The 30-year hunt to seek out the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus: ‘My jaw was on the bottom’

The 30-year hunt to seek out the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus: ‘My jaw was on the bottom’

Thirty years in the past, a humble silver bus was reworked right into a cinematic icon when the low-budget Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert turned a heart-warming, Oscar-winning smash hit.

However for years, nobody has identified the place the bus utilized in Stephan Elliott’s movie went. Not lengthy after the 38-day shoot completed in 1993, it seemingly vanished and not using a hint. This didn’t cease numerous Australians from claiming they both owned it or knew who owned it, or that that they had noticed it someplace up and down the nation.

The story of the place she ended up, and the way she was discovered, is worthy of a movie in itself.

‘We had been a bit suspicious at first’

Within the 1994 movie, Priscilla is house to pull queens Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving), Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Man Pearce) and transgender girl Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) as they drive from Sydney to Alice Springs.

In actuality, Priscilla is a 1976 Japanese mannequin Hino RC320. It was owned by Sydney firm Boronia Excursions earlier than it was offered to some who leased the bus to Latent Pictures, the movie’s manufacturing firm, all through the shoot in September and October 1993. Afterwards, the couple employed it out sometimes, together with to the Australian band the Whitlams, who used it as a tour bus for six months in 1994.

However after that, Priscilla vanished and not using a hint.

For years, the bus was the white whale for curatorial employees on the Historical past Belief of South Australia, who hoped to amass it for the Nationwide Motor Museum in Birdwood, SA – house to a number of well-known vehicles from cinema, together with the Mad Max Bigfoot buggy.

So when a person referred to as Michael Mahon acquired in contact with the Historical past Belief in 2019 claiming Priscilla was sitting on his property in Ewingar, New South Wales (inhabitants: 67), nobody actually believed him.

“Michael despatched a message saying he had the bus and wished to promote it. I felt like I used to be in The Fortress – I mentioned, ‘inform him he’s dreaming’,” says Paul Rees, head of museums on the Historical past Belief and former director of the Nationwide Motor Museum. “We had been a bit suspicious at first, to be sincere. However we put our Sherlock Holmes hats on and shortly realised it wasn’t a joke, so we began our investigation.”

The bus at Ewingar, within the NSW northern rivers. {Photograph}: Historical past Belief of South Australia

Curators spent months figuring out if the bus was really Priscilla. “A number of issues actually made us assured: it had the fitting quantity plates, the distinctive animal print curtains and dashboard cowl, and the unique title curler,” says Adam Paterson, supervisor curatorial on the Historical past Belief.

Complicating issues had been the numerous pretenders to the throne: there are lots of copies of Priscilla, together with the bus that was pushed across the 2000 Olympics closing ceremony in Sydney; one other was made for the expertise present I Will Survive; and the one used within the Priscilla stage present, now displayed in Damaged Hill.

Within the movie, the bus is famously painted vivid pink partway by means of – however as a result of the film-makers might solely afford one bus, they painted simply half of it pink and left the opposite aspect silver so they may shoot out of sequence. Crucially, some outdated pink paint hadn’t been faraway from a hinge.

“What satisfied everybody in the long run was the pink paint scrapings,” says Rees. “Curators are fantastically conservative – they won’t leap till they’re completely certain. However I used to be leaping in every single place.”

Some information and dates stay just a little murky, however what everybody agrees on is that this: the couple who owned Priscilla finally broke up and certainly one of them acquired the bus within the separation. That individual drove it to their new associate’s place in Ewingar someday round 2006, the place it was finally deserted when that relationship ended. When the proprietor of that home in Ewingar died, it was offered – full with Priscilla – to Mahon in 2016.

“I’d been right here in Ewingar for about six months once I went right down to the group corridor to say good day to all people, and so they mentioned, ‘G’day! What are you going to do with the bus?’” says Mahon. “I mentioned to the bloke behind the bar, ‘Why is everybody asking me in regards to the bus?’ and he went, ‘That’s Priscilla!’ ‘Strewth,’ I mentioned.”

Mahon did some analysis on-line and rewatched the movie, then regarded over the bus with recent eyes. Every little thing matched, right down to the quantity plates. He went on Fb for recommendation on bus restoration, however “everybody thought I used to be an fool and a liar as a result of they thought she had been stolen or destroyed.”

Ultimately he made associates with just a few lovers, who instructed him the rusting automobile outdoors his home was identified by two names within the bus-loving group. “One was ‘The Hunt for Pink October’ as a result of they’d been on the lookout for it for years,” says Mahon. “The opposite was ‘the Holy Grail’.”

By that point, the bus had been languishing outside for a decade. Within the years following, it survived a number of bushfires and floods. In October 2019, when large flames got here inside centimetres of the bus, a water bomb struck it and saved it.

Michael Mahon’s property at Ewginar in October 2019, after bushfires handed by means of and narrowly prevented destroying Priscilla. {Photograph}: Michael Mahon

“The hearth went proper alongside Priscilla and took out a van, a ship and two vehicles proper subsequent to it,” Mahon says. “You wouldn’t consider it. It was 2,000-degree temperatures. The hearth went straight over the roof of the home, the fireball was 50 toes above the treetop. However Priscilla survived.”

