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A fair to remember

You might say the drive into Canberra from Sydney is unremarkable.

You know you're getting close when you make it to the Eagle Hawk. Then there's the stony ACT border sign. Then, the glimpse of Black Mountain Tower as you sweep down the hill, jamming on the brakes so you're doing a comfortable 80km/h by the time you hit the budget hotel, the petrol station and the speed camera.

Welcome to Canberra.

But if you were doing the drive in the 1980s, you would have been welcomed by Canberra's very own theme park. Behind the hotel and petrol station, there was Canberry Fair, which opened 30 years ago this Tuesday. The brainchild of local restaurateur Alby Sedaitis, Canberry Fair was part historical village, part zoo, part theatre and part dining precinct.

It was built for kids as well as adults, Canberrans as well as tourists and inhabited by a herd of camels and a clown troupe.

GALLERY: A fair to remember

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When it opened, the $3.4million, 9ha fair was Canberra's biggest private-enterprise tourist and entertainment project. But within two years, Sedaitis was broke and exhausted. And within 10 years, the site would be all but abandoned.

These days, Sedaitis lives with his wife on the NSW South Coast, near his grandchildren. When I call and explain that I'd like to talk about Canberry Fair, he begins to laugh - a riotous chuckle, straight from the belly.

''It's not one of my fondest memories,'' he says, before adding, ''It was a lot of fun.''

Mention Canberry Fair to someone who grew up in Canberra in the 1980s and you will invariably be met with tales of birthday parties spent ''with the Swans'' - the oversized bird boats on the man-made lagoon - burgers, milkshakes, roast chicken and (what seemed like) death-defying moments on the roller coaster and Gravitron (aka Vomitron).

Public servant Megan McAuliffe, 37, says Canberry Fair was always crowded when it opened.

''You could drive past it and feel jealous of those who were in there having fun and going on the rides.''

For Canberra author Mark Juddery, Canberry Fair was the hang out for Lyneham High kids.

''It was the coolest thing you could do in Canberra,'' he says. ''It was a very miniature theme park, but it was a theme park nonetheless.''

One big advantage of Canberry Fair was that it didn't have the queues of Sydney or Melbourne - so you could stay on the rides longer or keep riding the roller coaster until your little brother got a nose bleed.

When the park opened its gates in December 1981, Canberra Times city reporter Frank Longhurst wrote, ''Canberry Fair defies easy description''.

On the face of it, Canberry Fair was a replica 19th century Australian village. Sedaitis had spent the best part of two years scouring Australia for original materials - such as old convict-era cobblestones from Melbourne and timber slates from Wauchope - and employing a heritage architect to make it as authentic as possible.

Artist Dianne Fogwell had her studio at the site in the mid- to late-2000s and says the new-old buildings were still stunning.

''They did amazing things. It was simple but very elegantly done.''

Built around the ornamental lagoon, you'd enter Canberry Fair through a copy of the Echuca Hotel to find about 10 buildings - including a barn, winery, mill, adult's pub, kid's pub (which adults could only patronise when accompanied by a child) and a five-star restaurant, serving French cuisine.

According to The Canberra Times in August 1982, Clancy's could lay claim to being the best restaurant in Canberra - and the most expensive.

''Clancy's has style ... high ceilings and pendant lights, a huge open fire and reflections from the silverware create an atmosphere close to grandeur. This is enhanced by the lace place settings on polished wood in place of tablecloths, and the high-backed tapestry chairs [which were Jacobean-style, imported from Britain].''

Frank Arnold got involved with Canberry Fair to oversee its construction but soon became a right-hand marketing and operations man to Sedaitis. Arnold had just started his design and architecture firm, Quantum Ideas Bureau, but found himself working three days a week for Sedaitis.

''[I] had a party for two years,'' Arnold says, in the courtyard of his Hacienda-style home and office in Manuka.

According to Arnold, Clancy's food was good enough to see non-local customers fly in for dinner. And with its landscaped gardens and carefully designed buildings, Canberry Fair soon got a reputation as a wedding spot. In the early '80s, Canberry Fair would host up to five weddings on a Saturday night in different venues across the grounds. There was even a chef brought in from Belgium to do the catering.

Arnold had his own wedding reception there in The Barn. Folk band Franklin B Paverty played and there was five-hour old lobster (caught in Tasmania, cooked in Melbourne and flown to Canberra) on the menu.

''This sounds so incredibly decadent,'' Arnold says, a bit apologetically.

On top of the food and the venues, the yellowed newspaper ads in Arnold's scrap books show there was a never-ending stream of performances and activities, from Easter egg hunts to bush dances, magic shows and mime acts.

Well-known on the Canberra theatre-scene since the 1970s, Domenic Mico came on board as an ''artistic director type of person''. Speaking this week from his current post at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Mico says Canberry Fair played an important part in introducing street theatre to Canberra and professionalising the local scene.

There was a resident clown show (courtesy of the Ozo Brothers) and Mico was known to get about as Giuseppe - an extremely ''interactive'' clown. During a Melbourne Cup Day event with camels and Shetland pony racing, Giuseppe ran a book and then ''ran off'' with all the money. ''It was just what Canberra needed,'' Mico says of the Canberry Fair scene.

