Final act of Mary magic

Written by Kerrie Alexander

Dressed beautifully in her 1850s-inspired costume and overlooking her beloved Mary River, Mary Heritage fired the historic time cannon one last time at the Portside Precinct.

The crowd were left in awe of Carmel Murdoch’s cheery character whose knowledge of the region just rolled off the tongue without hesitation.

It has been this passion for Maryborough, her ability to connect with the community, and her unwavering devotion to the job, that has made Mrs Murdoch and her various Mary characters nothing short of iconic for the past 23 years.

Being her last day before officially retiring, I expected to sit down with an emotional Mrs Murdoch who didn’t want her time to come to an end.

Sitting in the historic canvas chairs in the Bond Store, where she had no doubt shown through thousands of guests over the years, she was instead full of gratitude for a life well lived and roles well played as Mary Heritage, Mary Poppins, Mary Christmas, Mary Widow, Mary Rose, Mary Rivers, and Steam Punk Mary.

Four years ago, Mrs Murdoch led the Mary Poppins Festival for what she thought may be the last time after being diagnosed with bowel cancer.

But after recovering from surgery, she was able to get back to work and now, after all the years of hard work as a tourism ambassador for the region, she was grateful to make the decision to retire on her own terms.

“I’m not at all sad. I feel satisfied and happy,” Mrs Murdoch said.

“I’ve been working since I was 15, so that’s 55 years of working life and I just felt it was time.

“I have done my job to the best of my ability, and I think that’s all that anyone can ask.

“I hope I have entertained visitors and locals alike with all of the many characters and certainly that I have done a good job promoting the region in which we live.”

So just how did Carmel Murdoch become the various Mary’s?

Let us turn back the clock 23 years ago when someone from council made a phone call that would change the course of Maryborough’s history.

Mrs Murdoch was working at Boys Department store in Maryborough when she had to go into hospital for major surgery.

The store was sold to Dimmeys during that time and Mrs Murdoch came back to work only to be told she no longer had a job.

Full of anger, she walked outside the store where a recently retired Mary Heritage just happened to be standing.

“I walked out, and I was really angry” she said.

“The previous Mary Heritage was standing outside, and she said, ‘you don’t look happy’.

“I told her what happened, and she said, well you should apply for Mary Heritage.

“I said I don’t want to be Mary Heritage, but here we are 23 years later”, she said with a laugh.
“Council contacted me and wanted me to come in for an interview, and so I thought, well, it’s something to do until I get another job, and that was it.”

From the moment she donned the Mary Heritage costume, created to honour Maryborough officially becoming a port of entry in 1859, Mrs Murdoch used her own unique sense of fun and frivolity to create each character’s persona.

Crowned the “heritage city”, Maryborough predates Queensland’s other historic towns by a number of decades, having once been one of only two ports in Australia that processed tens of thousands of immigrants, alongside Sydney Harbour.

With no Google or internet available at that time, Mrs Murdoch used library books to research and memorise all the content for her varied adventures.

That included jumping on board buses at town hall and creating her own guided tours as Mary Heritage, to the cheeky Mary Widow who loved looking for millionaires on the bus to marry, before taking them on ghostly tours of Maryborough’s cemetery, City Hall and undoubtably the Fraser Coast’s most haunted house, Mavis Bank.

“She had two millionaires on a bus one night and one was married, and one had a crook back so neither of them were any good to her,” she said with a laugh.

“Mary Widow was a real entertainer.

“Each character had different persona, a different name badge and different character for each version.

“The character I enjoyed the most was Mary Widow because she’s the closest to the Carmel character … she likes to tell jokes and Carmel is very much like that.”

There has been plenty of storytelling, dancing, singing, and chimneysweeps as part of all her characters but one that will remain close to her heart is Mary Heritage.

Mrs Murdoch has attended 16 Australian Town Crier Championships, including the World Championships that were held in Maryborough in 2005, and won 13 costume awards.

“Mary Heritage organised the Town Crier competition and for me, that has been the biggest highlight of my career in my time as any of the Mary’s.

“I convinced people from all over the world to travel to Maryborough, and we had 65 town criers and their partners, 1193 motor homes at the show grounds … it went for a week or more and it was absolutely wonderful.

“The whole community became involved.”

After the tremendous support shown for the competition, Mary Heritage – along with other community stalwarts like Nancy Bates – played an integral part in also bringing the Mary Poppins Festival, Pub Crawl and the Back to the Banyan Festivals to fruition.

She said the costumes for all these festivals also played a big part in putting the spotlight on the Heritage City.

“It was just an absolutely fabulous year,” she said.

“I’ve loved my roles and extolling the fabulous things we have here. There isn’t a day when I’m wearing the costume that I don’t get asked for photos.

“The costumes have been brilliant for promoting Maryborough.

“I will miss the roles, but I have so much else to do. I might even go fly a kite.”

In her 55 years of working life, Mrs Murdoch has been a cashier at a butcher shop, a farmer, coffee shop waitress, babysitter, apprentice hairdresser, worked in hotels at front reception and bars and a post office attendant where she met Steve McQueen and John Wayne.

She has been an Estee Lauder beauty advisor and TV presenter for David Jones and Geoff McWilliams Amcal Pharmacy, where she worked for 15 years.

Hosted countless fashion parades and charity events and is a much-loved member of many community groups like the Proud Marys, the Maryborough Zonta Club and the local historical society and supports many other causes.

She loves her poodles, enjoys reading, pottering in the garden, jewellery making and hosting her monthly girls’ night in and happy hour with the neighbours.

So, retirement will be far from quiet for the fun-loving and spirited 70-year-old.

But the one part of life that is dearest to her heart is being a mother, granny and great granny – a role she will relish in now that she has some extra time on her hands.

“Family to me is the most important thing!

“I wouldn’t care if I lost everything in this world, as long as I have my family, I’m happy.”

To celebrate her retirement an exhibition of her dresses and memorabilia is being staged at the Story Bank from now until the end of August.

She was also presented with a book called ‘Becoming Mary’, a pictorial of all her characters over the past 23 years.

Mrs Murdoch was kind enough to show me through the marvellous exhibition where she took a stroll down a remarkable memory lane.

In true Carmel style, she wished me a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious day and went on her way to her very last Story Bank weaving class.

Mrs Murdoch was to make her final appearance at this year’s Mary Poppins Festival in July however due to Covid-19 concerns the event was postponed.

The free event will now be staged at the Portside Precinct from August 26-29 where a new storyteller will be introduced to the region.

They will, of course, have big shoes to fill.

“I just hope that they (council) choose someone that is a people person and can talk to people.

“As long as the people can relate to what you’re telling them, I think that’s the most important thing.”

Congratulations on your retirement Carmel Murdoch! You are an inspiration to us all.