Marrickville Town Hall – dancing days

This is part two of a series celebrating the centenary of Marrickville’s town hall. Part one can be found here.

The Marrickville Town Hall on Marrickville Road was finally officially opened with much fanfare on 11 February 1922.

The previous 28 years of wrangling over whether to have a new town hall were forgotten; almost.

Procession along Marrickville Road. The 60th jubilee of the Municipality (1921) had been delayed to coincide with the town hall opening. A procession ran from Enmore Park down Victoria Road and then Marrickville Road.
Image: Inner West Council History and Library Services.

The cost of the new building had always been a major concern for ratepayers. They hadn’t liked the idea when it was going to cost £6,000 – and now it was going to cost £24,000. The council would end up borrowing another £12,000 for the project and the final bill would come to £36,000.

The pro-town hall councillors had promised that the building would pay its way. 

To enable this to happen the architect and builder paid particular attention to the downstairs hall. It would be able to hold 1,400 people seated, have a stage with dressing rooms and an internal viewing balcony.

The primary feature of the building, and the masterpiece of builder Douglas Stuart, is the floor of the main hall. Stuart, who lived just down the road in ‘Ashleigh’ at 444 Marrickville Road (now demolished), is said to have come up with the design and he did a masterful job. 

The sprung floor, especially for dancing, is made of tallowwood from the Hunter region of NSW. It is laid out in a parquetry lozenge shape from hundreds, if not thousands, of thin pieces of the wood. The work involved can only be imagined. When finished it was considered the best dance floor in Sydney, although the floor of the City of Sydney town hall was considered finer by some. The Evening News knew best and was moved to write “that as regards the perfection of its floor it stands unrivalled. The boarding of the floor is tallowwood, sandpapered and polished till it shines like a sheet of glass”.

This photograph of a Masonic Lodge Debutantes Ball taken sometime in the 1960s gives a good idea of the complexity of the floor layout and the beauty of it when “it shines like a sheet of glass”.
Image: Inner West Council History and Library Services.

Although the surface is slightly worse for wear after 100 years it is worth taking a look at the floor next time you visit. For those who cannot, images on this page will help give some idea of its beauty and craftwork. We can only hope that the floor is given due deference in any future activities or changes to the Town Hall.

Let’s dance

The 1920s are known as the jazz age. Marrickville’s embrace of the age was to save the blushes of councillors and ensure the Town Hall became the centre of Marrickville’s cultural life. 

On its opening, the Town Hall had already been booked four nights a week, every week until the end of 1922.  One day (Monday) was set aside for the use of community groups. The Marrickville Cottage Hospital Fundraising Committee was quick to take advantage of this and for many years they would run fundraising dances and concerts at the hall.

Signs on the the balcony of Arthur Matthews chemist/tobacconist shop, Marrickville Road.
Left: Ladies of the hospital fund raising committee advertise a concert taking place two days after the town hall opening. Right: The younger set display a sign for “The Strollers Dance” at the Marrickville Town Hall.
Image (close up): Inner West Council Library and History Services.

Most of the other nights came to be dominated by one band, The Strollers, and the dances they held were simply known as Strollers dances. Their leader was Herbert (Bert) Gibb and in later years he would be joined by his son Hector. As the photograph above shows, the Strollers performed almost immediately after the opening of the Town Hall and their dances were to become synonymous with it until the end of the 1950s.  

Initially, they played Wednesday nights (old time) and Saturday nights (jazz). Old time dancing referred to styles such as the waltz. On Saturday nights the new styles of jazz dancing (the one-step and the foxtrot, etc) took over. On many Friday nights the Town Hall was occupied by dance schools teaching the old and new styles to eager students. Dancing became incredibly popular at this time, both as a good night’s entertainment and also as a social event for young and old. Years later Sydney Morning Herald columnist Andy Gill was to claim that 40% of Sydneysiders met their spouse at a dance. Ex-premier Barrie Unsworth confirmed that he met his wife at a Strollers dance in the early 1950s.

The Strollers consolidated their reputation as Sydney’s premier dance band throughout the 1920s and sheet music publishers used their name to help spruik their song sheets (see illustration). By 1933, when they were playing up to four nights a week, their Saturday dance nights were being broadcast live from the Town Hall on radio station 2KY.

