Reinventing Elbe’s Milkbar in the Name of Art
Andrea O’Neil, The Dominion Post
A notorious den of teenage lust and milkshakes is being recreated as an art performance in Lower Hutt this summer.
Wainuiomata artist Tim Barlow plans to recreate Elbe’s Milkbar, a teen hangout that sparked moral panic in 1954 when it was revealed its patrons were having sex by the Hutt River.
A government inquiry into “moral delinquency in children and adolescents” followed, known as the Mazengarb Report, which resulted in censorship and the banning of contraceptives to under-16s.
“It was the start of youth culture in New Zealand. It was where kids started becoming independent,” Barlow says.
“There wasn’t much on offer in the new suburbs like Naenae and Taita.”
Orgies, motorcycles and Brylcreem will be left behind in the recreated cafe, which will instead focus on the issues that worry teenagers today.
Exhibitions and performances by young people will be staged, and teens will also be taught to make and serve coffee to give them life skills, Barlow says.
“This is a socially engaged artwork. It’s young people, youth, talking about issues that are relevant to them.”
Teenage bodgies and widgies in the 1950s struggled with the same issues as young people today – of identity, sexuality, money, family and bullying, Barlow says.
“They’re really worried about their future. I see this parallel.”
That isn’t to say the artwork will be without visual merit, as Barlow will deck out his milkbar in lime green, cream and black like the original Elbe’s.
“Classic 50s colours, quite delicious.”
A trio of brothers who worked at the milkbar in its heyday will be on hand to teach teenagers classic recipes like an icecream “snowman”.
Lox Lummis served sundaes and shakes with his brothers Kevin and Brian when their parents, Bill and Betty Lummis, owned the milkbar in the 1950s and 60s.
“I got paid bugger all, a few bob. And I spent it all on milkshakes,” he said.
Bad behaviour never happened inside Elbe’s, Lummis said. “My dad would not stand any nonsense like that.”
Brother Kevin remembers a rowdier scene, however. “They queued up round the street to get in, and I worried about my mum getting hit – they were fighting to get in the front door.”
Elbe’s Milkbar would form part of Lower Hutt’s first public art festival Common Ground, an offshoot of the Fringe festival.
The installation summarised the festival perfectly, Hutt City Council community arts adviser Pippa Sanderson said. “It’s about finding common ground between the past and present, between these kids and those kids.”