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Funny Land is a 1930s fun house, the only one of its kind left in the world. Part of Sydney’s Luna Park, it resembles a fairytale castle on the outside, a bizarre gymnasium on the inside. The towers and onion-shaped dome on the exterior disguise what is really nothing more than a giant shed, like an aircraft hangar or a storage warehouse. A path leads into the obstacle course contraptions. Signs hang from the ceiling announcing the Joy Wheel or the Turkey Trot. There are rows of arcade machines that, for a dollar, predict your kissing style, claim to read your mind with a green ray, or let you fly a helicopter or drive a dune buggy within the safe confines of a glass box.
Inside Funny Land the usual rules of propriety do not apply. It is a novelty landscape where people stumble over jerkily moving floorboards, attempt to resist the centrifugal force of the giant rotating disc set into the floor, tuck themselves into hessian bags and step off into space, sliding down a steep, rippled wooden incline.
The cavernous space echoes with mechanical squeaks and the whirr of motors, alongside fragments of the jazz tunes that play continuously on the speakers. I sit at the centre of the Joy Wheel, a large raised rotating wooden disc. I am instructed by an attendant on a microphone to raise my arms then touch my toes, over and over until I can feel myself slipping off. I feel like a foot in a sock, skating over a polished floor as I slide to a stop against the cushioned barrier.
This is a time travel place. I bump down the giant slide like generations of screaming children have before me. I struggle out of the rotating Barrels of Joy as visiting American Servicemen did in the 1940s. I negotiate the convulsing walkways of the Turkey Trot like the grandma with her neatly set hair and handbag in the photograph from the 1960s, part of a framed collage of memorabilia by the turnstiles.
Funny Land appears unchanged but, like Luna Park, it has been through cycles of scandal, closure, and disrepair. In 1981, following the Ghost Train fire of 1979 in which seven people died, the park was closed and its contents were auctioned off. From the roller coaster to the palm trees, everything was put up for sale. The ‘Friends of Luna Park’, a group formed by artists Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston, bought most of the Funny Land machines to save them from dispersal. The park reopened and closed three more times over the next three decades. Much of the controversy was about the noise of the roller coaster as the screams of its passengers echoed up to the exclusive residences on the streets above.
Inside Funny Land people whoop and shriek as they slide down the Giant Slide. Surrounding the slide is a mural of skiers painted by Art Barton, the artist who determined the visual style of Luna Park. It was referred to as his ‘Sistine Chapel’, the floor-to-ceiling mural of skiers gliding and toppling down. They are paused, in arrested motion, as the next group of people climb the stairs with their hessian bags in hand, waiting to push off down the slide and surrender to gravity.
Vanessa Berry is a writer and artist. She is the author of three books: Mirror Sydney (2017), Ninety9 (2013, Giramondo), a memoir of growing up in the 1990s, and the collection Strawberry Hills Forever (2007, Local Consumption). Her current major work is the Sydney psychogeography blog Mirror Sydney.