The Trocadero: Jazzing through 1920s Brisbane

A public artwork under the rail bridge that crosses Melbourne Street – on approach to the Cultural Centre – celebrates the memory of a long-lost landmark from Brisbane’s early encounters with modernity. The artwork (above and below) features archival images from the Trocadero Dansant that once stood on the site, reminding us that South Brisbane was a centre for cultural exploration many decades before plans were realised for the present-day state art gallery and performing arts complex.

Built in 1923 under the guidance of architects Hall and Prentice, the Trocadero Dansant was not Art Deco in design. However what transpired within those four walls acquainted Brisbane with the modern dance, music and entertainment trends that defined the Roaring Twenties across the western world. When the Mayor of South Brisbane opened the Trocadero before a crowd of 2000, he insisted that Brisbane had finally caught up with the southern states by offering amusement seekers the most modern of dance halls. While from that day forth until the end of World War Two the Trocadero was a mainstay of Brisbane’s entertainment scene, this article focuses more particularly on its history in the 1920s, as the city awakened to modernity.

A modern spectacle for the masses

The idea of the ‘spectacle’ was central to the modern movement in the 1920s – people sought opportunities to see and be seen. So too was a democratising impulse – public places were less segregated along class lines and entertainment was popularised for the masses. In 1924, a writer for Brisbane’s Daily Mail captured the spirit with which the Trocadero embodied these changing codes and values. Describing the end of a dinner party which found guests longing for new and dynamic diversions where “masks may be discarded”, the writer recalled:

Then the thought strikes you that at last Brisbane has put this chance within your reach. Suddenly all is changed …. The world is dancing mad, and under the spell of jazz you move on to the Trocadero. When you are seated at a table in the discreet leafy arbour of the cabaret, odd combinations of people turn up. It is an amusing game to watch … The night is like a kaleidoscope of a modern revue, for the scene is always changing. A strange assortment of people greet the eyes, each interacting in his or her own particular way. That strangeness spells smartness in this age of individuality, and every scale of the social ladder is represented in this shuffle caught by the camera of the eye. (Daily Mail, 27 February 1924, p.2)

The very design of the Trocadero’s interior was conceived with this idea of the spectacle in mind – surrounding the ample dance floor were 52 alcoves in which revellers could rest, socialise, enjoy refreshments and observe the scene unfolding before their eyes.

‘Jazzing’ on the dance floor

The Trocadero quickly became known as Brisbane’s premiere dance hall. It accommodated 1200 people on its specially prepared floor – said to have a face “almost like glass” – which was laid down according to the specifications of the famous Palais de Dance in New York. Newspapers spoke of the Trocadero as “positively pleasurable”, a place filled with “bright, happy people thronging the floor” and “feet compelled to step to the fascinating jazz melodies” and “rhythmic syncopation”.

This was the place to which jazzing enthusiasts flocked to learn the new dances – the Charleston, French tango and foxtrot were among the favourites. The Trocadero’s managing director through the 1920s, Joseph L. Herbert, was determined to popularise modern dancing in Brisbane. He led a dancing conference on the Trocadero’s premises, from which the Queensland Dancing Teachers’ Association was born to encourage uniformity in the tuition of dance steps. He funded a dance teacher to travel abroad and bring back the latest ideas from England and America, and employed dance champions to teach and demonstrate the newest styles to an eager public.

Herbert established regular competitions at the Trocadero to encourage those interested in dancing as a more serious pursuit. Competitions included weekly gentlemen-only, ladies-only, foxtrot and Charleston contests. Heats and finals were held to decide the Queensland representatives for the annual amateur Australian Dance Championship. In 1927, a ‘city versus country’ competition was staged featuring the best dancers from Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba and Warwick.  

Music was, of course, an integral part of the jazzing revolution. The Trocadero Orchestra assembled musicians from across Australia to entertain dancers with the latest ragtime melodies, featuring an assortment of instruments including violin, piano, saxophone, clarinet, oboe, flute, double bass, trombone, banjo, drums and xylophone, with guest vocalists singing popular Hollywood ditties. The orchestra’s various musical directors – from Alf Featherston to Roy Baird and Billo Smith – became household names in Brisbane. Herbert ensured their jazz rhythms spread beyond the four walls of the dance hall, working with the local broadcasting committee to establish a broadcasting station in Brisbane. From late 1924 dance music was transmitted directly from the Trocadero into southern Queensland homes, fanning the spread of modernity in the ‘jazz age’.

