Carnival at Moomba Festival
Photograph: Supplied

Marvellous Melbourne and the fascinating history of Moomba Festival

We gathered archival footage, fun facts and comments from the lord mayor on this one-of-a-kind festival that has been celebrated since 1955

Adena Maier
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From being named the world's friendliest city and one of the best cities in the world to see by bicycle to being home to the world's second coolest street (hint: it's in Fitzroy), there's a lot for Melbourne residents to be proud of. But wait, there's more: Melbourne can also lay claim to Australia's largest free community festival, and unless you live under a rock, you'd know it as Moomba. First celebrated in 1955, it's now in its 67th year and has recorded as many as four million visitors – so it's kind of a big deal. 

But what actually is Moomba, and what makes it so special? Well, we've gone ahead and done some digging to bring you the scoop on this one-of-a-kind festival's rich history. Read on to get the answers to your questions, and take a squiz at some fascinating archival imagery along the way. 

Afterwards, pop it into your calendar (this year, the free festival runs from March 9 to 13) and get ready to embrace the Moomba magic. 

An archival image from 1958 depicting visitors at Moomba festival.
Photograph: Supplied | State Library of VictoriaAn archival image from 1958 depicting visitors at Moomba festival.

What does Moomba mean? 

If we're talking etymology, a 2008 article in The Age found that there may be some truth in a popular urban legend. As the story goes, in 1954, festival organisers decided on the name Moomba believing it was an Aboriginal word meaning "let's get together and have fun", when in truth, it meant something a little less PG ("up your bum"). While the truth is still a bit muddled, the point remains: it was intended to elicit a feeling of fun, community and togetherness. 

So that's what Moomba literally means, but what does it mean to Melbourne, the city it's called home for 67 years?

"So many Melburnians can't actually remember a time without Moomba – it has been a constant in our calendar and our lives for nearly 70 years," says lord mayor Sally Capp. "Moomba is intrinsically Melbourne: it is a celebration for everyone, of all ages and all interests, and it's about embracing our 'daggy-ness' as well as our diversity." 

The festival even predates the introduction of television into Australian homes; in 1956, TVs started to become a household staple and the festival was first broadcast just a year later, inextricably linking the two in history. 

A person on skis using a kite as a flying contraption at Moomba festival.
Photograph: Supplied | State Library of VictoriaA person on skis using a kite as a flying contraption at Moomba festival.

How has Moomba changed – or remained the same – over the years?

The first-ever Moomba spanned a whopping 15 days; in comparison, this year's festival is five days, spread across the Labour Day long weekend. While a 15-day festival sounds like a whole lot of fun, it's probably not realistic to pull something like that off today. Five days seems much more manageable, don't you think? 

Some of the festival's favourite long-standing traditions include the Birdman Rally, which began in 1976 and involves punters showing off their homemade flying devices. Fun fact: the oldest known Birdman Rally in the world took place in the UK in 1971, and Australia's first competition took place in 1972, making us an early adopter of this quirky but fun tradition.

"[It's] a hilarious sight to behold, and if you ever figure out if they're flying or flopping, please let me know, because I'm still unsure," says Capp. 

We'd be remiss not to mention the Moomba monarchy, which has been part of the festival since its inception but has undergone many changes. The first Queen of Moomba was crowned in 1955, ruling singularly until 1967 when the festival began naming dual monarchs plus a Queen of the Pacific (a beauty contest), resulting in three concurrently reigning monarchs. And from 1981 to 1988, Moomba also crowned two children as the Prince and Princess of Moomba through a competition held by a local radio station. 

That's a whole lot of monarchs, so by 1988, this system was scrapped in favour of crowning a single monarch – until the fateful crowning of entertainer duo Zig and Zig in 1999. A horrifying discovery led to them being stripped of the title, and it wasn't until 2009 that the festival brought the tradition back again in its dual-monarch format. 

Bert Newton being crowned Moomba Monarch in 1978.
Photograph: Supplied | State Library of VictoriaBert Newton being crowned Moomba Monarch in 1978.

Who are some of the most notable Moomba monarchs? 

In 1972, legendary singer John Farnham ('You're the Voice', 'Two Strong Hearts') was crowned King of Moomba. His reign coincided with the launch of the Moomba Showboat, a large vessel adorned with lights and performers that would make its way up and down the Yarra River and became a festival highlight for years.

Controversy struck in 1977 when Mickey Mouse was chosen as the King of Moomba alongside Queen Sherlyn Duncan. Visitors weren't so chuffed about the selection of the Disney character, going as far as throwing a pie in his face during the parade. Aside from that, the festival went off without a hitch, with ABBA playing a massive set at Sidney Myer Music Bowl. 

Interestingly, despite being a Melbourne-based festival, the first Melbourne-born King of Moomba wasn't crowned until 1978 when the honour went to Bert Newton. Other notable monarchs over the years include musical theatre star Marina Prior (who recently starred in Mary Poppins), Aussie comedy duo Lano and Woodley, music critic and journo Molly Meldrum, late cricket star Shane Warne, restauranteurs Guy Grossi and Karen Martini, news presenter Peter Hitchener and, in 2023, Rob Mills and Rhonda Burchmore. 

A group of people dancing on a checkered floor at Moomba.
Photograph: Supplied | Moomba FestivalA group of people dancing on a checkered floor at Moomba.

What are some of the highlights to expect at this year's Moomba?

An extra day has been added to the festival this year, meaning you can enjoy even more Moomba magic than usual. Expect iconic festival favourites to headline the event, including the aforementioned Birdman Rally on March 12, the Moomba Masters water sports competitions and, of course, the beloved Moomba Parade on March 13. This year, the parade will consist of a fleet of nine floats, five large-scale puppets and a brand-new monarch float. 

The floats are all themed, including the opening float with a design inspired by a pinwheel; a space float inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope; an underwater float featuring merpeople lounging in the waves; a bush float inspired by the Australian landscape; a Melbourne re-imagined float consisting of a mash-up of iconic Melbourne themes and places like trams and the Yarra River; the nonsense machine float featuring Edwardian and Steampunk themes; and the first-ever Moomba Monarchs float in the festival's colours. In between and alongside the floats, expect to see performances from a variety of dance groups, studios and more. 

A group of performers wearing boxes with letters spelling out Moomba.
Photograph: Supplied | State Library of VictoriaA group of performers wearing boxes with letters spelling out Moomba.

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