Excerpt from The History of Moomba 1955-2005

This is the Prologue of the book Moomba: A Festival for the People. This is now available to download here.

The first Myer float.


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.

the tram parade

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.

A Brief History of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 1982-2003

A Brief History of the Melbourne Fringe: (1)

Fringe Festival

The Melbourne Fringe Network was established in 1982 after the demise of the legendary Pram Factory in Carlton. The Pram Factory was the home of the Australian Performing Group which was a democratically run theatrical collective. The group was at its pinnacle during the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll era of Carlton and revived a dreary Australian theatre scene:

The collective created a theatre in opposition to the script-based, director-dominated conservative norm. It was up-close, non-naturalistic and centred on the presence and skill of the performer. The shows were raw, rough, vernacular, iconoclastic, experimental, tendentious, comical, musical, and from time to time, magical. (2)

When the theatre collective concluded, artists returning from the Adelaide Fringe Festival (established in the early 1970s) decided that Melbourne needed its very own Fringe Festival. It was noticed that many of the performers at the Adelaide Fringe Festival were in fact from Melbourne so Melbourne did have the talent to accommodate such an event.

Fringe Festival


A coalition of independent artists announced plans for the week long Fringe Festival in 1983 to coincide with the Moomba Festival. This inaugural festival included one hundred and twenty artists working in a broad range of artistic expressions in twenty two locations around Melbourne. Although the festival had very little funding, Fringe offered support in the form of shared resources, venues, contacts, and bookings.

In 1984 Melbourne held the first of three Spoleto Festivals and Melbourne Fringe became the Melbourne Piccolo Spoleto Fringe Festival. Upon the demise of Spoleto and the creation of the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (1986) the festival reverted to its previous name.

Generally speaking the festival has remained true to its mission. As well as presenting an innovative program of underrepresented performing arts, music, film and writing, a number of Fringe-produced signature events have been held at various times. The Festival’s opening street parade and party in Brunswick Street became a significant event on the Melbourne cultural calendar drawing audiences of more than one hundred thousand people. And Not the Archibald Prize, Fringe Furniture, New Short Works and the Women’s Season developed a reputation for presenting experimental art in an accessible and informal way. Any many new creative voices have emerged through these events.


In the early 1990s the Melbourne Fringe Festival altered its calendar so that it only briefly overlapped with the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. The Fringe Festival has steadily grown and many events have come and gone as the Festival has matured. The festival takes place in venues across the inner city and much of the performance program is now centred in North Melbourne Town Hall, the Store Room, Trades Hall, and Chapel off Chapel. The Melbourne Fringe has been consistently presenting more than two hundred shows every year for twenty years.

Fringe Fashion

Fringe Fashion had a brief history from 1995 until 2001 and became one of the most popular segments of the Festival. It started as a part production and part exhibition and was originally called Ninety Percent Junk. It consisted of wearable garbage and recycled objects and was held at the Lounge nightclub in Swanston Street, Melbourne. Fringe Fashion presented experimental clothes which challenged the boundaries of what was wearable and what was purely art. It became a renowned industry event with participation from all over Australia. In 2000, there were one hundred and twenty designers from across the country.

Fringe Furniture

Fringe Furniture was conceived in 1984 by artist Bruce Filley. Unlike its Melbourne International Festival of the Arts rival, Fringe Furniture is a non-curated event. With the focus on art rather than function it has given established and experimental artist an opportunity to display innovative works. From boudoir to bathroom, lighting to lounge chairs; many types of furniture characterise original use of materials, techniques and processes. Throughout its eighteen year history, Fringe Furniture has become one of the Festival’s most noteworthy events. Fringe Furniture exhibitors include Rivet’s David Bourke, Marc Pascal, Chris Connel and Malte Wagenfield.

Parade/ Street Party

The (in)famous Melbourne Fringe festival parade ended in 2001 and was a feast of innovation and vitality. Think belly dancing, singing dogs, and art on sticks, tight fitting bodysuits and underpants. Events such as Le Tour de Fringe and the Waiters Race were favourites. Buskers, artists, street performers and a bevy of food and art stalls came together with thousands of people in Fitzroys most anticipated annual event. The Parade carried significance in uniting a whole community, especially memorable in 1993 when Fringe dancer and artist Bruce Fentham made his final appearance before dying of AIDS. Mentioning this day of arty celebration is generally a cue for someone in Fitzroy to say:

Oh, it’s really going downhill nowadays. I remember in 1989 when there were no dickheads from the suburbs there, it was great.