Proper after the 2019 fires got here floods, which made discovering a brand new house for Priscilla much more pressing. “With all of the rain, it began to essentially rust as a result of it copped a number of warmth,” says Mahon. “Fortunately, the museum was in the identical mind set as me – it’s a true blue, ridgy-didge Australian icon. It’s acquired to be saved.”

“I’ve heard it so many occasions – ‘I’ve acquired the bus!’ – that it will get boring,” says Stephan Elliott, the director and author of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. When the Historical past Belief acquired in contact to see if he might assist confirm the bus’s authenticity, he was sceptical.

“However I used to be astonished after they confirmed me the pictures,” he says. “I mentioned, ‘There’s two issues I have to see: the carpet and if there’s a side-railing on the roof.’ They despatched extra pictures and I instantly mentioned, ‘That’s it. You bought her.’ My jaw was simply on the bottom.”

Priscilla in a scene from the movie. {Photograph}: Movie Fin/Rex/Shutterstock

The side-railing was put in on the bus’s inside so a digital camera might be hung from it “like just a little cable automotive”, to permit for shifting pictures contained in the bus whereas it was on the street. “It’s so odd, nobody else would suppose to place it there,” says Elliott.

The director, who fondly calls Priscilla “the outdated bus and chain”, wrote the movie similtaneously his 1993 comedy Frauds, which ended up being made first. The expertise was “horrible, the entire Hollywood nightmare … I used to be fully ruined by the tip, I used to be actually a dribbling wreck”.

“We had been having an early manufacturing assembly for Priscilla and I mentioned, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t wish to ever make a movie once more.’ Everybody was shocked. However Owen [Paterson, the production designer] mentioned, ‘Nicely, there’s one thing that I’ve discovered and it’s about to tug up. Come and take a look.’

“So we’re sitting there in Paddington and across the nook she got here. It was a really bizarre second the place I acquired contained in the bus and I put my hand on the wall. I turned to everybody and mentioned, ‘I believe I can do that.’”

Elliott estimates he has seen 50 totally different copies of the bus over time, “at premieres, Mardi Gras and daggy issues”. “So to listen to that the unique was nonetheless alive, it was very particular,” he provides. “I don’t perceive how it’s. It’s simply extraordinary.”

Given the complicated nature of who really owned Priscilla, having been deserted on a deceased property, the Historical past Belief utilized to the NSW courts to purchase the automobile as deserted property in 2021, 18 months after Mahon first contacted them. This course of required them to attend one other complete yr for somebody to return ahead to say it as their very own. However nobody did.

Mahon was lastly deemed the authorized proprietor of the bus and offered it to the Historical past Belief in Could 2023. In September, “an entire military of very skilled mechanics and engineers” turned as much as Ewingar to maneuver her for the primary time in a minimum of 16 years.

“I used to be really on go away however I drove myself all the best way to NSW to look at or not it’s moved – that is what a challenge like this does to you,” says Rees.

The bus’s flat tyres had been fastidiously crammed with air; in the event that they couldn’t be stuffed or burst, it will develop into a way more complicated operation. Everybody held their breath because the bus was wriggled “inch by inch” out of a decent spot on a slope, then down the hill on to a truck. Simply because it went on, one tyre popped.

Ten or so Ewingar locals gathered to look at her go. (“Phrase began to unfold and because the bus drove out, all of them form of waved goodbye,” says Paterson. “That was fairly cool.”)

Was Mahon unhappy to see Priscilla go? “Sure and no,” he says. “I consider museums are necessary, so it was going to the fitting place.” However lengthy after she was taken, he felt a pang when he regarded over the spot, “like one thing was lacking”.

“A part of me was gone,” Mahon says. “But when it stayed the place it was for an additional 12 months, it most likely would have been unrepairable.”

Priscilla is now at a restoration enterprise in Queensland, able to be glammed up – however not an excessive amount of.

The bus on the restoration firm in Brisbane, Queensland. {Photograph}: Historical past Belief of South Australia

“We’re restoring it to the state it was in through the making of Priscilla as a result of the movie is why it’s important,” says Rees. “So if the crew say it was a bit manky then, then it’s going to be that manner after we’re accomplished with it.”

However Priscilla was virtually 20 years outdated when she featured within the movie and can flip 50 in two years’ time, so she wants a number of work. The Historical past Belief is hoping individuals all over the world will assist elevate A$2.2m (US$1.4m/£1.1m) – a complete that features A$750,000 for an in depth restoration, together with presumably making the bus roadworthy once more. The remainder will go to constructing an formidable “immersive” exhibit, match for a queen, within the Nationwide Motor Museum in South Australia. (The SA authorities has already dedicated $100,000.)

“She’s not in good condition, she’s not been cherished and cared for. However she’s very, very salvageable – when you’ve acquired cash to throw at it,” says Rees. “We wish the exhibition to be fabulous. If we’re taking her on the street to Mardi Gras, we would like that to be a superb expertise. All these issues value some huge cash, as do the a long time of care we are going to present her with.

“It’s survived flood, fires, 16 years out within the open,” he provides. “However the movie is all about survival – and someway, the bus survived.”

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