Entertainment American-style

While the modern movement had strong roots in Continental Europe, to a great extent America steered the course of mass modern entertainment. Brisbane’s Trocadero in large part reflected this Americanisation of popular culture in the west: it was said to be the first Australian dance floor to be modelled on the design of a New York dance palais, and it assumed a lead role in cultivating a local following for jazz music.

The Trocadero hosted an annual movie ball that celebrated the Hollywood-led motion picture industry, including competitions for the best impersonations of movie stars. By the early 1920s, beauty pageants had enjoyed a resurgence with the introduction of the first Miss America contest. The Trocadero followed suit, with competitions held for the prettiest bobs and shingles, the most shapely ankles and most beautiful bathing girl. In 1927 the Trocadero joined the nation-wide search for an aspiring film star, hosting the Queensland heats of the Australian Star Quest that would ultimately reward one winning contestant with a Hollywood contract.

A battleground of modernity

Although churches, schools, universities, sporting clubs and hospitals often looked to the Trocadero to host official balls and functions, the dance hall was also a site where battles over the moral virtues of modernity played out.

The emerging modern identity of the Flapper went hand-in-hand with jazz dancing – women’s newfound independence and mobility were embodied in vigorous dances such as the Charleston which necessitated shorter hemlines. In 1925, “a flaxen-haired bud [who] jazzed joyously in a frilled frock of black and rose” was spotted at the Trocadero, epitomising the Flapper form. While she was celebrated on the one hand, the Flapper was also cast as a corrupted force on the other, and fears were commonly expressed about the sexual immodesty of ‘jazzing’. Debate often ensued in council when the Trocadero applied to extend its opening hours beyond midnight for special functions and events; some office-bearers expressed concern about the “undesirability” of leaving “young women at the mercy of persons with motor-cars”, while others feared the label of “wowserism” if such applications were refused. The city inspector regularly visited the Trocadero to monitor the conduct and costume of its patrons, while local newspapers often devoted column space to reassuring the public of the “innate respectability” of the Trocadero compared with Sydney’s more “notorious” nightlife.

In 1926, these simmering anxieties came to a head when the Trocadero announced its intentions to host the Fig Leaf Movie Ball. Cecil Eliphstone, State Member for Oxley, called for a ban on the event owing to its planned Adam and Eve fancy dress competition, which he claimed was “inviting our young people to participate in a semi-nude display”. Catholic Archbishop James Duhig weighed in on the debate, reiterating that such an “undesirable exhibition would lead to deprave”. A police officer was arranged to be present on the night, but in the end it was reportedly “quite a harmless affair” with “nothing to bring the faintest tinge to the cheek of modesty”. Some patrons allegedly left disappointed at the evening’s tameness, after the promise of something rather more risque.

The following year saw the Trocadero defending itself once more in the face of pernicious commentary. A restraining order was obtained to prevent publication of an article in a small, independent newspaper claiming that “good clean girls who visited the [Trocadero] were likely to become morally contaminated” as they “sat out smoking under the influence of liquor” and were subjected to “open flashing”. Evidently, the dance floor had become symbolic of the unfolding contest between those who embraced the ‘jazz age’ for its acceleration of change and progress, and those who denounced it as morally harmful and dangerous.

The rise and fall of Joseph L. Herbert

The story of the Trocadero in the 1920s is also the story of the rise and fall of its managing director, Joseph L. Herbert. When Herbert took over the Trocadero soon after it opened, he swiftly turned the venture into a commercial success. In 1927, he negotiated purchase of the premises from South Brisbane City Council at a cost of £20,000, to be paid over several years. A few months later, he persuaded the council to spend £6000 extending the dance hall and adding a cantilever awning over the footpath, as well as opening up a laneway abuting the rear of the Trocadero – known today as the popular Fish Lane.