There is more than one explanation of the genesis of Canberry Fair. Arnold says it was originally going to be a camel-based theme park called ''Camelot'' (as Sedaitis had a herd of camels that he had captured in the Northern Territory in the 1970s). But Sedaitis says the Fair was supposed to be based around exotic, warm-blooded horses, courtesy of his business partner's links to the USSR.

Unfortunately, while Canberry Fair was born with a lot of ideas and enthusiasm, it didn't have a lot of secure funding. After working on the project since the late 1970s, Sedaitis says he was left stranded when his business partner withdrew the bulk of the funds and went AWOL at the last minute.

''We were in full swing,'' Sedaitis recalls. ''I had wages to pay that week, we had builders running around.''

In hindsight, Sedaitis says he should have walked away and closed the doors before they had even opened. Instead, he borrowed $1.5million from the bank at 22per cent interest and went ahead with his dream. Without the horses and his business partner, Sedaitis had to rejig the dream - which is why the rides and ''fun-park'' element was belatedly introduced.

Despite all the drama - initially, Canberry Fair worked.

Even before the official launch, some 20,000 Canberrans unexpectedly descended upon Canberry Fair for a record-breaking New Year's Eve in 1981.

''We were just embarrassed,'' Sedaitis says - Canberry Fair didn't have the facilities to support such a crowd.

Indeed, the irony was Sedaitis didn't make any money that night - as he had no infrastructure to charge people. ''They were coming over the fence.''

Another high came in April 1982, when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser opened Canberry Fair, accompanied by his wife Tammie. The Frasers spent about an hour touring the Fair, enjoying a toffee-flavoured ice cream and riding the steam train (there was a 19th century French steam train, via the Queensland cane fields). Arnold also recalls that when Fraser made his official opening speech a goose came and crapped on his foot.

''I don't know why he [Fraser] came across. Probably he didn't have much on that week,'' Sedaitis says.

The early days of Canberry Fair began a tradition that would last for the rest of the 1980s, when big-name bands were booked for special events. This included The Goanna Band for the New Year's Eve concert in 1982 after Arnold had the foresight to book it while it was still relatively unknown. A special stage was built (without permission) at the bottom of nearby Mount Ginn. ''In for a cent, in for a dollar'', Sedaitis explains.

Later in the mid to late '80s, acts such as the Uncanny X-Men played, as did the Cockroaches in their pre-Wiggles days. John Farnham also belted out a gig.

But Sedaitis was losing money - and fast - on the venture. The 22per cent repayments were killing him and by March 1983, Canberry Fair was placed into receivership. Price Waterhouse was brought in and there were calls for new ''major attractions'' and investors. Unhappy with the new management and unable to realise his original vision, Sedaitis resigned and left the business. ''I was over it,'' he says.

New owners relaunched the ''new'' Canberry Fair in 1984. There were more rides, such as the Ferrari Racers and the Tilted House and the fine dining of Clancy's was edged out by venues such as Granny's Country Kitchen and the Super Dog Saloon.

The Fair was relaunched again in late 1987 as Australia Park with remote- controlled boats and mini golf and a ''most beautiful beer belly'' competition (both male and female) to commemorate Australia Day 1988.

Despite the turmoil and the change of direction - with fewer wedding receptions and more rides - Canberry Fair still had cache with the kid and tweenage crowd.

Public servant Jason Sazegar, 32, visited Canberry Fair a number of times as a child, where he was snapped looking extremely pleased to be on a cute caterpillar ride.

''It was just like Sydney's Wonderland,'' he says, lamenting that there is nothing similar for his son Sean, 4, these days in Canberra.

Political staffer Patrick, 33, had a birthday party there in the late 80s. He was too scared to go on the Gravitron - after hearing horror stories about kids being flung off when the ride stopped. But he was less intimidated by the inflatable, hollow snake with obstacles in its belly.

However, as the '80s wore on, the Canberry crowds thinned and the rides looked sorrier and sorrier.

The fair was also briefly known as Canberry Village before it closed around 1991.

Patrick remembers the miserable sight of the snake left behind, sans the air.

''It was kind of like the spirit had gone,'' he says.

Two years later, a group of developers bought the lease; with talk that Canberry Fair might be resurrected. Some of the individual businesses stayed on and the pub won a reputation as a bikie hang-out. Hardly anyone was using the site in the mid-2000s. By then, the land had already been slated for a housing development, called ''The Fair''.

Despite vocal protests from community and conservation groups - over environmental and heritage concerns - today, the site hums with the sound of trucks and earthmovers. The lake and the swans are gone, with mounds of dirt, new roads and apartments in their place. The buildings that were so painstakingly constructed have been demolished.

Looking back, Mico says that Canberra in the 1980s didn't have the population to support Canberry Fair. But Sedaitis - who went on to run other restaurants in Canberra - does not blame the customers, arguing it was the business decisions that doomed Canberry Fair. For the project he describes as both his ''lobotomy'' and his ''dream'' - he says he has no particular plans to mark the anniversary next week. ''It was great while it lasted.''