One Question Quiz
The Gardens Magic Concert Series at the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is the quintessential summer experience. (Photo: Wellington City Council)
The Gardens Magic Concert Series at the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is the quintessential summer experience. (Photo: Wellington City Council)

WellingtonFebruary 24, 2024

A history of Gardens Magic, the 154-year-old Wellington concert series

The Gardens Magic Concert Series at the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is the quintessential summer experience. (Photo: Wellington City Council)
The Gardens Magic Concert Series at the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is the quintessential summer experience. (Photo: Wellington City Council)

The three-week bonanza is the last in a long line of events that have shaped the culture of the city.

In the January evenings of each year, the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is bursting with life. 

Around 6pm, people begin to trickle in, hoping to cultivate the perfect picnic spot. Some are looking for a sheltered nook to catch up with friends over a beer before the concert starts. Others looking for a more upbeat night get as close as they can to the soundshell dance floor. A few are somewhere in the middle, jiving to the beat as they snack on their cheese and crackers. By 7pm, the show begins. The place is packed to the brim.

Once the Christmas holidays are out of the way and everyone has arrived back home, the new year in Pōneke begins with an extra special tradition. The Gardens Magic Concert Series at the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is the quintessential summer experience cradled within our city’s cultural heart.

Gardens Magic is a three-week, multi-faceted bonanza with nightly live performances from a variety of genres, run by the Wellington City Council. The concerts run from 7 to 9:15 pm on the soundshell lawn, which can hold up to 3,500 people. 

Ska Pai performing at Gardens Magic. (Photo: Delia Shanly)

Ali Whitton ‘LOST BiRD’ played this year’s concert series and praised the Council’s prioritisation of Pōneke local acts. They’re a great platform for newer musicians, and one of the biggest gigs a lot of us will ever get in our lives,” he says.

From 9:15 to 11 pm, the garden comes alive with a walk-through light display run by MJF Lighting. This year there were also daytime events, such as a kids activity trail and Wednesday Explore Days, and a number of all-ages, drop-in art classes. 

Not strictly a music festival 

The historic event is an opportunity for Wellingtonians to enjoy a slice of the local arts scene, elevated by a natural environment that becomes enchanting after dark. “It’s gorgeous, watching the sunset and the light show,” says Musician Adriana Calabrese, who played her first solo Gardens Magic gig this year. “I can’t even explain to other people how magical and surreal it really is.”

With a good portion of the audience picking a random night to attend, the concert series is not strictly a music festival. Rather, it’s an event that encourages Wellingtonians to experience local arts and culture first-hand. “I honestly couldn’t tell you who even played,” Calabrese adds, “but that’s why it was so special. It was spontaneous.”

Gardens Magic, unlike your average Pōneke concert, has no ticket fee and no allocated seating. Attendees are welcome to show up and head off whenever they’d like. Observing the audience, it’s obvious every person is having their own unique night: there are couples with charcuterie boards, friend groups dancing and drinking, flatmates playing cards, and parents laughing with their kids. 

Even where you choose to sit influences the way you engage, says organiser Toby Papazoglou. “If you sit in the first half of the soundshell lawn, you’re in a gig. If you sit at the back half, you’re at a picnic, that’s where most people hang out and chat and talk.” 

One of the highlights of Gardens Magic is the potential to stumble across new sounds. For the first time in 2024, the Council extended the concerts from an 8pm start to a 7pm start, allowing extra time for a shorter opening act. 

Taking one of those spots this year was 17-year-old Tui-Eilish Tahere-Katene (Ngāpuhi & Ngā Rauru), who captivated audiences with a Beyoncé-worthy dress and mighty voice to match. “This performance was a huge stepping stone for me,” she says. “It gets my name out into the community.”

Tahere-Katene’s family history is intertwined with Gardens Magic’s history, which makes the venue extra special for her. “The stage is spectacular, and in fact my koro [Michael Joseph Tahere] performed on the very same stage” 50 years ago, she says, with his band, Main Street.

Michael Joseph Tahere and his band Main Street. (Photo: Bianca Tahere)

Over 120 years of live music

The Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā is 154 years old, and was officially established by English settlers in 1869. In 1891, it was claimed by the Wellington City Council. In 2013, the gardens were able to finally honour their heritage by adopting their Māori name gifted by local mana whenua. 

Live music events have taken place at the gardens since at least the early 1900s. The first large one was the Garden Fête of 1910. In 1953, the Gardens Magic’s current stage, the soundshell, was built to replace the previous music venue, a band rotunda built in 1911. Up until the late 70s, the soundshell often hosted weekly Sunday music performances.

