Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a film that has inspired Broken Heel – a Festival embracing Drag and its community.
The Palace Hotel in Broken Hill was featured in said film and while in the outback town in 2017, dropped past in my best threads to speak with the then Managing Director of the Hotel and also co-ordinator of the Festival – Ester La Rovere.
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(Transcript of Esther La Rovere chat below, check to delivery in audio)
At the time – as you will hear in the chat the Hotel was up for sale, also the line-up spoke of was for the Festival was for 2017. Check further on for details on the Broken Heel Festival which is happening in September 2019 in line with the month the movie was released in Australia and many of the acts mentioned are making a welcome return. In Adelaide where the podcast is produced we’re just wrapping up the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (this means Sydney Cabaret Festivals is just days away) and in some parts of the world Pride Month is in full swing.
For personal reasons my stay in Broken Hill was not an easy one, but everyone I meet – including those in the streets I walked there – were so welcoming and while known as a mining town in the Outback, they also embrace their Arts in a big way. Not only the home to Pro-Hart but right through to grass-roots creatives who I will share chats with in future episodes
Inside the Palace Hotel (2017) where dancing, two up and general socialising are had in the heart of Broken Hill
SHOW NOTES: Esther La Rovere
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FEATURE GUEST: Esther La Rovere
- The Palace Hotel (Official Site)
- Broken Heel Festival (Official Site)
- Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Movie Trailer)
- The Palace Hotel – History (Official Site)
- Broken Hill – Visit NSW (Official Site)
- Broken Heel Festival (Facebook)
- …feature chat was recorded in 2017 as part of a visit of Broken Hill, the Broken Heel Festival is on again this year (2019) in September.
Next Episode: On Diamond
More details on playpodcast here, thanks to Matt from them.
[Radio Production – notes: Salvo chat just over 30 minutes, Katy Manning over 10 minutes – Music: Cut off On Diamond LP]
Theme/Music: Martin Kennedy and All India Radio
Web-design/tech: Steve Davis
Voice: Tammy Weller
You can make direct contact with the podcast – on the Contact Page
For direct quotes check to audio, first version of transcript by Sean F at REV
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the movie – shot many scenes… in a place these days called The Palace Hotel. Located in one of the main street of Broken Hill, Australia in the Outback.
Know once, more for its mining history.
In recent times, glitter and high-heels have taken centre-stage there.
An owner of the hotel Matio Celotto painted a mural of Venus on the ceiling, for many more to be painted inside the building… giving it a wow-factor and unique character.
Inside is also a place – word is – that you play Two-Up all year round, legally.
Thanks in small part to another film Wake In Fright, shot in the town.
More on that in a future episode.
In 2017, radionotes dropped past the amazing building for a look and to chat with the then Managing Director of the hotel and co-ordinator of the Broken Heel festival…. Esther La Rovere….
John Murch: In the heart of the Palace Hotel here in Broken Hill to find out about the “broken heel” of the Broken Hill. We’ll get to that in just a moment. But also how a hotel in a mining town can have so much glamor and characteristic to it. Esther, welcome to radionotes.
Esther LaRovere: Hi.
John Murch: I’d like to cover with you firstly as the Managing Director of this wonderful establishment, of this hotel, accommodation, to up even a performance space many from drag right through to local and live bands and in state bands as well. What was the passion that got you excited about being part of the ownership?
Esther LaRovere: Initially it was my memory of the actual building, the physical building. So for those who have seen it, it is a bit like a sort of mordred cruise ship liner in the desert. It’s sort of a ground floor and two floors above. It’s really quite a monumental building, and then certainly once you come inside and to see all of those colorful murals and all of the artifacts from guests and little collections from Mario who was one of the previous owners. That was certainly in my head. It seemed like it was this wonderful, forgotten place in time that was sort of still full of really wonderful gems.
John Murch: At that point is where you have to decide if you’re going to leave it or renovate it.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah.
