Planet Hollywood Down Under: A smashed violin and the Wiggles without skivvies
A blue globe sitting atop a corner of the historic Plaza Theatre building on Sydney’s George Street is one of the only remaining signs Planet Hollywood ever traded in Australia.
The sphere – rebranded for a bar recently located in the iconic building, which is also home to a McDonald’s – went up about 24 years ago when the themed restaurant, backed by Hollywood heavyweights Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone, opened its first Australian restaurant to unparalleled fanfare.
The 350-seat, memorabilia-lined Sydney restaurant opened in May 1996, five years after Planet Hollywood launched in New York, and Melbourne followed, with one opening in Crown Casino in August 1997.
While after two bankruptcies, the revived chain still exists overseas, it only lasted a few years Down Under, with both restaurants, each in sought-after locations, closed by the early 2000s.
A superstar business model
Founded by US film producer turned entrepreneur Keith Barish and Robert Earl, described by Esquire magazine as “a colourful Englishman known for his loud silk shirts”, Planet Hollywood opened its first restaurant on Wall Street in New York City in 1991.
It was pitched as a brand-new concept, a glitzy glimpse into Hollywood thanks to movie memorabilia, costumes and set pieces on display, matched with what was essentially upscale junk food.
Schwarzenegger, Willis, Moore and Stallone were the first celebrities to partner with Planet Hollywood, through an employee stock ownership plan. The celebrities generated valuable PR for the brand and did energetic in-person appearances which drew huge crowds.
From 1991, it expanded rapidly, adding dozens of restaurants across the globe. There were more star signings, with Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Cindy Crawford jumping on board. In 1996, the company went public, listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
Australia joins the Planet
The 32nd restaurant in the Planet Hollywood chain opened in Sydney on May 26, 1996, with a crowd estimated at somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 on hand to catch a glimpse of the stars who flew to Australia for the occasion at the Plaza.
Stallone, Van Damme, Willis and Charlie Sheen, supermodel Cindy Crawford and illusionist David Copperfield, who was on tour in Australia at the time, helped officially open the 2,100sqm restaurant, which had room for a staggering 100 people at the bar. It was one of the largest hospitality spaces in Sydney at the time.
Media reports quote Sheen bragging about the fishing he’d done since landing. “I’ve been here about 36 hours and I’ve spent 28 on the water hunting marlin,” he told reporters.
Van Damme, who arrived on a motorbike, was more personal in his comments about Australia. “This country is like a beautiful woman, the more you touch Australia the more you want it,” he said.
Rocky star Stallone, one of the biggest celebrities in the world at that time, spoke to the crowd and expressed his thanks. “To see you all here is the highest form of flattery and compliment.”
In August 1997, on the same day the death of Princess Diana was confirmed, Melbourne’s ‘Planet’ opened inside Crown Casino.
While the opening was subdued given the news, the event was still the hottest ticket in town, with fans lining what was the longest red carpet in the southern hemisphere to see stars arrive.
George Street icon
In choosing the location for its first Planet Hollywood in Australia, its owners showed it meant business, leasing one of the prime pieces of real estate in Sydney’s CBD. It was high profile and high foot traffic.
Ben Handler, founder and chief executive of the Sydney-based Buyer’s Agent Institute, said the Plaza Theatre – which opened in 1930, but closed as a cinema in 1977, and was later home to Moxy’s Roller Disco – was highly desirable at the time.
“The shopping and lifestyle precinct around George Street cinemas was a lucrative area due to its proximity to the Pitt Street Mall, Town Hall station and Chinatown. Being an area with high foot traffic made this a desirable location for major brands,” he said.
“This was also a time before internet shopping and online streaming, when more people would have made a night of going into the Sydney CBD for dinner and a movie or show,” Mr Handler said.
Fittingly given it was also a 90s mainstay, Sydney’s Planet Hollywood shared space with Australian music retailer Brashs until it went bust in 1998.
“After Brashs closed, the space was converted into Star Bar. Once Planet Hollywood closed in 2002, Star Bar remained on George St until 2020, when its doors shut, with signage indicating it’s closed for repairs,” Mr Handler said.
It remains to be seen if the Star Bar will reopen – and the globe will stay in situ – as it’s understood it was sold late in 2020 by the Maloney Hotel Group.
Big Melbourne party on a tragic day
For its foray into Melbourne, Planet Hollywood and its sports bar brand, Official All Star Café, played it safe location-wise, choosing Melbourne’s Crown Casino, which had opened just a few years earlier.
At the time, Jodie Artis, who now runs her own business, Progressive PR and Communications in Melbourne, was working for a small PR firm and it got the gig to promote Planet Hollywood.
The spectacular launch party, which Ms Artis and her colleagues had worked on day and night for six months in the lead-up, was set for August 31, 1997.
“It was incredibly exciting to be working on such a big celebrity project, but also very stressful and manic, dealing with Crown and Planet Hollywood in both Sydney and in the US and working long, long hours,” she said.
“Then, on the morning of the huge launch – that we had big names flying in from all over the world for, with crowds gathering from 6am, streets locked down, trams diverted – we got word Princess Diana, who was the single-most famous person in the world at the time, had been in a serious car crash in Paris.
“A few hours later, it was confirmed she’d died. I wasn’t privy to all the conversations that happened further up the food chain, but the decision was taken to continue with the event, albeit in a scaled-back, respectful way,” Ms Artis said.
The young PR agent looked after Stallone, Will Smith and several other big names for the opening.
“It’s kinda crazy looking back now. They walked this massive red carpet – it was the longest in the southern hemisphere at the time – all the way down Clarendon and Whiteman streets into the main entrance of Crown, meeting fans as they went.
“It was an amazing experience, a brilliant event, but the mood was very different to what it probably would have been given what had happened. Anyone who was anyone was there, but it was also tinged with sadness.”
Hanging with pop stars and Oscar-winners
In the next three years working for Planet Hollywood and Official All Star Café, Ms Artis hosted a cavalcade of other stars, from the Spice Girls to Whitney Houston and Bobbi Brown, Boyz II Men, George Clooney and even The Wiggles and Kylie Minogue.
“I always joke I have a book in me, with stories about a smashed violin, about crazy demands and dealing with all the big egos. We all worked our butts off and it wasn’t for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. Clooney – who came to donate some of his memorabilia – was pretty special.
“The adrenaline was intense, but worth it, even though in today’s world, a lot of what went on simply wouldn’t fly,” she said.
Trying to sneak The Wiggles into Crown for a performance sticks out in Ms Artis’ memory.
“We had a few hundred children and parents in the lobby, waiting for them to arrive and we were trying to work out how to sneak them in. But the guys said ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll just walk in’, which I thought was crazy.
“But wearing regular clothes, that’s exactly what they did, and none of the fans recognised them, no one bated an eyelid. When they came out in their coloured skivvies a few moments later, it was a different story, they went wild,” she laughed.
Roll the credits
Co-founder Barish stepped away from the company in early 1999 and later that year, it declared bankruptcy for the first time. In 2001, when Schwarzenegger sold his shares, Planet Hollywood was again declared bankrupt.
With co-founder Earl and original partners and stockholders Willis and Stallone still involved, it now operates as Planet Hollywood International, with restaurants, hotels, casinos and resorts across the US, UK, France, Malta, Costa Rica, India and Mexico.