Bellingen Memorial Hall stalwarts retire

Louise Rawson-Harris and Mark Willis have babysat every event at the Bellingen Memorial Hall for the last decade and also taken care of the infrastructure.
Louise Rawson-Harris and Mark Willis have babysat every event at the Bellingen Memorial Hall for the last decade and also taken care of the infrastructure.

A couple who have devoted a major portion of their lives to facilitating the restoration, maintenance and use of Bellingen Memorial Hall are stepping down from their unpaid labours after almost 25 years.

For the last decade, Louise Rawson-Harris and Mark Willis have made themselves available seven days a week, with Louise handling enquiries, bookings and record-keeping and Mark helping people with the technical aspects of hiring the venue, such as sound and lighting.

That’s a big enough job on its own, and it is worth pointing out that a comparable role at the Jetty Theatre in Coffs Harbour is a paid one. 

But it doesn’t even cover half what they have been doing for the Memorial Hall over more than two decades, and by extension, the contribution they have made to the vibrant cultural life of the town.

The fact that the hall is such a quality venue, able to host touring artists, fine music festivals, orchestral performances, film festivals, theatre, ballroom dances and other large scale events requiring seating for up to 600 – rather than a derelict space barely suitable for gymnastics classes – can be traced to the passion and drive of this pair.

Built in 1929 by a group of returned soldiers, initially as a cinema, the Bellingen Memorial Hall was resumed by the council when rates on the property failed to be paid during the Second World War.

By the mid 1990s it was in a sorry state of disrepair and had only one regular booking, gymnastics classes run by Argi Peterdi, who together with Max and Ida Francis was on the volunteer management committee.

Other events took place occasionally, but conditions were substandard and it was no longer used as a cinema.

“Mark and his fellow musicians would be playing in the hall and they’d come home from a gig and say that would have been good if there was three-phase power, or if the sound didn’t bounce all over the place,” Louise said.

“So what I decided to do, after listening to everybody complain about it, was get involved with the hall committee.

“When I joined in 1994, there were big holes in the walls, there were cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and rats in the kitchen. It was terribly dilapidated. Council were talking about boarding it up, which they really couldn’t do as it was a heritage building.” 

As founder and president of the Arts Council, Louise knew grant money was available to help restore the hall.

“At this stage, there was no grants officer at the council, so I was doing the grants, with Richard Holloway, who was the regional arts development officer, helping me apply for them,” Louise said. “I would come up with all the priorities, search for a suitable grant, and write the submission. Then I would go to council with a fully completed submission, with all the quotes done, and get the general manager to sign it.”

The first one she got was a Federation centenary grant for $35,000 plus a matching NSW Ministry of Arts grant.

“With that $70,000 I got acoustic work done and a new floor.”

More grants followed, and the process of finding the money and fixing the hall has continued down the years.

“It was basically a passion, to make it a user-friendly space,” Louise said. “That was our main thrust. So making the sound work for musicians, and having air-conditioning so I didn’t watch David Helfgott drip on the baby grand piano that he’d helped us purchase.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing,” Mark said. “Apart from the day-to-day running of the place, which we’re both heavily involved in, there’s all the infrastructure behind the scenes that we’ve been trying to improve.”

They will be sorely missed.

Council are organising an morning tea for Bellingen Memorial Hall committee members, users and  the community to thank Louise and Mark.

It will be held on January 25 at 10am in Council Chambers, and people wishing to attend are asked to RSVP for catering purposes by Tuesday January 23.

Council’s community wellbeing planning officer, Anna Joy, would also like anyone interested in joining the hall’s volunteer management committee to contact her on 6655 7300.

There are some big shoes that need filling.