Fringe performance encompasses a variety of art forms including music, film, video, comedy, theatre, cabaret, dance and spoken word (and sometimes genres in between). The festival has spurred many new artists that include Tubby Justice (at Mietta’s) and Tiddas who went on to become Melbourne’s most sought after women’s acoustic trio (both showcased 1988). Others artists include Jean Kittson, Barrie Kosky, the Doug Anthony Allstars, Sue Ingleton and the Chamber Made Opera. In 1991, Fringe celebrated forty eight events and four hundred and thirty four performances. In the same year it ran one hundred and forty one titles within twenty four categories in the then annual film and video event.

The Poetry Cup was another noteworthy event and involved poets on a local, national and international level. Performances were held everywhere; even on trams (No.11). ‘Not the Premier’s Literary Awards’ and ‘Not the Spring Racing Carnival Fashion Parade’ also provided much misbehaviour.

New Short Works

New Short Works emerged in 1988 with its first showing at the Universal Theatre. The concept was to allow actors, movement artists and comedians the opportunity to perform short pieces (usually ten to twenty minutes long). Artists also premiered works-in-progress and extracts from longer works.

This event became a showcase for both new and established performers in many fields such as mime, shadow puppetry, ‘high energy funksters’, hot jazz and belly dancers. In 1988 Fringe hosted the Students New Short Works Season from the Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama. In 1991 the New Short Works Season was presented at Theatreworks in St Kilda and explored themes of love, children’s matinees, and the joy of flight. Its fifth and final season ran at the Grant Street Theatre in 1992.

Visual Art

Visual Art has been a constant of the Melbourne Fringe Festival since its inception. Throughout the 80s and 90s art exhibitions focused on the suburb of Fitzroy but in 1995 the visual arts hub shifted to St Kilda (in line with the current arts practices). Exhibitions and shows range from ‘Global Corporation’ themed window displays by schoolchildren in Brunswick St (1989) to an exhibition of memorabilia from 70s and 80s political causes (1990). There have been paintings of waitresses depicted as Bottecelli’s Venus rising from the Fitzroy baths (1993), photographs showing international coffee bars (1995), and images of women with their favourite bras (1999). Fringe hosts a yearly prize for the best Visual Art piece in the festival which was previously called Not the Archibald Prize.

Women’s Season

The Fringe Women’s Season began in 1986 under the umbrella of the Spoleto Fringe Festival. It displayed women’s work in theatre, comedy and performance. This was due to traditional male domination in these arts. The season produced original and provocative works which questioned and challenged women’s role in both the arts and within the broader culture and society. In 1994, the Women’s Season disbanded and became subsumed within the general Fringe events.

This Fringe Womens season produced some fabulous shows throughout its nine year history. These ranged from one hundred and eleven women singing at the Fringe street parade in 1991 to Sue Ann-Post and Lynda Gibson performing stand-up comedy as Toothless Bitches (1993). Rachel Griffiths also performed in a show about Barbie breaking up with Ken Barbie Gets Hip. (1991)

(1) Tim Robertson The Pram Factory: The Australian Performing Group Recollected, MUP, Melbourne, 2001
(2) Many thanks for Fringe Vintage staff (2002) for their previous historical research that has been incorporated within this narrative.

2003 Dan Mitchell
2002 Vanessa Pigrum
2001 Vanessa Pigrum
2000 Virginia Hyam
1999 Virginia Hyam
1998 Virginia Hyam
1997 Virginia Hyam
1996 Virginia Hyam
1995 Peter Chellew
1994 Charlotte Yates
1993 Charlotte Yates
1992 Palz Vaughan
1991 Palz Vaughan
1990 Palz Vaughan
1989 Palz Vaughan
1988 Palz Vaughan
1987 Margaret Vandaleur
1986 Margaret Vandaleur
1985 Angela Burke
1984 Angela Burke
1983 Angela Burke
1982 Arpad Mihaly

Fringe Alumni

Rosie Weiss
Sally Morgan
Ponch Hawkes

Barry Kosky
Rachel Griffiths
Sue Ingleton

Chamber Made Opera

Jane Campion
Doug Anthony All-Stars
Jean Kittson
Sue Ann Post
Judith Lucy
Tracy Bartram
Rachel Berger
Linda Gibson
Ross Daniels
Rod Quantock
Frank Woodley
Colin Lane
Raymond J Bartholomew
Trevor Marmalade