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Lost City of the Senses [Presentation]

by Alec Morgan


IMAGE : The City In Darkness

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the cultural essence of Sydney lies embedded in its architecture. It?s structures, buildings and monuments. I find this method of interpreting the past, this reliance on concrete and real estate, a faulty and unsound foundation upon which to build an understanding of the forces that shape the distinctiveness of the city. After all, a bridge is only something to pass over and to pay for. As for the Opera House, its very name signals what is amiss. We are seduced by those glorious white sails of what is really a shipwreck of out-dated, elitist culture washed up upon the shores of our harbour. I sense that there is another city lying undiscovered beneath these bloated, familiar carcasses and that cultural interpretation by architecture is too impoverished to satisfy a secret desire to connect to something of Sydney?s past that is more elusive, more sensual, than a pile of bricks and mortar.

Sydney Toilet. 1900

In 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal on its side and forced viewers to perceive early twentieth century art in a radically different light. This is not that urinal; this is a Sydney toilet, typical of those used by residents of the Rocks in 1900. This photograph was taken by the official state government photographer of the clean-up operations under way during the bubonic plague caused by rats from the ships that docked nearby. The plague swept the inner areas of Sydney from the Rocks right back to Broadway. Unlike Duchamp?s pristine urinal, detached from its functionalism, this toilet disturbs by its obviously impoverished background and the futile attempt to cover its defects and disease by a hasty coating of whitewash, which was mistakenly considered to be an anti-bacterial. Over 100 people died of the plague virus.

Back Lane Toilets. 1900

Most toilets in this crowded inner suburb were built close to the streets, some in the laneways. The blocked-up sewerage pipes lay open and overflowing. During the humid summer months, those forced to live in these areas had their sense of smell constantly overwhelmed by unwanted stench. This quote about a evening stroll was written by a resident of the Rocks: “This is a city of open sewers that putrefy the stilted air. Filth is tossed straight into the streets and laneways. Waste, even human, ends up in our drinking water, even the seepage from the overcrowded cemeteries!”

Sydney?s Forgotten Heroes

If you walked only a few streets away from the Rocks into the central business district your nostrils were met not with putridness, but a pleasant whiff of pure air. The paved streets were without any traces of filth nor droppings from the thousands of horses that crowded the busy streets. Why? Because of the shadowy man seen with broom and shovel towards the back of this photo. This is a rare surviving glass-plate of one of Sydney?s forgotten heroes, 'the horse shit cleaners'. There were hundreds like him. On every corner of the stately CBD, these men stood from dawn until late into the night, scooping the tonnes of horse dung that fell like mudded snow upon the streets. Most lived across at the poorer Rocks area. This trade was jealously guarded within families and passed down through generations, from fathers to sons. A skill which totally vanished from memory with the arrival of the motor car.

Wurlitzer Trucks

It is 1929. This convoy of trucks are bringing the mighty Wurltizer organ with its massive 169 pipes to Sydney?s largest picture palace: the State Theatre. At a cost of millions of pounds, it was to become the city?s grandest cultural icon. An Opera House of its time. But, constructing it wasn?t our idea. The owners, Union theatres, the major Australian-owned major cinema chain, couldn?t afford to have it built.

Hollywood Distributors & Mickey Mouse

They were ordered to do so by these men, Hollywood Film Distribution Agents, seen here at their offices in the CBD. They are smiling because 95% of movies seen here were from the Hollywood Studios and the companies that distributed movies were nearly all owned by them. Local independently-owned cinemas, known as the 'flea pits', had to take what they were given by the distributors, blindly. The Hollywood company, Fox, earned the dubious reputation of being the most ruthless when it came to film distribution. 'If you want to show our movies,' they told Union Theatres, 'you gotta build a picture palace to show them in. Or no movies'. The State Government did nothing about it. Union was forced to comply. The State Theatre rose.

Cinema Crowds Outside State Theatre

An image now lost. Patient queues waiting for the cinema to open. When the State Theatre opened in mid 1929, crowds formed to get inside this temple of dreams. It looked certain that the good box-office returns would pay off the massive debt incurred building it. But, only months after it opened, Wall Street crashed and the tidal wave of the Great Depression swept Sydney. No one could afford movies anymore. The building debt forced Union into near bankruptcy and many employees joined the lengthening bread-lines that now replaced the cinema queues.

Dole Boots

In the early 1930?s, these government-issued boots tromped Sydney streets looking for employment that no longer existed. One can only imagine the places they went to and the growing weariness and despair they carried. The city echoed with the sound of cheaply-shod boots. One third of the city workforce was unemployed.

?The Bride of Frankenstein?

