remembering cloudland

It's hard to imagine a non-existent building anywhere in the world that has embedded itself in the a city's psyche like that of Cloudland. Yet 36 years (on Nov 7) after it was demolished, the majestic ballroom and people's palace on the hill, where some 3 generations of Brisbane-ites fell in love it is still remembered and missed - even, in some cases by those who never actually laid eyes on it.

Yet even before it came into being, Cloudland, Brisbane's most iconic building was the stuff of dreams. Conjured up originally as Luna Park by a man who dreamed big and turned fantasy into reality, in its hey-day it was the place on the hill with the towering arched entrance where three generations of Brisbane folk went to dance, love and dream.

Then thirty-six years ago, the dream came to an abrupt end when Cloudland was demolished in the middle of the night and on the anniversary of that night we look back at the history of the ballroom that remains a treasured memory.

Luna Park 1940-1941

Poster of Brisbane's Luna Park

Luna Park

In a quirk of bad timing that saw it doomed before it had been fully built, World War II broke out just as Brisbane's long-awaited version of Luna Park finally opened atop Bowen Hills in August 1940. Set on a sprawling five acres of what was the Cowlishaw estate and neighboured by grand Victorian villas and Spanish Mission churches, Luna Park had been in the planning since the mid 1930s, the work of global amusement park and funfair mogul T.H. Eslick, who was the creator of Sydney's White City and of Melbourne's Luna Park in 1912.

At Luna Park's centrepiece was Eslick's pride and joy, a grand state of the art ballroom Cloudland, touted as the 'best in the southern hemisphere' with majestic 18m high parabolic entrance that could be seen for miles around, a wooden dance floor mounted on coiled springs and an open air two car funicular railway that transported visitors 330ft up the steep hillside to the rear entrance.

Having attracted mostly southern investors keen to be part of a replica Melbourne Luna Park advertised as the 'Most Modern Amusement Park in Australia', money was raised and a thousand pigeons released to celebrate when the first clod of turf was turned over by the Deputy Governor in March 1939. Aside from the stunning ballroom, whose architect was Brisbane Russian (also creator of Bardon's iconic Fairy House), other touted and eagerly anticipated attractions included Australia's first electric racecourse, the Big Dipper and the Alpine Scenic Railway.

Cloudland arch surrounded by bush on Bowen Hills

From the start it wasn't just the impending world war that cast a pall on the project, with construction marred by a fire in the half-built ballroom, union in-fighting, an assault on a guard with shots fired at the never-caught assailant and part of the scenic railway being destroyed by strong winds.

And so it was that thirteen months after its original planned opening, T. H. Eslick opened the Cloudland Ballroom in a characteristic razzle dazzle affair: the twinkling lights of the arch were lit up to be seen from all around Brisbane as they would be for the next 42 years and 100 invited couples took to the floor to the tune of Billy Romaine's orchestra.

People dancing inside Cloudland's ballroom with orchestra on stage

But, under a darkening cloud of war the crowds failed to come despite Eslick pulling every trick out of the hat – vaudeville acts, dancing classes and zany ads – investors lost their money, the sideshow rides including the Big Dipper never opened and, less than six months after it opened, in January 1941, it closed. And with its closure came the mysterious disappearance of T H Eslick, who, before it was put up for auction in August 1941, resigned as director and was never seen again.

Wartime Cloudland 1942–1945

With Australia itself at war by December 1941, Brisbane the frontline of the Asia Pacific operation and US troops arriving in their droves, the now semi-abandoned fairground and ballroom atop a hill was commandeered by the military along with nearby Cintra House. For three years its springy dance floor was trampled by heavy boots and occupied by army cots and desks of soldiers on a mission before it was once again left vacant at the end of the war.