John Murch: You went with the leave it.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah, yeah. We’ve tired to, I guess, be as sympathetic as we could to what has been here. Certainly there are some things that you can’t leave. Certainly. So when we first got in I guess it was just a spit and polish and big spruce sort of cleaning and then we’ve sort of gone bit by bit from then.
John Murch: In terms of the colorfulness of this, and we’re going to get this out of the way now, because there is that cultural, Australian cultural significance of this being part of an Australian film that has international regard, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” How much responsibility do you find that, as the managing director the hotel, to keep alive?
Esther LaRovere: Oh massively, really. I think it is such an iconic film and certainly the musical has still got life. You know, it’s still opening internationally now. I believe it’s sort have been staged in 17 countries in 14 languages so, you know, it’s really quite amazing. I think probably quite a lot of people from Australia don’t even realize that life that it’s got, but we certainly meet plenty of internationals who are on their Australian journey and make sure that they come out here to Broken Hill and come and visit the hotel as they know of it, even through the musical or from the movie. So it’s certainly part of Australia’s film history that we’re quite proud to be a part of.
John Murch: What’s your experience of living culture and its importance?
Esther LaRovere: I think the city itself is really a part of this great idea of living culture and certainly the city has embraced this idea that it is a living museum. Certainly you know, a building like the hotel, we’re certainly a hub for all of the new people that are coming through town. They’re either coming to visit or coming to move here. There’s sort of arts and events that happen through here. You sort of really never quite know who you’re going to bump into in a place like the Palace and that’s really I think part of the appeal. There’s so many things to discover and meeting real life people is one of those wonderful things that you can’t sort of ever replicate.
John Murch: You also have the title of Festival Director, at least this year if not in previous years as well, of the Broken Heel H-E-E-L. It happens in September. It’s in line with the movie’s release-
Esther LaRovere: Yes.
John Murch: -Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. What are you aiming to achieve over this three day festival?
Esther LaRovere: We’re really establishing a new regional event for Australia. We know we think this has got legs to certainly rival Park’s Elvis Festival certainly.
John Murch: I think it has legs.
Esther LaRovere: She’s got beautiful legs and a wonderful pair of heels. It’s a perfect time to showcase to the country and to the rest of the world a really fabulous weekend that we can have out here. Also letting the world know that the city has really embraced its sort of accidental drag history. The program runs for the three days and really tries to incorporate what I guess I felt would be what people would really ideally want to do if they come for a weekend out to Broken Hill, so tick of sort of their bucket list that they get to go and see drag shows at the “Priscilla pub” as people will call it. They go out to Silverton and see those sort of wonderful wide open plains, they certainly get to meet locals, they get to have a laugh and see a bit of real life and real people. And then, you know, taking the wonderful space that we’ve got, dance under the stars and kick up their heels.
John Murch: There’s some pretty big names as well. I was just before we chatted having a look at some of the names you’ve got. Vonni for example, an absolute legend.
Esther LaRovere: Yep.
John Murch: And also from Adelaide, South Australia a place you may be well familiar with.
Esther LaRovere: Really though, our name card is really quite amazing. So of course you’ve got Vonni whose been in the scene for such a long time, one of the original Les Girls, from the Les Girls Show.
John Murch: The girls at the time, that was ground breaking.
Esther LaRovere: That’s right, and I mean, I guess that was probably Australia’s first taste, seeing that they were toured around the country and toured through Broken Hill. One of the other big name acts that we have for this year is Trevor Ashley, so I guess as a singing performer held one of the main roles in the Priscilla musical for the Australian shows, you know, so certainly has a wealth of experience behind him. We’ve got-
John Murch: Sylvia? Other cast members from the bar scene will also be coming.
Esther LaRovere: Oh, Shirl.
John Murch: Shirl, thank you.
