Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins: Cocktails with Santa’s architect at Udaberri

Christmas means nostalgia and a lot of hot glue for one Adelaide resident.

It’s a Monday night on Leigh Street and Joanna Kensington-Phillips is covered in glitter. The 34-year-old orders cocktails at the bar. She waits with a couple of $20 bills clutched between her fingers. She says she got her start in the holiday business as a florist with a shop just a few doors down from where the Leigh Street Bakers Delight now stands.

Back then, she was young and ambitious and sick of the middle-aged managers she had been working for since she left school. Before the cafes and the small bars, Leigh Street was mostly used as a thoroughfare by office workers and those who haunted Hindley Street, but Kensington-Phillips fell in love with the cobble stones. She was just 19-years-old when she signed a three-year commercial lease on the place and says if the landlord had known, he would have had “the vapours”.

“I’m sass incorporated,” she says. “I had to have balls. Or pretend to have balls. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made it.”

These days she’s moved more into visual marketing and calls herself a “botanical artist”. Floristry, she says, has lost something in the years since she quit the business and then came back. People might appreciate her creations, but they don’t respect the skills.

“Aldi? They’re selling roses cheaper than we’re getting for wholesale,” Kensington-Phillips says. “People don’t care if it dies the day after, so long as they’re getting laid out of it.”

It’s some of the wisdom you learn in the flower trade. Weddings bring the bridezillas who work themselves into a frenzy late at night about flower crowns. The adult man who buys the cheapest bouquet on Mother’s Day speaks volumes with one transaction, as do the kids who save their pocket money to buy mum something nice.

Even on Valentines’ Day, one of the biggest in the florists’ calendar, the shop might make a killing selling Ecuadorian roses, but they also see all.

“I had a guy who bought two bunches: one for the wife, one for the girlfriend. And he had me write the cards on those because he didn’t want any handwriting to be traced back if there was an issue,” she says.

“I was like you! You wanton hussy!”

For Christmas, people still ring up to get their arrangements with poinsettia, the Christmas flower, or order their wreaths with pine and holly and which smell of cinnamon and dried orange, but, of them all, Christmas is the slowest and that may just make it the least cynical.

It is also a time of year Kensington- Phillips’ grandmother taught her to love. Patricia Emery was born in 1924 and was so nuts for Christmas, she had two Christmas trees. At her last Christmas, she did not tell the family about the extent of her cancer for fear of ruining it. Before she passed, she made them promise to keep the tradition alive, even if it marked a sad anniversary. Kensington-Phillips was 15.

“Christmas,” she says, “brings everybody together. Sometimes it brings you together with people you don’t even like. But it’s also a forced interaction of people that you care about. And you get to decorate everything. What’s not to love about that? And presents! Hel-lo.”

And it’s Christmas that brought Kensington-Phillips her favourite gig as Santa’s interior designer. When the jolly fat man in the red suit lands with the pageant, he and Mrs Claus set down at the Adelaide Showground from December 7 through to Christmas Eve, where they entertain Adelaide’s children in three-hour blocks.

Last year, the people who arrange these things contacted Kensington- Phillips, asking if she wanted to make the place look gorgeous. They explained it was a lot of work decorating 10-foot Christmas trees and three-metre expanses of wreaths and wondered if she might be interested.

“I said, ‘Ah, yes,’” she says. “They were really filling a hole. There was something missing in Adelaide. You remember John Martin’s and how it was pimp? It used to be the most amazing freaking place ever. You walked in there and it was, ‘Oh, my god’. Mum used to take me and my brother and I was just in awe of this place.

“Well when it closed down, there was just this void.”

It was that she wanted to recreate with Santa’s Wonderland and by the end she had gone through 20 kilos of glue and cleared entire shelves at her suppliers.

“I actually went to a session of Wonderland with my son, Max, and my mum. I wasn’t looking around when I got there, I was looking at the kids’ faces when they walked in,” she says. “I ugly cried. Honey, I wear liquid eye liner. It was not a good look. I looked like Alice Cooper. Like Marilyn Manson in a rain storm. I was just like: ‘This is the best thing ever; these babies love what I’ve done.’”

This year, the same people asked her back and she has just spent the last week doing it all over again. It is bigger this time around and all the work she’s put in has left her hands numb from the carpal tunnel she developed in both wrists back when she used to work 80-hour weeks.

“I’ve done so many hours this week,” she says, taking a sip on her cocktail. “But it’s worth it. And you know, when it opens, if I can get glitter on some Grinch’s shoulder, job done.”


Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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