Page 1: Biography
Saunders, Garnet Hornby
Shoemaker, musician, cinema proprietor, businessman
This biography, written by Margaret Carr, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Garnet Hornby Saunders was born in Hamley Bridge, South Australia, on 14 June 1880, the son of Caroline Charlotte Sparshott and her husband, Richard Saunders, a brickmaker. He was educated at an Adelaide public school and became a shoemaker. When he was 21 he joined Fitzgerald’s Circus as a musician. He is said to have been the Australian solo cornet champion.
Garnet Saunders arrived in Auckland in 1902 and soon gained a position as conductor of the Waihi Federal Band. In 1904, induced by the offer of a shoe repair business, he moved to New Plymouth to become solo cornetist, and later conductor, with Garry’s Band. He also played with the Taranaki Garrison Band. On 8 December 1909 he married Harriet (Kitty) Williams at New Plymouth. They were to have three children.
The entertainment business fascinated Saunders and in 1910 he introduced Saunders Biograph Pictures (short silent films) at the Theatre Royal in New Plymouth. Public notices advertised orchestral accompaniment each evening, with Saunders playing the cornet. By the end of the year Saunders Biograph Pictures had expanded to Waitara, Inglewood and Stratford. The company had also helped stage an attempt at endurance piano playing. James Schubert Stirton, advertised as the ‘world’s champion’ endurance pianist, regained his title by playing non-stop for 74 hours and 12 minutes.
In December 1911 Saunders moved to the Empire Theatre, leasing it from the Bellringer estate. A tall, thin, stern-looking man, he was a familiar sight standing at the door of his theatre or filming scenes around Taranaki. He drove an open car, and projectionist Brandon Haughton operated a big hand-cranked camera to capture Taranaki life. These films were shown at the Empire on Saturday nights. (Four have been preserved at the Taranaki Museum.) By early 1916 Garnet Saunders was managing director of Taranaki Amusements Limited. The company had bought the Theatre Royal and was contracted to build Everybody’s cinema. Theatres were also built by Taranaki Amusements in Inglewood, Waitara and Stratford, but at the height of his success Garnet Saunders struck problems.
In 1915 he had become involved in a slanging match in the Taranaki Herald over whether or not he had been reasonable in negotiations with a travelling picture show, the Kinemacolour Company. The company claimed that Saunders had refused to let out the Theatre Royal unless paid an exorbitant sum. Furious over charges that he was a monopolist and that he had deliberately tried to keep audiences away from Kinemacolour’s shows, Saunders sued Herald proprietor Henry Weston for £1,000. The libel hearing in 1916 was long and heated and Garnet Saunders lost. He was also ordered to pay costs. An attempt to get a rehearing failed. Soon afterwards, early in the morning of 22 July 1916, the Theatre Royal burned down. Although it was fully insured Saunders and his company lost 400 seats in storage for Everybody’s. Undeterred, he continued to manage theatres.
Throughout his years in New Plymouth Garnet Saunders was active in the community. He was a member of the New Plymouth Cricket, Bowling and Golf Clubs; president of the executive of the New Zealand Motion Picture Exhibitors’ Association; managing director of the New Plymouth Opera House Company; and director of several other companies. When he died at New Plymouth on 7 September 1943 he was still general manager of the Mayfair (formerly Everybody’s) and Regent Theatres and the Opera House. His wife, Kitty, died a month later. They were survived by their three sons. Saunders’s theatres are his legacy. He brought a new form of entertainment to Taranaki and nurtured it to maturity.