MELBOURNE NEWS

Culture and heritage

Concrete proof of fame

19 April 2024

Melbourne’s rarely-seen ‘footpath of fame’ has another shot at the spotlight in a new exhibition at City Gallery. 

In the 1970s, as miniskirts and long sideburns appeared in the city streets, scores of stars left their hand- and footprints in wet cement at a Bourke Street hardware store. Notable figures from Sir Henry Bolte to Colleen Hewett, and Jose Feliciano to Evonne Goolagong (now Cawley) helped created a celebrity pavement right up until the 1990s. 

Usually held at lunchtime, the hand or footprint events regularly attracted avid fans who made their way to the former McEwans store, for concrete proof of fame. 

A photo of the exterior of Melbourne Town Hall advertising an exhibition inside. People are walking past.
Gotcha! is on now at City Gallery at Melbourne Town Hall

The collection clearly made an impression on curator Robyn Annear. The renowned Melbourne writer and historian has researched the well-preserved prints in the City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection and chosen 40 to go on display. The exhibition titled Gotcha! runs until 16 August. 

Robyn said the celebrity pavement began as a publicity masterstroke.

“In the 1970s I’d say it was an all-out push for maximum publicity for McEwans,” she said. 

A business dating back almost to the gold rush of the 1850s, McEwans was a well-known brand, filling newspapers of the past with advertising, their catalogues offering bargain barbecues and transistor radios. 

Foot and hand prints set in concrete as part of an exhibition.
Merv Hughes and Bert Newton are among the celebrities’ prints in the collection

The store had relocated to a Bourke Street building uphill from the then GPO, so had to work hard to lure the busy city worker – and also to attract female shoppers, Robyn said. 

“In the exhibition catalogue you’ll see a photo of Bert Newton hosting a sewing machine demonstration in the 1950s. They had been working to pull that female audience for a while, and keeping shoppers coming up the hill was also a bit of a challenge because it was away from the main shopping area, so a celebrity pavement was likely to be a drawcard.” 

By the 1970s, the store had also introduced the ‘sunflower girls’, female staff members aglow in short yellow skirts. They were welcoming figures, guiding customers towards the casserole dishes and pepper grinders. Women were “not traditionally hardware shoppers, but a ripe market for the affordable homewares and ‘labour-saving’ appliances imported in abundance from the 1960s onwards,” Robyn writes in the catalogue. 

For the exhibition she has drawn on entertaining press photos to immerse the visitor in the sunbleached-haze of a bygone decade.  

“Luckily we’ve had (exhibition designer) Stephen Banham honouring the ‘70s heritage with very orange and brown colour schemes.” 

It’s unclear who came up with the idea for the celebrity pavement, but it made big news. Newspaper articles breathlessly covered the celebrity visits, photographing the stars dipping their hands or feet into the gunk. Once cleaned up, the special guest would be offered a glass of champagne often surrounded by members of the public grabbing their chance to get close to fame. 

Perhaps unexpectedly the very first celebrity was British actress Miriam Karlin, promoting the controversial film A Clockwork Orange in 1972. She was followed over the years by local television personalities, sportspeople, singers and of course Moomba monarchs, the high profile celebrities of their era. 

Visit the exhiibition at City Gallery to discover whose prints have been cemented in history

“About 25 per cent were overseas talent, mainly British comedy stars who between seasons of filming their series would come over here and do a season at the Comedy Theatre,” said Robyn. Hence the handprints of then household names such as Sid James and Harry Secombe. 

In images unearthed from the past, tennis champion Goolagong grins at the camera, kneeling on the pavement. Boxer Lionel Rose immortalizes his famous fists. Opera star Joan Sutherland beams. Barry Crocker, aka Bazza McKenzie, is asked to “put his foot in it”. Jockey John Letts leaves his footprint alongside a horseshoe from Melbourne Cup winner Piping Lane.

“These events were largely held to be captured in the newspapers alongside the wall-to-wall McEwans advertisements, hence the Gotcha title,” Robyn said. “There is a slight paparazzi flavor to those images. It was terrific if they got a spot on page three in the papers, then the photographers had really done their work.  

“There is real personality in the photos. Also, the images capture the crowds who were on hand and they were so into it. You really get the sense that being up close to celebrity then was very different from now. There was nobody holding their phones up for one thing. But apart from that, people were truly excited to be in the presence of a celebrity in a really out there way. There’s the physicality of it – you had to be there or you missed it, that’s what made it special.” 

Curator Robyn Annear tells the story behind McEwans’ celebrity pavement prints

A noted historian of Melbourne, she has her own list of the ones that got away. “I would have loved to have seen Meatloaf and David Bowie memorialized in the celebrity pavement, but we certainly got some of the most famous visitors of the times.” 

If it seems hard to imagine a hardware store in today’s diverse and sophisticated city centre, remember that 50 years ago weekend shopping was uncommon. Says Robyn: “City workers flocked to McEwans for their weekend projects. Weekend shopping was starting to come in but it didn’t blanket the city and suburbs like it does now, so you had to plan ahead for your weekend hobby supplies. 

“I used to use it myself. I had moved to the inner Melbourne suburbs in the 1980s and McEwans was my nearest hardware store. I made coffee tables and carried timber home and I’m sure I almost twisted my ankle on the celebrity pavement. It was an unreliable surface.” 

Inevitably the indented prints made for an uneven surface outside the store and heels got caught, twisting ankles. A solution had to be found. 

“The prints were taken up from the pavement around 1983 and reconfigured as a wall which must have been quite an engineering feat, as the weight of them is no small thing.” 

They remained there in the McEwans foyer until about the late ‘90s when Bunnings rebranded the store. When they were eventually taken down they were offered to the City of Melbourne for its Art and Heritage collection. 

Now out of storage, the prints remain a lively time capsule of Melbourne’s recent history. 

“It’s surprising how some of these names have slipped out of awareness,” Robyn muses. “The idea of celebrity is ephemeral, yet here we have the prints of these people which is glorious and I hope people will try their hands for size against the celebrity prints, as people used to do with the Lionel Rose fist prints. 

“The fact that these are Melbourne artefacts cared for by the City of Melbourne and exhibited here is key. They are so much a part of the city’s identity. It’s so appropriate that these prints should be part of this collection.” 

The exhibition appeals equally to the young and not so young, she says. “The retro aspect of being there, being in the presence of celebrity will come across quite vividly to a younger visitor. I also think they’ll love the sunflower girls.” 

Visit City Gallery

City Gallery hosts about three exhibitions a year. Visitors can book tours of the City of Melbourne’s Art and Heritage Collection at Melbourne Town Hall. 

Gotcha! Concrete prints from the McEwans celebrity pavement is at City Gallery until 16 August. 

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