I think it’s fair to say that the increasing majority of Melburnians would struggle to remember any other Southbank than the familiar setting in place today. A great success story in urban renewal, the plethora of arts, entertainment, office space and high rise apartments that are present today, are in the place of what was once a highly industrial area, south of the Melbourne CBD on the banks of the Yarra.
Plans for redevelopment were conceptualised in this mid 1980’s, and by the early 1990’s more than 20 years ago now; many of the familiar buildings that feature so prominently along the Southbank promenade, were either in place or under construction. The redevelopment of Southbank closed the history books on the lifetime of a place that was very different from what we know today, and some landmarks that were as familiar then, to the locals, as the Crown Complex, or Southgate are to us today.
If I were to start talking about Little Audrey, the name given to the vinegar skipping girl sign in Richmond or the Nylex Clock in Cremorne, most folks would instantly be familiar with these iconic neon signs. Each is a spectacular example of, or should we say - remnant of - a very different Melbourne – which at one time was densely adorned with spectacular lighted advertising displays, lighting up the skyline of many a Melbourne suburb, but concentrated certainly around the CBD, St Kilda and Richmond.
Of the many hundreds of these neon displays, Audrey and the Nylex Clock are the best known of only a half dozen or so remaining neon displays from this era. Each has had to survive the ravage’s of age, neglect, and urban development - and only survive today thanks to the two key elements that unfortunately the survival of any such iconic masterpiece requires: overwhelming public support and corporate sponsorship.
I was surprised to learn recently, that the mother of all neon signs, and one that as, even up to the day it was demolished, was both a true icon of Melbourne at the time and one of the most outstanding features of the pre-1990’s Southbank. Unlike Audrey however, the Allen’s Sweets sign unfortunately could not find a way to survive the desperately needed redevelopment of that area directly south of the Yarra.
The Southbank of the majority of the second half of the 20th century was a heavy industrial zone; factories, depots, car parking for those whom worked there, and remnants of the railways and docks that once dominated the area in an even more distant era.
The Allen’s Sweets sign was undoubtedly the most prominent of the many neon signs which lit the night sky along the Yarra River through the decades before the Southbank re-developments commenced. Affixed atop an old automotive factory, the impressive sign was some 30m by 20m in size, and brightly coloured in red, yellow and green neon tubing.
The sign was originally erected in 1955 with the Allen’s logo in prominence, and it was in 1963 when the familiar lolly wrapper shape was added. But it was in 1969 that that the animations evolved from purely layers of typography, to an animation which included a soaring rocket that travels in a trajectory over the sign until it reaches the centre, where it detonates into an array of colourful sparks; that the sight transformed into a truly memorable piece of advertising history.
But the plans for the re-development of what is now Southbank would require the demolition of the vast majority of the factories, roads, car parks, and other structures that presided in the area – and this included the factory on top of which the Allen’s sweets sign resided. Despite universal agreement that the sign should be and could be preserved, it seems that no agreement could be reached by the many players involved, both government and commercial, on exactly how, and it would ultimately leave the sign with no place to go.
In 1987, without and plan in place to preserve the iconic sign, and despite the many attempts by the public and in the media to draw attention to the issue, the sign was demolished, and a true treasure, and icon of Melbourne’s urban history, lost to us all forever, effectively bringing this era of bright typographic neon signage in Melbourne to an end.