unique community festival is a celebration of identity, culture and place.
Historical Milestones 1951 Australia celebrates 50 years of federation with a parade and the staging of the theatre production An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark.
1952 Melbourne holds its final Labour Day procession.
1954 Reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II visits Melbourne for the first time, and crowds gather in the city centre to witness the royal spectacle. Melbourne City Council and City Development Association see an opportunity to realise a long-held vision; they propose an annual festival for the people.
1955 The first Moomba Festival is held in March 1955, with Beverley Stewart leading the parade as Queen of Moomba.
1956 Television is introduced into Australian homes and the following year the parade is broadcast, beginning Moomba’s long relationship with television.
1961 The Moomba Masters waterskiing event is introduced onto the YarraRiver.
1963 Queen Elizabeth II visits Australia on her royal tour. The Moomba Festival is moved from 11 March to 25 February to coincide with her visit, and it is extended from 11 to 15 days.
1967 English actor Robert Morley becomes the first King of Moomba.
1972 John Farnham is crowned King of Moomba, and the Moomba Showboat is launched. Lesley Clucas, a 21-year-old student, falls off the RMIT float and is killed.
1976 The first Birdman Rally is held.
1977 Mickey Mouse is the controversial choice for King of Moomba; a pie is thrown in his face during the parade. ABBA plays to Moomba crowds at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and is given a civic reception at the MelbourneTown Hall.
1978 Bert Newton becomes the first Melbourne-born King of Moomba.
1981 As part of the Moomba program, legendary rock band AC/DC plays at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
1982 A network of independent artists announces plans for a weeklong Fringe Festival. Supported by Moomba, the first Fringe Festival coincides with Moomba the following year.
1985 Trade unions reclaim their heritage, holding a Labour Day concert in the Melbourne Concert Hall and marching with banners in the Moomba parade.
1986 Melbourne International Arts Festival is established, initially named Spoleto Festival.
1987 Paul McNamee is crowned the last King of Moomba and Marita Jones the last Queen.
1996 The Australian Formula One Grand Prix is held for the first year in Albert Park.
1998 Denise Drysdale is crowned the last Moomba Monarch.
1999 Controversy reigns as Zig and Zag are about to be crowned Moomba Monarchs. The monarch system ends and the festival is declared a republic.
2000 Tram parades takes place.
2003 Moomba is renamed Moomba Waterfest and the Young Ambassador title is awarded for the first time.