Australian Innovation

The ‘Skipping Girl’

Long left derelict and unappreciated on top of an old building in Abbotsford, an old inner Melbourne suburb, stands the city’s most underrated, hidden and forgotten icon – the now famous ‘Skipping Girl’ neon sign.

Saved only by a last minute Heritage listing reprieve, this sign is possibly the world’s finest and most beautiful surviving example of Neon Art – without a corporate name or logo emblazoned across it. The only comparable remaining work of Neon Art anywhere in the world is the 50 foot high ‘Winking Cowboy’ from Las Vegas, which is downright ugly and kitsch compared to Melbourne’s own giant and stunningly beautiful neon work of art. Although Neon Art was the world’s first real Pop Art, the current version of ‘Skipping Girl’ is the sign’s second incarnation and a 1970 replica, whereas the first was from 1936. I photographed this ‘Skipping Girl’ in 1995 across the Yarra River and from Kew Hill. Since then a building has risen up in front of her, blocking a view from the east and allowing only a view from the city side, which now denies any proper front-on perspective.
Skipping Girl’s’ visual concept, a girl with a skipping rope, could only have been achieved using neon tubing. The girl in the sign is affectionately known as ‘Little Audrey’ and was modeled on the daughter of a local milk bar owner. There was a proposal for a ‘Skipping Girl’ neon sign as early as 1915, five years after the neon tube had been invented and a local artist, Jim Minogue, came up with a dry-point sketch for the original concept, but the war years intervened and the sign was never built. Jim wanted to call his neon sign ‘Little Kitty’ after his younger sister, who later became a Benedictine nun. Jim saw his sign as being more than a commercial logo, he saw it as an icon – a carefree, female icon, usually put on cars and ships and yet, as a modern, mythical goddess, symbolizing the destiny this fair, young country should take. A destiny in preference to the Old Order of Europe and the Great War this country and its young men were being thrust into.  
The 21st Century has seen a renewed interest in the ‘Skipping Girl’ neon sign, our ‘Little Audrey’. In 2003 the ‘Friends of Audrey’ group was formed and then in 2008, with over 3000 members, the group managed to restore ‘Skipping Girl’ to her former glory and this has been supported by the National Trust so she can be constantly maintained into the future. I, for one, can’t believe she’s even survived this long, given the treatment her predecessor received. After being torn down by Whelan the Wrecker in 1968 the original 1936 version was sold to an Abbotsford used car dealer.

This is where Barry Humphries found her sometime later, on her side, rusting and beyond repair, so he lay a wreath to her, sang her a specially written hymn and gave her a proper funeral. There was a public outcry at ‘Skipping Girl’s’ destruction so, as I’ve mentioned, a replica was built and a nearby property owner even offered the top of his building as her new home, near where she stands today. I’d like to point out, however, that this sign should never have advertised vinegar – being 100 metres down the road from where the demolished vinegar factory once stood. Historically this is important because Jim Minogue’s original art work did not include the word ‘Vinegar’, nor did the original 1936 version, so neither should the ‘people’s replica’ now include any connection to commerce.
Given her illustrious and chequered  history,  ‘Skipping Girl’ is a world-class treasure of Neon Art. I personally envisage her, minus the ‘Vinegar’ lettering, on top of one of Melbourne’s surrounding hills, with a city skyline as her backdrop. Hidden in an underground vault by day and then at night rising to her spectacular eight metre height – a city icon to at least rival Copenhagen’s ‘Lovely Little Maiden’ - a 1913 bronze sculpture of a young mermaid, perched gracefully on one of Copenhagen’s  harbourside islands. Tourists from all around the world would also readily flock to see our own ‘Little Audrey’ skipping ‘round the Universe, with the city skyline as her backdrop.
In this city ‘Skipping Girl’ has certainly skipped her way to official historical status, even though she is still hidden away in one of Melbourne’s inner city suburbs, but it is only a matter of time before she is fully recognized as one of the city’s most treasured civic icons, given a suitable and worthwhile final resting place and hopefully set up high enough for all the world to see.

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