Esther LaRovere: Every year we try to have someone who was in the film. You’ve seen Shirl in the movie, she’s nothing like that in real life and she’s, I guess a true thespian and a really colourful character of our city and to hear some of her stories about sort of her experience during the filming and the fact that she never told her family anything about that she was in this film but she didn’t really quite know what people were going think or even really necessarily what it was about. You know, there’s some really wonderful candid moments that we’ve heard about from Schill over the years with us, including pulling out her famous white singlet that she wears in her scene.
Esther LaRovere: We have a couple of wonderful drag queens out of Melbourne by the name of Filma Box and Art Simone. They’ve been with us for the last three years as the festival hosts. They have a big wealth of entertainment under their belt and certainly people will be seeing them at the moment on TV with this Broken Hill AMII Insurance ad commercial which is running … been sort of running throughout the year and will continue to do so. I guess they bring that area of drag where it’s very comical. Their costumes are amazing. You know you might see them come out in washing machine boxes or can certainly have a fantastic Priscilla tribute show that they bring. Very excited to announce very soon a couple of international Ru stars. We’ve got Cindy Pastel coming out of Sydney. She’s I guess one of the drag characters that Priscilla was loosely based on, the movie. So she’s been performing for a very long time. Again, brings in another sort of very art edge to her drag performances.
Esther LaRovere: We’ve got DJ Kitty Glitter who’s a local, or Sydney based DJ but who tours internationally quite a bit, so they’ll be lots of great music for people to dance to. So we’ve really tried to make quite a big mix to appeal to not only, certainly people who love drag, know that we’ve got some true icons of drag here, but also those people who just want to come and have a fun weekend to know that they’ve got some quality entertainment. There will be drag shows, there will be people singing and of course we’ve got BAAB who are Newcastle’s kookiest ever cover band where the girls dress as the boys and the boys dress as the girls and you know certainly do a great performance for us.
John Murch: So what’s your appeal to drag, as being the festival director here of, there must be some appeal to the art form?
Esther LaRovere: Oh certainly, I guess I come from a background of events and performance. I was in a touring band for sort of ten years. We were psychedelic rock and roll and you’d probably think it hasn’t got much to do with drag but drag is this … for me, it’s this perfect opportunity for people to don the most outrageous outfits whether themed or … they just do amazing things with their outfits and sort of come out and often will mime to probably some great songs that you know and that you love. It’s sort of like having all your girlfriends over for a sleepover and you stay up late and play around singing songs. Just that very … there’s a very humorous sort of element to it all. You just sort of never know quite what’s going to happen and it’s the way they remix the songs and thing these days. There’s sort of great, I guess feedback on society or little pokes and jabs but it’s all on the stage which is a wonderful sort of interaction between audience and stage.
John Murch: You mentioned the psychedelic rock band. Let’s hear a little bit now about your good self. What’s been some of those good experiences that you’ve had on stage over the years?
Esther LaRovere: For me I think the stage is a bit of a sacred space. The energy that you share with an audience, particularly when we’re talking about music, we always endeavor when we … with the band I was in it was always about taking people on a musical journey with you and sort of classic. You would start slow and end in a big crescendo. Sort of the performances that we were involved in and that energetic exchange, having all those faces look up at you and there’s sort of a really open energy and a really quite amazing, for all people that go to massive festivals or dance parties there is an amazing exchange of people joining together, responding to music at the same time and really going on a journey together. It’s quite magical.
John Murch: Outside of drag where do you find that energy connection these days?
Esther LaRovere: Luckily in the big open sky that I can see out here in Broken Hill.
John Murch: Yeah?
Esther LaRovere: Yeah, that’s another sort of very nice connecting point –
John Murch: Is that because you’re a dreamer
Esther LaRovere: Possibly. I certainly … I think I’m a feeler so yeah. Energetically if you take the time to slow down and to sort of feel what’s going on around you I guess that’s sort of where it is for me at the moment.
John Murch: The strength of this town, that sky you mentioned, the landscape, the pub; the abode that we’re in right now, the accommodation. The living soul that it is really. What’s your thoughts on locale and how Broken Hill can be used in film?
