The Cloudland Ballroom

The prophesied version 2 of the Cloudland Ballroom digital recreation has arrived - more detailed, more accurate and visually hugely improved from the 2017 edition. Please join me for another sightseeing of this legendary venue, as it was in about 1951. 


Before we get underway, I want (yet again) to thank everyone who has contacted me to share their photos, memories and thoughts. I was completely taken back by the public response to the first version, published exactly two years ago. I love it - please keep it coming. All information will be preserved for future generations. 
I also want to give special thanks to Kyle Fysh for his extensive research and prior modelling of on the Cloudland building and fitout. 


In the original article I lamented the lack of surviving photos of Cloudland's interior - a rather unexpected situation that turned out to be the greatest challenge to this project. There are thousands of photos of couples in the photographer’s studio, and of bands performing on the stage, but not so many of the lounging areas, the bar and other peripheral spaces. There are two main reasons for this – firstly, Cloudland in the 50s had a professional event photographer and private cameras were not allowed, and secondly the vast venue was notoriously under-lit by the weak artificial lights of the day. 


Fortunately, the National Library has a collection of high-resolution daytime photos from Post Office balls held in the late 40s and throughout the 50s, and these provided most of the fine details for the model. References for these photos are provided in the footnotes.


Overall dimensions for the building were derived from rough site plans, aerial photos and written accounts. Again, Kyle Fysh’s work proved invaluable. Where possible I have used the earliest available reference photos and as a result the model shows the venue mainly as it was in the early 50s, when it was still young but not brand new. 
The images will be very familiar to those who were patrons of Cloudland in the 1950s. For those who visited Cloudland in later decades, you will probably notice changes resulting from partial refurbishments and other works that took place over the subsequent decades.

 

You will also notice that the interior to looks much newer and “crisp” in these pictures than it did in the 70s and early 80s, when it was rather dilapidated and approaching its doom. I have also "dialled up" the lighting in the model to give a better view of its dimly lit nooks and crannies.


Historical accuracy has been the guiding obsession for this project and every detail down to lamp fittings, door handles, and signage fonts have been modelled from scratch to match the originals as closely as possible. The desire for accuracy also resulted in a very drawn-out digital rendering project, to correctly represent the materials used in Cloudland and the complex lighting arrangements. The venue was once described as “a veritable fairly-land by night”, and I was determined to replicate this as accurately as possible. There are more than 300 individual lights in this model, and of course also the mighty Queensland sun which was configured to the location of Montpellier Hill.  


The commentary uses compass directions and you can refer to the below aerial photo to orient yourself as the tour progresses. All images on this page can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Cloudland orientation and layout, aerial photo from 1946. Click to enlarge.

The digital renderings are all free to use – please share and enjoy as you please. The images are very large, so please be patient as the page and each picture loads. This page is best viewed on a large screen - smaller size versions of the images can be found on the Facebook page.

A Tour of Cloudland

Let's start with this wide-angle view, which shows the venue from the northern side looking across the dance floor, with the stage to the left and the bar in the distant right corner. We see lounging areas encircling the dance floor, stadium-style seating on the mezzanine, the tiered ceiling with prominent ventilators, columns with ornate capitals and the impressive central chandelier.

The overall impression is pleasing but somewhat confounding. Cloudland belongs to the architectural school that I call “Inter-War Confused” - a Hollywoodesque borrowing of elements from a variety of styles that were not obviously compatible. In Cloudland we have ventilators of pure Jugend and other features showing traits of Deco, sitting in a functionalist shell with Corinthian columns and Greek friezes. 

Cloudland’s American developer T. H Eslick was clearly shooting for the “wow” factor rather than stylistic coherence – and with excellent success. This was an entertainment venue for the masses, designed to draw people in.

 

In the title image we also get a sense of the vastness of the space and the relative lack of windows and natural light. The scene is rendered with the sun at a low angle, showing the venue as it was at its absolute brightest. The impression at other times of the day was rather dusky. 

Now let’s look at some specific views, virtually walking anti-clockwise from the entrance through the ground floor and then to up to the mezzanine level. 

Passing through the famed entrance arch on the western side of the building, patrons stepped directly into the peripheral lounging area – there was no lobby. This view is from the entrance straight across the floor to the stage. Imagine that you've just walked through the huge arch outside, through the double front doors.

