Civic Theatre – “Showplace of New Zealand”

For just a year I worked at the “Picture Palace”, also advertised as “The Showplace of New Zealand”, “New Zealand’s Premier Theatre”, The Dominion’s Greatest Theatre” and “New Zealand’s Mighty Monument to Motion Pictures”.  These were promotional tags used over several decades to describe Auckland’s Civic Theatre. They were all true… and I was lucky to have a small part of it.    

 

I joined the staff of the Civic Theatre in February 1963 as the sole doorman rostered to fulltime day-side duties, which meant I was the assistant to the Manager, Hector Olsen. For those weeks when there was a change of programme, I was rewarded with built-in overtime. These extra hours were to oversee the regular pasting of posters on the Civic’s 3 bill-boards and, if necessary, to help with evening crowds and other duties.

Bill-changing: “The Rope” was among my first pasting jobs.
ebay

I was 17 and although I had a loose association with the Civic when working part-time at the Lido Cinema in Epsom, I found the giant building quite overwhelming – what with its reputation of unique architecture, renowned facilities… and big crowds. The “showplace” was so well known throughout New Zealand and abroad that visitors to Auckland often popped in, made themselves known, and asked if they could have a look around.  Without exception, all were impressed.

The lights and lighting effects were marvellous. It was part of my job to ensure the thousands of light-bulbs and neon tubes were lit and, where they were inaccessible, to arrange electricians with long ladders.

The effects included the twinkling stars in the sky: when parts of the galaxy were unlit… a fault… it was my task to get expert help into the high dome above the auditorium.

The luxuries included arm-chairs in the stalls and I found I was expected to make rapid carpentry running-repairs between sessions.

Then there was the cavernous Wintergarden downstairs, largely unused in my day, but when a “blockbuster” arrived and audiences overflowed from the stalls and circle, I discovered it was my duty to have place ready according to the notional floor plan for 3-400 additional patrons.

When I joined the staff the theatre was some 30 years of age and was a little rundown but its spectacle, its attractions and grandeur were still greatly appreciated by patrons and sightseers alike.

Before I get into my stories about the Civic, it’s interesting to see how Auckland came to have “The Dominion’s Greatest Theatre”, as its founding-owner liked to call it.

Thomas Alexander O’Brien

The idea of a luxury cinema in Auckland crystallised in Thomas O’Brien’s dreams when in the late 1920s he found he might coordinate with the City Council, sharing a vision for a “Civic Square” on land between Wellesley Street West and the Town Hall. Much earlier there had been assorted market buildings on the proposed site and a range of businesses at the corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets. They had been swept away in about 1918, replaced by retail and professional chambers. But by 1926 these had also been demolished as the Council’s plan for a “Civic Square” materialised. This, however, was thwarted by ratepayers’ opposition. It was this cleared land, lying vacant in the heart of the city that captured Thomas O’Brien’s imagination.

Foreground was part of the land cleared for a Civic Square.
Unknown photographer

He figured the huge area on the corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets would be ideal for a cinema that he would build, the likes of which New Zealand had not seen.

The corner site, Queen Street (left to right) and Wellesley Street West
Henry Winkelmann – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 580-9467

Thomas Alexander O’Brien was born in Thames and after service in the Public Works Department he went to Sydney where, after bad investments with an invention or two, took a job as an usher in a downtown cinema. He rapidly progressed in managerial posts, notable for his innovative marketing and “added” attractions – like serving free afternoon teas during matinee screenings.  O’Brien returned to New Zealand, joined the exhibitors Fuller Hayward in Wellington and again received rapid promotion. Looking for more in the film industry he went to Dunedin, securing the lease of several cinemas there, notably the “Empire”.