Sheet music published by the renowned J. Albert & Son, with a photograph of the Strollers taken at Marrickville Town Hall, c1922. The photo is very interesting as it shows two women in the band at this time (on piano and banjo). Image: Rod Aanensen

The phenomenal success of the band led Herb Gibb to branch out into promoting dancing competitions. He started on a relatively small scale in the 1920s but by the 1930s he was running large productions in Marrickville Town Hall.

Mary Cleghorn* started attending dances at the Town Hall in 1949 and recorded that they were a class above the other dances in Sydney. Mary talked of the romantic atmosphere, the “beautiful band” and the various floor shows that were on offer, such as “jugglers, chorus girls and special professional dancers”. 

The Strollers went on to organised dancing competitions with other promoters and dancers around Sydney. Gibb would hire buses to transport their dancers and supporters to the different venues. The supporters were important, not only for morale, but because the winning dancers were selected by popular vote.

Today with all our in-home entertainment it is hard to imagine just how popular these nights were. Between 800 and 1,000 people attended the Marrickville dances, while thousands of people would attend dances all over Sydney almost every night of the week.  The Strollers dances were so large that a special tram was laid on from Circular Quay via Sydenham to right outside the Town Hall. The local tram inspector would call in to check on numbers to judge how many extra trams he would need to put on to get everyone home.

This page from ‘The Telegraph’ 25 September 1934 gives a good idea of the size of the crowds attracted to the dances and competitions. Dancers can hardly move in the photograph at the top of the page.
Image: Trove

However, in the 1950s, the extension of hotel drinking hours (the abolition of the “6 o’clock swill” in 1955), the arrival of rock’n’roll, juke boxes and milk bars changed everything. Television was the final nail in the coffin. 

The dance competitions morphed into the ball room dancing competitions we know today. It is only fitting that a scene in the film ‘Strictly Ballroom’ should be filmed in Marrickville, albeit down the wrong end of Marrickville Road.

Keep on dancing

With the demise of the dance bands the Town Hall had less use through the late 1950s and early 1960s. Schools would hold graduation dances and various organisations ran debutante balls (see photograph above) but things were certainly a lot quieter.

However, the tradition and spirit of those previous times has lived on until the present day.

One organisation that did keep the spirit alive was ‘The Dutch Carnival Society, The Boomerangs’ who held regular themed dance nights at Marrickville Town Hall from the mid 1960s to mid 1970s. These themed dances harked back to the days of the Strollers with nights such as “Mad Hatters Midwinter Ball”.  

Dutch Australian Weekly 20/6/1969, Page 12
Image: Trove

At the 75th anniversary of the Town Hall in 1997, after an idea hatched by Mary Cleghorn, a special ‘Back to Strollers Night’ dance was staged.  Many of the people who had once attended the dances came back to the Town Hall to dance and reminisce about those times.

The “Back to Strollers Night’ dance was a 50-50 dance just like the old days where the 50 -50 referred to half old time and half modern dances, this ensured the widest possible audience. 
Image: Marrickville Heritage Society Collection

Into the 21st century it has been The Polly’s Club that has taken up the baton and staged regular dances at the Town Hall.

Polly’s dance night in Marrickville Town Hall.
Image: Inner West Council webpage

The Polly’s Club is the longest running gay social club in Sydney. It was established in 1964, darker days, when a group of gay men got together to socialise. The first large dance was held at Petersham Town Hall and others followed at various locations around inner Sydney. The club settled into the Marrickville Town Hall in 2000 and has been there ever since.

There are now plans to use the Town Hall as a music venue and performing arts centre. It is hoped to return Marrickville Town Hall to its rightful place as one of Sydney’s great cultural venues. Let us also hope that the plans include the restoration and preservation of Douglas Stuart’s dance floor masterpiece.

Rod Aanensen

*Mary Cleghorn wrote of her life in Marrickville, which she called Shangri-la, in our book ‘Marrickville – a past worth preserving’. Sadly, Mary died earlier this year, aged 90, but her last wish was to have her ashes spread across the garden outside the Town Hall. Farewell, Mary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s