Cloudland: thanks for the memories

25 May 2012 | By Lucy Brook

The Cloudland ballroom in its glory days
The Cloudland ballroom in its glory days
The "bouncing dance floor"
The sight that outraged Brisbane residents on 8 November, 1982
The sight that outraged Brisbane residents on 8 November, 1982
Queensland Ballet's Rachael Walsh and Keian Langdon in Cloudland. Photography Ken Sparrow
Queensland Ballet's Rachael Walsh and Keian Langdon in Cloudland. Photography Ken Sparrow

As part of our Let’s Dance program, Queensland Ballet will show excerpts from François Klaus’ Cloudland, which evokes the romance of Brisbane’s Cloudland ballroom. Lucy Brook looks back on this beloved piece of the city’s past.

On Sunday November 7, 1982, Brisbane residents awoke to find their city changed, and their beloved dance hall, the Cloudland Ballroom, a tangle of rubble on the hill where once its 18-metre parabolic roof arch had loomed over the skyline.

Cloudland was demolished under the Joh Bjelke-Peterson government by the Deen Brothers Contrators, who removed no furniture or decorations before toppling the building. Its clandestine destruction – to make way for townhouses – provoked outrage, and threats of punitive action against the contractors from unions. Brisbane City Council reported that the destruction of the 43-year-old ballroom, which was listed by the National Trust, was unauthorised.

But from the ruins, tales of innocence and romance emerged. Mrs Rita St Ledger told Brisbane’s now-defunct Telegraph on November 8, 1982, her memories of “the floating ball gowns of the girls and the full, long jackets and stovepipe pants of the dashing young men”, and how she met her husband, Joe, at one of Cloudland’s Saturday night dances in 1954.

“It was like out of another world when you’re that young and I was a little bit overawed,” she told the paper of the ballroom.

“(Joe) had hurt his fingers which were all bandaged up and I kept accidentally grabbing his hand when we danced. He must have been in so much pain – what a start to a romance.”

The vision of T.H Eslick, Cloudland was originally built as a Luna Park in 1939-40 and was accessed by an open-air cable car running up the steep hillside. Eslick, who worked as an architect and designed amusement parks in Australia and overseas, was determined to create “the best ballroom in the Southern Hemisphere” and designed a huge 46 by 22 metre sprung wooden floor, affectionately known as “the bouncing dance floor”.

Cloudland’s inaugural ball was held on August 2, 1940. T.H Eslick disappeared soon after, leaving the dome-like structure abandoned until July 1942, when US General Douglas MacArthur commandeered it for the American military, calling it “Camp Luna Park”.

Cloudland was purchased by sisters Mya Winters and Francis Rouch after the second World War and reopened for ballroom dancing in April 1947. Its heyday was in the early 1950s, when crowds of more than 2000 regularly turned out in their finest to dance to the music of bandleader Billo Smith. Jitterbug and rock-and-roll were confined to a roped-off area referred to as “the pig pen”, and public dance nights were held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

The list of rock and pop luminaries who had performed at Cloudland began to grow, and the venue became an important venue where new musical styles were celebrated and showcased. Artists including Buddy Holly, Jerry-Lee Lewis, Johnny O’Keefe, The Bee Gees and Midnight Oil – who raged at the pre-dawn destruction of Cloudland in their song “Dreamworld” – all took to the ballroom’s stage during its lifetime.

In the 1960s, the University of Queensland, used Cloudland’s hall for student exams, and the weeknight and weekend dances were more popular than ever; a Telegraph article from September 1968 touted the venue as “a magnet by day and night”.

Since its untimely demolition in 1982, Cloudland has become a symbol of nostalgia and captured the imagination of locals, who’ve seen its spirit come to life in a number of plays and, more recently, Queensland Ballet’s Cloudland, choreographed by Artistic Director François Klaus. In 2009, the Bickles, a Fortitude Valley nightclub family, opened a multi-storey, multi-bar nightclub named Cloudland, but the original ballroom remains a cherished and much lamented icon.

Tickets to Let’s Dance are on sale now.