On the back of his success, Herbert sought to expand his business interests further afield. He established Amalgamated Amusements of the Commonwealth in 1927, with the grand intention of “standardising dancing throughout the Commonwealth” by managing a circuit of dance palais including the Torcadero. To kickstart his new venture, he acquired an aeroplane and purchased two dance halls in Adelaide – the Palais Royal and the Floating Palais.

Despite his considerable zeal, Herbert’s dream to be at the helm of a dancing empire quickly came crashing down as he sucked the Trocadero’s profits dry in an attempt to keep his Adelaide interests afloat. His strategy proved fruitless: the Adelaide businesses failed, leaving him a further £8000 in debt, and in 1929 the Trocadero Dansant entered voluntary liquidation.

A new syndicate of local businessmen stepped in to take over the liabilities of the Trocadero and continue its operations as a dance hall. Herbert was initially appointed manager of the new venture but it seems the relationship soon soured as a new director, Mr Kirwan-Berton, was announced within a matter of months. As the decade came to a close, so too did Herbert’s standing at the centre of Brisbane’s dance scene.

Life after the 1920s

Under its new management the Trocadero continued to be a meeting place for dancing enthusiasts throughout the 1930s, finally closing its doors after 22 years of business as World War Two came to an end. Without the patronage of American servicemen, the Trocadero struggled to turn a profit. By this time other dance halls, including the beloved Cloudland in Bowen Hills, had become the destination of choice for Brisbane’s amusement seekers. However, it is worth remembering that these new haunts owed much to the Trocadero, in particular the role it played in generating a fervour for jazz dance and music that helped usher Brisbane into the age of modernity.

 

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Image acknowledgements

Public art work on Melbourne Street – Trocadero title. Queensland Deco Project, 2018.

Public art work on Melbourne Street – Trocadero images. Queensland Deco Project, 2018.

Exterior view of the Trocadero Dansant in Melbourne Street South Brisbane ca. 1934. Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Excerpt from Trocadero Dance Topics, 22 July 1930, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image by Queensland Deco Project.

‘Dance and be happy.’ Truth (Brisbane), 19 August 1928.

Advertisement for the Trocadero Dansant opening on 31 May 1923. Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Roy Baird at the Trocadero Dansant ca. 1920s. Courtesy National Library of Australia. 

Billo Smith’s dance band at the Trocadero Brisbane 1927. Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image by Queensland Deco Project.

Front cover of Brisbane’s First Annual Movie Ball 1924, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

‘Miss Gladys Jensen.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 19 December 1926.

‘Naval and military officers ball at the Trocadero.’ The Telegraph (Brisbane), 7 April 1927.

‘Fig Leaf Ball.’ The Armidale Express, 5 November 1926.

‘Mr J. L. Herbert.’ News (Adelaide), 11 February 1927.

‘The Troc-O-Dear-Oh!’ Truth (Brisbane), 17 February 1929.

Excerpt from Brisbane’s Favourite Social Rendezvous 1930, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image by Queensland Deco Project, 2018.

Foursome waving goodbye from the Trocadero ca. 1935. Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Select references

The following represents a small selection of references used.

‘In Brisbane. When Night Life is in Flower.’ The Daily Mail (Brisbane). 27 February 1924, p.2.

‘Palais Change Hands.’ News (Adelaide). 11 February 1927, p.14.

‘The Trocadero: A Pretty Dance Hall.’ The Telegraph (Brisbane). 30 May 1923, p.2.

‘Trocadero Attractions.’ The Daily Mail (Brisbane). 8 November 1925, p.11.

‘Trocadero Benefit.’ Warwick Daily News. 1 November 1926, p.5.

‘Trocadero’s Career Ends After 20 Years.’ The Courier Mail (Brisbane). 11 April 1945, p.3.

‘The Troc-O-Dear-Oh!’ Truth (Brisbane). 17 February 1929, p.13.

‘When Brisbane Masquerades.’ Truth (Brisbane). 19 July 1925, p.7.



Categories: Events

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1 reply

  1. Great story — thanks Queensland Deco!

    Liked by 1 person

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