Dancing cabaret-style: the 1920s
A puritan element continued to dominate public opinion in the early 20th century, with total alcohol prohibition only narrowly defeated in a 1919 poll. Six p.m. closing for pubs had meanwhile been introduced. By 1920 Wellington was hosting late-night jazz cabaret in the back streets of respectable Thorndon, and Christchurch soon had its Winter Garden cabaret. American-style cabarets, where fashion-conscious young people performed the Charleston and other dances to jazz, continued to emerge.
A dance school by day, a jazz cabaret by night, Wellington’s Goring Street club bothered the neighbours. Cars tooting, club-goers laughing and shouting, the drinking (or not) of alcohol, how many nights the club was open each week and how late, and an evening spent there by the Prince of Wales all provoked controversy in 1920.
In 1922 the luxurious Dixieland, complete with a sprung dance floor, opened in Auckland. Operating on the corner of Queen and Waverley streets, it was a strictly ‘dry’ (alcohol-free) cabaret. For a small cover charge, patrons enjoyed a live jazz band, comfortable seating and soft drinks on tap – although illegal liquor was routinely and controversially smuggled in. The sleepy Queen City was shaken awake: nightlife in the city had hitherto consisted of musical theatre and silent movies.
Dens of iniquity
The term ‘nightclub’ was still avoided in New Zealand; syndicated press accounts of late-night haunts in London, where champagne and even cocaine were consumed by young people dancing to jazz, made nightclubs notorious as ‘haunts of temptation and dens of iniquity’.1
Whatever such places were called, local puritans damned them as a sign of moral decay. Sensational elements of the local press, led by the national weekly NZ Truth, took up the cause. Special attention was paid to the flapper, the young, unchaperoned woman who wore her hair short, swallowed illegal liquor, danced (alone) to jazz and was allegedly sexually promiscuous. In 1926 Truth talked of ‘an orgy of jazz and fizz’ at Auckland’s Point Chevalier Dixieland cabaret, and of drunken flappers ‘whose knees gave way beneath them’.2
Nightlife goes private: the 1930s
In the late 1920s the cabaret boom contracted in the face of economic recession and as disposable income shrank. However, the wealthier patronised the first ‘nightclubs’: private entertainment clubs with a limited charter liquor licence, where members and their friends could drink. A 1930 court case noted a precise legal meaning: a cabaret ‘was a public place, the nightclub was more private, the patrons being members of the club’.3
Wellington’s first nightclub, the Crow’s Nest in Island Bay, opened its doors in 1933, billing itself as ‘cosy, select and secluded’.4 The contentious status of alcohol meant the emerging nightclub scene remained under intense scrutiny. In 1934 police in evening dress infiltrated a Christchurch nightclub and prosecuted the owners for selling liquor after midnight on a Saturday night. Raids would remain the norm for another generation.
However, nightclub-going was not the norm. Many people were still doing their dancing in school and church halls. Music was live, provided by small groups of local musicians.
A wartime party: the 1940s
Between 1942 and 1944 American servicemen disembarked from troopships in Wellington and Auckland in their tens of thousands. For two intense years, cabarets such as Auckland’s Peter Pan and Wellington’s Majestic rang to swing orchestras playing ‘Chattanooga choo-choo’, the authorities tending to turn an indulgent eye to smuggled liquor. Americans also flocked to more select venues such as Auckland’s El Rey nightclub, where they could dine on steak and drink whisky as a swing band played the latest hits of Glenn Miller.
Dubbed ‘bedroom commandos’ because of their appeal to local young women, the Americans with their ‘fast’ behaviour and unrestrained jitterbugging in darkened cabarets sparked a fresh moral panic.
By mid-1944 the American ‘invasion’ was over. Truth lamented the immediate impact on nightlife in the capital. ‘Over the years there has been Rodney’s at Seatoun, the oft-raided Crow’s Nest in Island Bay, the Top Hat in Cuba Street. Now … there is not a single nightclub operating.’5