Remembering Mardi Gras

The world famous Mount Isa Rodeo turns 60 this week. 

To celebrate, we have dug into our photo archives to bring you a glimpse of the past. 

The North West Star is beyond excited for the 60th Mount Isa Rodeo this week. 

Each night we will share a gallery of photos that will give you a glimpse into the past. 

Tonight’s gallery celebrates the much loved Mardi Gras which was last held in 2016.

Read Kim-Maree Burton’s column about the history of the Mardi Gras below. 

A quick look at the history of Mount Isa Rodeo and Mardi Gras tells the story of a growing town being united in community spirit to stage this annual event.

As quickly as myth can become fact so too have the many variations of who, how and why the rodeo came into being and in turn the Mardi Gras.

In 1958, the Queensland government of the day invited all councils to consider how they would celebrate the centenary, in the following year, which resulted in a local Centenary Celebration Committee having been formed.

Participants in the Mount Isa Mardi Gras in West street in 1994.Photo: Supplied.

Participants in the Mount Isa Mardi Gras in West street in 1994.Photo: Supplied.

Among the many and varied ideas, it was the staging of a rodeo, that held the attention of committee men including Jim Foots, Bill Weigh, Jim Burton, and George McCoy.

Their only experience of rodeo was through attending the Cloncurry Merry Muster and so through the generosity and comradeship of the Cloncurry connection and hundreds of volunteers that Mount Isa staged its own rodeo on the weekend of 12 and 13 September, 1959 – The Mount Isa Centenary Rodeo.

It was the following year, 1960, that the rodeo again under the wing of The Rotary Club of Mount Isa became known as the Mount Isa Rotary Rodeo and so began what is nearly 60 years of Australian rodeo history.

And again, another myth which has become fact to many people concerns Mardi Gras and how it became a popular annual event.

It has not been synonymous with rodeo from day one, rather for the first couple of years a ‘Fiesta’ was held at the Leichhardt Bowls Club opposite the Triangle and it was through the success of this annual gala party that a parade of floats moved through the shopping centre in 1961, heralding the new format and the new name – Mardi Gras.

The town came alive with the streets festooned in bunting and coloured lights while flags were mounted on Isa Street Bridge.

Very few of the 21 nationalities who lived and worked in the town knew what a rodeo was, but what they did know was it took a community to hold a street party and Mount Isa was now their community.

The migrant groups enthusiastically embraced the concept of dressing up in their national costumes, to sing and dance in the streets of the town they now called home.

And from that first parade, Mardi Gras grew yearly, along with the enthusiasm, community spirit and fulfilling memories, until 2003 when the Parade had to be rerouted across the Isa Street Bridge and the festivities and street stalls were moved to George McCoy Park.

Five years, in 2007, Mardi Gras was yet again moved, to its last home -  Buchanan Park.

But for the first 42 years, Friday night Mardi Gras showcased the hospitality, entertainment, ingenuity and unity that celebrated the beginning of rodeo weekend.

Crowds would cram into the CBD to watch the parade and then party and dance in the streets to local bands including Sequay, The Midnighters, Madison Kat, The Teen Beats, The Jaguars and MI4.

And who could forget the Go-Go Dancers – the Smith Sisters?

Excitement for the Mardi Gras would be building for weeks as school children, families, shop keepers and sporting organisations would excitedly commandeer cars, trucks, horses and bicycles which would metamorphose into floats of all shapes and sizes.

The ingenuity of float builders brought hoots of laughter – no themes in those days; just imaginations that were let run wild on a shoe string budget.

It was fun.  The community made their own fun and they raised their own funds to stage their fun.

Barkly Highway State School students take part in the 2015 Mardi Gras, which had the theme 'It's Show Time' to acknowledge MITS' 60th anniversary.

Barkly Highway State School students take part in the 2015 Mardi Gras, which had the theme 'It's Show Time' to acknowledge MITS' 60th anniversary.

Spruikers for the chocolate, chook and ham wheels had to compete with the sociable din and music to gab your spare dollar for a ticket with the words, “Hey, mate, it’s for a good cause”, ringing in one ear, as your hand slipped in and out of your pocket with a coin or two ‘for a good cause’.

And every year the pressure was on Playtime to showcase the latest swimwear fashions.

Summer swimwear worn by nubile models, strutting their trailer catwalk, on a cold windy night – it was every boys’ dream.

And if you happened to be a young woman and invited to be a model, then you really knew you had made the teenage social list.

From one social spectrum to another, Boydie’s (Boyd Hotel) and its infamous Snake Pit later named Diamond Lil’s, may have given drinkers a headache with different names, but it was still the same venue, same drinkers, same fun and same fights year in and year out.

Boydie’s reputation through the national rodeo circuits was synonymous with Mardi Gras for all the best western cowboy movie un, not shown on screen!

For families, the local festivity was joined by the travelling ‘Showies’ such as the Gill Bros who set up camp with their side show alley and hurdy-gurdies.

With their bright colourful lights and blaring music, freshly spun fairy floss and strawberry ice cream tower cones, laughing clowns and coconut shies, the classical merry-go-round and the more adventurous Octopus ride, the Leichhardt River bed was a wonderland of fun and frivolity for all ages.

Mardi Gras was the time of year when names of rodeo cowboys would slip off the tongue as they were greeted and treated as rodeo royalty of the day each and every year.

The Fiesta may have started out as a once-off street party to welcome the lean, tight-jeaned rodeo riders to Mount Isa way back in 1959, but it was the community of Mount Isa, the urban cowboys and cowgirls, who embraced the concept and claimed ownership of their Mardi Gras.

Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton   

The history column is a weekly column on the history of Mount Isa and the North West region by Mount Isa’s own Kim-Maree Burton and can also be found online in the community section of the North West Star website, www.northweststar.com.au