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Above: A view across the motorway to two defaced billboards advertising the failed 1990 Sesqui carnival. Photo: John Nicholson, courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull LibraryWe Wel­ling­to­ni­ans like to remem­ber the city’s good stor­ies. In par­tic­u­lar we like to think we can put on a good show – look at the Inter­na­tion­al Arts Fest­iv­al, WOW, our theatre scene, or the capital’s lively street culture.

John Nicholson’s bleak Even­ing Post pho­to­graph, though, is a remind­er of one of our truly great show­busi­ness embar­rass­ments – the great Ses­qui car­ni­val flop of 1990. The shot was taken just after Ses­qui went bust. The graf­fiti says it all. We can be sure these bill­boards were soon taken down so we could for­get all about it.

Ses­qui was the idea of the Wel­ling­ton Show Asso­ci­ation. It had long wanted a grand expo-type event in the city and the 150th anniversary of the city provided the oppor­tun­ity. The city and region­al coun­cils gave their sup­port and a big-talk­ing Aus­trali­an impres­ario was hired to make it all happen.

The plans were gran­di­ose. Ses­qui would cost $7 mil­lion, which, it was claimed, would be more than paid back by the expec­ted 1.7 mil­lion vis­it­ors. The event was spread between the show build­ings in New­town (painted a bili­ous yel­low for the occa­sion) and a water­front site (where Te Papa and Circa Theatre now sit). “Everything was going to be loud, noisy and blatantly com­mer­cial,” the chief exec­ut­ive proudly told the Even­ing Post. His dreams included trade stalls, state-of-the-art car­ni­val rides, stage per­form­ances of all kinds, a ‘Māori vil­lage’ and a casino.

But well before open­ing day the event was already in trouble. The gov­ern­ment vetoed the casino. Loc­al Māori wanted no part of it and set up their own site instead. Spon­sor­ship and tick­et sale fore­casts proved wildly optimistic.

On open­ing day, the crowds were half what was expec­ted and soon declined still fur­ther. Then there was a dis­pute with the staff run­ning the tick­et booths, who walked off in protest. For a few des­per­ate days the loc­al coun­cils poured in more money, but with­in two weeks it was all over. Ses­qui closed down, leav­ing debts of $6.4 million.

With hind­sight it is hard to see how our city busi­ness and polit­ic­al lead­ers could have become caught up in some­thing so shonky. On the oth­er hand, per­haps it also sug­gests the dis­cern­ment of Wel­ling­to­ni­ans. Most of us real­ised Ses­qui was a huckster’s dog. We had bet­ter things to do with our time.

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