For 100 years, an oversized grin has greeted visitors to Luna Park. While the Giggle Palace is long gone and the kewpie dolls have been muscled out by Kindles, a spirit of manic merriment remains.
THE first thing you notice is the screaming. No need to panic: this is good screaming. The entrance to Luna Park is busy on a sunny Sunday in November, with tourists posing for photos in front of the famous giant toothy grin, children slanting oblique to the ground as they tug their parents towards the turnstiles, dazed couples wandering out smiling through the late-afternoon shadows of the gate and putting their wallets away.
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The screaming, as you enter, grows abruptly louder: it's coming from the Coney Drop, which slowly raises a platform of wide-eyed teenage girls dangling in a ring of harnesses; then, as in the mediaeval torture technique of strappado, lets go and allows them to plummet sickeningly towards the ground. There is more screeching from the Pharaoh's Curse nearby, vigorously swinging a cageful of thrilled masochists upside down.
And of course the most blood-bleaching shrieks sound above, from the Scenic Railway, which has been hurtling victims around its frail-looking but indomitable, oldest-continually-operating-with-ride-on-driver-in-the-world wooden circuit for all of Luna Park's fabulous hundred years of existence.
The first bit of adorable vintage you might notice is the antique metal plaque beside each of the redundant turnstiles, engraved in approved Melbourne retro style: The ellipt-ical improved patent turnstile/C. Isler & Co, Artesian works, Bear Lane, Southwark, Lon-don S. E. Our Luna Park, after a few decades languishing perhaps a little frumpily, is ripe for hipster rediscovery. There is a woman with blonde dreadlocks and Doc Martens boots in the distance as you enter, disappearing like a ghost of the 1990s, but the crowd is mostly Relaxed Melbourne Ordinaire.
Two young blokes go past in white boardshorts and thongs, Vs of sunburn across their bare shoulder blades. A young woman with thick dark hair blowing in the sea breeze across her face shows her own strap sunburn marks above a very short holiday frock and bejewelled sandals. In the dark corner of the Park where arcade amusements lurk next to the dodgem cars, a young Muslim couple happily push coins into a Key Master machine that promises to bestow not teddy bears, enamelled vases, kewpie dolls or anything so quaint, but a glowing white-boxed assortment of Kindles, Galaxy Touches, Canon cameras and PlayStation 3s.
Three bald, paunchy men in a row sit outside and smoke; two Indian teenage girls stroll past in tiny shorts and singlets. There is a sleepy festive atmosphere, typically Melbourne: everyone is reasonably cheerful, not showing it too much, squinting smilingly into the late sun and turning away to listen to the kids.
At the opening on Friday, December 13 in 1912, more than 22,000 people attended; surely millions have visited since then. Apart from restoration hiatuses the place has never closed, even through World War I and II, the Depression, or the home-entertainment besotted noughties. St Kilda has always been a place of escape, magic, health, and vice and vacation from normal life; a home for artists and vagabonds, eccentrics and optimists; a pleasure destination, an apparent moral lesson to transgressors, and a defiant den of iniquity. Luna Park, its lodestone, is the epitome of St Kilda's savage delight in the sublime form of terror and rapturously innocent glee; in the respite from normal life. A palace of dreams where you can, with the right aim and a stout heart, shoot a target and win a wonderful, ridiculous prize, sit with your sweetheart in the lap of the moon – and go home on the tram for tea.
Its cable-drawn Great Scenic Railway and its Carousel are world-famous originals, icons of restoration craft. Of the dozens of Luna Parks established throughout the world in the early 20th century, ours is one of the most intact, despite losing its Giggle Palace, river caves, Big Dipper, performing acts and Ferris wheel. Aficionados of fairgrounds make international pilgrimages to it. Few of us appreciate how celebrated, and unique, it is.
But ask Melburnians about Luna Park and you'll see faces grow nostalgic, fond, and surprised as they realise how long it is since they've visited. I must be about the only native of the city who wasn't taken there for a childhood treat. A series of my friends of all ages volunteered stories of infantile glee, special excursions to St Kilda and recurrently, the famous Rotor ride, in which passengers were spun at high speeds while the floor dropped away: each person pinned to the wall by sheer centrifugal force, their arms, legs and hair splayed haphazardly; adults looking foolish, hipsters' oiled hairdos unravelled, girls' skirts sometimes excitingly flipped to show some upper thigh.
Along with misty-eyed tales of the Rotor are, inevitably, stories of other spectacular displays. If there was a single refrain through all memories of Luna Park, it was of vomit, especially that of fathers. One friend's dad went on the Great Scenic Railway and puked (an event known in the Luna Park security lingo as a "code rainbow"). Another went on the Rotor and was confined to bed for four days.
My own patriarch, taken for a big Chinese meal in Acland Street and then to Luna Park for his 12th birthday, was generously bestowed with extra time on the Rotor, during which he managed not only to vomit copious amounts of sweet and sour pork but, as in some mythic Greek torture, was unable to lift even a finger to wipe it from his face. (Another time lightning struck the Ghost Train tunnel and he was carried out, rigid from combined terrors.)