It was then he began planning in earnest for a luxury theatre in Queen Street based on what he had seen in Sydney: a venue for music, stage and the arts shared by movies in an auditorium which he described as an atmospheric dome with Moorish design. “l believe,” he said in 1929, “that, notwithstanding the advance of television, radio and other forms of amusement which people are able to enjoy in their homes as the result of science, the instinctive desire of  human beings to congregate and the fascination of crowds will always be with us. Therefore, bigger and better theatres will be the logical trend of entertainment accommodation. And people under a vast canopy – representation of the blue sky and starlit heavens, with drifting clouds – seem to sit in more natural peace and contentment, and mind and mood are more amenable to entertainment under such conditions”.

Having acquired financing as “The Civic Theatre Company” and secured the lease on the vast Queen Street property bounded by Queen and Wellesley Streets and Fergusson Street (later Bledisloe Street), he commissioned Australian architect, Charles Bohringer, to come up with designs for a top-notch theatre.

Looking towards Wellesley Street: the cleared site awaits construction
The dome of the Regent Theatre in Queen Street, right.
James D. Richardson Auckland Libraries heritage On Line Collection 4786

Bohringer had been involved in the design of Australian theatres, notably the “atmospheric” State in Melbourne, following the blueprint of architect John Eberson’s Paradise theatre in Chicago. These were the plans on which O’Brien’s new Auckland property would be based: by Bohringer in the atmospheric style inspired by John Eberson.

Charles Bohringer’s detailed drawing of the Civic’s proscenium and stage
Auckland Libraries NZ Map 7911

Charles Bohringer’s detailed drawing of the Civic’s proscenium and stage

Auckland Libraries NZ Map 7911

Not content with the prospect of the grand new theatre, O’Brien had taken over several city cinemas in Auckland: Everbodys, Plaza, the Tivoli in Karangahape Road near Symonds Street – and suburban houses, the Rialto in Newmarket, the Britannia in Ponsonby, the Royal in Kingsland and the Regent at Epsom.

Considering what had been promised at the new theatre, it looked as if O’Brien may have over-committed. The “showplace”, as yet unnamed, was to have an atmospheric dome complete with twinkling stars and moving clouds with Moorish-Persian-Andalusian revivalist decoration suggesting minarets, turrets and palm trees. There would be a full stage for live theatre, a three-tier auditorium, a Wurlitzer organ which, like a barge with an orchestra aboard, was designed to rise from the depths into the auditorium.  Wintergardens occupied the basement with a restaurant. Technically, best possible projection quality and sound systems were promised with lounge-type seating in the stalls. Needless to say, O’Brien boasted first-rate movies and top-notch entertainment would be presented with artistes, A-grade in their field, coming to Auckland from overseas to inaugurate the showplace.

Aside from the theatre, there would be 10 shop frontages at street level on both Queen Street and Wellesley Street West, a total of 20 outlets to provide retail and services… and revenue from the tenants for the building’s owner.

The whole complex would cost more than £200,000 and Fletcher Construction would take a remarkably rapid 8 months to complete it.

 Dreams Become Reality

Work got underway on the site in mid-1929 with deep excavations until volcanic rock was struck for the foundations. The former Ligar Canal, long since drained which ran the length of lower Queen Street, was encountered making for mud and slush… and delays in construction. The Auckland Star newspaper could not help but make the comparison: “…Early Aucklanders drew their water supply from the Ligar Canal, and in the Wintergarden, which will occupy the excavation, fashionable ladies will sit and sip afternoon tea several feet below the banks where Maori ladies of past centuries sat and fished”.

Construction – work began on the foundations on April 26th 1929 – proved a mecca for sightseers who could not believe the rate of progress. Notwithstanding delays in the supply of steel from England, Fletchers the main contractors kept more or less to schedule. It was later alleged they cut corners in processes and in the quality of building materials, but am imposing structure quickly rose from the excavations.

It looked like a Christmas, 1929, opening. Interior designers were detailing the eastern look, electricians were wiring the hundreds of lights while technicians installed the sound system. Dancers from Sydney were rehearsing and maestro Ted Henkel had arrived from Hollywood to put the orchestra and soloists through their paces. Fred Scholl, also from Hollywood, had arrived to take charge of the organ.

