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Auckland’s St James: the living past

25 Oct

I was very pleased to read that Auckland’s St James’ Theatre is to be restored.  It was a long heritage, and was a strong presence in my younger days as I came of age in a suburb of Auckland.

St James Theatre heyday stuff

St James Theatre in its “heyday”: From Stuff

Politically and culturally, the St James has had a checkered history, mirroring many of the changes in the city, country and world.

It was built between 1927 and 28, to replace Fullers Opera House in Wellesley Street.

Fullers Opera House Wellesley St Heritage image

Fullers Opera House Wellesley St, left foreground.  Frederick George Radcliffe, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Librares, 35-R26, 1910-1919

The Heritage New Zealand website says this of the theatre’s origins:

It was designed for travelling vaudeville acts, continuing a tradition of musical and comic entertainment that Fullers had pioneered in New Zealand. Vaudeville was popular among working-class audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but was eclipsed by the arrival of talking pictures. […] It has continued to be used for both live performance and film, seeing entertainment as diverse as the Bolshoi Ballet and wartime newsreel.

Wayne Brittenden (2008*) writes that European towns were dominated by an inspiring cathedral, or a railway station. In contrast, after WWII,

In suburban and provincial New Zealand it was the picture theatre.  These cathedrals of the movies commanded the awe and excitement that was lacking in the hardware stores, knitting shops and other occupants of the main street. [p.21]

Many picture theatres of the time had names taken from the British aristocracy and imperialism.  St James was one of them. Such names reflected the facade of grandeur.. In the New Zealand context, the still powerful culture of diminishing British empire mixed with Hollywood glamour. It enticed ordinary working people into its seductive (non)-realities.

Going to a Queen Street picture theatre was always an occasion in my younger days. The St James didn’t have the extravagant grandeur of the Civic’s starry ceiling.  Nevertheless, it was pretty elaborate and exotic in comparison with today’s shiny and functional multiplexes.

My strongest memories are of going to pictures at the St James (we always called them pictures), in my teenage years in the 1960s.  I met school friends in the foyer, among an excited babble of others experiencing the growing freedom from adult authority.  It was a significant local part of an international era of youth rebellions. We would wait in surroundings geared to transition us into the magical realities of popular movies.

Brittenden’s description of mid 20th century NZ picture theatres, was true for the St James [p22]:

“In the heyday of the New Zealand picture theatre, the show began on the footpath.  The vestibule often featured Vitrolite – a type of opaque glass tile, commonly black – and was lined on both sides with showcases. These contained elaborately framed stills – long gone from film promotion – and posters.  Above the entrance doors there was likely to be a wall-to-wall sign illustrating what was showing, made by a local signwriter who cut images from posters and cobbled them together. If the theatre was open, either for bookings or for screening, there would probably be a board with the session times sitting on the front terrazzo as well.

In Auckland, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) screened first at the St James. It was an epic experience of a heroic and romantic campaign of grit and action This was orchestrated by Maurice Jarre’s swelling music, matching the race across the panorama of towering sand dunes, Arabian villages and camps, and endless expanses of arid deserts.

The match of music and landscape at the end of this clip carries an uplifting, heroic and expansive feeling of liberation.

In my younger days, I was unaware of the orientalist theme through which I was being emotionally, visually and aurally transported: another slant on the British civilising mission.  It is a romanticised story of a heroic Englishman fighting to bring a British-led version of democratising freedom to the noble savages of the desert.

Each development in communications technology opens the door to a new generation of entrepreneurs. Fullers’ theatre had been bought by Sir Robert Kerridge in 1945.

Brittenden claims that Kerridge thought his main rival, the owner of the Civic, Moodabe, was vulgar.  Brittenden says of Kerridge, he

 “… was a Rolls Royce owner and Empire loyalist, a stickler for protocol who was very conscious of social station, and a canny entrepreneur with astonishingly diverse business interests.” (Brittenden, 2008: p.33)

Sir Robert was socially conservative and a National Party supporter,. However, in those times, when the small population enabled friendships across political divides, he was also a close friend to Federation of Labour leader Tom Skinner (Brittenden 2008: p. 38).   See Te Ara’s biography of Skinner.

In the early 21st century there were live music performances from local and international acts.  They brought a new generation of audiences, often with little concerns for the trappings of fading empire and  Hollywood glamour. The beginning of this video of a Crowded House performance, tracks through the foyer of the St James.  It provides a very different spectacle from the movie going days of my youth.

This Pacifier performance foregrounds a towering bank of electronic equipment with flashing lights and sounds of epic proportions.  Occasionally amidst the flickering lights, there is a glimpse of the old decor: the elaborate balcony and wall panels.

Home Again Live Video: Filming Location: St James Theatre, Auckland (2004)

The St James Theatre back entrance is now looking pretty derelict and is in need of a heritage restoration.

The new plans show, that while the building itself will be restored, the context will be of its time: the era of the supremacy of bank-backed corporate property developers.  No longer will the St James be a cathedral like venue dominating the main street. The restored building will be dwarfed by neighbouring 39 level apartment blocks and shops  that will tower over it.

St James development artists plans NZ Herald

Artist’s representation of the planned development of the St James site: NZ Herald

*  Brittenden, Wayne (2008) The Celluloid Circus: The Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre, Auckland, NZ: Random House New Zealand
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