7 June 2023

Hazel's history: frolicking in the follies at the 1957 Griffith Water Wheel Festival

| Oliver Jacques
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Hazel Lorenzi holds the original 1957 Festival Follies program

Hazel Lorenzi holds the original 1957 “Festival Follies” program. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

As Griffith gears up for the biggest event in its history this June long weekend, the projected 20,000-strong Sikh Games, history buff Hazel Lorenzi has recalled the drama and excitement of one of the town’s first major festivals.

She took part in the legendary 1957 Water Wheel Festival, starring in the musical ‘Chinatown‘, a play she said would never be allowed to be performed today.

It was two years earlier that businessman Bill Mackay, older brother of legendary politician Don Mackay, came up with the idea of holding an annual festival to celebrate the town’s irrigation roots, while also raising money for charity.

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The Griffith Water Wheel Festival was thus launched, with a major parade held at Easter each year from 1956 until it morphed into what was later called the Vintage Festivals from the 1970s onwards.

“No event yet staged in the town of Griffith has aroused more public interest than the Water Wheel Festival,” the inaugural souvenir program stated.

Mrs Lorenzi, who celebrates her 83rd birthday today (8 June), explained what things were like in the early days.

“It’s totally different from the festivals we have today,” she said. “Thousands of people lined the streets for the parades. Nowadays, you might have a band playing in the community gardens or something. Whereas we used to do so much more. We would be acting out plays, dances, duets and have so much else going on.”

At the age of just 16, Hazel (nee Williams) played a pivotal role in the Festival Follies Variety Show, a highlight of the 1957 Water Wheel Festival.

“I performed in a musical called Chinatown, at the Rio Theatre,” she said. “I had to dress up as a Chinese person, wearing a black gown and holding a fan.

“We sang two songs, When China Boy Meets China Girl [by Dorothy Squires] and Rose Rose I Love You [by Frankie Lane]. There was a guy who carried the five of us on a rickshaw. His name was James Scully.”

Cast dressed as Chinese people drag rickshaw

Hazel Williams (second from right) performs in Chinatown. Photo: Supplied.

The great-grandmother said it was a lot of fun at the time, but that it’s also probably a good thing that such performances no longer happen.

“It’s not nice to impersonate people like that … we can’t expect things to stay the same, no we can’t.”

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Chinatown was one of a packed itinerary of shows performed in the 1957 festival at the Rio Theatre, which used to tower over the top block of Banna Avenue before it was closed in the 1970s.

There was also a ‘Soprano Solo’ by Delia Salvestro, a play called Hot Water by a group of Rankin Springs artists and a finale song – Griffith on the M.I.A. by Les Johnson. The compere for the show’s program was Al Grassby, who later became Griffith’s representative in Federal Parliament and the immigration minister for the 1972 Whitlam Labor government.

“He was a very ‘out there’ gentleman, he would wear bright clothes and fur coats,” Mrs Lorenzi said.

Moira Milton on a float.

Princess candidate Moira Milton on a float at the 1960 Water Wheel Festival. Photo: Griffith Genealogical and Historical Society.

She said the early Water Wheel Festivals also featured an event on the town’s main canal, and explained why this came to a halt.

“They had floats going down the canal, one of them featured the woman chosen to be the ‘Queen’ [of the festival]. She was in the boat, she was looking beautiful, we were all on the bank watching. Then all of a sudden the water came up and down she went. The men had to dive in and rescue her. That’s when they realised we can’t do that, we’ll do the parades on the main street rather than the canal.”

The Griffith Vintage Festival continues to be celebrated in April each year. Further information on the history of the event and how it has evolved can be found at Griffith City Library.

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