Story: Culture and recreation in the city

Page 6. City culture, 1900–1965

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Changes in time use

In the 20th century the central city continued to be the most important site of cultural recreation – but only at certain times. Trams and cars encouraged people to live in the suburbs, where they returned after work. This, and the closing of pubs at six o’clock, reduced the evening buzz. Footpaths were still busy on Friday night when the shops were open and Saturday night when people went to the movies or smoke concerts – but weeknights and Sundays became quiet in the city.

New venues

There was still much amateur performance in New Zealand cities – repertory theatre flourished, and there was choral singing (especially in Christchurch with its two societies, the Harmonic Society and Royal Christchurch Musical Society) and brass-band playing. For professional performers, the cities provided grand new facilities. In Wellington, His Majesty’s Theatre (later the St James) opened in 1912 as the largest vaudeville theatre in Australasia, and two years later the Opera House opened. New town halls were built in Wellington (1904) and Auckland (1911), and Dunedin’s finally opened in 1930. The Theatre Royal remained a key venue in Christchurch.

Touring shows

The international touring shows continued until at least the 1930s economic depression, providing a succession of farces, thrillers, concerts and musicals. Some well-known international performers visited, including Nellie Melba in 1903, Harry Lauder in 1925, Anna Pavlova in 1926 and Yehudi Menuhin in 1935.

There were fewer international acts in the 1950s and 1960s, but local companies began to tour. The National Orchestra was founded in 1946, the New Zealand Players toured briefly in the mid-1950s, and both the New Zealand Ballet and New Zealand Opera Company toured from 1954.

Movies and dances

The popularity of different forms of entertainment changed over time. There was less classical opera, and more light opera and musical comedy. In Christchurch in 1908 the skating rink became the place for the ‘flicks’, and by the 1920s pantomime and vaudeville could no longer compete with the movies on Saturday nights – especially in dazzling ‘picture palaces’ like Auckland’s Civic. Formal balls became less popular – instead, in the 1920s, the arrival of ragtime and jazz led to cabarets in the cities. In 1922 Auckland’s Dixieland cabaret was established, while Wellington had its Majestic cabaret. In Dunedin from 1936 Joe Brown organised Saturday night dances in the town hall.

Not so pleasurable

A cause célèbre occurred in 1948 when five of Frances Hodgkins’s paintings were displayed in Christchurch, and the Canterbury Society of Arts refused to purchase any. The intellectual community was outraged and interpreted the decision as a ‘Victorian’ rejection of modern art. A group of subscribers then bought the artwork ‘Pleasure garden’, but city council officials initially refused to accept it into their collections. The painting was finally accepted into the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1951.

Intellectual sub-culture

During the interwar years New Zealand cities saw the beginning of an alternative subculture of intellectuals. When writer Katherine Mansfield grew up in Wellington, before the First World War, she could find no escape from the polite socialising of her upper-class family. Gradually, separate intellectual circles began to appear. In Wellington a group of writers and librarians met to organise book weeks and publish small magazines. In Christchurch there was ‘The Group’ of artists, including Rita Angus, Bill Sutton, and eventually Colin McCahon. They were interested in modern art and supported each other in experimenting with new forms and holding exhibitions. Also in Christchurch, a number of writers and publishers emerged from left-wing and university circles – people like Kennaway Henderson and Winston Rhodes with Tomorrow magazine, and the young modernist poets Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. Glover sought to provide an outlet for this subculture by founding the Caxton Press.

In Wellington in the 1940s European immigrants and local intellectuals began to meet at places such as the French Maid Coffee House, which showed modernist works of art. In Auckland in the 1950s Frank Sargeson collected a group of younger writers around him, including Janet Frame.

These groups remained small, but they were a sign that New Zealand cities had grown large and complex enough to support an alternative culture – alternative to middle-class gentility and commercial Hollywood culture.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city - City culture, 1900–1965', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010