HomeLifestyleThe history and haunting of the Wintergarden Theatre

The history and haunting of the Wintergarden Theatre

history haunting wintergarden theatre

Welcome to Hidden Histories: Wintergarden Theatre, the first episode of series two of the Bundaberg Now Podcast.

Recent news on the Wintergarden Theatre has prompted local families to share their memories including a mother and son with a unique insight into its history and haunting.

The iconic Maryborough Street facility is back in the limelight after Bundaberg Regional Council announced it would convert the building, opened in the 1920s, to a community hub while maintaining its heritage characteristics.

Delsie Carswell worked as an usherette at the Wintergarden Theatre between 1949 and 1954, even sharing a cup of tea with the likes of famous Bundaberg songstress Gladys Moncrieff.

Delsie’s son Danny recalls many an evening spent at the Wintergarden Theatre but it’s the stories from when the Wintergarden Theatre was converted to a video store that have stuck with him the most.

“I've heard the stories about the Blockbuster video with the videos jumping off the shelves at the end of the night,” Danny said.

“Maybe it was the people that worked with mum in that era that were still going around cleaning up at the end of the night.”

In this series we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings and infrastructure in our region.

Listen as we uncover memories, mysterious ghost stories and bizarre facts about some of our most iconic structures.

In this episode we get an insight into the Wintergarden Theatre during it's heyday, and speak to the architect who will bring it back to life as a Community Hub.

You can also listen on Google, Apple, Spotify, TuneIn or your favourite podcast app.

Subscribe to the podcast here.

History and haunting of the Wintergarden Theatre podcast transcript:

Gennavieve Lyons [00:00:07] Welcome to this special series of the Bundaberg Now podcast, where we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings of our region. Listen as we uncover hidden histories, mysterious ghost stories and bizarre facts about some of our most iconic buildings. To kick things off, we're stepping inside the Winter Garden Theatre, a building that's had quite a journey since being built in the 1920s. Located on the corner of Maryborough and Woongarra Streets, the building still retains stunning decorative plaster work of the era, with enormous female statues lining the walls. At the time, this theatre saw the biggest names in entertainment cross its stage while operated by Birch Carroll and Coyle. it closed in 1968 and was repurposed as a gymnasium and the old blockbuster video store. Now, local residents who worked in the video store recount some eerie experiences, with posters falling off walls, videos crashing from their shelves and a complete no-go zone on the upper level back stairs. After closing in 2017, the building has sat mostly empty, but Council is about to breathe life into it once again. While preserving the heritage features, a new internal fit-out and redesign will transform the building into a Community Hub as part of the vision for a Civic and Cultural Arts precinct. Today, we're going to hear from the architect who's currently working on the redesign to turn the space into offices for a range of community groups and low-cost rooms for hire for not-for-profit and community organisations. But first, here's Delsie Carswell to tell us what the Wintergarden was like in its heyday when she worked there as an usherette.

Adele Bennett [00:01:52] Thanks, Genevieve. It's Adele Bennett here with Delsie Carswell and her son Danny, who also has fond memories of the Wintergarden as a young boy. Delise, I heard you used to work at the Wintergarden Theatre, how old were you when you worked there?

Delsie Carswell [00:02:09] I was 16.

Adele Bennett [00:02:09] You were 16. What year was that?

Delsie Carswell [00:02:15] I mean, I started working most places when I was 16. And worked there until I got married. The Wintergarden was a beautiful building. It was a beautiful soundtrack building, can I say that? If you heard someone sing a song in the Wintergarden, it sounded ten times better than it did out on the street. You know what I mean? The sound there seemed to be perfect. Perfect.

Adele Bennett [00:02:50] So Danny, you've heard a lot of stories about your mum's time there?

Danny Carswell [00:02:54] Oh, yes, of course. When we were growing up and you know, realistically, I went to the Wintergarden quite a lot as a very young child. So I've got little memories of the Wintergarden, and the snack bar and, you know, the big balcony and all the seats and all the people there. But it's a lovely old building. And even in the era when Courts were in there as a furniture shop, I remember looking around and seeing the big statues up on the wall. And they're just lovely architecture that they did of that era.

Adele Bennett [00:03:26] So Delsie, what did you actually do as job there? What was your role?

Delsie Carswell [00:03:32] I was an usherette.

Adele Bennett [00:03:32] And what did that involve?

Delsie Carswell [00:03:37] Showing people to their seats or being pleasant to people, you know, just that sort of stuff.

Adele Bennett [00:03:46] So around what time would this have been?

Danny Carswell [00:03:51] In what timeframe? So you were born in 1932. So in 1949 to about 1954, about that sort of era.

Adele Bennett [00:04:02] Did you enjoy your job?

Delsie Carswell [00:04:20] I have to admit wherever I worked, I enjoyed you know, I enjoyed the people that I worked with.

Adele Bennett [00:04:25] What were some of the things you'd get up to?

Delsie Carswell [00:04:30] Oh, no, no, no, I never did naughty things, like they do these days. It was quiet, we had good times. 

