The Absolutely FABULOUS Rhodo Festival!

A creative Shipley RFS float in the parade a few years ago as we were gearing up for the fire season. (Lis Bastian)

Story by Lis Bastian

Once upon a time, over 70 years ago, the residents of Blackheath rallied together and created a festival to celebrate the uniqueness of their rhododendron-growing town. Their festival raised the funds the community needed to build a hall. Each year after that they focused on what else was needed in the village they loved. In what became their annual celebration, they threw one event after another and raised the funds to make their dreams come true.

Blackheath Community Hall (Lis Bastian)

As a result, for almost 70 years, children who grew up in Blackheath also grew up with the Rhodo Festival and Parade – an annual burst of colour, movement, excitement and camaraderie that was a testament to, and celebration of, their fabulous community.

It’s quite fitting then, that on its 70th Anniversary the theme of the Festival this year is all about being FABULOUS!!!! And, with the first full parade since Covid hit in 2019, everyone is being asked to dress up, throw on some bling and step out with the rest of the town to look fabulous too!

Over the years there have been some very memorable floats in the parade! (Trish Davies)

Imogen Evans, one of the young women who grew up in Blackheath, and first joined the parade as a young child in the Kookaburra Kindy float, will be this year’s Festival Princess! She vividly remembers the excitement of every festival and will now be the focal point of the parade herself in an open top car that leads the parade.

Passing on the crown has been an annual tradition(Lis Bastian)

Rhodo Festival Committee: L-R Bruce McKenzie, Elizabeth Giddey, Phillip Nelson, Linda McLaughlin, Melissa Opie (Bronwen Stinson absent) (Lis Bastian)

The organising committee of the Festival has carried on the historical traditions of Blackheath, describing themselves as community animals, and revelling in being able to weave together the past, present and future of the town. Most of them learnt early, from watching their parents, that giving back was the secret to a happy life.

President Elizabeth Giddey, whose parents volunteered in a Community Centre, says: “If you engage you become part of the town.” She loves working with creative people who are single-minded about growing community. She’s been president now for seven years but will be stepping down at the end of this year to allow new guardians of community to step up.

Treasurer Phillip Nelson recalls his mother retiring early and getting very involved with her community. “She was tremendously happy and had loads of friends and a wonderful retirement life.”

The parade is a whole of community celebration. (Lis Bastian)

Linda McLaughlin, whose extraordinary creativity has found expression in the writing and production of some of the annual Revues, the creation of the Choir Festival in 2007 and in many of the fundraising events like the recent Trivia Night, also had parents who were role models for growing community. She joined her first committee for a Youth Theatre when she was 17. She realized it was an opportunity to offer something no one else could and found it really satisfying. She loves the teamwork and sees the process being like playing a game or performing in a choir: “We listen to each other, get into sync and then produce a wonderful sound that makes everyone feel good.”

A scene from one of the Revues a few years ago! (Trish Davies)

“What you get out of it depends on what you put into it. We get a lot out because we put a lot in.”

Unlike the others on the Committee, Vice-President Melissa Opie credits Leonie, a former Neighbourhood Centre Director, for introducing her to the value of community. “We worked together on the One Van Puppet Festival. My background was in advertising, but Leonie helped me see that there were things that were more valuable than chasing the dollar. That you could work on shared visions that were not for profit but for people’s benefit.”

Until Covid, the Rhodo Festival was the longest continuously running Festival in Australia with a multigenerational mission to raise money for the community’s benefit.

Fundraisers have always showcased and supported local talent, so the money raised goes back into the community in many ways.

The Festival showcases local talent (Lis Bastian)

The Festival is very grateful for the generosity of local businesses and many individuals, who over the years have provided prizes, donations and support of all kinds, without which the Festival would not be possible. Local tradies and the RFS are once again donating their trucks to block off the roads for the parade and this year’s Festival is generously sponsored by Bendigo Bank. 

Festival markets are a highlight of the day (Lis Bastian)

The organising committee runs off a long list of just some of the things the Festival has helped to fund over the years: the diving tower, toilets, filtration plant, concrete walkways, electric BBQ, brick entrance gateway and shelter sheds at the pool and Memorial Park; as well as a lighting grid, power upgrades and a safety ladder for the Hall; the new gates at the Memorial Park and the RSL; tree plantings and lots more.

How to get involved:

During the year the organizing committee meets on a monthly basis, with sub-committees to organize events like the Choir Festival. As the festival gets closer, meetings are fortnightly. Everyone is welcome to help carry on the Festival tradition by joining the Committee or one of the sub-committees.

Unfortunately this year there won’t be an art show because not enough volunteers stepped up to form an Art Show sub-committee, but there will be a Children’s Art and Craft Show in the Hall on Festival Day.

Most volunteers are needed over the Festival weekend, for the Parade, events and the big market day in the Park. If you’d like to make new friends and be part of the 70th Anniversary celebration with the Blackheath community, contact the Festival at Blackheathrhodofestival@gmail.com

 or sign up here: https://rhodofestival.org/volunteers/

And if you have ideas or a vision for the future of the Festival, touch base with the organisers. New volunteers are always welcome and if you get involved you’re guaranteed to feel absolutely fabulous!

View the full Festival program here: https://rhodofestival.org/rhodo-festival/

About Lis Bastian

Lis Bastian is the Senior Lead for Blue Mountains City Council’s Planetary Health Initiative. She is the editor of the Local News Platforms and has been a writer, editor, news presenter and teacher/lecturer covering both cultural and environmental issues for over 30 years. She has been pioneering Solutions/Constructive Journalism in Australia since 2012.

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