15 Apr 2024

Australian icon Priscilla uncovered 30 years after 'disappearing'

From Nights, 10:18 pm on 15 April 2024

A piece of Australian film history, long thought lost, has been found on a remote property in NSW.

Thirty years ago, a small Australian film Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released without much fanfare. It went on to be a worldwide hit. 

Almost as iconic as the movie itself was Priscilla the bus which was home to drag queens Mitzi Del Bra, Felicia Jollygoodfellow and transgender woman Bernadette Bassenger as they drove from Sydney to Alice Springs.

Not long after filming wrapped, the bus vanished.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 
Year : 1994 Australia
Director : Stephan Elliott

It is forbidden to reproduce the photograph out of context of the promotion of the film. It must be credited to the Film Company and/or the photographer assigned by or authorized by/allowed on the set by the Film Company. Restricted to Editorial Use. Photo12 does not grant publicity rights of the persons represented. (Photo by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Archives du 7eme Art / Photo12 via AFP)

Photo: AFP / Polygram Film Entertainment

The amazing story of its rediscovery has been written about by journalist Sian Cain for the Guardian.

While numerous replicas of Priscilla have been built over the years, the true original remained lost for three decades, Cain tells Emile Donovan.

“After filming wrapped, it just disappeared without a trace.

“It was leased by this couple to the production company and then after that, it was returned to the couple, and was just used as a bus again.”

Australian band The Whitlams used it as a tour bus for six months on a national tour in 1994, she says.

“And then Priscilla returns to the couple and disappeared without a trace and we essentially didn't know what happened to Priscilla since 1994.”

Overtime, fans of the film started to search for the original Priscilla to no avail.

“Tracking down the real deal was incredibly tricky and took a long time. But eventually that search ended when someone came forward and said, 'I think I have it, and it's in my backyard'.”

That person was Michael Mahon. He got in touch with the History Trust in South Australia, a group of museums which also manages the National Motor Museum.

The History Trust had been trying to track down where Priscilla was and acquire it for their museum, she says.

It came into Mahon’s hands through a circuitous route, Cain says.

“The couple that owned Priscilla back when the film was made split up. And the bus was taken by one of the parties in that relationship after the separation had been nutted out, and that person drove the bus to Ewingar [NSW] where the new partner was living. And the bus was stored on his property.

“Eventually, they split up, but the bus remained on the property in Ewingar. And when the owner of that property died in 2016, Michael bought it as a deceased estate.”

Priscilla Queen of the Desert bus next to burnt out cars in the bush.

Priscilla narrowly avoided a fiery fate. Photo: Supplied / History Trust of South Australia

After taking possession of the property, Mahon went into town to introduce himself, she says.

“He went down to the community hall in Ewingar, it's got a really small population, it's about 67 people.

“So, he went into town to the meet everyone and everyone kept asking him, what are you going to do with the bus?

"And he went up to the bar guy at the community hall and said, ‘Why is everyone asking me about the bus?’ And the bar guy went, ‘that's Priscilla.’”

Mahon went home and had a good look at the bus, watched the film and studied stills from the filming and realised Priscilla was sitting on his property.

Shortly after offering her to the History Trust, Priscilla was almost lost to the world forever, she says.

Mahon, having been out of contact, suddenly emailed the Trust.

He said, ‘sorry, I've been dealing with bush fires, and we almost lost Priscilla.’

“And he sent these amazing photos. There were big bush fires in 2019 around Ewingar and a lot of New South Wales and a Country Fire Service helicopter dropped a water bomb on Michael's property because the fire was going through the property, and it hit the bus instead of the house.

“The fire went under the front bar of the bus and then continued on and destroyed a boat and two cars and a van all parked around the bus, but the bus, because it got hit by the water It survived.”

And then came the floods, she says.

“That's what made acquiring Priscilla quite urgent because of the damage of the huge temperatures of the bush fire, that exposed the outside of the bus to rust.

“So, when all the flooding came through the bus began to really deteriorate. And that's when he was starting to worry that things weren't moving fast enough.”

Then came Covid, and a lengthy legal process to establish Mahon was the legal owner of Priscilla, she says.

After being out in the open 16 years and enduring trial by fire and flood, the bus was in bad shape, Cain says, it’s now with a restoration company in Brisbane.

“The aim is they're going to make him roadworthy. Which would be amazing, because that means that even though it would be acquired for the National Motor Museum in South Australia, it could also travel the country.

"It has symbolic meaning, given the use of it in Priscilla, the History Trust has spoken tentatively, but quite enthusiastically about putting Priscilla in the Mardi Gras, which would be wonderful.”