Meantime the public competition to name the place was abandoned… it was going to be the “Civic” given that, ultimately it was to form part of the City Council’s Civic Square development.

In November 1929 O’Brien was confident with progress towards completion and began newspaper advertisements.

Confidence, too, of the Civic’s public attraction when the first advertisements did not give either the date of the Grand Opening nor the movie to be shown! Or was this O’Brien’s marketing tease?

The British comedy “Three Live Ghosts” was chosen for the opening season and towards mid-December some of the longest classified advertisements ever published appeared in the columns of the New Zealand Herald and The Auckland Star.

After boasting the virtues of Ted Henkel and his orchestra of 30 players on the elevating barge, Fred Scholl on the Might Wurlitzer organ, international dancers, the corps de ballet and the stage band, the movie finally got a mention!

The advertisement concluded with details about how to make reservations for any session, except opening night which was already a Full House.

The description in the advertisement “all talking” indicated to patrons that this was a “talkie movie” with speech and music on the film’s sound track. Talkies were relatively recent. This was a contentious issue with O’Brien who came from the days of silent movies accompanied by live music (a pianist, orchestra or Wurlitzer organ) to help set the mood for the on-screen action. Thomas O’Brien the showman was adamant that his new theatre must have all the options that he had facilitated in the design and in the fit-out to ensure it was “the Mighty Civic”.

There was a local marketing “bonus” with the choice of “Three Live Ghosts” for the premiere… the appearance in the film of former Aucklander, Shayle Gardner, who took the part of Briggs. Francis Shayle Gardner was born in Devonport, Auckland in 1890 and after tumultuous and adventurous teenage years, he went to London to pursue drama, and took part in several front-line productions.

Shayle Gardner: Biggs in “Three Live Ghosts”
Alexander Turnbull Library

Interrupted by World War One, he returned home and enlisted in the army in 1915, describing himself as an architect/actor. He saw active service in France, rose to the rank of Captain… much of his time managing Concert Parties entertaining the troops. In 1919 he was demobilised in England where he stayed-on, resuming drama, featuring in stage plays and a few films. He died in Banbury, England in 1945, his ashes scattered in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour as he had requested.

Perhaps the Civic had “come of age” in show-biz terms when an advertisement appeared in The Auckland Star’s classified column: Two Dress Circle Seats, opening night. Civic Theatre, Queen St.-Phone 44-764.

Was it a genuine sale because the purchaser couldn’t make it on the night, or was it a touch of “scalping way” back in 1929?! Or perhaps a little extra publicity inserted by the theatre itself as a tease to show the enthusiasm for the Civic?

Advertisement depicting opening night of the Civic
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A13788

In the days approaching the opening, now that there was proof the theatre had all the luxuries O’Brien had promised, several newspaper articles, and an 8 page supplement in the Auckland Star, backgrounded the man behind the show-place and praised him for what he had delivered… an amenity for Auckland with its many superlatives. Most seats (2,378) in a New Zealand cinema, newest projection equipment, state of the art sound system, top of the line international stars, biggest Wurlitzer organ in the country, a basement Wintergarden complete with luxury restaurant, and, of course, the “outdoor” look with sky, stars and clouds above. The public toilets, particularly the women’s “powder room”, struck new standards in comfort and sanitation. In the foyers and stairways elephants, horses, monkeys, peacocks and crocodiles were intricately worked into the theme: in statues, in chandeliers and lamp holders.

Contemporary view of Civic’s inner foyer
Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Buddahs gazed out from their niches across the stairways while the statues of two life-size Abyssinian black panthers, green lights in their eyes, reclining, guarded the proscenium and stage. Another in the foyer guarded a waterfall, but the dominant feature in the inner foyer was a giant mural depicting an Indian princess’s wedding in ancient times.

To complete the “look” Civic staff members were to be dressed in elaborate “eastern-style” uniforms to go with the décor.

O’Brien said “I have succeeded in transporting Civic patrons to a new world with an Eastern presence, as far away from latitude 37 (Auckland) as possible, with much of the décor based on real religious monuments, Brahmin temples and Moorish design”.