Danny Carswell [00:04:48] So, yeah, some of the memories I've got of the Wintergarden because mum would work a lot at the nighttime sessions. I can remember the matinees because I was a young child. But, you know, the people throwing things, things from the balcony to the people underneath, you wonder who was throwing stuff at you. And, you know, I've heard stories about people used to throw crackers down, but they'd be escorted out pretty quickly, wouldn't they, Mum?

Adele Bennett [00:05:14] That was that part of your job to escort people out?

Danny Carswell [00:05:21] No.

Danny Carswell [00:05:21] They must have behaved when she worked!

Adele Bennett [00:05:23] Yeah. So, can you tell me some of the shows that were on stage when you're working there at some of the people?  What shows did you see, and did you meet any famous people?

Delsie Carswell [00:05:35] Anything that came to Bundy would have to go there because that was the only place we could really see anything. The Wintergarden was always alright it was a good place to work.

Danny Carswell [00:05:54] Mum got to work at shows with people like Gladys Moncrieff when she came and performed in Bundaberg and had the opportunity of sitting down and having a cup of tea with Gladys and you always that she was already a nice lady, wasn't she?

Adele Bennett [00:06:11] Do you remember what you spoke about with Gladys?

Delsie Carswell [00:06:13] Oh, no. It's too long ago!

Adele Bennett [00:06:18] But she was a nice lady?

Delsie Carswell [00:06:20] Yes, she never she never talked bad about anybody that I can remember me, and never growled at me or anything like that.

Danny Carswell [00:06:30] She was a good singer though.

Delsie Carswell [00:06:34] I liked some songs, some songs I didn't like.

Adele Bennett [00:06:40] Any other famous people that came through?

Delsie Carswell [00:06:42] Oh lovey, anyone that was anyone cam to the Wintergarden because it was the only place to go to.

Adele Bennett [00:06:52] And who was your favorite?

Delsie Carswell [00:06:59] I like them all.

Danny Carswell [00:07:00] Oh, it's just nice recalling with mom like Harold Blair, who, you know, I didn't have a real lot of knowledge up until a couple of weeks ago and he performed at the Wintergarden and he was, you know, in Uncle Tom's Cabin for quite a long time. And he's not a person I hear a lot spoken about in Bundaberg. But when you read the stories about him, you know, he was such an influential singer of his era and such a top quality performer. And I think was he I think he might have been like drove a tractor in Fairymead Mill before he became a singer. It's just and the Blair family's been in the Bundaberg district forever. And so and even the movies, too, because you would have seen Gone With the Wind that many times. You wouldn't have to worry about it, would you? And I can remember going to Wintergarden and seeing Lawrence of Arabia. Yeah. You know, they were packed. You know you sometimes go now to the movies and there's lots of people, but we're talking maybe thousands of people, maybe a couple of thousand sometimes.

Delsie Carswell [00:08:12] Standing up sometimes

Danny Carswell [00:08:14] Standing up to the whole movie or standing up the whole show.

Delsie Carswell [00:08:18] Just standing up for the show.

Adele Bennett [00:08:21] So what was the atmosphere like in that beautiful building with all those people, and being so young, was it quite intimidating having a job there?

Delsie Carswell [00:08:30] No, you didn't worry about it love. I always had good bosses and just seem to get along with people.

Adele Bennett [00:08:37]  I have heard a few stories of when it was transformed into the blockbuster video store that it was a little bit spooky. Did you ever have any spooky experiences?

Delsie Carswell [00:08:54] No.

Danny Carswell [00:08:56]  It may have been the ghosts from her era that were worrying the staff of the Blockbuster, but I've heard the stories about the Blockbuster Video with the videos jumping off the shelves at the end of the night and some so maybe it was the people that work with Mum in that era that was still going around cleaning up at the end of the night.

Adele Bennett [00:09:16] Yeah, you never know, all those busy usherettes.

Adele Bennett [00:09:19] And I also heard that you used to do classes with books on your head, learning how to be a proper young lady. Can you tell me about that?

Delsie Carswell [00:09:29] That was before I got the job you had to put a book on your head. I went to the Royal Hotel in those days and there was a lady there. She made you walk around with a book on your head. Not a hard time, just something that you did.

Adele Bennett [00:09:50] Anything else you have to learn to do before you could get a job?

Danny Carswell [00:09:53] What about the alphabet? Do you remember about the alphabet?

Delsie Carswell [00:09:58] Everyone asks about that! You have to show people to the seats you have to go Z Y X W V U you had to know because you were going and we'll let you know because you're going this way to put people into their seats.

Adele Bennett [00:10:12] So you had to know if backwards? And in the dark as well?

Delsie Carswell [00:10:15] Oh, not very much dark, there was always lights everywhere.

Adele Bennett [00:10:18] And so what did you think of the big statues on the walls was that something that impressed you?

Delsie Carswell [00:10:39] I won’t say impressed, but you noticed them. In that time, it was a pretty good thing. It was.

Adele Bennett [00:10:45] So I don't know if you heard that Council is transforming the building into a Community Hub. What do you think about it being, you know, have a new lease on life?

