Guest Story

Generations of Memories

From the 1940s until today.

By Keith Etchells

When I heard Hyatt Hotel Canberra was celebrating its 100th anniversary it opened a floodgate of emotions and took me on a wonderful journey down memory lane.

My relationship with the hotel started before I was born with my mother, Lorna Etchells, nee Hammond. It has been a thread that intertwines my life ever since.

Lorna worked as a waitress at Hotel Canberra in the late 1940s. She took up residence in the staff quarters and by all accounts had a fabulous pre-married life: working, attending dances and socializing with other bright young things of the era. She would often serve politicians of the day and was always quite chuffed when Billy McMahon would leave her a shilling tip.

Lorna Etchells nee Hammond in the Hotel Canberra kitchen

Living at the hotel Lorna would attend dances next door at Albert Hall with her fellow waitress and friend, Patricia Etchells. She also attended her debutante ball. She debuted and curtseyed in front of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Patricia’s daughter remembers stories that back in the day the waitstaff were lined up before each shift for inspection. Their appearance was of top importance, right down to making sure the seams in their stocking were straight. It was all silver service, no writing orders – they had to remember each one.

Through Patricia, Lorna met a young man named Robert – Patricia’s brother. 

Mum would recall that she wasn’t that fussed on him to start with. However, after being stood up on a date - probably a dance at the Albert Hall - she ran to her room at Hotel Canberra, threw herself on the bed and started to cry. Sometimes love isn’t instantly blinding, but it simmers below the surface. Lorna realized she was in love.

From first dates, to heartbreak, tear-stained pillows and eventually a proposal, Robert and Lorna were married in 1951 and their marriage certificate lists Hotel Canberra as her place of residence.

They went on to have five children, 14 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and four great, great grandchildren.

Robert and Lorna on their wedding day, Lorna's place of residence on their wedding certificate was listed as Hotel Canberra

My story starts with the hotel in 1987 when I interviewed with Carol Pearson for a kitchen hand position but ended up being brought on as a banquet waiter. I received three weeks paid in-house five-star silver service training.

While my mother found love at Hotel Canberra, I found an enriching career in hospitality.

Hospitality wasn’t considered much of a career path back then, but Hyatt really changed that perception in the market. They offered professional training, career pathways and mentors who paved international careers in hotels. In fact, my Food and Beverage Director at the time, Peter Fulton, went on to become Group President for Hyatt International covering Europe, Africa, Middle East and Southwest Asia.

During my time as head banquet waiter, I looked after many dignitaries and VIPs, including the Japanese Prime Minister, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Paul Keating, Bill Hayden, John Laws, Sonia McMahon, Jacki Weaver and the infamous Rene Rivkin.

I was there on the opening night in 1988, when the Bollinger flowed like water. I was the personal waiter to Gough and Margaret Whitlam. I still remember sitting in the staff room in the early hours of the morning, eating left over Beluga Caviar and drinking champagne. The night had been a fabulous success and Hyatt put on staff party afterwards to thank us all for our efforts.

Keith Etchells as a banquet waiter in 1988

In 1988 we also hosted the first Red Nose Day, which really paved the way for today’s landscape of charity fundraisers – urging Australian’s to wear a red nose and be “silly for a serious cause”.

Six months after I started I was promoted to the Oakroom. The hotel’s premiere restaurant - We would offer club service in the bar for pre-dinner drinks, with some drinks made at the table. We were even trained to ask how many ice cubes guests would like in their drink.

The Oakroom, a popular silver-service restaurant in the 80s and 90s

The head waiter would take the orders, of course memorizing where each dish would be positioned on the table and we’d then bring the order to the table with a silver cloche. It was quite the theatrical experience to reveal the dish to each guest.

The 80s was an era of excess, silk taffeta and shoulder pads, and Hyatt Hotel was the most glamorous place to be. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, cocktails reigned supreme and little expense was spared. The art deco decor paid homage to the heritage of this beautiful old building.

We had our trials and tribulations in the early days. It was reported we went through $30,000 in glassware in the first six months, as the crystal was so fine, but the camaraderie among staff was superlative and late-night lock-ins were not uncommon at the De Depot in Civic after work, nor were all nighters at the Lakeside Hotel on hospitality night every Monday.

The Oakroom was the place to be and served many familiar faces

Thanks to Hyatt Hotel Canberra, I went on to have a very fulfilling and exciting career in Sydney, from Hyatt Hotel Canberra to the Regent of Sydney, the Opera House, Powerhouse Museum, State Library and the Sydney Theatre Company. In 1994 I was involved in the set up and running the hottest new venue in Balmain, Gotham Bar & Brasserie - our head chef was from the London Savoy Hotel, and eventually my own bistro in Surry Hills.

Hotel Canberra and Hyatt Hotel Canberra is very much woven into my past, and I still enjoy reliving these memories today. An old and comforting reminder of my parent’s young love and endless possibilities.

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