Interior: Moorish-Persian themes, 1929.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A13916

Local and off-shore companies who had supplied goods or services for the new showplace joined the newspaper publicity, welcoming the Civic and proudly announcing their part in the supply of, for example, carpets, insurances, vacuum cleaners, plumbing, joinery and plastering. There was also an advertisement enticing businesses to rent one of the shops along either of the Queen or Wellesley Street frontages… “it’s the most famous address in New Zealand” it bragged.

The City Council approved the building fit for occupation and agreed patrons could smoke in the foyer vestibule. The scene was set for a grand opening.

The Civic Opens

On 20th December 1929 a packed house saw the Civic come alive. The Mayor, George Baildon, declared the theatre open and congratulated all involved, singling out O’Brien, architect Bohringer and Mr L. Bater who was responsible for the plaster decorations.

Architect Bohringer’s design becomes reality, 1929.
Stan Hills audioculture.co.nz

The night was a success… almost going to plan. At the last minute Mr Scholl had trouble with the organ when it came time to perform, but a pipe was quickly repaired enabling a recital at the end of the evening. The Civic was launched with accolades all around: it had become the talk of the town, the last gasp in entertainment.

Opening night dancing extravaganza
Stan Hills – audioculture.co.nz

Competitors in the business, J. C. Williamson Films, inserted a newspaper advertisement acknowledging the newcomer to Queen Street, and to the movie industry.

The Civic continued with season after season of movies, hyped as far as the marketers could push. The Wintergarden was opened during the day for afternoon tea, and then at lunchtimes with fashion films for the ladies and business documentaries for men. It also opened evenings for cabaret after the movies. The orchestra, singers and dancers continued: it was O’Brien’s insistence on all-round entertainment at the Civic. These additions were matched when, in January 1930, O’Brien announced a deal with Hollywood’s Fox Films, a contract which put all Fox films as first release at the Civic. Supply of product was guaranteed.

The movie industry, with all  its Hollywood hype, was big, bold and brassy. In a move bound to impress, Civic Theatre Limited had its own personalised cheque book for its account at the Bank of New Zealand.

Civic’s own cheque. Andrew Clifford Collection, New Zealand Memories June/July 2021

The Dream is shattered

The cruel winds of economic depression began a chilling blow. Cinemas, where people went to “lose” themselves and their blues for an hour or two, were not exempt from the downturn. Civic Theatre Limited, as part of the O’Brien chain, had, from all accounts, paid all its bills. But the construction and fit-out of the Civic had exceeded costs by more than £20,000 (taking the total to more than £200,000), while O’Brien’s make-over of the Empire Theatre in Dunedin, had also cost more than estimated. He found converting cinemas for the “talkies” was a costly business.

By September 1930 a chink in his armour opened up in Dunedin when a minor creditor, owed about £100 for work on the Empire, took action which forced O’Brien to declare insolvency. The creditor, realising the outcome, immediately tried to rescind matters, “…I will do anything I can to seek annulment…” he proffered, but it was too late. Legal processes had begun. It was noted that some funds allocated to the Empire had been moved to assist the Civic. Creditors sympathised that the money had gone towards a work of great progress for the industry. One said “…the main trouble was that the Civic Theatre had been launched at what subsequent events proved could not have been a worse time”. Documents showed a total indebtedness of £240,257, and a deficiency of £57,982. The motion that debtor’s discharge be facilitated was carried by unanimous vote.

O’Brien had gone bust.

The slide was inevitable: the intricacies of funding the Civic just had to be affected. In that same month, September 1930, there was a change made to the company’s financial management. Oddly, It was plain that the Civic was not experiencing any difficulties meeting its financial obligations. During the past 12 months the theatre had proven the contention of the promoters that Auckland could, and would, support such a picture theatre. The average attendance had broken all previous records and had been far in excess of the anticipations of management and forecasts of revenue.

But Thomas O’Brien had lost out, lost all, and the arrangement meant the Civic remained trading without its founder and leader.

