At 68, Moomba has a lewd message for detractors
8th March 2023

There is something gloriously gaga about grown men and women dressed as superheroes, clutching flimsy would-be flying machines and leaping off a high platform into the turbid waters of the Yarra River.

It’s the Birdman Rally, of course, the wildly popular centrepiece of the Moomba Festival, Melbourne’s annual family carnival that has long bamboozled those who try to define it.

The Moomba parade pulled a bumper crowd in 1979, filling the Princess Bridge and Swanston Street.Credit:John Lamb

From the very first Moomba in 1955 there has been an impressive divide about the meaning of the festival … and the meaning of the name.

The long-defunct Argus newspaper was wonderfully supportive from the start.

Its front-page headline on March 12, 1955, heralding the first day of the first Moomba, declared “We’ll have gay time”. If this wasn’t quite cheery enough, the paper’s page three shouted, “It’s a gay day today”.

The Age positively gushed, describing the first parade as “a spectacular procession”, worthy of “fairytale fantasies” and alive with “clowns, floats festooned with flowers, pretty girls, [and] men mounted on frisky horses”.

Moomba King Molly Meldrum wearing his special hat/crown on the float as it shakes its way down Swanston Street at the head of the parade on March 11, 1985.Credit:Fairfax Archives

But this was wowser Melbourne and the outbreak of merry-making caused a thunderous prediction of societal degradation delivered from the pulpit the day after the first frisky parade.

Australia was “living the Moomba life of carnival”, Anglican Canon F. E. Thornton sermonised at St Paul’s Cathedral, and he didn’t mean it in a jolly way at all.

“We go on Moomba-ing through life, seeking more and more fun, as if we had not enough,” the good clergyman fulminated, apparently unhappy that Melburnians were out enjoying themselves, rather than attending church.

“Neglect of religion has always been followed by lowering standards, leading to individual and national decay,” he reprimanded.

Moomba’s first committee chairman, Councillor W.A Comeadow, wasn’t about to let this frightful slur on his festival go unchallenged.

There was nothing decadent about Moomba at all, he said.

“The committee have combined what they consider is good, clean fun with a carefully balanced program of music, opera, ballet and sport,” said Cr Comeadow.

The Lord only knows what the killjoy churchman and the chairman in charge of good, clean fun might have thought if they’d been let in on the linguistic practical joke that gave birth to the name Moomba.

The previous year, in 1954, prominent Aboriginal activist and artist Bill Onus suggested that “Moomba” would be a suitable name for the planned festival, which would embrace the longstanding Henley regatta on the Yarra, a pageant of floral floats, music, dance and drama, horse racing and society balls.

Moomba meant “let’s get together and have fun”, said Onus, presumably with a straight face. The organisers lapped up the improbability of such a short word having such an elaborate meaning.

Years later, the book English in Australia edited by academics David Blair and Peter Collins, revealed that “Moom” in various indigenous languages meant “bum” or “anus” and “Ba” meant “at, in or on”.

La Trobe University professor emeritus Barry Blake, a linguist specialising in Australian Aboriginal languages, declared that “presumably someone has tried to render the phrase ‘up your bum’ in the vernacular”. Oops.

Since then, of course, Moomba has produced a realm of queens and kings, most of them homegrown stars of stage, screen, sporting field or – or the case of the queens during the festival’s first decade – the beauty pageant circuit.

Indeed, the first Moombas had only a queen.

Pageant winner and Miss Henley on the Yarra, Beverley Stewart (later Jones), was the first of them. Aged 19, she led the festival’s 1955 parade riding a swan-shaped float, flanked by Moomba princesses.

There was no king until 1967, when extravagantly girthed and plummy-voiced British actor Robert Morley – who was in Melbourne performing a one-man stage show, The Sound of Morley – was granted the first crown.

Crowds celebrate Moomba in 2003.Credit:Rodger Cummins

Despite describing Melbourne “a boring, unpainted town”, he rode majestically through the streets in a red open-topped Rolls Royce, accompanied by the queen, Patsy Earp.

Foreign Moomba monarchs haven’t been enormously popular since, though the organisers took a while to get the message: the king of 1968 was another English actor, Alfred Marks.

By 1969, some locals revolted when Italian opera singer Tito Gobi was named the king. He received letters threatening he would be pelted with rotten eggs if he took part in the Moomba parade.

Shaken, he abdicated shortly after being crowned. Eventually, he changed his mind and rode securely in the parade with boxing champion Lionel Rose at his side, presumably for protection.

Mickey Mouse, Moomba king in 1977 (a woman, it happens, was inside the suit), copped a pie to the face during the festival’s procession.

The first Melbourne-born Moomba king was “Moonface”, Bert Newton, in 1978.

The following year the king of TV, Graham Kennedy – another Melbourne-born star, to whom Newton was regularly sidekick – was king of Moomba.

Daryl Somers was king in 1983, the same year Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage was crowned queen mother.

Molly Meldrum, reportedly massively hung-over from partying till 5.30am, led the Moomba parade as king in 1985.

The Moomba “monarchy” was abandoned and the festival became a republic for a decade after the clowns Zig and Zag were appointed monarchs in 1999, but hastily stood down after it was revealed that Zig, played by Jack Perry, had been convicted of molesting his granddaughter.

When organisers decided in 2010 it was safe to bring back kings and queens following the Zig scandal, Meldrum was given his second crown and singer Kate Ceberano was granted her first.

Rolf Harris was Moomba king in 1975. But by the time he was convicted and jailed in 2014 for a string of historical sex offences, the Moomba monarchy had been restored and there was no move to jettison it again, however great the embarrassment.

The Moomba Birdman Rally in full flight.Credit:Nine

Indeed, the monarchy was placed in the most secure of hands that disconcerting year of 2014: Newton returned for his second reign.

And the Birdman Rally?

It didn’t start until 1976. It was an on-again, off-again event for several years: high e-coli counts made jumping into the Yarra foolhardy.

The Yarra these days, we are assured, is much more Bird-person friendly. The Birdman Rally will take to the river on Sunday. It starts at 11am, leaving time, the clergy might be relieved to know, to attend church first.

Credit:Matt Golding

Dear old Moomba, for decades mocked as an anachronism in festival-heavy Melbourne, has long outlived its detractors.

It will celebrate its 68th anniversary with a packed program starting on Thursday, culminating in the grand parade on Monday, with singer, actor and dancer Rhonda Burchmore as queen and singer and actor Rob Mills as king.

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