Kōrero: Theatres, cinemas and halls

Whārangi 5. Town halls, old theatres and multiplexes

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New town halls

In 1972 Christchurch finally got a town hall worthy of the name. It included an auditorium for concerts and the James Hay Theatre.

Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre opened in 1983. It was meant to replace the old town hall, but public opposition to its demolition saved the building. Auckland also kept its old town hall and in 1990 opened the multi-venue Aotea Centre nearby.

These Modernist buildings lacked the palatial and fanciful atmosphere of older venues, but their spacious auditoriums and large artworks retained a sense of grandeur and spectacle. Interior spaces were less overtly divided by social class than in previous theatres, and the dress circle was now a thing of the past. However, the most expensive seats still had the best views of the stage.

Thistle Hall

A legendary multi-purpose performance venue in Wellington was Thistle Hall in bohemian upper Cuba Street. It got its name as a venue for Scottish country dancing, but in the early 1980s it was the city’s main punk rock venue. It attracted a diverse crowd, including gang members. Intimidation and violence was common. In one infamous 1981 gig members of the Nomads gang walked in, picked up the band’s equipment and walked out again.

Saving old theatres

When Christchurch’s Theatre Royal was threatened with demolition in the late 1970s supporters of the theatre formed a foundation to buy and then restore the building. Hopes to retain Auckland’s His Majesty’s Theatre were dashed when it was unceremoniously levelled in 1988. Its fate increased public awareness of the heritage significance of old theatres.

When a developer proposed demolishing Wellington’s St James’ Theatre in the late 1980s there was such a public outcry that the city council bought the building. A trust was then founded to restore and run it. Dunedin’s Regent Theatre and Nelson’s Theatre Royal were saved in a similar fashion.

While some spectacular cinemas like Dunedin’s Octagon Theatre were also demolished during this time, public campaigns to save Wellington’s Embassy and Auckland’s Civic theatres were successful. In 2012 a trust was formed to save Auckland’s spectacular but derelict St James Theatre.

Building new theatres

New theatres continued to be built, including the North Shore’s Bruce Mason Centre (1997) and Auckland’s Q Theatre (2011). In 2013 plans were progressing for a large theatre complex in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter: the Waterfront Theatre project. A proposed post-earthquake arts precinct in Christchurch argued for two new theatres close to the historic Isaac Theatre Royal, but in 2013 it was uncertain if these would be built.

Rocking in the aisles

Wellington’s Old St Paul’s church had long been used for performances of choral and other classical music, but in 2013 Australian rock legend Paul Kelly broke new ground when he held a series of concerts there.

Stadiums and arena

Cultural performances that attract very large crowds are held in sports stadiums in the main cities, or Auckland’s 12,000-seat Spark Arena. These include concerts by famous international acts, from Lady Gaga to Kiri Te Kanawa.


From the mid-1990s there was a revival of cinema-going, with many people rediscovering the thrill of watching a movie on a big screen. This phenomenon was encouraged by the arrival of multiplex cinemas in New Zealand in 1990. These comprised multiple auditoriums in one building, often attached to a shopping mall or precinct. Auditoriums were of different sizes – from about 40 to a few hundred seats – providing greater flexibility for showing films. Between 1991 and 2010 the number of cinema screens in New Zealand rose from 140 to 411.

Multiplexes were often plain, box-like structures that lacked the ‘architecture of illusion’ of the first cinemas. Some multiplexes and boutique cinemas enhanced the movie-going experience by providing sofa-like seating and allowing patrons to consume alcohol during screenings. Such developments made cinemas more like modern living rooms than the picture palaces of the past.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Theatres, cinemas and halls - Town halls, old theatres and multiplexes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/theatres-cinemas-and-halls/page-5 (accessed 19 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014