Obituary: Melbourne Festival Hall, an incalculable cultural loss for Australia

Image: Festival Hall

It’s 11pm on the evening of May 20, 1964 and Festival Hall is packed to the gunwales.

The star-studded audience has paid upwards of 60 shillings a seat, making this the most expensive concert in Australian history and the high-water mark for ticket prices for the next decade.

Australia’s highest rated TV show, In Melbourne Tonight has aired a repeat episode this evening because host Graham Kennedy is taking his first night off in seven years to see Judy Garland live.

The Hollywood legend has arrived over an hour late and is moody, rambling and erratic.

She seems drunk.

The audience steadily begin to jeer and heckle; a few numbers into the second act, Judy finishes the showstopper “By Myself”, puts down her mic and runs off stage.

Judy and her gay lover Mark Herron are bundled out the stage door and into a car waiting on Rosslyn Street.

They’re chased across the city by reporters on scooters and rushed upstairs to the Presidential suite of the Southern Cross Hotel.

Housekeeping will later find its bathroom awash in empty bottles of vodka.

Festival Hall erupts in angry confusion at the announcement Judy will not return.

Backstage, financier Keith Wong berates famed producer Harry M. Miller for letting Judy go on in the first place.

Image: The Judy Room
A Melbourne newspaper ad for Judy Garland Live at Festival Hall

The scandal is a global media storm and Judy is so devastated she attempts suicide.

The concert comes to mark the beginning of the decline of her career.

Melbourne’s Festival Hall has seen countless such iconic moments in its long history, a history now at risk as the 64-year-old venue is sold to the global megachurch Hillsong.

Driving by the Dudley Street venue on the edge of West Melbourne, you’d be forgiven for thinking Festival Hall is an abandoned warehouse.

First built in 1915 as a wrestling arena, the 5,445-seater was the largest multi-purpose, indoor venue in Melbourne until the opening of the Melbourne Park arenas in 1988.

The current building (the original was destroyed by fire in 1955) was at the heart of Australia’s international pop-cultural birth.

Despite its atrocious acoustics and uncomfortable seating, for 30 years Festival Hall helped cement Australia as a serious, profitable destination for global tours by major artists.

Less than a month after Judy Garland, The Beatles played the Hall to screaming, sell-out crowds; you can still get a bootleg of the radio broadcast on vinyl.

As the 60’s swung on, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and Bill Haley would join Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield as Festival Hall alumni.

In the 70’s it was known as the home of rock’n’roll, in the 80’s and 90’s it was the home of metal.

Pick a year or a decade and Festival Hall has housed a bushel of events revered as iconic by an astonishing diversity of musical genres and their audiences.

Inexplicably, it’s owners, Stadiums Pty Ltd, and the Wren family, never gave it the overhaul it desperately needed to remain competitive in a 21st century market.

Their past behaviour makes it clear that for decades the owners assumed when Festival Hall finally lost its profitability as a venue, the large, CBD-adjacent building could go on the property market.

An attempt to do just that in 2018 saw the Hall given heritage status and it seems to be this decision that has finally cooked its goose.

Inside, Festival Hall is every bit as drab and unbecoming as its exterior.

It’s bum numbing timber benches and odd layout were reset (if not actually improved) in the 80’s and there have been upgrades to audio equipment, air conditioning and the odd new coats of paint.

There’s also never been a “good seat” or a sound “sweet spot” at Festival Hall.

As Melbourne became home to world class venues like Rod Laver Arena, the grubby, old “House of Stoush” became desperately in need of a redesign and refurbishment that never materialised.

Image: The Music
An artists impression from the Hillsong promotional video announcing the purchase of Festival Hall’s refurbished interior.

Despite its challenges, Festival Hall remained popular with producers who needed a venue between Hamer Hall’s 2,466 seats and Margaret Court Arena’s 7,500 seats.

Decades past its prime, the Hall was still home to a strong roster of annual events and in the last 10 years has been headlined by the likes of Florence + the Machine, Ed Sheeran, Lorde, Lily Allen and Lauryn Hill.

A bid by an unnamed entertainment organisation to upgrade the site and keep it as a major venue was scuppered in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Church of Hillsong has reportedly paid almost $24 million for the site and will spend more on a refurbishment that will significantly reduce the halls capacity and add a six-story tower to its eastern end.

The social media response from Melbournian’s has been one of predictable outrage.

The unique and historic, cultural importance of Festival Hall should have marked it for preservation decades ago.

The right upgrades could have rendered it an unassailable institution of Melbourne’s night life and carried it’s 105-year-old legend on to future generations.

By allowing this sale to progress, the Victorian State Government, the family Wren and Hillsong have stripped Australian’s of an irreplaceable cultural artefact.

Some small consolation lies in the fact that Melbournian’s get to keep the building at all.

Sydney demolished its own vintage stadium decades ago and now a small plaque hidden under a railway flyover is all that’s left.

There is no doubt the possession of this iconic venue will be a watershed moment for Hillsong, and they will likely carve out their own unique history at the site.

But it will never be just their temple.

Whatever its reduced state, Festival Hall belongs to the people of Melbourne.

It always will.