Nightclubs – dedicated entertainment spaces where people dance to popular music, either live or recorded – emerged as a vibrant strand in the cities of 1920s New Zealand. The terms ‘cabaret’, ‘disco’ and simply ‘club’ have been variously applied to such venues, as the music heard within them has evolved from jazz to swing to disco to dubstep.
The nightclub remained a fixture of city life in the 21st century. Young people crowd these stylish or seedy haunts with ever-changing names, burly bouncers and exotic cocktails. They party till dawn, parading their latest clothing and hair fashions, and flaunting their abilities on the dance floor.
The pulsating venues known as nightclubs have at times been the focus of controversy and even moral panics, typically over modernity and urbanisation. They have been demonised as incubators of sexual licentiousness and drunken depravity. For much of the first half of the 20th century, some thought dancing itself was sinful.
In 1863, after an evening of being forced to dance with hotel patrons, Miss Williams, a singer at the All Nations Hotel in Queenstown, left her job. The hotelkeeper took her to court, but the case was dismissed when the judge heard that Williams was ‘made to dance with everyone, against her will’ and ‘was warned on no account to go there again, as the house did not bear a good name’.1
Public dancing during the colonial era became a popular leisure activity: people took part in waltzing and square dancing in woolsheds, schoolrooms and community halls. Dancing in rough inner-city hotels and mining towns was another matter.
In the mid-1860s music and dancing were banned from hotels in some New Zealand provinces. The ban became nationwide in 1881, when Parliament outlawed dancing, concerts and theatrical performances in pubs (although private societies could get a certificate from the local licensing committee and then hire a room in a hotel for these purposes). For the next three-quarters of a century, liquor laws would work to keep dancing and alcohol as far apart as possible, overshadowing most aspects of nightlife.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1971 laws were passed allowing licensed cabarets where drinks could be served until 3 a.m. or even later. New Zealanders could now enter a dance venue, buy a drink and kick up their heels without fear of arrest. The result was more than an entertainment boom; New Zealanders also enjoyed a live music revolution.
Some flocked to the discothèque or disco, where tightly clothed patrons boogied at a distance from each other, beneath mirror balls. A typical fully licensed disco of the era was Slack Alice, on Wellington’s Plimmer Steps. One visitor described it: ‘[T]he atmosphere is one of youthful sophistication. Tables and seating for 250 are arranged around the stage and dance floor … big bright red and yellow “portholes” also help separate the tables. The same tonings are reflected in the carpet though to more subdued shades of maroon and gold.’1
Others, however, preferred the unlicensed nightclubs that sprang up. Legendary Auckland rock venues of the 1960s and 1970s included Tabla, the Crypt and Granny’s in Durham Lane. The lesbian KG Club opened in 1972, as the lesbian and gay community gained new visibility.
Fashions kept changing. In 1978, as Auckland’s punk-rock community emerged, Granny’s took on a new identity as the run-down Zwines. Writer Simon Grigg recalled of this infamous venue that ‘whether you went to a party after … or to a pub before, at some stage during the night you ended up in this seedy, smelly black hole.’2
Slick, heavily designed nightclubs in the 1980s boasted laser lights and massive sound systems. In the capital, patrons danced until dawn at Clare’s, Ecstasy Plus and the Arena. Auckland’s best-known clubs of the era were A Certain Bar, the Brat and The Venue. Out in the provinces, too, clubs boomed. 1980s Palmerston North, for example, saw the Buffalo Music Show, Fez, Zed, Champers, the Ritz, Exchequers, Kaz Bar and Deco come and go.
Palmerston North DJ Gerhard Pierard remembers that ‘the owner of the hotel shut [Buffalo Music] down because he didn't like the look of the “Freaks” we were attracting … rich coming from a bloke who dressed up in a Super Liquorman outfit and directed traffic in the carpark.’3 Buffalo Music’s time at Café de Paris ended just as abruptly. The bikers who hung out in the front bar didn’t like the clubbers in the back bar or their music. A dance-floor fight over DJ Karl Pierard’s choice of music was the end of that arrangement.
Many clubs began as a regular night in pubs, with the bar take going to the pub and the door take to the club. Palmerston North’s Buffalo Music was hosted at the Super Liquor Man, Commercial and Café de Paris hotels before turning into Fez at the Southern Cross.
The 1990s saw an explosion in dance music and DJ culture in nightclubs, continuing in the 2000s. A further overhaul of liquor laws in 1989 paved the way for almost total liberalisation of nightlife and round-the-clock drinking. The drug of choice in the 1990s was often ecstasy, and that in the 2000s legal ‘herbal highs’.
The nightclub scene expanded. Dance parties and raves were often held in warehouses or other buildings not designed as clubs or pubs, or outside. Christchurch’s mystery bus raves took clubbers to locations revealed at the last minute, often in the Port Hills; there were raves held in the bush in the Wellington region.
