Kewpie treasure trail

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Giant Kewpie dolls from the Sydney Olympic Games closing ceremony are now scattered across the land. One of them, Violet, is in Bendigo, the property of funeral director Simon Mulqueen. Picture:  CONTRIBUTED

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Giant Kewpie dolls from the Sydney Olympic Games closing ceremony are now scattered across the land. One of them, Violet, is in Bendigo, the property of funeral director Simon Mulqueen. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

When watching one of the spectacular ceremonies that bookend a major sporting festival, do you ever pause to wonder what becomes of the thousands of costumes, props and set pieces created for one moment in the spotlight? 

In a storage unit somewhere in Bendigo, a six-metre-tall piece of Sydney Olympics history is awaiting its next opportunity to shine.  

Fairs and celebrations were always held around country areas. There were people here who’d been to the Easter fair as a kid and who would remember the Kewpie dolls. - Simon Mulqueen, owner

Violet, one of 12 fibreglass Kewpie dolls used in the Sydney closing ceremony, is now the property of funeral director Simon Mulqueen.

Mr Mulqueen was part of a Bendigo Easter Fair Society contingent that travelled to Sydney to bid for remnants of the sporting spectacle shortly after its conclusion.   

The kitsch sculptures made their debut at the Homebush stadium in the final moments of the Games, at the same time ballroom dancing couples and John Paul Young paid homage to the Baz Luhrmann film, Strictly Ballroom.  

A popular fairground souvenir, the Kewpie doll was also chosen as a nod to Ray Lawler’s classic Australian drama, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.  

Mr Mulqueen found it a perfect fit for Bendigo’s Easter festival.

“Fairs and celebrations were always held around country areas,” Mr Mulqueen said.

“There were people here who’d been to the Easter fair as a kid and who would remember the Kewpie dolls.” 

While several of the props were made available at auction, Violet was chosen for her name, a nod to the late, long-serving committee member Violee Myers-Davies. 

The purchase set the society back just “a couple of thousand dollars”, leaving spare change for other odd ends: a Bananas in Pyjamas float, flagpoles and temporary staging.

Many of those items had since been sold, their provenance lost.   

But when the City of Greater Bendigo assumed responsibility for the Easter Fair in the mid-2000s, Mr Mulqueen purchased Violet, ensuring the doll was kept in Bendigo for future generations to enjoy.  

The fate that awaited the dolls

Few of the other 11 Kewpies have enjoyed quite as good a post-Olympic life as Violet.

Two are housed in the collections of Canberra’s National Museum of Australia and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. 

A purple-corsetted Kewpie named Pansy presides over an antiques store in Bungendore, 40 kilometres east of Canberra.  

Looking slightly worse for wear is Kewpie doll Betty-Boo, tucked away in a corner of Sue Lane and Gary Evans’ Loddonderry Junkyard, a four-hectare farm that now plays host to thousands of rusting collectibles. 

The couple once owned two of the sculptures, but sold one of the pair to Alison and David Waite, who run Sovereign Hill-style theme park Timbertown in Port Macquarie. 

They propose putting the Kewpie out of the front of their heritage attraction’s forthcoming doll museum.   

Perhaps the Kewpie with the most bizarre destiny is the one that lives at the School of Happiness, a nature retreat near Tenterfield, New South Wales.

Its chest now emblazoned with a rainbow heart, its eyes coloured aquamarine, it watched over a high-profile hold-up in 2012 when a drug-affected member of the Rainbow Family commune held other party-goers at knife-point. 

Holding on to dear design

The final of the golden-haired dolls the Bendigo Advertiser managed to locate before deadline still belongs to its designer, Brian Thomson. 

The Tony Award winner was part of a team of six people who worked on the design of the closing ceremony, their brief being to put on the "biggest backyard barbecue" possible. 

There were meant to be 17 of the dolls, he said, the same number in the title of Ray Lawler’s play. But budgetary constraints meant they were kept to just 12. 

His love affair with the Kewpie icon began as a child visiting Luna Park, and his curiosity for the baby doll has continued into adulthood. 

Mr Thomson designed the stage production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, every production of which includes a cluster of Kewpies inside the bus. 

He also has plans to put a Kewpie sculpture beside the sea in Sydney. 

A very Kewpie future

The fate of the four remaining Kewpies remains unclear.

The Bendigo Advertiser was able to ascertain two dolls once sat atop a hotel roof in Redcliffe, Queensland, the property of now-divorced millionaire couple Vaughn and Carmel Bullivant. 

The hotel’s Fishbowl restaurant was dedicated to 1950s kitsch collectibles. 

But the hotel was demolished a decade ago and the dolls’ whereabouts remain unknown. 

As for Violet, her outings have been more sporadic since starring in the Easter parades of 2001 and 2002. 

“There is some talk we will bring her out this year,” Mr Mulqueen said.

“It depends if someone wants to utilise her.”

Bendigo has never seen Violet in what Mr Mulqueen calls her “full regalia”; she has never been wound up to 16 feet because of tramlines overhead. 

But all that should change during 2020 festivities, the 150th anniversary of the Easter fair and the 20th of the Sydney games.

The milestone festival is already being planning and, while he refused to elaborate more, Mr Mulqueen let slip that Violet was set to take centre stage again.

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