The famous "sprung" dance floor - nearly 1100 sqm of it - was constructed from 1-inch wide, tongue & grooved and secretly nailed boards of spotted gum. In all the primary sources there are no mentions of rubber tires or metal coils being installed under the floor, as sometimes claimed. I suspect that Eslick’s “cantilevered” design, which he had pioneered in the La Monica ballroom, Santa Monica , was based on a particular configuration of boards, joists and bearers to achieve the famous “bounce”. But the precise mechanism for the bouncy floor, and how it handled the seasonal movement of the timber across such a vast area, remains a mystery.

In the next image we see the mezzanine level and stadium-style seating that skirted the dance floor. The 26 large columns were crowned by capitals and gilded "angels", or caryatids, gazing at light bulbs concealed in sea shells. The angels were later painted white.

We also see the entrance doors, flanked by large mirrors on both sides, and the seating areas along the western wall. The space between the columns formed natural seating bays, numbered anti-clockwise from 1 to 24, and each bay had three couches around a small timber table. We only have black and white images of the original couches, but I believe that they were green.

Potted palm trees were placed behind each column. I have been told that that more palm trees were introduced at a later date, creating a leafy seclusion for each alcove.

Along the walls we find an array of loosely arranged wooden chairs and light-weight pedestal tables, which were apparently moved around quite freely by patrons. I am permanently on the lookout for verified surviving furniture from Cloudland – if you know of any please let me know.

The wall colours were described in contemporary reporting as being “soft pink-beige", a very 1930/40s palette.

Moving toward the southern corner, we come to the bar and the double doors leading to one of the “supper seating” rooms which were later expanded to create the Panorama Room. The other supper room was apparently accessed externally.

The rear wall of the bar had racks for crockery and glasses, and a screened doorway to the annexe. There was no direct passageway from the bar to the floor; refreshments were apparently collected at the bar. The facility was substantially expanded and modified in later decades.

 

Tristram’s was a well-known brand of fruit drinks and cordials, manufactured in Brisbane's West End. The advertisements above the bar changed over the years and this particular design was used in 1952. No alcohol was served at Cloudland from the opening through to the early 60s due to the Liquor Act, which prohibited sale or possession during public dances. But - I have it from reliable sources that contraband hip flasks were common among the crowd.

Next a couple of views from inside the bar - back towards the entrance and across the floor.

In the below image we can see some of the ceiling lights and wall sconces used in the seating areas, also faithfully reproduced from photos of the originals. The flooring around the perimeter was of a much wider and coarser grade than the finely engineered dance floor.

Next one of my favorite views - from a seating bay on the southern flank, looking north the across the floor. Readers commenting on the model have told me that the alcoves were bookable, and the same social circles or families often booked the same alcove for the same events, year after year. 

The jumble of formal seating and loose furniture continued along the eastern wall. In the distance, we see the area behind the stage with doors to the office and band room, and to the two staircases to the mezzanine floor. 

A 1940s newspaper article described the orchestra shell as a "complete quarter-circle and therefore acoustically perfect". The stage underwent many changes and expansions over the decades, and some had already been made by the time Cloudland re-opened in 1948.  The first design finished at the edge of the dome, which provided just enough space for Billy Romaine and his 10-man band of musicians. In the early 50's the stage floor had been extended into a semicircle, as seen in the below image. Later it was further expanded into a rectangular configuration. At some point in the mid-50s the band stands were painted with large, vertical “Cloudland” letters.


The spandrels on the sides of the dome were decorated with painted canvases depicting a dreamy night sky and oriental towers, resting in clouds under a cartoonish half-moon, and the inside of the dome had a faint motif of clouds. When Apel & Sons later took over the venue the spandrel paintings were replaced by panels, and the clouds were substituted by surrealist and jazzy musical instruments.

 

Fluro tubes were relatively novel in the 1930s and were available in a restricted range of colours. From a later photo we do know that the vertical fluros on the flanks were yellow, blue and white as shown here.

 

We can also see three powerful stage lights. It must have been a tough gig for musicians, playing for hours in three-piece suits, inside what was effectively a huge pizza oven.

Next a view from the other side of the orchestra shell, showing the area behind the stage and doors to the office, stairs and band room to the left.

View across the dance floor to the western side..

Continuing around the perimeter we have arrived at the north-eastern corner, looking west along the northern wall.

On the northern side we find the toilets with separate entries. The toilets block was later expanded into the seating area. 

Some accounts describe soaring marble columns along the perimeter, but the reality was more mundane. The columns were constructed from telegraph poles clad with chicken wire and plaster, finished in a glossy and pearlescent paint and illuminated by recessed lights under the capitals.

A quick gaze back towards the eastern corner..