Cloudland Ballroom 1947–1982

Empy ballroom inside Cloundland in 1960

After the war ended the idea of resurrecting the fun park was buried forever as Luna Park was bought by two sisters Mya Winters and Francis Roach in 1947 and renamed Cloudland Ballroom. The funicular railway was back in operation and this time the crowds, looking for romance and positivity after the war, embraced this dreamy ballroom in the sky, with its domed skylights, chandeliers, private alcoves, heavy curtains, luxury upholstered seating and the rickety open air cable car that took them up there.

Couple dancing in competition inside Cloudland

Ballroom dancing championships, debutante balls and state receptions were held and couples fell in love in what quickly became Brisbane's premier entertainment centre, while Hollywood royalty Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh made a guest appearance in 1948 at the debutante's ball for the Royal Society of St George. More royalty was to follow with a reception for Princess Alexandra at Cloudland in 1959 and in later years Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip at a state reception for her silver jubilee in 1977.

Couple dancing rock and roll on stage inside Cloudland's Ballroom in 1950's

When not being the stuff of dreams the ballroom saw a generation of school and university students swot it out at wall to wall desks at exam time under the skydome.

In 1958 Buddy Holly performed at Cloudland on Feb 3 during his one and only Australian tour, Johnny O'Keefe took to the stage in the late 1950s and Saturday nights local bands kept the crowds swinging. In the early 1960s music entrepreneur Ivan Dayman turned Cloudland into a mega live music venue, the in-place to be under the twirling mirror ball on a Saturday night with regular turns by Aussie icons such as The Blue Jays, Normie Rowe and Ronnie Burns.

Pillat inside Cloudland's original ballroom in Brisbane's Bowen hills

In 1967 the funicular railway was replaced by a car park and by the seventies the ball dresses and hoop skirts were replaced by flairs and platform shoes. Then, along with resident bands The Sounds Of Seven, The Highmarks and The Seasons of the Witch, a wave of iconic Aussie and international bands took to the Cloudland stage: Cold Chisel, The Sports, The Saints, Midnight Oil, The Cure and Ian Dury and the Blockheads and, in 1981, one of the last great bands to appear live at the aging ballroom was Madness.

People dancing in Cloundland's Ballroom in the 1970's

From 1979 to 1982 the popular Cloudland markets drew thousands on weekend mornings while its future as a dance and entertainment venue became a source of debate, the building having been neglected and let become rundown.

RIP Nov 7 1982

Cloudland in ruins reduced to a pile of rubble in 1982

In 1982 Cloudland, which was by then listed by the National Trust, closed its doors for what was to be the last time. It had been bought by a developer who sought the redevelop the site around it for apartment blocks and despite calls for its preservation, it was shockingly demolished without warning under cover of darkness on November 7 1982.

A security guard on duty at the time, Greg Wilson recalls being approached out of the blue on his shift around 11pm and told the building was about to come down and to run in and salvage anything he wanted; shocked, he raced in and grabbed the clock above the dance floor (the clock remains locked in time at a couple of minutes past eleven). In less than an hour the whole of Cloudland, a building which contained the memories of forty-two years and three generations of Brisbane residents, was smashed to smithereens by notorious midnight wreckers the Deen Brothers in what has been likened to an act of extreme violence .

On the morning of November 7 Brisbane awoke to the news that its most iconic building was no more and by 10am the roads to the top of the hill that had only recently been the well-worn route to a night of guaranteed fun ,were packed with stunned onlookers and angry protesters. Nobody could quite believe that their beloved ballroom had gone and that never again would they look up and see the blue lit arch as a feature of the Brisbane skyline at night and there was a huge outpouring of anger and grief that resonated for a long time afterwards.

Today the only reminder that once there stood a grand ballroom called Cloudland on the hill is a little memorial arch that is tucked away in a tiny overgrown clearing below some tennis courts off Cowlishaw St. Integrated in the sculpture are pictures of Cloudland and keeping the memories alive on the floor in the middle are engraved stories of nights at Brisbane's much loved ballroom in the sky. R.I.P.

Pics courtesy of State Libray of Qld, Cloudland.com.au and National Library. Memorial Arch courtesy Must Do Brisbane.com

Cloudland Memorial Arch

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