Esther LaRovere: The landscape around here. I mean I’ve got a photo shoot crew of people here looking at the moment to do a photo shoot here and for them it’s all about the light; Broken Hill’s light. That’s what attracted all the landscape painters out here. There really is an amazing amount of light out here and the way that the colors in the landscape responds is really quite magical. The big spaces that you can get with the open skies, the sort of very industrial landscapes that we’ve got which are really quite monumental but accessible. And then you can go to sort of other various landscapes. You know, whether you want sort of hills or sort of plains. No rainforests or anything like that certainly.
Esther LaRovere: And then the other things is the architecture of the city, which is I think is sort of quite dynamic and very beautiful. The houses and a lot of the buildings here. Knowing that Broken Hill is touted as becoming one of the next biggest cities of Australia when they were here so there was a lot of investment and a lot of building here of things that people were thinking were going last; you know thinking it was going to be a capital city or what have you. So I think there that great sort of attraction and it’s easy. They’re not driving for four hours to get to locations and spending three quarters of that in traffic. It’s quite easy for film crews. They’ve got places to stay. They can walk between establishments to go home and go and eat and all those sort of things or get good rest which is really important I guess for anyone working on films. We always get great feedback from a lot of the film crews that are here because there’s sort of a lot of little gems like the Palace here where they get to meet other people, have good food. They’re not losing out of any sort of city fare in that manner but it’s still quite easy for them. They can get parks and you know?
John Murch: For those that haven’t been inside, what is there? As they walk through the front door let’s say of the accommodation opening area what are we met with? What are we seeing? What are we feeling?
Esther LaRovere: That’s probably your biggest sort of impact area. As you come through those doors you see the beginning of I guess the landscape murals that adorn the building. So you come into the foyer area and the ceiling space goes up to the top floor, to the third level so a big area to look up into and then you see the bottom of all of the staircases. It becomes sort of quite like a bit of an Escher drawing I think, the way the staircase go around and round with all the big beautiful timber balustrades but you’re met with all of the murals all through those areas so looking up all through the three floors you can see mural upon mural, all very sort of landscaped flying waterfalls and rivers. There’s the bright sort of psychedelic carpet on the floor, sort of rich timber work on the walls as well. There’s over 500 square meters of murals all throughout the building.
Esther LaRovere: So then you’ve got your doors into the sort of bar areas. They’ve got the lovely art deco sort of prints on them to the cocktail bar.
John Murch: Dead animals?
Esther LaRovere: Their office is full of stuffed animals I think was a bit of a thing that Mario liked to do himself so lots of eagles sort of perched with their wings spread in there. There’s massive crabs that have come from the deep sea somewhere and a lot of artifacts he collected from the islands in his travels. Lots of sort of Renaissance paintings and certainly at the very top of the ceiling when you come into that foyer there’s Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” so you know so many people come in and go “Oh it’s like the Uffizi Gallery.” There’s art everywhere and there’s Venus up top.
John Murch: Did you get a chance to speak with him about it?
Esther LaRovere: Unfortunately Mario had passed away when we purchased the building. I do remember Mario from my youth. So he was an Italian fellow and I guess good friends with my Nona.
John Murch: Been in town all your life?
Esther LaRovere: I was born here and I grew up here. I left when I was 18 and sort of came back sort of 20 years later or something.
John Murch: What was the draw card? Family reasons or-
Esther LaRovere: To come back?
John Murch: Yeah.
Esther LaRovere: Purely because I bought into the building. It was a bit of an accidental purchase sort of thing; accidental buy-in I guess. A commitment. My sister originally was living in town and had seen that the building was up for sale and they had started looking at it and then contacted me asking whether I wanted to sort of be a part of it initially. So we needed a live-in manager and then it sort off all has begun from there.
John Murch: Do you call that chance?
Esther LaRovere: I certainly call it chance.
John Murch: Yeah?