February 1931… The Mighty Civic’s in trouble
James D Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-7124

In June 1931 came the statement denying claims the Civic was in liquidation. “To the contrary,    from the day the theatre opened until to-day,” said the statement from management, “the Civic Theatre Company has paid all its accounts on due date in full, and will continue to do so. The only change now contemplated concerns the house management, which will not affect the position of the company. It is felt that cooperation with the Williamson Company in the management will enable collaboration in respect to films to be exhibited for the mutual benefit of both companies, as the Williamson Company has the advantage of a chain of theatres”.

On the 13th June 1931 the tab “Direction: Thomas A O’Brien Theatres” appeared for the last time in Civic newspaper advertisements… the “Mighty Monument to the Motion Picture Industry” was no longer his.

O’Brien’s last mention, 13th June 1931

J.C. Williamson

A few days after J. C. Williamson took over management:  on June 19th 1931 the company’s tab was included in newspaper advertisements for the Civic.

Williamson’s first mention, June 19 1931

James Cassius Williamson, an actor, founded a company in Australia in 1879 which leased theatres, and toured shows including Sarah Bernhardt, H.B. Irving and (Dame) Nellie Melba. The company became well known for spectacular, large-scale productions. After 1907 Williamson moved to Europe and, his old partners having left, he hired capable managers and changed the theatre company’s name to J.C. Williamson Ltd.

James Cassius Williamson
Wikipedia

The company also leased theatres in New Zealand, then entered the cinema business. It became the largest theatrical firm in the world with extensive film and property holdings until its closure in 1976.

Frank Beaumont (Beau) Smith, who took the reins at the Civic had been a leading light in the Australian film industry, a film director, producer and exhibitor. He began a long career with live theatre as an entrepreneur and manager before he turned to movies. From his first film in 1917 he went on to become one of the most prolific and popular Australian movie-makers of the silent era.

Frank Beaumont (Beau) Smith
Australian Variety Archive

After a period working in Hollywood in 1919 he returned to Australia for more productions before moving to New Zealand in the late 1920s as manager for J. C. Williamson. After his time at the Civic Smith returned to Australia where again he took up movie-making, producing, arguably, his best pictures among the more than 20 he made in his lifetime.

Ironically, J. C. Williamson Films, the company which wished Thomas O’Brien “all success” when he opened the Civic, had – in his adversity – now taken over the “the Dominion’s Greatest Theatre”.  Williamson’s chose the appropriately-titled movie “New Moon” to open the next phase at the Civic. Almost immediately the price of admission was revised: reduced to between one shilling in the upper circle and three shillings in the dress circle. The Wintergarden (including supper) was to be four shillings and sixpence… with seats a little more expensive on Saturdays and holidays.

It must have been heart-ache for Thomas O’Brien who, in July, paid his personal creditors a first and final dividend of 2 and seven-eighths pence in the £.

Meantime, Williamsons engaged Chips Healy and his band for shows in the Wintergarden. He became very popular and continued for at least 3 years.

New Zealand Herald, 19 September 1931

Healy and his “band of merrymakers” made use of the “elevating bandstand”. The musicians would set up on the barge in the depths of the theatre and then, playing, come into sight as they rose up to the Wintergarden, and their audience.

Chips Healy and his band playing the Wintergarden on the barge –
note that it’s considerably lower than the stage
Stan Hills, audioculture.co.nz

Stan Hills was an accomplished musician in the Chips Healy band, majoring on trumpet, and was also a keen photographer… his pictures have over the decades retold the Civic’s earlier days.

Williamsons also staged shows in the Wintergarden on both Sunday afternoons and evenings. Admission to both was one shilling… with a silent movie often offered, accompanied by the Wurlitzer organ to show off all the instruments and sound effects it could produce – it was, after all, designed to provide the “sound track” for silent movies. Howard Moody would remain at the Wurlitzer to provide popular tunes as an accompaniment to supper.

