Story: Love and romance

Page 4. Movies, milk bars and nightclubs

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Love at the movies

In the early 20th century cinemas became places where couples could have private conversations in a public place, and they extended young people’s opportunities for unsupervised love and romance. Just as men were expected to ask women to dance, or for their hand in marriage, so teenage boys and young men had to ask girls and women to the movies. Hand holding in the movies on a Saturday night became a new dating ritual. In the dark of the cinema, arms would extend around the shoulders of potential lovers and kisses were exchanged. Meanwhile, on the movie screen, film stars modelled how viewers should ‘do’ romance.

Love in the back row

The back row of the cinema became a key site for romantic encounters when the lights went down. In the 1920s the New Zealand Picturegoer had a weekly column titled ‘From the back row’ which featured a kissing couple who were more engaged with one another than with what was on the screen.

Milk bar meetings

In the 1940s milk bars became places where dating couples could meet in public or where people could go to meet potential partners. No alcohol was served, but milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and even coffee could be consumed. While it was often difficult for young women to go out independently at night, milk bars became places where they could meet young men during the day.

Cars, parking and dating

As more households acquired motor vehicles and more young people got driver licences, outings at night in cars became part of dating and the process of ‘falling in love’. Cars increased opportunities for privacy and sexual experimentation. ‘Parking’ in a quiet out-of-the-way place, sometimes after a movie, became an important dating activity.

Debutantes, rock ’n’ roll and discos

In the 1950s and 1960s young people participated in both debutantes’ balls and informal youth-club rock ’n’ roll evenings. When the twist became popular in the mid-1960s, young people were less likely to touch as they danced. The trend for dancing at a distance was consolidated in the late 1970s when disco music and dancing became popular.

Middlemarch bachelors’ ball

Once a year single men and women from all over the district (and further afield) converge on the small Otago town of Middlemarch for the annual singles’ ball. A special ‘Love Train’ to Dunedin takes many of the dancers home at the end of the night.

As dance styles changed, and pubs remained open after 6 p.m., the commercial dance halls started to close down. Saturday night dances at the Dunedin Town Hall – nicknamed the ‘matrimonial bureau’ – ended in 1965 after 30 years. Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret lasted until 1984.


By the late 20th century sports clubs, work social events, working men’s clubs, pubs, nightclubs and parties all provided opportunities for lovers to meet. Nightclubs multiplied, offering alcohol, dancing and live entertainment from late evening to early morning. Young adults often went out in groups, hoping to meet someone special during the evening – sometimes they were successful. In the 1990s some nightclubs started to run special ‘singles’ nights for people looking for a new relationship.

Lesbians and gay men

From the 1970s lesbians and gay men began to meet more openly in pubs such as the British Hotel in Lyttelton, and coffee bars such as the Ca d’Oro in Auckland and Carmen’s Coffee Lounge in Wellington. Wellington’s Victoria Club began to offer gay men opportunities to meet new lovers, and the lesbian KG Club opened in Auckland in 1972.

School balls

School balls retained some of the romantic aura of earlier dances with a strong emphasis on special dresses and decorated halls. In the 21st century, while schools have a no-alcohol policy, before and after ball events often combine alcohol and informal teenage socialising. Gay and lesbian students have sometimes found these events unwelcoming.

Love at any age

The desire to meet a lover extends across all age groups. People in their 40s and 50s have formed new romantic attachments while learning the tango, salsa or ceroc. Social networking sites that link people with similar interests in walking, food, movie-going, running or photography are also ways in which people of all ages may meet and form intimate relationships.

Activities pursued by those in retirement are also opportunities for new romantic relationships. In the 21st century, some people fall in love at the University of the Third Age and the Probus Club. For other people, retirement complexes provide opportunities for romance for those in their 70s and 80s.

How to cite this page:

Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Love and romance - Movies, milk bars and nightclubs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 May 2017