From the 1920s cinemas became more palatial and whimsical to emphasise the glamour and escapism of movie-going. This included the 1,730-seat DeLuxe (later Embassy) Theatre in Wellington, a restrained neoclassical style building that opened in 1924. The most impressive of the new ‘picture palaces’ was Auckland’s Civic Theatre (1929). Its fantastical interior featured illuminated wild animals and exotic figures and motifs. The ceiling of its 2,750-seat auditorium created the illusion of a twinkling night sky.
The mighty Civic
The Civic Theatre was the largest atmospheric picture theatre built in Australasia. It featured several innovations, including a rising orchestra pit; the second-largest Wurlitzer organ in the southern hemisphere; and a tearoom, the ‘Wintergarden’, in the basement, from where patrons could see the main screen.
While some cinemas, like Auckland’s Kings (later Mercury Theatre), could host live performances, the reverse scenario was more common. Wellington’s St James Theatre and Christchurch’s Theatre Royal both had periods as cinemas. Small town venues like the Murchison Theatre continued to host cultural performances but also screened movies.
Suburban cinemas and facelifts
By 1930 New Zealand had 612 cinemas. Many of these were located in the suburbs of cities, such as Devonport’s Victoria and Miramar’s Capitol theatres. They tended to be more modest than their downtown counterparts but proved attractive to suburbanites. The 1930s also saw the two large cinema chains, Kerridge Odeon and Amalgamated, modernise some of their older theatres. Wellington’s Kings Theatre was given an art deco makeover with streamlined surfaces and neon light shows. These facelifts were designed to retain the modernity and glamour of cinema-going.
New theatre designs
Despite the growing popularity of cinema, theatres continued to be built. These included:
- Opera House, New Plymouth (1925)
- St James Theatre, Auckland (1928)
- Regent Theatre, Dunedin (1928)
- Regent Theatre, Palmerston North (1930).
These were the last of the grand neoclassical-style theatres. In 1929 Christchurch’s Radiant (Repertory) Theatre signalled a new direction in theatre design when it was built in the modern Spanish mission style. Napier’s Municipal Theatre was destroyed in the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake and rebuilt in vibrant art deco style in 1938. While their architecture was different from previous theatres, their internal arrangements remained much the same.
Comprising a large hall, concert chamber and function room, Whanganui’s war memorial hall, which opened in 1960, is the most impressive of the ‘living memorial’ halls. It features a constantly lit vestibule, visible from several angles and containing a book of remembrance. It was the first civic building to be designed in the modernist style and is considered a landmark in New Zealand architecture.
After the Second World War the government provided 50% subsidies for communities to build halls that could serve as ‘living memorials’ to local service people who had died in war. Over 300 war memorial halls were built, in small towns like Kāpuni and Kurow, as well as city suburbs like Mt Eden (Auckland) and Northland (Wellington). These were multi-purpose venues, hosting plays, dances, meetings and much more. Similarly Hamilton’s Founders Theatre opened in 1962 as a memorial to the city’s pioneer settlers.