6 June 2024

Hyatt Canberra keen to celebrate 100th birthday with memories of its hospitable past

| Sally Hopman
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Black and white photo of Hotel Canberra

One of the earliest images of Hotel Canberra, officially opened on 10 December, 1924. The hotel celebrates its centenary this year. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Few could beat Keith Etchells’ relationship with the Hyatt Hotel Canberra – it started even before he was born.

The connection began with his mother Lorna (nee Hammond) who started work at the iconic Canberra hotel in the 1940s as a waitress.

“She took up residence in the staff quarters and by all accounts had a fabulous pre-married life, working, attending dances and socialising with other bright young things of the era,” Keith said.

“She would often serve politicians of the day and was always quite chuffed when Billy McMahon would leave her a shilling tip.”

One of the most popular activities for staff was the dances at nearby Albert Hall where Lorna, and her friend Patricia Etchells, would have the best times. Lorna even made her debut there in front of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

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

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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,” Keith said. “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 later realised she was in love and the couple married in 1951 with their marriage certificate listing Hotel Canberra as her place of residence. The couple had five children, 14 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and four great, great grandchildren.

For their son Keith, his connection with the hotel began in 1987 when he interviewed for a job as kitchenhand but was offered that of a banquet waiter. He went on to look after many VIPs including the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Paul Keating, John Laws and Jacki Weaver.

Hyatt Hotel Canberra

Hyatt Hotel Canberra as it looks today – 100 years old this year and still going strong. Photo: Supplied.

Keith said one of his best memories of his time at the Hyatt was the opening night “when the Bollinger flowed like water. I was the personal waiter to Gough and Margaret Whitlam.” They were, he recalled, quite partial to a decent daiquri.

“I still remember sitting in the staff room in the early hours of the morning, eating leftover Beluga caviar and drinking champagne.

“The night had been a fabulous success and the Hyatt put on a staff party afterwards to thank us all for our efforts.”

Six months after he started, Keith was promoted to the Oak Room, the restaurant of the 1980s and 90s in Canberra.

“It offered service like no other,” he said. “We were even trained to ask how many ice cubes guests would like in their drink. The head waiter would take the orders, of course memorising 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.”

Keith Etchells drinking behind bar

Keith Etchells at the Hyatt Canberra in 1988. His family connection with the hotel stretches back many years. Photo: Supplied.

Keith said behind the scenes, hotel life was a little less glamorous but a lot of fun.

“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 Canberra Hyatt, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, wants to hear more stories like Keith’s.

It has created a modern-day time capsule where it wants to store the hotel’s early stories, photographs and other memorabilia.

If you lived or worked at Hostel No 1, Hotel Canberra or Hyatt Hotel Canberra, your memories are wanted.

More information is available on the Hyatt Hotel Canberra Centenary Stories website.

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The thing that stands out for me about the Hyatt is the little plaque to the right of the entrance, just near the front steps. This signifies that the hotel is a ‘Peace-Blossom’, one of a family of ‘significant and inspiring places dedicated to the cause of peace and global friendship’.

“Hyatt Hotel Canberra
The World”s First Sri Chinmoy Peace Hotel, March 93″

Worth a moment’s reflection!

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