We 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.