Shirley Smith, Miss Mildura in 1955

Mildura Beauty Queens

 Gordana Bacic

Above: Tammy MacIntosh and Shirley Gill (aka Ms Raisin Queen), at Big Screen Mildura 2011

For Big Screen’s 10th anniversary I wanted to do something special to celebrate our ten years of screening Australian films, docos and shorts around Australia. I really wanted to recreate what it would have been like to go to the movies in an age gone by.

I thought it would be fun to have a couple of old ads, several newsreels and then a little doco or short, like you used to see before the main feature started. I was lucky enough to grow up living across the road from an ‘old school’ single screen cinema, (ie you could roll jaffas down the wooden aisles!) and I remember seeing some great (and boring) mini-docos, cartoons and shorts eg The History of Clocks & Kenny Everett’s Captain Kremmen!

Ten years ago, at the start of Big Screen, the NFSA had prepared show reels of archival material about various towns in regional Australia called ‘Gems from the Archive’ — so the ‘Mildura Gems’ was my starting point.

Tucked away on the tape, there were a couple of lovely Cinesound newsreels about the Mildura Mardis Gras and its Beauty Queens. Big Screen in Mildura is part of the month-long Mildura Wentworth Arts Festival which includes a fantastic Mardi Gras parade. What better way to kick off the Festival and the Mardis Gras than to show the community what they looked like in the past.

Popping onto the NFSA website, I used our search the collection tool, and typed in ‘Mildura’. It came up with about 200 entries! Luckily there were several items involving Mildura Festivals and Mardi Gras Queens –- how perfect!

Then I had a chat with a couple of the fabulous members of the access team in Melbourne, Zsuzsi and Siobhan. They both had suggestions for old theatre ads and other materials about Mildura. We ordered a stack of VHS viewing tapes and after having a look at the Cinetone and Movietone newsreels, and various other bits of Mildura footage, we knew we could put together a fabulous package of material for the night.

I managed to identify three of the Beauty Queens from the voiceovers; Iris Ashcroft (1949 Ms Mildura), Esther Bridley (1949 Queen of the Murray), and Shirley Smith (1955 Queen of Raisins). However one of the newsreels, a 1962 Movietone, didn’t have any sound — yet it had a great image of one of the Mardi Gras Queens being towed down the main street of Mildura in a speedboat, wearing her stole and crown, waving to the adoring crowd.

What a perfect opportunity to find out who she was. With thanks to Thought Equity Motion, for allowing us to use the footage and images from the newsreels, we wrote to the Mildura press asking for help in trying to identify the mystery Mardi Gras Queen. Well, everyone went crazy! The local paper The Sunraysia Daily were fantastic and ran stories nearly every day as they tried to track down all the beauty queens, not just the unknown one. The Mildura Weekly wrote a huge article and the ABC Local Radio team were equally enthusiastic supporters.

The end result was that all the Beauty Queens were identified — including our Mystery Queen from 1962, Joyce Williamson! To all of the Mildurans who contacted the local media in support — thank you all. Unfortunately Joyce has passed away but her family were thrilled to see her on the screen at Big Screen Mildura’s opening night. They also picked out several more family members featured in the newsreels!

The very beautiful Shirley Gill (nee Smith), aka Ms Raisin Queen, also attended the screening and after party. She was incredibly gracious considering I had turned her life into a giant media storm for a couple of weeks!

Have a look at the Big Screen Facebook page to check out the pictures from our opening night in Mildura and some of our other great Big Screen festivals around Australia.

Mildura Beauty Queens of the past