Matthew, you've curated this new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney about Sydney Stadium. Do you have your own story to share about the site?
I did an exhibition several years ago about the Rose Bay Flying Boat Base which was Sydney's first international airport. There's nothing there anymore, just a grass field and it got me thinking about other landmarks in Sydney that have disappeared without a trace. Driving through Rushcutters Bay as a child my mum would point out where the stadium once stood and talk about seeing Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Johnnie Ray there. I was always fascinated by this place and once I began researching it discovered it had a long and colourful history.
The moniker the ‘Old Tin Shed’ gives us some idea, but can you give us a sense of the atmosphere at Sydney Stadium (and the streets surrounding it pre- and post-show) in its heyday? The iron walls and ceiling must have made for some interesting sounds.
They called it the Old Tin Shed because that's exactly what it was. Originally built as a temporary structure in 1908, it was freezing in winter and brutally hot in summer and when it rained the noise was like a thousand drummers pounding on the corrugated iron roof. Fortunately though, when rock'n'roll first came along, the stadium acoustics perfectly suited the reverb style. Promoter Lee Gordon once told stadium manager Harry Miller to “treat it like a Stradivarius, don't touch a timber.”
On a big fight night or concert night the atmosphere was electric with crowds of people milling about to get in. Sitting ringside the patrons felt every blow during a bout and when a performer was singing on the revolving stage it was like they were singing just for you. Of course, when wrestling matches were on, the crowd became rowdy and often some patrons ended up with a contestant thrown from the ring and landing in their lap.
In the early years it was primarily a venue for boxing matches. What was the Stadium's contribution to boxing history?
In its early years the stadium was the greatest boxing stadium in the world with champion American fighters flocking to Sydney for the huge prize money on offer. The great Jack Johnson became the first African-American to contest a World Heavyweight Championship at Sydney stadium on Boxing Day 1908. Les Darcy, Australia's greatest fighter, fought the majority of his bouts there and the stadium also saw thrilling bouts featuring Ron Richards, Dave Sands, Tommy Burns, Vic Patrick, Lionel Rose and the ‘tough as teak’ George Barnes.
The stadium was also reborn as a music venue in the '50s. What were some of the big names that Sydneysiders saw at the venue?
The first concert held there featured jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw and Buddy Rich. The line-up was so stellar that Sydneysiders thought the promotion must be a hoax. The Stadium went on to host hundreds of international names such as Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and, of course, the Beatles.
In fact, crowds at the Beatles concerts were record-breaking, weren’t they? Twelve-thousand people at a single concert?
When the Beatles came to town it was a massive event. They played six concerts at the Stadium and unless you were sitting ringside all you heard was the screaming of teenage girls. George Harrison had joked in an earlier interview that Paul McCartney liked jelly babies so the band were pelted with hundreds of them during the shows. The band stayed at the Sheraton in Kings Cross after the Chevron Hotel cancelled their booking because they were worried about the crowds. The joke was on the Chevron though when hundreds of teenagers crowded their entrance in order to get the best view of the band up on their balconies across the street.
Any other unusual performances take place at the Stadium?
Probably two of the more unusual performances would have been the roller derby and an appearance by the star of the Japanese TV series The Samurai.
The roller derby first took place at the stadium in 1955 and then again in the '60s, this time as the roller game. They built a huge banked track around the boxing ring and the contestants hurtled around (and often hurtled off) the track. It was so popular it was even telecast around Australia.
When Shintaro, the star of The Samurai came to Australia in 1965, thousands of children packed into the stadium to watch him battle the evil Koga Ninjas. It was so hot inside that many children were treated for heatstroke, especially ones in their woollen dressing gowns which they wore as makeshift ninja outfits.
Can you share with us the stories behind some of the objects on display in this exhibition?
Among the hundreds of items on display will be Australian boxer Tommy Burns' robe and gloves, Len Holt's Australian wrestling championship belt, stage outfits worn by both "The Wild One" Johnny O'Keefe and Col Joye as well as every program from Lee Gordon's Big Shows. We will also have the bindings worn by Lionel Rose under his gloves the night he fought Rocky Gattellari. One of the more unusual items on display is the wig worn by Shintaro himself while performing which was gifted to a fan when he visited him in Japan. I call this the "Holy Grail" for Shintaro fans.
Some months ago the Historic Houses Trust put out a call for stories from the Sydney public about the Stadium. Any interesting stories?
We received a huge response from the call-out with many unusual items on offer. One was a gentleman who said he had one of the original front doors of the stadium but that it was currently being used as a tank stand on his property near Lithgow. He reckoned if we got half a dozen strong blokes we could lift the tank off. Unfortunately I had to pass on that one. We will however have four signatures collected at the Beatles concert on a police notepad. Lynne Lemon was unable to attend however her father who was a policeman was on duty and he sent his notebook backstage and it was returned with all four Beatles signatures. She has since found out that they were probably done by their manager Brian Epstein which to me only makes them more interesting.
Pictured: American jazz singer and trumpeter Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong at Mascot 1954, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW