Story: Nightclubs

Page 3. Loosening up, 1950s and 1960s

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Rock ’n’ roll arrives: the 1950s

Despite the wartime party experience, nightlife remained under a legal cloud for much of the 1950s. Drinking and dancing were still kept apart. A breakthrough of sorts came in December 1956 when a central Auckland hotel, the Trans-Tasman, was granted a special exemption to allow guests to dance on the premises – and have a meal with a glass of wine.

Rock ’n’ roll!

Mid-1950s rock ’n’ roll jamborees attracted thousands of people to Wellington Town Hall. Mass hysteria was predicted, but never eventuated; all there was to complain of was ‘unseemly’ behaviour – perhaps a cuddle and a kiss? – and patrons so carried away that they were found dancing in hallways and seating areas.

More change was on its way. The 1950s saw the emergence of the first teenagers dressing American-style and dancing to noisy rock ’n’ roll hits on milk-bar jukeboxes. By the late 1950s the daring new sounds resounded in dance halls, cabarets, coffee bars and nightclubs up and down the country.

The dancing doors open: early 1960s

In the early 1960s laws were passed that paved the way for nightlife where people could drink and dance without fear of police raids. The more liberal licensing regime allowed some restaurants to be licensed and ‘taverns’ (which sold alcohol but did not provide accommodation) to be set up.

The mood for change was reflected in Wellington’s dimly lit nightclubs, places where rum would surreptitiously be added to the coffee – for a little extra. City councilors decided in 1961 that young patrons of establishments such as the Downtown Club on Jervois Quay could ‘twist’ until 2 a.m. Dozens of local Beatles and Rolling Stones imitators bought guitars, grew their hair and performed live. More than 20 unlicensed Wellington nightclubs, with names such as Teenarama, Oracle and the Psychedelic Id emerged. A similar phenomenon occurred in other centres.

Use of marijuana became increasingly common in the later 1960s. Earlier in the decade, nightclub entertainers were among the first to be convicted of possession and use of the drug.

Club style

Successful clubs had a core group of regulars, who were attracted by and helped define a club’s style. In mid-1960s Christchurch, the Stage Door played British-influenced rhythm and blues, soul, and – after it was renamed the Ram Jam – psychedelic rock. The Plainsman, regarded as more sophisticated, stuck to soul. The Plainsman had a dress code and punters were likely to wear trousers and jackets. Those going to the Stage Door or Ram Jam were happily outrageous, or chose jeans, T-shirts, scarves and beads.


In 1967 a long-awaited referendum on licensing hours continued the loosening of controls over liquor distribution and sale. An immediate effect was the introduction of 10-o’clock closing for hotels, taverns and chartered clubs. It was the end of a long, difficult, even painful era.

How to cite this page:

Redmer Yska, 'Nightclubs - Loosening up, 1950s and 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 October 2023)

Story by Redmer Yska, published 5 Sep 2013