Iconic, nimble-fingered silhouette artist, S. John Ross, hard at work at the Brisbane Ekka circa 2006. Sadly, after many years as a much-loved fixture, he was not at his stand as usual in 2008. He died on Sunday, 24 August 2008, aged 89, and we still miss him. Photo by L.J. May.


The Royal Queensland Show (the Brisbane Ekka)

It’s Showtime in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia!

The Royal Queensland Show, or the Brisbane ‘Ekka’ (short for Exhibition), is being held in Brisbane from 9–18 August 2012. For ten glorious days each year the country comes to the city and the city goes to the Ekka.

It's winter in Queensland. The sun is shining, the skies are an endless blue, sunlight is sparkling off the Brisbane River and the temperature today was a low of nine degrees and a high of twentyfive degrees Celsius. Eat your heart out London!

The air at the RNA Showgrounds is redolent with the scent of animals, hay, manure, hot cooking fat, sweating people and the sound of little kids throwing up after eating traditional Ekka snacks such as Dagwood dogs, cones of special Ekka strawberry ice cream with fresh strawberries, and twists of fairy floss – all at the one sitting.

Every year, the country people of Queensland come to the big smoke of Brisbane, bringing their animals, produce, and skills with them. They have been doing that, to loud applause from generations of city folk, for over 135 years.

On 22 August 1876 more than 15,000 people descended on Brisbane for the first ever Brisbane Exhibition, many travelling huge distances on foot, horseback or by carriage. In 2012 over 400,000 visitors are expected to pass through the Ekka gates.

The Royal Queensland Show, or the ‘Ekka’ as the locals insist on calling it (despite the pleas of a succession of organisers), is the place that you take your children to show them that milk isn’t actually produced in cartons.

You and your children can talk to the animals. The animal nursery features about 400 baby farmyard animals. Every day you can watch tiny chicks hatch from their eggs and all the Show favourites are there; lambs, calves, chicks, ducklings, kids (the goat kind) and piglets – not to mention turkeys, goats and donkeys.

But visiting the baby animals may cause a few ongoing ructions at home after your kids declare that they will never, ever in their whole life ever, eat meat, ever again!

The Show includes ring events, judging of animals, wood chopping, fashion parades, fruit and vegetable displays, heavy machinery, industry displays, TV and radio broadcasts, and the dreaded and often pricey show bags, the contemplation of which gives your kids a gleam in their eyes, and you realise that you’re going to have to  pay for them by mortgaging your home. Why do they have to have so many!

The boxing tents are gone and the tattooed fat lady (warmth in summer, shade in winter and moving pictures all year round) has been struck down by political correctness, but Sideshow Alley still does good business. You too can wreck your back by banging a gong with a mallet, and pay a fortune to win a plush toy larger than your ankle biter, which you must then carry around for the remainder of the day – as well as the ankle biter. 

The rides are the thing of course. They can be expensive – particularly if you have a large family – but are compulsory and range from ‘lose your lunch’, through the dodgems, to the gentle swaying of the brightly painted horses and rocking carriages of the Grand Carousel.

Ah the Grand Carousel! We nearly lost it, you know. Here is the story of the grand old lady that almost didn't make it.

The Grand Carousel - in 2008 disaster struck!

In the Ekka’s 133rd year, and after over 100 years of trouble-free operation, a Queensland inspector claimed that the Grand Carousel wasn’t safe and that children could be crushed under the hooves of its timber horses.

Thrill rides such as the ‘Sky Walker’ and ‘Insanity’ were passed by other safety inspectors but the Grand Carousel was dangerous?

Josh Robertson of the Brisbane Courier-Mail was outraged. ‘The dead hand of bureaucracy has killed off an Ekka institution,’ he wailed.

The grand old girl was built in Britain in the late 1880s. She was first seen at the Brisbane Ekka in the 1920s and was considered to be quite a wild ride in those days. In 1927 she acquired a splendid organ made by specialists in Germany and was the focus of much admiration.

Eventually she went to live with Les Short, who brought her to the Brisbane Ekka in 1951. She had been lovingly tended for all those years – but now she was unsafe?

Apparently the Queensland inspector saw a primary school child who appeared ‘unsteady’ in the saddle of one of the horses, after which he concluded that children ‘could be crushed under the rising and falling horses or roll off the carousel platform and hit their heads.’

