Old moon face shining on through joy and tragedy
october 4th 2010, Steve Meacham, Sydney Morning Herald
Show time ... Ashley Taylor, the resident artist at Luna Park since 2003, with one of his colourful works. Photo: Ben Rushton
Ashley Taylor may have the most unusual artist-in-residence position in Australia and he certainly has the worst studio.
His work colleagues call it ''Ashley's cave''. And it is sandwiched between a cliff- face, a set of 1930s concrete stairs, and a roped tarpaulin to protect his paintings from the constant water drips.
Yet from this inauspicious cavern, Taylor cheerfully perpetuates the larrikin image of Sydney's third man-made ''icon'', Luna Park.
Luna Park, which celebrates its 75th anniversary today, is, literally, the perpetually cheerful ''face of Sydney''.
Taylor has worked here since 2003, one of a long series of artists associated with Luna Park since it opened in 1935, including Arthur Barton, Martin Sharp, Peter Kingston, Richard Liney and Garry Shead.
Every day, Taylor's creative energy is spent painting the fat jolly ladies, pasty-faced clowns and red-coated attendants who populate Australia's most celebrated and controversial fun park.
Anne Doughty, the park's archivist and tour guide, accepts Luna Park has defied the odds.
''One of the reasons it has survived so long is its location on the harbour, plus the charm of its key buildings - Coney Island and the Crystal Palace. There is something about the lights at night, the reflections on the water, the view across the harbour through the bridge to the Opera House.
''And that face. It has become the face of Sydney. You can see it constantly used in newspaper cartoons, expressing collective joy or sorrow.''
Familiar image ... Luna Park, as it was in 1935 when it first opened.
There was certainly sorrow on Cracker Night, June 9, 1979 when fire consumed the Ghost Train, killing seven people: John Godson and his two boys, Damien and Craig, plus four Waverley College students.
That tragedy was the nadir of the park's history, which has endured lawsuits, changes of ownership, government regulation, openings, closings and council objections.
But last year, the legal shadows that had hung over Luna Park since the decision was taken to reopen it over a decade ago were finally removed. The stoush was a typically Sydney one.
Look at old photos of Luna Park and you see it surrounded by modest homes. Even if neighbours had been disturbed by the screams of enjoyment coming from the park, it wasn't done to complain.
But by the 1990s, it had been hemmed in by expensive high rise and harbourside apartments. And the owners, understandably, had become used to silence during the years the park had been closed.
As architect Sam Marshall points out in his book, Luna Park: Just For Fun, our Luna Park wasn't the first in the world (Coney Island, New York), or even the first in Australia (St Kilda, Melbourne). Sadly, we owe our good fortune to those wowsers in Adelaide who so objected to showman David Atkins's attempts to expand the next 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. ''Ted ''Hoppy'' Hopkins gets mentioned a lot because people remember him,'' she says. ''But Atkins was the visionary. Hoppy was the engineer.
''Atkins knew how to attract a crowd … It was David Atkins who made sure most children went home with a prize, and David Atkins who kept in touch with what was going on in other amusement parks around the world.''
And Hopkins was not only an electrical and mechanical engineer, but a draughtsman who drew up the layout of the park and built many of the changing sequence of rides.
''But this place wouldn't be here if Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston hadn't been proactive,'' says Doughty. ''They were the ones who highlighted the heritage importance of the park.''
Back in 1973, Sharp, Kingston, Liney and Shead had been commissioned to bring a Pop Art makeover to the park. What they achieved is legendary, not just a renovation but a transformation. And that made Sharp and Kingston ideally placed in 1980, after the fire, to contribute to the ''Save Luna Park'' campaign, along with such luminaries as Jack Mundey, Leo Schofield and the late Harry Seidler (who later became a trenchant critic of what Luna Park has become).
Sharp and Kingston, too, have become ferocious critics over the years. ''I really think Luna Park died on June 9, 1979, and that's where I stand. I've given my advice, but it has never really been taken,'' says Sharp.
Kingston's main objection is that Luna Park has been reincarnated as a multi-purpose entertainment complex, hosting fashion shows, dance parties and business conventions.
The Luna Park Sydney managing director, Peter Hearne, says: ''We don't apologise for having a wide range of entertainment events. They used to have rock bands, fashion parades and Tiny Tim performing here before, it's just they didn't have a purpose-built venue.''
Hearne says Luna Park's profits have risen each year. As for the future, the park has development approval for a cinema complex and a restaurant.
Marshall says the present operators should be congratulated for reinventing Luna Park while preserving its most important assets: its heritage buildings and rides.
''Even if you don't go to Luna Park, it's just fabulous looking at that wonderful foil of fun and merriment on one side of the Harbour Bridge to the serious Opera House on the other,'' says Marshall.
Luna Park Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
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