Esther LaRovere: Yeah.
John Murch: The Silly Goat, which is a café that you have in town.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah.
John Murch: Emily went away and has now come back.
Esther LaRovere: That’s right. I think it’s one of those things that often happen to people in hometowns. And I think the city is still thriving so it’s not as if … although the population has declined a bit I think it’s sort of stabilized and certainly it’s not as if there aren’t new people here. There’s a constant flux of new people that come in and who really appreciate … whether they stay here for sort of five to six or ten years, have certainly with the health workers; a lot of health workers and teachers that come through town, those sort of things. And because property is still really quite affordable out here as well.
John Murch: When you left when you were 18 you weren’t’ thinking about being anything like a publican or a hotel owner were you?
Esther LaRovere: Not at all, oh no.
John Murch: What was the dream?
Esther LaRovere: I’ve never been a great planner. I’m a bit … I like to sort of flick where the wind takes me actually so yeah, it’s always just been through opportunity and I did like sort of tourism which I guess certainly this, certainly now this is a big part of tourism. I do find that quite interesting.
John Murch: And you’ve been driving that as well. You’ve made it seems some very clear decisions that it will be tourism thing throughout.
Esther LaRovere: Oh absolutely.
John Murch: Yeah.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah.
John Murch: So the hotel is up for sale. Whoever buys it, it’s up to them what they do with it next.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah.
John Murch: How are you feeling about that?
Esther LaRovere: I kind of mentioned a good operator who is not going to see the values of this building like … in the elements that have still remain unchanged.
John Murch: Because that’s the capital, isn’t it?
Esther LaRovere: It is. Oh absolutely, like the murals, that’ll never happen again. You know? I think there’s something really wonderful about waking up in a place and you’re not in an IBIS and you can’t remember what city you’re in because they’re all the same. It’s like “Remember that hotel we stayed in that still had the TVs with the dials?” They’re the memorable things that people take with them when they’re staying. And so I just have a belief that anyone, any good operator is going to appreciate all the right things about this building.
John Murch: So the dream would be that it needs to go to an operator who will continue it on from there?
Esther LaRovere: Yeah, I mean it’s not going to be sort of a willy nilly purchase for somebody. It’s going to require capital investment and certainly their time and hopefully they’ve seen … I guess I would like to think that they would have seen what we have done with the building so far and to see the success that has been and just hope that they would just like to continue I guess along that path. The festival itself I will run separately to the hotel. It’s always been run in that manner. Again, I kind of mentioned a good operator who’s not going to want to be a part of the festival. Certainly a lot of the festival happens in the street adjacent to the building. I don’t think the appeal is just the building, the festival appeal is making that journey out back and the wonderful adventures you have along the road and the memory of good things that happen while you’re out here.
John Murch: When we were talking about memories before I mentioned about the stage. I want to talk about now memories of the hotel whilst we’re in this space of reflection. What is that memory of the hotel that’s sticking with you?
Esther LaRovere: There’ve been many. Just to see sometimes a bar full of people when you’ve first packed out your bar, or, I don’t remember the exact sort of night but certainly when you look out and think “Wow this is a lot of fun” or we’ve had Channel Ten come and film here once, watching all the film crews and productions and having people pop up in the bar. Alex Dimitriades or David Whenham you know are regulars here for a couple of weeks when they’re in town. It’s really … there’s lots and lots of fun memories and amazing guests that I’ve met and people who just happen to be at the building at the same time. I remember once I think I had about 12 countries that people were from that were staying in the building just on a random night in July sometime. So I think more and more as I talk about it, more and more memories will come out. We’d always said we wish that we’d written a book.
John Murch: Still can.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah, I guess so. I remember the first time the building was completely booked out we had a 120 Danish architecture students come and stay with us for sort of nearly two weeks and they did a land arch project out here. And when I first got the call from a lady with an accent saying she was calling from Denmark and wanted to make this booking I was sort of thinking “What’s going on? Is this real? Now I’m not quite sure” and to see them all arrive and sunning themselves out on the balcony in their bikinis and sort of like was thinking “Oh the Palace is open again and what are all they doing there? All those those blondes and look at all those people up there.” It was quite funny.
