Boxing, Ballroom dancing, and the Bishop of Coventry: Festival Hall and Stadiums Pty Ltd

Throughout most of the 20th century, Festival Hall in Dudley Street, West Melbourne was the focal point for the city’s entertainment business. The booking diaries for Stadiums Pty Ltd reveal an endless round of entertainers, sporting, cultural,  and political events. Inside its dark walls, Festival Hall hosted the Bishop of Coventry followed by a boxing tournament the following night. Billy Graham vied for booking space with the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the youthful, hedonistic festivals of early rock and roll. Stadiums Pty Ltd was established in 1899 by notorious Melbourne entrepreneur John Wren and his associate Dick Lean to enter the lucrative sport of boxing. Festival Hall (originally named West Melbourne Stadium) was built in 1912 for boxing promoter ‘Snowy’ Baker and was sold to Stadiums Pty Ltd in 1915.

Interior of Festival Hall, undated, photographer unknown, University of Melbourne Archives, Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection, 1984.0094.0006
Interior of Festival Hall, undated, photographer unknown, University of Melbourne Archives, Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection, 1984.0094.0006

The recently listed Stadiums Pty Ltd collection holds a large amount of boxing memorabilia dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. There are many photographs of Indigenous boxers who broke through the constraints placed on them by the prejudices of the industry and society at large to become champions. Among these one can see the likes of Lionel Rose in full swing, autographed portraits of George Sands of the famous Sands family, and a cartoon poster advertising a fight with George Bracken.

Portrait of George Sands
Autographed portrait of George Sands, 1948, photographer unknown, University of Melbourne Archives, Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection 1987.0094 Unit 9.

The booking diaries of Stadiums Pty Ltd provide a glimpse into the vibrant Melbourne entertainment scene. Music concerts pitted big band sounds from America and Australia in a ‘dance-off’ style show whilst the next day Lady Baden Powell greeted girl guides in a 1967 reception. The Australian Dancing Championships in 1956 were just as at home in Festival Hall as The Price is Right  was shooting live in the 1980s. In addition to the weekly boxing tournaments, Festival Hall hosted the tours of international stars such as Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry and Cliff Richard in the 1950s and 60s. Devo, The Kinks, and Queen in the 1980s played to sell out crowds. Today Festival Hall remains a hub of entertainment activity,  with major Australian and International acts continually billed alongside corporate events, conferences and Christmas parties.

The Stadiums Pty Ltd Collection contains material of interest to researchers of Melbourne’s live music scene, sport and the entertainment industry, as well as historic buildings of Melbourne’s cityscape. Whilst the material is open access, some photographs are not currently available due to their fragility. The collection has been listed at box level and the finding aid is available online http://ow.ly/H1K84

This post is an adaptation of the 2010 article by Katie Wood which appears in Primary Sources: 50 years of the Archives.


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