In 1979, the Wellington City Council hosted its first Summer City festival, a series of outdoor events, concerts and activities. From 1979 into the early 2000s, Summer City events were held all throughout the gardens, with most shows based in The Dell. In the 1980s, Summer City hosted a number of iconic names such as The Topp Twins. The events could be found all over the city, from the Wellington Zoo to Oriental Bay and even Strathmore Park. 

The Topp Twins playing at Summer City. (Photo: Wellington City Council)

The Warratahs have been playing Summer City/Gardens Magic shows since the 90s, when they first played in Anderson Park. 2024 was their first performance without late drummer Michael Knapp, who was in the band for 20 years. They introduced the audience to their new track Ruby Bay, with Caroline Easther on the drums and supporting vocals.  

“I remember Summer City when I first came to Wellington, people were always talking about it,” says Warratahs singer-songwriter Barry Saunders. “It was part of the [cultural] landscape.”

Under the name Summer City, the Council hosted over 90 events including Teddy Bears Picnic, Summer Shakespeare, Movies in The Dell, Kids Magic and many more.

A hay fight at Summer City. (Photo: Wellington City Council)

Gardens Magic was first created as an event under the Summer City umbrella in the late 90s. It was co-produced by the Council under the direction of Events Coordinator Delia Shanly and MJF Lighting under Michael Farrand. It quickly became Summer City’s flagship event, then in 2023 it became the sole brand, leaving Summer City behind.

Delia Shanly worked at the Council from 1999 to 2005 and again from 2015 to 2022. During her second stint, she was delighted to see a new generation of performers. Shanly points out that Wellington-born musician Myele Manzanza first watched his father, Afrobeat pioneer Sam Manzanza, play at Summer City and Gardens Magic in his youth. He has now found his own success playing jazz and funk.

“I’ve been told by some musos that attending Gardens Magic was specifically what made them want to become a musician,” Shanly says.

The poster for Summer City 1999. (Wellington City Council)

‘I can see myself on that stage’

This is the last year that drag queen MC Miss Pollyfilla will be the sole producer of her multi-performer drag show, Wigstock. 

Growing up in Pōneke, Miss Pollyfilla remembers attending Summer City as a kid; everything from picnics with bubbles to movies under the stars and getting prickles in her feet. Her first role was as a volunteer at the Summer City Oriental Parade Mardi Gras, during her final year of high school.

The Wigstock performance at Gardens Magic. (Photo: Delia Shanly)

In the late 90s, she remembers seeing Gareth Farr performing his Drumdrag show at Summer City, as his drag persona Lilith LaCroix. “The place was packed and I thought, ‘I can see myself on that stage,’” she says. 

In 2002, Miss Pollyfilla was hired to do her first Glamorama alongside her three dancing girls, The Dazzling Fillettes, at Gardens Magic. Notably, in the same year, Shanly put Flight of The Conchords in the lineup. Polly continued to perform consistently until 2006 and then came back in 2017, before creating Wigstock in 2018. 

Flight of The Conchords performing at Summer City in 2002. (Photo: Robert Cattos)

I have had people come up to me in the recent Gardens Magic shows in the past few years, who saw me when they were like two or three, and say, ‘You were one of the first queer people I saw. I didn’t know that I was queer and I didn’t know that you were queer. I just knew that what we’re doing was okay,’” Polly says. “And now 15-20 years later, here they are living as their authentic selves without shame or prejudice.”

This is why she knows it’s time to hand over Wigstock. As she lives in Australia, the growing Pōneke drag community will now take charge of producing the event. But this is not the last of Miss Polyfilla at the concert series: she’ll likely continue gracing the event with her vibrant energy for many years to come.

A 150-year old plaque at the Founders Gate Entrance of the gardens features the following words: “This garden is dedicated to the honourable pleasure of rejoicing the eye, refreshing the nose and rejuvenating the spirit.” In the era of Gardens Magic, this is still true. 

Puppet theatre in the summer of 1979. (Photo: Wellington City Council)

As the music fades, the sun sets and the stars and lights take over. Throngs of people walk through the colourfully illuminated trees and stop to admire the art displays. By day, this is a park these people might pass on the bus to work or uni. By night, it’s a mystical wonderland; a midsummer night’s dreamscape.

These magical events in the gardens are not only nights to remember, but part of the city’s history, each LED twinkle sparking inspiration in us all. 

Keep going!