John Murch: The film itself, how many times have you seen it?
Esther LaRovere: Sort of from end to end, as in sit down and watch it? Probably only four or five times maybe?
John Murch: The following morning is it weird walking around the hotel?
Esther LaRovere: I love it. I love watching it and noticing where they are in the building and that I hadn’t noticed. Where it’s like “Oh look at that, we’ve still got those salt and pepper shakers” or “Look at those tablecloths. We’ve got those, they’re folded up in there.” And so that’s great.
John Murch: What have you learned from being an owner of an establishment like this?
Esther LaRovere: Hospitality is a really hard game. Yep. I think until you’re probably in the throes of it, it can sort of seem a little bit idealistic I think. With the food and beverage sort of component it’s really … you know you’ve really got to be on the ball. And it’s really important to make sure that you’ve got a well motivated team working with you and you can’t sort of value enough how good your team is that is around you and certainly you will go through every up and down along with them sort of for what’s going on their life at the time. I don’t think I was really quite ready for that.
John Murch: It is like being … you already are … but it’s like being a mother.
Esther LaRovere: Oh yeah. Like when you know and you’ve got 25-30 kids. Yeah.
John Murch: And also what about … we keep on hearing about the long hours. That’s obviously the case. How do you deal with the long hours?
Esther LaRovere: Because I have often worked for myself anyway there’s never been a real structured … you know where you work nine to five and I’ve never gotten used to that sort of swing anyway which is lucky. I’ve noticed, I’m sort of living back in the building again at the moment, I haven’t been here the whole time because there’s days when you don’t leave the building at all. Sort of you wake up and you’re at work and you go to bed and you’re at work and sort of … yeah it all sort of blends into one so I’d make sure that I’d leave, basically leave the building. Sometimes it might be a walk out the back door and around through to the front door sort of thing. But I’m really relishing spending time here at the moment with my three year old son and watching his sort of interaction with the place. That’s sort of been quite good. And I think as the business has grown more and more I guess the immediate dependency on me has also decreased. Certainly I’m around for when things happen and when people aren’t quite sure what to do about it. Now I guess there are a lot more people around to take care of things.
John Murch: I’m going to jump to 15 years into the future. Do you have some grounding that these kind of places will still exist in 15 years? That there will still be a sense that there can be community around a building?
Esther LaRovere: I think community’s really needed. It’s unfortunate … like I don’t … for the idea that, for the reason that they need to come to pub is to drink I think that’s really changing. There’s a social aspect of it and being a regular at a hotel or even a restaurant I think that’s something good for society because I think more and more we’re losing our avenues to be able to connect to people and certainly to connect to people that we haven’t met yet. So bumping into a random stranger at the bar, having dinner with someone you didn’t know about, sharing a story. That’s really important. You can do it on social media and you know that’s always going to be probably a growing sort of aspect but I really think certainly in particularly certain types of people they miss social interaction; being able to just have a random conversation, hear an opinion, watch other people, sort of just feel the presence of other people. I think it’s really important.
John Murch: In 15 years time, you can see that may not be there.
Esther LaRovere: Yeah, but I’d hope that it is because I don’t think the human desire to connect is going to go away. Connecting with someone in the same space as you, I think there’s something raw and honest about it and I think it’s good for people.
John Murch: Esther, thanks for your time.
Esther LaRovere: Cheers
Tammy Weller [Outro]:
Esther La Rovere, Managing Director of The Palace Hotel in Broken Hill – chat recorded in 2017.
The Palace Hotel Broken Hill – one word – Dot Com Dot A U… is where the hotel is online
As for details of the Broken Heel Festival – that in 2019 is September 13th to 15th – head to
BHFestival Dot Com