Clubs continued to attract and build their own subcultures – hip-hop clubs, like Wellington’s La Luna, sprang up, and disco made a comeback. The Asylum in Auckland’s Mt Eden pioneered the heavy new electronic sounds that were the dominant sound of the 1990s.
The Pink Pussycat, New Zealand’s first dedicated strip club, opened in Auckland in 1963. Before this, strippers had performed at a few risqué coffee bars – ‘Santi the sloe-eyed stripper from the Tijuana [coffee bar]’ featured in Truth newspaper in 1962.1 By 1967 there were four strip clubs in Auckland, two in Wellington and one in Christchurch. Clubs would later open in New Zealand’s larger towns. At first many clubs offered meals (served by the strippers with their clothes on) and some had elaborate stage shows. But the customers weren’t interested – they ‘just want the strip’2 – and the menus and staging were reduced.
Performances were not allowed to include too much moving around, bare nipples, or full nudity. It was not until an early 1970s court case over the legality of a nude scene in the musical Hair that complete nudity was allowed in New Zealand’s strip clubs.
Owning strip clubs took Rainton Hastie to prison. A stripper had wriggled, flashed her nipples or taken it all off, and Hastie, owner of the Strip-o-rama, the Follies, the Pink Pussycat Club and the Tom Cat Club (among others), was charged with presenting an indecent show. In the 1990s Ian Hastings, head of the first police vice squad, ‘wonder[ed] why we were doing it. Was it needed? [Hastie] played a major part in setting our standards’.3
Although strip clubs would become an enduring part of New Zealand’s nightlife, there was opposition to them. Contact between strippers and customers within a club was usually limited to the undoing of a zip or unhooking of a bra during an act, but this did not stop stripping being linked with prostitution. Some of those working in and running the clubs were engaged in both.
Like sex work, strip clubs were tolerated while they remained in a city’s red-light zone and did not intrude into its daytime life. Opposition became active when these boundaries were crossed. When an Auckland club planned to open in Queen Street, there was a public outcry against it. The principal of an Auckland girls’ school objected when a strip club located next to a busy bus stop displayed photographs of the strippers in its windows. In Wellington in the mid-1960s the Wesleyan Church Trust went to court in an attempt to prevent club patrons using a passageway it owned.
New Zealand’s first laws against nudity had been passed in the 1870s and 1880s to suppress nude bathing. Although not entirely effective (people continued to skinny dip), the legislation went unchallenged. When nudists began meeting in the 1920s, they stayed within privately owned clubs. Dancer Freda Stark appeared at Auckland’s Wintergarden Cabaret wearing only gold paint and a feather or two in the 1940s, but that could be called art.
Stella worked in Wellington’s strip clubs in the later 1970s, and 30 years later remembered that ‘I really liked the dancing, I really liked the self-expression, and I really liked the attention. The power was all mine.’4
Most of those working in strip clubs had no dance training and received none from the club. Turnover was high – in the 1960s a club might employ 100 girls over a year. In the early 1960s, when male-to-female transgender strip shows were drawing audiences in Australia, transgender strippers were performing in New Zealand clubs, with many in the audience believing they were watching women.
In the 1980s male revues became popular overseas, and male-stripper groups such as ‘Chippendales’ eventually included New Zealand in their tours. Male strippers became a hen-night staple, prompting an audience response – laughter and screams – quite different from that of male audiences.
Stripping expanded beyond the removal of clothes in a nightclub to include strippergrams, lap dancing, pole dancing and burlesque. In the mid-1990s Showgirls, New Zealand’s first lap-dancing club, opened in Auckland. An erotic dance performed while sitting in or standing across a customer’s lap, lap dancing blurred the line between prostitution and stripping. Pole dancing – a dance performed using a fixed pole as a prop – is an often physically demanding version of stripping. In the 2000s pole dancing (fully clothed) was offered by some gyms as a fitness class. Burlesque was a theatrical and sometimes elaborate form of striptease.
A 2001 study found that there were 16 strip clubs in New Zealand’s cities and larger towns, employing 179 workers. Some were multi-million-dollar, multi-storey ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ catering for hundreds of patrons, sometimes located in main streets. Others continued the tradition of sleazy dives in red-light districts and back streets. Since the decriminalisation of sex work in 2003, some strip clubs have associated brothels.
Whether the performers were female, male or transgender, strip shows were a money-maker for a club owner or show promoter. In the 1990s club owners carved up territory in the main cities, but this informal agreement broke down in the early 2000s. In 2011 and 2012 Wellington saw a battle between rival club owners, as one side sought to prevent the other opening a club nearby.
Rowland, Perrin. Dining out: a history of the restaurant in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010.