Palace of dreams: part 2

Sunday 21 October, 1928. The day dawned with the smell of acrid smoke across the West End and the shocking sight of the Palais Royale Majestic, the popular dance hall at 684 Hunter Street, gone. The night before, just after the last dancers had left and with only the orchestra left packing up their instruments, the building had dramatically caught alight. In less than an hour it had been reduced to no more than charred foundation blocks and twisted sheets of galvanised iron.

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But the grand dame of the West End would not prove conquered for long. In less than six months the Palais Royale was rebuilt, this time as a magnificent  timber and steel framed building crowned with what became its most distinctive feature, a curved Art Deco façade above which a metal arc spelt out the words ‘Empire Palais’. Its official name was the wordy Empire Palais Royale Dance Centre, but it soon became known to all as the Palais Royale.  Inside it boasted a splendidly appointed foyer, main hall and mezzanine, its vaulted ornate plaster ceiling as high as a cathedral.

A large stage was framed on both sides by intricately carved wooden columns resembling four enormous corkscrews and it’s opening on 29 March, 1929, was a grand affair. The Palais soon cemented itself as ‘the’ place for classy events such as Mayoral balls, the entertaining of visiting dignitaries and the coming out of debutantes – no-where but the Palais Royale was good enough. In its opening year the Artillery Ball was hosted by the NSW Governor’s son and daughter the comfortably named Lieutenant Henry and Miss Elaine de Chair.

In 1931 a fundraising ball for the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society, organised by Newcastle’s commercial artists, saw the Palais packed to capacity with 900 people in fancy dress. Later that same year an official visit to Newcastle by the Governor General Sir Isaac Isaacs was celebrated with a grand ball hosted by the Mayor and Aldermen.

The Palais was beloved by ordinary people too. In 1933 it made history when the first annual ball of the Newcastle Surf Life Saving Club was held there, also in attendance were surf life savers from the Stockton, Merewether, Cooks Hills, Nobbys and Redhead clubs. Billy Romaine’s orchestra played late into the night and curiously, for such an event, two ballet performances were presented.

By the 1940s dancing at the Palais, as it was now simply known, was at the centre of Newcastle’s night life. It was a place of rendezvous and romance, particularly during WW11 when the venue was full of servicemen and women dancing the Pride of Erin, Boston Two-Step, Gypsy Tap or moving around the floor in a progressive barn dance.

By the 1950s the jivers and jitterbuggers had arrived and many accounts of this time remember the mistress of move, Phyllis Mook, and her highly acrobatic and accomplished jitterbugging. No alcohol was allowed to be consumed or brought into the Palais, so people (particularly young men) had to fuel up (with Dutch courage) at the Empire Hotel opposite. One account of the Palais remembers it as “the best run dance hall in Newcastle. The Gibb brothers who played rugby league for Australia were the bouncers and took no nonsense.” In a delicious twist of historical synchronicity the Palais Royale hosted roller skating during winter, just as it had done on the same site back in 1888.

During the 1960s and into the early 1970s the first wave of baby boomers hit their teenage years and caused a demographic spike which influenced everything from politics to fashion. Waves of teenagers crowded the Palais Royale, with numbers reaching 1,000 at weekend dances. The times had changed but the grand old lady continued her reign as Newcastle’s premier entertainment venue. A highlight of the Saturday night dances was the progressive barn dance and due to the huge number of participants an inner and outer circle was formed, or the crowd made an enormous horseshoe which covered the whole dance floor. This dance was popular as it afforded both sexes the chance to dance with everyone in the room, easily appraise the ‘talent’ on offer, do some serious flirting and maybe collect a phone number – or two.

One particular dance is remembered fondly by Palais regulars. Holding your partner in the traditional position, dancers shuffled around the floor in a style quite unique to the Hunter which became known as the ‘Town Hall Crawl’. Just which town hall birthed this well-remembered style is unknown, although Maitland Town Hall, with its unique sprung dance floor, is most commonly credited. Throughout the 1960s music styles changed rapidly, rock and roll had revolutionised musical tastes and local bands worked hard to keep up. One of the significant bands of this era was the Hi-Fis who were the Palais band for most of the 1960s and today can still be seen performing in and around the Hunter.

Inexplicably, despite attracting large numbers the fortunes of the Palais slumped and it opened and closed a couple times, in between serving as a 2nd hand furniture shop, a snooker hall and even a wool store. It was rescued by Fred Pears, who had danced at the Palais and then later managed the premises. He was determined it would live again, so he gave the building a facelift and a new name, the Palais Royale Nite Club, and it was re-born just in time for its 50th anniversary on 29 March 1979.

