By Richie Goodacre.
Situated between Albert and Charlotte Street stood one of the most iconic Brisbane venues, whose influence is still being felt today. Festival Hall—formerly named Brisbane Stadium, built in 1910 by legendary boxer Snowy Baker and his brother Harald. The brothers also partnered with the builder of the original Sydney Stadium, boxing promoter Hugh D. Macintosh. In 1912 The Bakers bought Macintosh out to establish more stadiums in other capitals. In 1914 The Bakers aligned themselves with Richard Lean and John Wren, becoming stakeholders in a new company called Stadiums Pty Ltd. Which would give all parties involved control of all the venues. Wren was a prominent figure, having made millions from illegal bookmaking and racing and had ties to notorious gangster Squizzy Taylor.
To celebrate the centenary of Queensland’s statehood, Brisbane Stadium was subsequently transformed into Brisbane Festival Hall and opened its doors in 1989. Although the cultural impact on the state and the Australian music industry can not be understated, it was never envisioned that Festival Hall would solely be a live music venue. Instead, it was a space created to host Boxing and Wrestling events. Still, after both sports saw a downturn in popularity, the focus was shifted towards music and Roller Derby, which had become the hot new sport coming out of America. A decision that would pay off as Festival Hall became the go-to venue for big international acts on tour. The Festival Hall has hosted artists such as Bob Dylan, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and many more of the biggest bands of all time.
While Festival Hall can undoubtedly be deemed a success story, the story can also serve as a case study of how little importance governments place on arts in this country. Despite still going strong, Festival Hall hosted its final performance on 9th August 2003, with Michael Franti and Spearhead going down in history as the last acts ever to grace that stage. The venue closed on 29th August 2003 and was subsequently demolished in favour of a new apartment block, Festival Towers. Live music in Brisbane has not been the same since. As former Powderfinger bassist, John Collins describes, “Brisbane had its heart ripped out when we lost Festival Hall.”
Not all is lost, though, as the Hall’s legacy lives on in the present day, in the form of The Fortitude Music Hall, the brainchild of John Collins, building magnate Scott Hutchinson and former Powderfinger manager Paul Pitocco. Opening in 2019, the aim is to fill the void the Hall left behind and revitalize the Brisbane Music scene. Some of the venue’s aesthetics are heavily inspired by the Festival Hall and other iconic global venues.
Festival Hall may be gone, but its impact on society and arts and culture in this great city will be felt for decades to come.
Moore, T., 2019. A look inside the Fortitude Music Hall, days before its opening. [online] Brisbanetimes.com.au. Available at: <https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/a-look-inside-the-fortitude-music-hall-days-before-its-opening-20190723-p52a0z.html> [Accessed 17 September 2022].
Hinchliffe, J., 2018. New Festival Hall a ‘labour of love’ to keep live music alive in Brisbane. [online] Abc.net.au. Available at: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-19/festival-hall-replacement-to-keep-live-music-alive-in-brisbane/10012310> [Accessed 17 September 2022].
Griffin, J., 2006. Biography – John Wren – Australian Dictionary of Biography. [online] Adb.anu.edu.au. Available at: <https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wren-john-9198> [Accessed 17 September 2022].
Cover Page credit: Colin Llyod