The early 20th-century idea that municipalities should intervene in the market (municipal socialism) meant councils became involved in providing performance venues. These were built in neoclassical idioms. Whanganui’s council led the way when it agreed to build a municipal opera house to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. It was opened by Premier Richard Seddon in 1900.
A theatrical start
The erection of a building combining municipal offices and theatre caused great controversy in Invercargill. Some residents argued that theatre building should be left to private enterprise and it was not a suitable use for public money. The more severe in the community declared theatre sinful. However, most ratepayers agreed to raise a loan for the building, to the great benefit of the city’s cultural life thereafter.
City councils began to build town halls that combined council administration and public entertainment:
- Wellington Town Hall (1904) included a large auditorium, with impressive acoustics and a small concert chamber.
- Invercargill Town Hall (1906) incorporated the Civic Theatre, which was brightly lit by electricity generated on site.
- The city-like scale of Ōamaru Opera House and Municipal Chambers (1907) expressed the town’s civic pride and renewed wealth.
- Auckland Town Hall (1911) had two performance halls, the larger one boasting New Zealand’s biggest pipe organ.
Smaller boroughs also built town halls, including Cambridge (1909) and Inglewood (1913). Among the most charming was the Waipawa Town Hall and Municipal Theatre (1910). Its auditorium could accommodate 1,000 people, in a district whose population was just 4,124.
Other small towns used community halls to stage public entertainment. These became a feature of rural life from the 1880s. At their most basic level, halls were one-roomed, rectangular buildings with a gabled roof. Larger halls had entrance porches, cloakrooms, a kitchen, and a meeting room or two. These places were social hubs for small communities, hosting not only performance events, but dances, horticultural shows, and meetings.
During the early 1900s larger theatres were erected in some cities and towns to accommodate increased crowds and the demand for bigger stages. As well as stalls and dress circles the larger theatres had a third-tier gallery (or Gods). They were lavishly decorated inside, with ornate domed ceilings and fanciful proscenium arches. These were mostly erected by cultural entrepreneurs like James Williamson, but some municipalities also built theatres. Among these new structures were:
- His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland (1902)
- Theatre Royal, New Plymouth (1904)
- (third) Theatre Royal, Christchurch (1908)
- St James Theatre, Wellington (1912)
- Theatre Royal, Timaru (1912)
- Napier Municipal Theatre (1912)
- Grand Opera House, Wellington (1914)
- Hastings Municipal Theatre (1915).
A theatre wouldn’t be a theatre without a ghost or two. Wellington’s St James Theatre reportedly has several. One was a Russian performer who was pushed to his death from the flies above the stage. He is said to turn all the lights on once the cleaners leave for the night. Another is a boys’ choir who performed their last show at the St James before being lost at sea during an overseas tour. Workers often hear their music in different parts of the auditorium.
The 1910s saw the rise of the cinema or picture theatre. Films had been shown in New Zealand at theatres and halls since the 1890s, but the first purpose-built cinema was the Kings in Wellington’s Dixon Street (1910). Auckland’s first cinema opened soon after in Upper Pitt (now France) Street and was also called the Kings.
Cinemas were modelled on theatres. The screen was on a stage and beneath a proscenium arch, and some cinemas even had proscenium boxes. Most had a balcony or dress circle where the more expensive seats were situated. In theatres without balconies the better seats were often separated from the stalls by a gate in the aisle. Most picture theatres also had a milk bar or ‘nibble nook’ where patrons could buy ice creams and other snacks at intermission.