The Courier-Mail quoted Brian Bradley, an engineer who carried out inspections for amusement ride operators, as saying that the inspector had ‘concocted a potential hazard.’

‘Bear in mind’, he said, ‘there’s an operator in the centre of the ride who watches it going around, and there’s an attendant on the side of the ride, who is able to jump on as it’s moving without any problem. You’ve also got the parents to hold their two or three-year-olds on a horse, riding for nothing, just for safety precautions.’

The Carousel had been deemed safe by inspectors from WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover NSW, and Les’s son, John Short, was forced leave his ‘flagship’ operating three days a week at Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade on the banks of the Yarra River.

Despite this, the Queensland inspector warned the RNA that Mr Short would be issued with a prohibition notice on the ride unless he carried out substantial alterations, including a new barrier. 

John Short described the request as ridiculous. ‘He wanted me to redesign the whole thing and I'm not willing to do that to a 120-year-old machine,’ he said.

It seemed the days of generations of Ekka goers enjoying the Grand Carousel were over. But no! Readers flooded the Courier-Mail website with posts ridiculing the notion that a merry-go-round could be a safety hazard.

Josh Robertson of the Courier-Mail triumphantly reported: ‘Premier Anna Bligh will intervene after a bureaucratic decision to bar an antique merry-go-round from this year’s Ekka met a popular backlash.’

‘Ms Bligh said the Grand Carousel, which was deemed a potential hazard by a Workplace Health and Safety Queensland inspector, was an Ekka institution. She said she had been on the carousel with her own sons and it would be a pity to lose it.’

‘I was surprised to see that decision and I will be asking some questions about the basis for it,’ Ms Bligh said.

In August 2009 the Courier-Mail trumpeted: ‘Brisbane Ekka 2009 welcomes back Grand Carousel.

‘One Ekka tradition has been saved and another is just beginning, as Brisbane's annual show throws open its gates for another 10 days of fun. The Grand Carousel – a popular fixture of nearly 60 years – is back after Workplace Health and Safety shut it down last year.

‘Carousel owner John Short said the tick of approval was welcomed.“My family's been coming to the show for 59 years, and we are pleased to be back,” he said last night.’

Now, in 2012, the Ekka website lists under rides:

The Grand Carousel

‘The enchanting Grand Carousel consists of 30 galloping horses and 2 rocking carriages, beautiful twisted brass features, pretty paintings and fairytale like lighting.’

And you can ride it for just $5.


Can you still smell the sawdust? Here is a great book on the passing of an era in Australia.

Jim Sharman, Blood and Tinsel: A Memoir, The Miegunyah Press, Australia, 2008.

Jim Sharman, an Australian international director of film, musicals and theatre who staged Rocky Horror, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, came from unlikely roots. He lived a colourful life as a boy, travelling to shows and small towns in Australia with his father’s renowned boxing troupe, and was no stranger to Queensland and the Brisbane Ekka.

Sharman’s superb memoir, lavishly illustrated, takes the reader into the rough and ready world of outback Australia in the 1950s, where boxers shared the stage with ‘pantomime dames’ (shades of Priscilla – no wonder he staged Rocky Horror so well). Jim also describes the cultural explosion that began in the 1970s and his travels to Tokyo, London and Berlin.

As one reviewer said: ‘This is more than just a remarkable story about Australia; it is a moving tribute to a legendary family in the entertainment world.’ I heartily recommend this book to you all.

Website Watch

The Royal Queensland Show (the Brisbane ‘Ekka’)

Ekka Magic ran for 10 days from Thursday, 9 August to Saturday, 18 August 2012 inclusive, at the RNA Showgrounds, Gregory Terrace, Bowen Hills, Brisbane. Go to the Ekka website at for information on everything you ever wanted to know about the Ekka and aren’t afraid to ask. At the Ekka home page you can find links to a map to help you find your way around; an Ekka Phone App to download from the Ekka website, not to mention the showbags: what’s available and how much they cost.

The Grand Carousel, born in Britain in the late 1880s, first seen in Australia in the roaring twenties, given a German built organ in 1927, given a home by the Short family in the 1950s, and still delighting children of all ages in 2012. Photo by L.J. May.