By Ellen Pullar
Prior to the construction of customised movie theatres films had been screened in buildings built for stage productions, or other available and spacious venues such as adapted hotels and town halls – even old churches. A reporter for the Dominion recalled of an older Wellington theatre:
“His Majesty’s Theatre was not always a theatre. It was erected for the United Methodist Free Church and did faithful duty for many years. Then things happened and the church was converted into a music hall by Messrs Fuller and Sons and permanent vaudeville considerably altered its purpose in the world” (Dominion, 15 March 1910, p. 6).
This same church-cum-vaudeville-house was then leased to the Royal Picture Syndicate for film screenings. Given the venues that had been previously used for screenings, the opening of the new King’s Theatre was quite the exciting event, with the theatre being billed as “the most up-to-date picture theatre in Australasia” (Free Lance, 19 March 1910, p. 9).
As a custom-built theatre, the King’s Theatre had several unique features. The building had a fire-proof design, a useful feature during the days of flammable nitrate film. The lighting was also particular – reporting excitedly on the building of New Zealand’s first specialist movie theatre, the Otago Witness (4 August 1909, p. 69) noted that “The interior of the theatre will be so arranged that there will be no reflection from the light resulting in shadows. This introduces the new idea in screening pictures in semi-darkness.”
The theatre was located on Taranaki Place (now part of Dixon Street – it was situated at the Egmont Street intersection) and seated 1,550 people. It was a grand “picture palace,” designed by the architect James Bennie. The colour scheme was red and gold, and features included large mirrors, brass handrails, Axminster carpet, a painted dome, cupid sculptures and portraits of the King and Queen (Dominion, 15 March 1910, p. 6). The boxes were ornately furnished, there was space for an orchestra to accompany the silent film screenings nightly. Coloured interior lights contributed to the atmosphere.
Hero image: The audience at the opening night of the King’s Theatre in Wellington. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19100331-2-4)
When the foundation stone was laid in November 1909, the mayor, Dr A. K. Newman, declared that Wellington was in need of a specialist movie theatre. He noted that the theatre “promoted a gay spirit, and it was a good thing that a community should devote some of its time to legitimate pleasure” and that the building of the theatre showed “a faith in the future of the city” (Dominion, 9 November 1909, p. 5). While the movie theatres of the early 1910s (the Nickelodeon era) often had bad reputations as dens of vice in the United States, the mayor saw movies as a healthy form of entertainment for the local community – “When the Lyall Bay tramway was finished, the people would be able to have a day at the seaside and then enjoy themselves at the pictures in the evening.”
The special souvenir programme pictured above was printed on silk as part of festivities the for the theatre’s grand opening. According to the Dominion (15 March 1910, p. 7), the programme was made to gift to every lady in attendance on opening night. The programme is stunningly detailed and delicate-looking – and the fabric is, in fact, fragile, although it has endured more than 100 years. It is housed in the Film Archive’s Documentation Collection, along with other memorabilia from across New Zealand’s film history, for safekeeping.
The grand opening of the King’s Theatre was an extravagant affair. A programme of “luminous art gems” was shown, including travellogues, dramas and comedy films. The ads placed in the Dominion (14 and 15 March 1910, p. 1) proudly stated that for the special occasion the films were acquired “direct from film-makers and not Australian second-hand goods.” Illustrious guests included Sir Joseph and Lady Ward and Thomas Mason Wilford M.P. The theatre manager later apologised to the 3000 who couldn’t get in.
Following the occasion, the Dominion breathlessly reviewed the “Triumphal opening West’s & Royal Picture Palace. A revelation in Picture Palaces. The People of Wellington astounded by the magnificence of the King’s Theatre …”
The King’s Theatre was the first of four movie theatres constructed by Thomas West, of the Australasian syndicate West Pictures, in each of New Zealand’s main centres.
If you are interested in early New Zealand movie theatres, you can read more in New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, published by the New Zealand Film Archive and Te Papa.
- Advertisement. Dominion. 14 March 1910, p. 1.
- Advertisement. Dominion. 15 March 1910, p. 1.
- Review. Dominion. 17 March 1910
- Advertisement. Free Lance. 19 March 1910, p. 9.
- “Entertainments.” Dominion. 15 March 1910, p. 7.
- “The King’s Theatre.” Dominion, 9 November 1909, p. 5.
- “The Kings Theatre – To be Opened To-morrow Night.” Dominion. 15 March 1910, p. 6.
- Pivac, Diane and Frank Stark (eds.). New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011.
- “Wellington’s New Theatre.” Otago Witness. 4 August 1909, p. 69.