New Zealand Herald, September 1931

The tide of ‘flu that swept Auckland in the early 1930’s was not ignored in Mr Mulqueen’s reassuring newspaper advertisements for the Wintergarden.

 Enter the Moodabe Brothers

At the time of O’Brien’s difficulties, Michael J. Moodabe operated the Hippodrome Theatre in Queen Street.

Hippodrome Theatre, Queen Street, 1927
James D. Richardson – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-454

Trading under the name “Amalgamated Theatres”, Michael Moodabe and his brother, Joseph, took over theatres, other than the Civic, vacated by O’Brien: the Princess in Queen Street (later the Plaza), the Tivoli uptown in Karangahape Road near Symonds Street and the Rialto in Newmarket.

Amalgamated Theatres Limited continued acquiring cinemas throughout New Zealand and by 1934 had 40 under their direction. On June 1st 1934 they added 2 more… the Strand in Queen Street, Auckland… and the Jewel in the Company’s crown, the Mighty Civic, “Showplace of New Zealand” as Amalgamated called it, management taken over from J C Williamson.

Amalgamated Theatres mark the takeover

The “dazzling musical show” turned out to be “Scandals” which the advertisement daringly went on to say was “… a musical show that was just too big for the stage…”

At year’s end the Moodabes took out a large advertisement in newspapers assuring viewers that 1935 was going to be a big year on Amalgamated Theatre screens.

New Zealand Herald, October 22, 1934

Looking for assurance of programme supply, Michael Moodabe made a big change in 1937 when he interested 20th Century Fox Film Corporation in purchasing a half-interest in Amalgamated.

The Civic did not realise its full potential, as planned by O’Brien, despite New Zealand’s gradual climb out of economic depression. There was a concentration on the movies, though in the war years the Wintergarden was re-born as the place to boogie into the small hours: the preferred entertainment place for visiting US servicemen. Freda Stark joined the dancers for the cabaret sessions and soon became a focus, a favourite and a scandal: for her featured Fire Dance she wore only a thin coat of paint that glistened gold under the lights. She earned the name “Fever of the Fleet”.

Freda Stark
Dictionary of NZ Biography – Ministry of Culture and Heritage

Stark had been part of a scandal in the 1930s when she fell in love with fellow dancer Thelma Trott. Thelma married Eric Mareo in 1934, the marriage ending abruptly with Trott’s death by poisoning a year later. Mareo was twice tried and twice found guilty; the usual sentence of hanging was commuted to life imprisonment. The court case, innuendo and scandal generated great public curiosity: it was this Stark either got over, or thrived on, to go on with her successes on stage at the Civic Wintergarden during the war years.

In March 1940 a second cinema was opened in the building by Civic Theatre Limited, “De Paris”, a small auditorium downstairs, catering to the discerning viewer featuring foreign films, art works and opera. It did not see the year out.

Some of the Civic’s facilities were stymied when Direct Current (DC) Power was no longer available in  downtown Auckland: it had been disconnected by the power authority in favour of, exclusively, Alternating Current (AC) supply. Some of the Civic’s best features had been powered by DC, like the motor which lifted the huge barge from the depths to the stalls. The DC motor was not replaced: the heavy barge had to be cranked up by hand so it was seldom seen again and only for special events (described later).

Founders Michael and Joe Moodabe retired from Amalgamated Theatres in the early 1960s and Michael’s three sons, Royce, Michael Junior and Joseph took over, retaining executive positions in the company. It was arranged shortly after for Fox to buy the remaining half… on condition that the Moodabe family remained in management control. The brothers stayed in the management of the chain from the 1960s to the 1980s (a time when television in New Zealand was eroding box office returns). The owner of the chain, 20th Century Fox, sold out in the 1980s to the Chase Corporation. Hoyts subsequently took over: Royce Moodabe became General Manager, Australia, while Michael and Joseph continued to be involved in the industry.

Cinemascope

In 1953 Twentieth Century-Fox promised movie-goers a whole new viewing experience – Hollywood had invented a way to get much bigger pictures on the screen, in fact more than double the size patrons were used to.