Such ectoplasmic ecstasies aside, Luna Park had always, for me, left an impression of the bleak, grey-skied, tedious day on which, as a 10-year-old, I featured with school friends in a music-video shoot. The Park, suffering its 1980s nadir, was closed on a weekday and we were shooting in the Ghost Train. Adults were barking orders, the train clanked and jolted intermittently into action through the musty tunnel, we never got the shots right, and the only respite was to emerge into the dull concrete expanse of shuttered booths and motionless rides, desolate and eerie. The shabby deadness, inertia and atmosphere of post-nuclear dereliction were more disturbing than the supposed frights of the tunnel. I left grateful and disconcerted, and had never been back inside until this year.
But for most of my adult life I have lived in or around St Kilda, and Luna Park has always been there, emerging from the background of the seaside like the head of a monstrous god rising from the oceans in a Fellini film. On summer mornings, waking in my share house in Havelock Street to the sea breeze and the clean scent of a lemon tree, I would hear screams and the rush of the carriage swooping its hapless hostages on the Railway. My uni friends and I all lived in St Kilda – Eildon Road, Fawkner Street, Irwell Street, Grey Street – and the Park was in the corner of my eye every day on the way to play pool at the Prince or drink at the Village Belle or walk on the beach, much too absorbed by psychoanalytic theory of the carnivalesque and the uncanny to consider entering the kitsch confection on our doorsteps.
But it was walking past Mr Moon that I exchanged an unforgotten, thrilling glance with Blixa Bargeld of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And it was in the shadow of the Great Scenic Railway that, aged 21, I walked with a friend, earnestly complaining that I had already achieved my life aims of travel, a passionate love affair, a university degree and playing with my band at the Metro, and I couldn't imagine what I might do with the rest of my years, oblivious to the gigantic metaphor of life's roller-coaster heaving up and down only metres from my youthful head. Behind us, unseen, mouldering Mr Moon bared his fangs in a leer, as if to say, laugh now, for the rot will soon set in.
Suddenly the sunshine turned to cold street light and the music ceased playing for me and many of my contemporaries. From Fitzroy to St Kilda, the party was over as the great Heroin Silence fell in the mid-'90s. On the little hill in the O'Donnell Gardens next to Luna Park, where my dad had joyously rolled as a child, I now waited miserably every day for my drug dealer.
It would be trite to say that Mr Moon, now peeling and mildewed, grimacing in the small hours into the black winter nights of St Kilda as I passed in the freezing wind, the lamps turned off on the rides and the salty sorrow of the place surging up like the tide, had devoured me as St Kilda itself had. It is too easy to imagine that hallucinatory face as the image of merriment collapsed into malevolence. But StKilda, it can't be denied, has always had its shadows, and Luna Park has for a hundred years been a place where those dark inclinations are ushered up, toyed with, contained and exorcised.
The Park's architecture, its fittings and ornaments, are a garish, cheerful anomaly in a Melbourne generally given to black-clad restraint and grim gothic elegance. Perhaps it depends on your mood. The fresco outside the Tunnel of Love features a ghastly monarch, puce-cheeked and febrile, face caught in wonder – or agony. Peeling turquoise Chinese pagoda roofs; spectral, zombie-gaunt Pierrot faces; top-hatted skulls; a Melbourne tram with a wizard's hat poking nonsensically from its ceiling; Disney-esque Mughal turrets and domes; rides painted in stripes like barber poles or beach umbrellas; faux-Egyptian figures with unnerving blanks where their faces should be – the Park, truly carnivalesque, churns symbols and aesthetics, whisks epochs and art forms, colours and angles, typographies, and even inner/outer spaces, into a froth of giddy, rainbow-coloured, Ritalin-flavoured overstimulation.
But people rejoice in the colour, the gaiety and simplicity of the place. Generations have brought their children and passed on the legacy of thrilling rides, winning kewpie dolls, magical first dates, and dad spewing on the way home. The place is beloved.
In an age of mobile entertainment on screens smaller than one's palm, media on demand, 3D CGI film effects and immersive theme parks, Luna Park is still, on this early-summer Sunday afternoon just before dinner time, packed to the gunnels with patrons aged from one to 90, peacefully jostling, forking out money for thrills that haven't changed in a hundred years, chomping contentedly on giant puffs of fairy floss and shrieking gape-mouthed and childlike with joy on a carnival ride.
Old Mr Moon is still underneath his newer, restored modern face, mildewed and suppurating, resolutely supporting the towers on either side; smiling secretly, just a little disconcertingly, into the dark between the masks.
Centenary celebrations at Luna Park include a "Back to 1912" weekend on December 15-16. A commemorative book, Luna Park Since 1912, is available at the park and online, $24.95. lunapark.com.au