..and finally we're back at the western perimeter again, looking south with the entrance on the right with the bar in the far corner.

The mezzanine floor contained about 900 fixed, stadium-style seats with excellent views of the whole venue. The level was accessed through the staircases located on the eastern side, behind the stage. This view is from the eastern perimeter, with the bar in the far corner.

A mezzanine-view of the stage..

..and a close-up of the seating configuration along the northern wall. Standing at the mezzanine railing brought the "angels" into a close encounter.

The barn doors on the mezzanine floor could be open wide to the night, to the external walkway outside which offered unparalleled views of Brisbane and surrounding mountains, forests and ocean. An intensely romantic spot, where thousands of couples took their first hand-in-hand steps on a lifetime journey. Many Brisbanites among us today could rightfully claim "Cloudland" as their middle name.

And finally, a few views of the venue as it was by night, in “fairy tale mode”, with all lights turned on.

The inviting bar..

..and seating ares.

Postscript

The Cloudland recreation started as a simple experiment in digital modelling of interior lighting, and ended up consuming many hundreds of late evening and early morning hours. It's been one of those "if I only knew how much work" projects - but aren't they all. It's been fun though, and although I moved to Brisbane a full 30 years after Cloudland was demolished, I feel as if I've spent an awful lot of time there. I don't know what it smelled like, its acoustics, or the texture of the timber floor under my hands, but the imagination fills those gaps.

 

The response to the first version of this model, published in May 2017, was overwhelming, and I have received thousands of comments on the Facebook page and lots of interest from media, historical societies and private persons. The public affection for this venue is astounding, and possibly quite unique. It was a magical space, of just the right size and configuration, built in a perfect spot, in a city of just the right size and at a special moment in time. Cloudland became the obvious social centre for an entire region, for a large cross-section of the population, for several generations.

 

The personal stories of Cloudland are a treasure of social history, slowly passing into collective mythology. A lasting symbol of post-war Brisbane, even for us that never saw it with our own eyes. 

Do you have a personal story to share? We'd love to hear about it on the Facebook page.

Sources

If you're interested in the early history of Cloudland, I recommend a closer look at some of the primary sources for this reconstruction. As mentioned previously, the most important by far has been the collection of photos from Post Office balls from the late 40s and throughout the 50s, kept by the National Library. Many of the photos are incorrectly referenced as being taken in Sydney, and they are indeed mixed up with photos from other balls in Sydney.

To browse the images, go to: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/SearchScreens/BasicSearch.aspx

In the "Search for" box, type "post office ball". The search will return several hundred results, and if you're familiar with Cloudland you should be able to pick out the relevant images. There are dozens of good interior photos in this collection and high-resolution scans can be ordered from the library. 

 

Another good but much smaller collection is by the Lands Department, taken in July 1959. The photos can be accessed on the QSA website. Go to: http://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/Image/ImageBasicSearch.aspx and type "cloudland" in the search box.

 

And of course, Facebook is a good source of all manner of photos and memorabilia uploaded by the public. There is a Facebook page dedicated to Cloudland - "Cloudland Ballroom the way it was before Joh", and I also recommend searching the 'Lost Brisbane" and "Old Brisbane Album" pages.

I am always on the lookout for photos, plans, marketing materials and other documentation of relevance to Cloudland - if you know of any sources please do get in touch.

 

Below is a small sample of photos from the NLA and Lands Department collections.

Post office balls (1948-1960). Series J2364. National Archives of Australia.

 

Unidentified (1950). Cloudland, July 1959. Queensland State Archives

 

Unidentified (1950). Interior view of Cloudland ballroom, Bowen Hills, ca. 1950. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

 

Aerial photographs 1946. Retrieved 21 May 2016 from http://cityplan2014maps.brisbane.qld.gov.au/CityPlan/

 

Unidentified, unknown year. Cloudland reservations and information brochure. Kyle Fysh private collection.

 

BCC Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (1970). Drainage plan. Kyle Fysh private collection.

 

National Trust of Queensland (1981). Notes and sketches from a site visit in mid-January 1981. Kyle Fysh private collection.

 

Fysh, Kyle. Date unknown. Photos of reproduction "Angels" or caryatids on columns. Kyle Fysh private collection.

 

Eslick T. H. Date unknown. Photographic resume of the Luna Park, Brisbane Construction Progress. Retrieved 22 May 2016 from: http://eslick.blogspot.com.au/

The model was produced with Sketchup Pro and rendered with various releases of Indigo Renderer 4.

Cloudland Day 12