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Story: Theatres, cinemas and halls

Spacious and grand or relaxed and intimate, local performance venues have been treasured by New Zealanders since colonial times.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: The Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

Story Summary

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19th century

In 1841 New Zealand’s first theatre – the Albert Theatre – was set up in the back room of an Auckland hotel. The first purpose-built theatre was Wellington’s Royal Victoria, which opened in 1843.

Over the decades many more towns got theatres, opera halls and choral houses. They were usually built by entrepreneurs or arts organisations. Their interiors were grand and ornate – adding to the excitement of a night out.

Early 20th century

From the turn of the century local government took a strong role in building public entertainment venues. Whanganui’s council led the way, opening an opera house in 1900.

The 1910s saw the rise of cinemas. Films had been shown in New Zealand at theatres and halls since the 1890s, but the first purpose-built cinema opened in Wellington in 1910 – ‘the Kings’.

Mid-20th century

As cinema’s popularity grew, increasingly lavish picture theatres were built up and down the country. So were new theatres for live performances. The last of the ornate neoclassical-style theatres were built in the 1920s. From then on theatres were built in modern styles, such as art deco.

After the Second World War the government gave communities subsidies to build halls as war memorials. Over 300 war memorial halls were built in small towns and city suburbs.

Late 20th century onwards

From the 1960s smaller, intimate theatres made a comeback. They provided venues for both amateur and professional productions, often experimental. Meanwhile, student demand for modern performance venues saw the construction of new university theatres.

Cinema admissions peaked in 1961. After that they declined rapidly, as New Zealanders turned to television instead. During the 1970s and 1980s many cinemas had to close.

From the 1970s town halls and theatres were built in modernist style. Old theatres were sometimes demolished, and at other times saved and restored.

In the 1990s, there was a cinema revival, and New Zealanders rediscovered the thrill of the big screen. This was encouraged by the arrival of multiplex cinemas with several auditoriums in one building. Between 1991 and 2010 the number of cinema screens in New Zealand rose from 140 to 411. Multiplexes were often plain, box-like structures but the all-important seating was comfy, and had a home living-room feel.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Theatres, cinemas and halls', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/theatres-cinemas-and-halls (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 Oct 2014