Fox seized the financial opportunities thrown up by hard times and bought out the Hoyts cinema chain. It took it over with the promise of supporting local productions. But, it never did. Not until the late1970?s. Instead, they spent lavishly on advertising their latest Hollywood releases and shipped their box-office profits straight back to Los Angeles.

Unemployed Sydney performer Paulette Perry was lucky enough to score a job advertising The Bride Of Frankenstein. Dressed in a white wedding outfit, she lay inside a coffin out front of the cinema, eyes closed, feigning death. One elderly woman removed her sharp hat pin and poked it into Paulette hand?s to see if she really was dead. Always the trouper, she never even flinched. She lay there until evening when
'Frankenstein?s Monster' arrived, gave her the kiss of life and they were married on the street. For her efforts, Paulette earned barely enough to pay her boarding house rent.

Dance, Fools, Dance

In 1931, unemployed dance couples rushed to join in the latest dance contest being held by a Hollywood distributor to advertise Joan Crawford?s first movie Dance, Fools, Dance. The prize was a trip to Hollywood. The day the movie was to open, hundreds of couples turned up outside suburban cinemas in Randwick and Newtown. As the crack of a starter's gun filled the winter?s air, they began dancing their way towards the Plaza Cinema in the CBD where the premiere was to be held. When the twirling couples met Sydney?s work force pouring in towards their offices, there was utter chaos. The Police arrested 150 dancing couples for disturbing the peace.

Cinema Floats. 1930?s

By the mid 1930?s, there was a battle raging in Sydney. Locally-owned cinemas owners fought the Hollywood-owned picture palaces for audiences by advertising their latest releases out on the streets. It was known as ?the movie wars?. The elaborate float was from a Hollywood-owned cinema. The contrasting image of the trick cyclist was a
low-budget attempt to lure customers to one of the city?s ?flea-pits? where a rare Australian production was being given a brief screening.

MGM Train

The Hollywood cinemas increased their advertising warfare by shipping into Sydney this all-girl big band to perform on the back of M.G.M?s motorised street train that slowly made its way through the inner suburbs. The City Council awarded the girls the freedom of the city.

Sonny Clay Band on Ship

But, not all musical imports were welcomed by Sydney?s moral guardians. Sonny Clay?s renowned Jazz band, The Colored Idea, arrived here from the USA in 1928 to play the burgeoning nightclubs. After a couple of white women were found in a hotel room with the Afro-American musicians, the band was escorted back to the ship and told never to grace our shores again. While the occasional black musician was allowed in after careful scrutiny for a limited period, Afro-American bands were not permitted back until the mid 1950?s when Louis Armstrong and his band pushed the colour-bar down.

1938 Sesqui-Centenary Celebrations

This photograph shows the acceptable face of ?blackness? on Sydney streets. Painted paper-mache. This photograph was taken during the 1938 sesqui-centenary celebrations of the founding of what was then proclaimed as ?the second white city of the Empire?.
There were other personae non-grata in this parade: convicts. Representations of convicts were officially banned by the Sydney City Council. Two councillors resigned in protest, but without effect. This criminal breed, shipped out thousands of miles from their homes often on minimal charges, to build the stately architecture and monuments of the harbour city, were vanquished. The official reason for the ban was this: ?convicts are something about our past that is best forgotten.?

?When The Kellys were Out?

Movie clip

Missing from Sydney cinemas at the same time were ?bushranger? movies. There had been a State Government ban on the screening of movies about Ned Kelly and other Australian bushrangers since 1912. It lasted until 1946. You could see any Hollywood bad guy you wanted, as long as they were from the USA and not from that dreaded terrorist enclave known as Northern Victoria. To some of our state politicians, Ned Kelly was the equivalent of Osama bin Ladin.

Man, Woman & Bull

There was one piece of Sydney where you could escape the domination of Hollywood images: The Royal Easter Showgrounds. It was the city?s holy turf, calling Sydneysiders to converge every Easter to this meeting place of city and country. In 1947, when the Royal Easter Show re-opened after the Second World War, there were riots when thousands tore down fences and battled police to get in.

Bull and Farmers

Movie clip

It may not be as visually sophisticated as the Opera House nor as monumental as the Harbour Bridge, but the Easter Show did hold a unique cultural connection with Sydneysiders for many generations. Culture, after all, is defined as the customs, practices and social behaviour of a people, regardless of any judgements as to their worth. At the very least, this event was one that many Sydneysiders regarded as their own, to sniff and fondle as they pleased, and for that reason alone its memory is worth preserving. For once we lose a particular image or landscape from our city-memory, its cultural significance is in danger of being lost forever. I will complete my presentation by including a short sequence from my new film in progress, a documentary journey to important Sydney?s cultural icons before they vanish.

Pilgrimage To The Showgrounds

Movie clip