Concert review: 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, Adelaide Festival Theatre

Celebrating fifty years of fabulousness!

The Adelaide arts community turned out in force on Friday 2 June to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Adelaide Festival Centre, which was officially opened on 2 June 1973 by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. There was a full house for that opening concert half a century ago, and a full house now for a show of home-grown talent hosted by the gorgeous and talented Libby O’Donovan OAM.

Being a milestone celebration, it wasn’t just a concert. There were speeches and tributes, looking back and looking to the future. Much was made of the vision of then SA Premier Don Dunstan to build a cultural centre on the site of the old Adelaide Baths.  

Festival Centre CEO Douglas Gautier said in his opening remarks: ‘I’m pretty sure we welcome the spirit of Don Dunstan.’ But the original vision belonged to Dunstan’s predecessor, Liberal Premier Raymond Steele Hall, and it was good to hear his role duly acknowledged too. 

Premier Peter Malinauskas paid tribute to ‘the power of the arts to invite us to think’ and spoke of investments in the arts as really being ‘investments in giving life meaning’.  And on a personal note he mentioned his father being one of the many volunteers who play such an important role in the life of the Centre. 

There was clearly lots of state pride on display with the many mentions of the Centre opening its doors before the Sydney Opera House (by just a few months) and so being the first major cultural centre in the country. But host with the most O’Donovan said it best when she declared we were there to celebrate ‘fifty years of fabulousness!’

After the many speeches, it was into the festivities with a variety gala of South Australian performers. The concert was themed around the five arts festivals hosted by the Centre throughout the year: the  Adelaide Cabaret Festival that has just begun, the DreamBIG Children’s Festival that turned the Centre into a giant colourful playground last weekend, the OzAsia Festival, Adelaide Guitar Festival and the OUR MOB First Nations arts festival.

O’Donovan crooned, Lazaro Numa swooned with his Cuban trumpet and Michael Griffiths gave us some perfect cabaret. Husband and wife musicians Slava and Sharon Grigoryan were brilliant as always, and First Nations singer-songwriter Katie Aspel sang and chatted. And so it went on. Japanese-styled jazz ensemble Hyoshi in Counterpoint were wonderful and there were even a couple of tunes from the children of the South Australian Public Primary Schools (SAPPS) Choir.  

Images were projected on to the stage of many well-known showbiz people who have performed on the main stage over the years. The biggest audience cheer came for the dear-departed Dame Edna. And it would be remiss not to give an extra special mention to the singing and dancing chorus, The Dunstanettes, wearing those glorious, and now legendary, pink shorts. 

The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert was written and directed by Johanna Allen, alongside musical director Mark Simeon Ferguson, producer Kellie Nicol and designer Kathryn Sproul. There was an after-party in the Banquet Room open to everyone, with bands and DJs, and even little birthday cupcakes to end the night on a sweet note.

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Clearly many in the audience for this special celebration were invited guests, but it’s worth noting that the tickets were priced at just $20 per person or $50 for a family of four. That initiative alone demonstrates the role the Festival Centre plays in the life of Adelaide. This was an event for everyone.

There is also a free exhibition in the Festival Centre as part of the birthday celebrations. Turn Up Your Radio celebrates Adelaide’s music scene and features a wonderful collection of music memorabilia, including original handwritten song lyrics, concert posters, stage costumes, instruments and photographs from many of SA’s best-known musicians. 

But the last word must go to our inimitable host O’Donovan, an out and proud gay woman, for this gem: ‘South Australia was the first state to decriminalise homosexuality and the first state to build a Festival Centre to put them all in!’ Bravo Libby and Happy Birthday to our beloved Festival Centre – here’s to another 50 years of fabulousness. 

The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert was performed on 2 June at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.