The old central domes of the original Palais were re-conditioned and some of the familiar corkscrew style pillars survived. It was envisioned as a cabaret venue with a cocktail bar and a la carte dining, a plush casino-styled nightclub; but the venue was perfect for big concerts. Until the end of the century the walls rang with music, hosting many local bands such as the Screaming Jets, international acts like UB40 and seeing performances from bands which are now part of Australia’s musical heritage including Cold Chisel and the Angels. Fame could also come from a performance at the Palais, in 1982 visiting singer Ian ‘Peewee’ Wilson watched Danny Mayers and picked him that night to join his band The Delltones.

Despite this reincarnation the Palais again struggled. By 1999 it was closed and the following year leased as a youth centre for 12-25 year olds which provided counselling and recreational facilities, including, aptly, a recording studio. By 2004 photos of the building show it looking sad, tatty and unloved, its exterior chipped, windows broken and its interior faded and heavily tagged. Developers had been given permission to demolish the Palais and build an 8-storey mixed commercial and residential development on the site, conditional upon the iconic façade being retained.

And then came the June long weekend 2007. Storms and wild winds lashed Newcastle, floods closed down the heart of the city, the Pasha Bulker ran aground on Nobbys Beach and the Hunter River threatened to breach its levee at Maitland. In the end it was nature that claimed the remaining part of the Palais Royale. An assessment of the site following the rain damage showed that the façade was not supported on substantial piers and that the existing shallow foundations had been significantly undermined by heavy water flowing through the site. Both heritage specialists and engineers deemed the site structurally unsound and irreparable; its fate was sealed. In March 2008 the Palais Royale came down, the grand ballroom crumbled and the once splendid pleasure palace became rubble; but the mysterious lady still had one last surprise hiding under her skirts.

The site was excavated in 2009 and astonishingly the remains of one of Newcastle’s most important colonial sites was uncovered. Hundreds of items including pottery, glass and Aboriginal artefacts were discovered, the footings of a cottage were found, possibly that which housed colonial missionary Lancelot Threlkeld. It was rated as one of NSW’s most significant archaeological finds in decades. A final report on the site stated that it was of ‘high to exceptional cultural and scientific significance’ with 684 Hunter Street containing ‘over 5700 ancient Aboriginal stone tools with unique stonework and campsite remains. These [carbon-dated] artefacts date back to between 6716 and 6502 years. This makes the artefacts the oldest evidence of human settlement in Newcastle.’

The site had new owners Yum! Restaurants International and they planned it to be the home of Australia’s 600th KFC store, one which eventually opened in December 2010. Part of their approved development application was that the restaurant would feature photographic murals of the old Palais Royale, a condition which the current unattractive image on its back wall, with the curious date of ‘1921’, does not fulfil.

The first building on this site was constructed in 1888, it became a dance hall in 1894 and the (second) Palais Royale which was demolished for the KFC’s construction, was built in 1929. So, 1921 is…what exactly?

In addition, at the time of the archaeological dig a KFC spokesperson reassured concerned Novocastrians that the company was “working towards having a graphic representation in the restaurant” of the “Awabakal people’s connection to the site”.

Five years on. We are still waiting.

This is part two of a two-part blog on the history of the Palais Royale site, 684 Hunter Street, Newcastle West.

Kimberly O’Sullivan

The Coal River Working Party blog contains a detailed description of the archaeological dig at the Palais Royale site and the remarkable Indigenous history it uncovered:

Photos of the Palais Royale can be seen online at Hunter Photobank, Flickr and Trove. Most are part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Ralph Snowball Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. The National Library of Australia, via Trove, has records in multiple formats of the site and its changing use over time. The Local Studies Collection, Newcastle Library, have original material relating to the Palais Royale. Photos of the Palais Royale in its later years and when it was derelict have been taken by Sue Ryan and Ross Beckley and can be seen on the photographic sites listed above.


3 responses to “Palace of dreams: part 2

  1. It really does beg the question, ‘What is the need?’ And in this case, do we need a 600th KFC outlet or do we need to conserve and connect with our past? I am dismayed to learn that the powers that be decided on the former rather than the latter. In doing so, we have lost this significant opportunity to discover and share our unique history.
    I appreciate your informative and thoroughly researched work on this corner of our city Kimberley and look forward to reading your posts.

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