Delsie Carswell [00:10:58] Well, everything changes. Nothing ever stays the same, nothing ever stays the same.

Adele Bennett [00:11:06] Well, thank you so much for sharing your story it was lovely to have a chat.

Gennavieve Lyons [00:11:10] Tomas O'Malley Architecture won the tender to redesign the theatre into the community hub. He spoke with Adele Bennett about the building and how much planning goes into maintaining its heritage features.

Adele Bennett [00:11:22] From an architectural point of view, can you tell me about this building and what makes it so special?

Tomas O'Malley [00:11:28] So this used to be the Wintergarden Theatre. It was built in the late 1920s and it was part of a whole chain of theatres that Birch, Carroll and Coyle started up, up and down the coast of Queensland. What sort of makes it unique is that it say they had a tropical concept theatre where it was designed to be suited to the Queensland climate. So the seatbacks were open slots rather than the traditional red velvet. And the windows were all designed so that they could allow air flow through while they were still able to have blackout for theatre performances. And while I'm not certain that this one did, some of the theatres actually had an area under the stage that they would fill with big ice blocks and blow air over them in a sort of early air conditioning or evaporative cooling method. So the other interesting part about this, this theatre is that it was a it was designed for both cinema and for live performance. So it has quite a large stage area that that would have been used for a variety of different touring performances, as well as local productions.

Delsie Carswell [00:12:57] And the style of the facade is something that was common at the time?

Tomas O'Malley [00:13:03] Yeah. So the whole chain of Wintergarden theatres were based on some of the sort of more opulent theatres in Sydney and Brisbane, including the Wintergarden Theatre and in Brisbane. That's now the Wintergarden Shopping Centre. It is theoretically they called it art deco style, but it's probably not what I'd say as a classic art deco. It has a bit of a combination of motifs from different eras. And it's sort of harking to that sort of grand theatre typology.

Delsie Carswell [00:13:45] So and they look like mermaids to me. Or maybe the things on the front of a ship, I'm not sure. Yeah, but is that part of the whole climate making theme?

Tomas O'Malley [00:13:59] Look, I think that's fairly typical kind of decorative embellishment that you'd have in in theatres. A lot of the time they were Greek or Roman goddesses and or the muses. They're all sort of fairly typical decorative motifs that you see throughout the theatrical buildings everywhere.

Adele Bennett [00:14:23] Do you have any more knowledge on who designed it?

Tomas O'Malley [00:14:28] No, I haven't been able to find out who the architect was. I'm assuming that it was probably the same architect who designed the whole series of buildings throughout Queensland, because they were all done within a sort of three- or four-year period, so I think there was a lot of replication and consistency between the designs of the buildings.

Adele Bennett [00:14:52] Council recently announced renovation of this building. Now you have won the tender, how do you balance preserving heritage features and designing a modern facility?

Tomas O'Malley [00:15:05] Yeah, it's a balancing act. It's important that the building has a purpose and a use. Obviously, there's no point having a building that's just a museum space that has no ability to be built used by the community. I think it's a great opportunity that this is going to be used as a as a community building because it it allows as many people as possible to sort of say a lot of these elements that most people don't even know exist.

Adele Bennett [00:15:40] When you were designing it, you're going to take into account the different user groups and things. So what other things are you using for inspiration for the new design?

Tomas O'Malley [00:15:48] So one of the things that we are using in terms of as a basis for the new design is to minimise the impact on the heritage features. Unfortunately, the lower floor has very little left of the original building, so it will be a fairly straightforward commercial fit at the upper floor. We obviously have the plaster work and the high ceilings and the there are actually original some of the original shutters that are underneath the stage that we can look to reinstate in some of the windows. But it will be an important part of trying to maintain as much as possible of that heritage fabric and work within that and reference off that.

Adele Bennett [00:16:41] So have you worked on any heritage refurbishment before?

Tomas O'Malley [00:16:46] Yeah, I've worked on a few, both in my own practice and for other companies I've worked for. So we've been involved in projects in Brisbane and Ipswich, as well as projects here that are adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.

Adele Bennett [00:17:04] So what are your hopes for the final product and how does it feel to be part of preserving such a historic building?

Tomas O'Malley [00:17:13] I'd hope that we can really not only preserve but enhance the heritage elements of this building and look to make it a part of the civic and cultural precinct that is a real asset to the community. We would obviously need to make sure that the internal spaces are suitable for a large variety of user groups. This is a community hub. It's about making sure that the community have access to these spaces to use for a variety of activities.

Adele Bennett [00:17:56] Great.

Adele Bennett [00:17:57] And are you excited to see it come to life?

Tomas O'Malley [00:18:00] Yeah, absolutely. New projects are always it's always good to get into a new project. And it's a different challenge every project that you do. But that's what makes the job enjoyable.

Gennavieve Lyons [00:18:14] Work on the Winter Garden is set to begin in 2022. And by the time this historic building takes on its new role as community hub, it it'll be just shy of 100 hundred years old. Thanks for listening to just a snippet of the history of the Wintergarden. Tune in next month when we hear about another of Bundaberg's heritage buildings.

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