From “Celluloid Circus” – Wayne Brittenden, Godwit, 2008

Prior to 1953, the usual screen sizes were either Standard or Widescreen (top two above), then Cinemascope greatly enlarged the size of the projected picture, followed by 70mm (Todd AO) and the three-strip Cinerama (lower).

Cinemascope, in simple terms, was made possible by special “anamorphic” lenses on the cameras which stretched the image. Then similar lenses were required on the projectors in the cinema to duplicate this “stretching” as the movie was projected on to a new, widened, screen, ideally slightly curved. Fox welcomed the Cinemascope revolution: it was a valuable counter to US audiences who were turning to television for their entertainment. Elsewhere it was a show of major technical progress in the film industry.

Promotional advertisement for “The Robe” in Cinemascope
The dotted line indicated the frame of “normal” movies

Amalgamated’s close commercial arrangements with Fox no doubt contributed to the rapid introduction of Cinemascope to New Zealand. The Civic was chosen and its screen was greatly enlarged, though some difficulties were encountered because of the theatre’s long throw from the projectors to the screen, far further than average cinemas. In theory, the longer the throw the wider the picture: adjustments were made to the lenses to ensure the picture was contained to the new screen and did not overflow either side of the proscenium which had been re-engineered to cater for the wide, wide screen.

The first movie ever released in Cinemascope was the biblical story “The Robe” which opened at the Civic in November 1953. It starred Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Michael Rennie with Dean Jagger, Jay Robinson, Richard Boone and Jeff Morrow.

Amalgamated made much of it. The Civic was to be the first theatre outside the US to screen the feature after its New York debut, the film quickly proving a box-office hit right across the States. The outside of the Civic had a make-over never before ventured to promote a single movie. Apart from the enormous billboard above the front doors, long signs (as if to accentuate Cinemascope’s dimension) announcing “The Robe” were erected along the length of the theatre’s wall on both Queen Street and Wellesley Street frontages. And for the first time in Auckland “travelling lights” bordered the signs: white lights that appeared to chase each other around the perimeter.

Needless to say, there was a grand premiere to welcome the new spectacle, but there were a few difficulties on the night as Michael Moodabe, Junior, recalled in his book “Peanuts and Pictures: The Life and Times of M.J. Moodabe”. Friday evening shoppers and curious crowds blocked the roads outside the Civic, delaying the arrival of dignitaries, the movie started before some members of the official party were seated and the curtains only hesitatingly opened to the new, wide, Cinemascope screen requirement.

Aficionados picked some problems with the sound track, particularly music, and sometimes a little distortion of faces in extreme close-ups, a shot which was avoided in follow up Cinemascope productions until the lenses were adjusted to overcome the problem.

Nevertheless Cinemascope had arrived via the Civic, a stepping stone to 70mm, Todd-AO, Techniscope and Cinerama. And “The Robe” proved very popular at the Civic: internationally it was the number one hit.

The Civic in 1963

I mentioned that when I joined the staff the place was a little rundown. By this I mean there was an absolute focus on the Civic as a cinema. The basement Wintergarden was seldom used, kept in readiness as “overflow” to take patrons when it was Full House upstairs. The Wintergarden’s restaurant had long since disappeared: I think part of the former kitchen had been given over to a signwriter’s workshop. The barge, as mentioned, was out of action left sitting in its giant well in the basement. The original stage lighting also fell victim to the conversion from DC power to AC. Fortunately, the Civic’s decorative theme had been maintained with lighting effects in the auditorium: the panthers’ eyes, the minarets, the sky, moving clouds and twinkling stars.

The Organ

With the barge out of use, it remained for the Wurlitzer organ, one of the eye-poppers on opening night in 1929, to continue to entertain cinema patrons on Friday and Saturday evenings. Ron Boyce was the organist. When ready to begin playing he would signal to the projectionist asking the recorded music to be faded. Then Ron would start playing while the giant instrument was out of sight. It would rise on its lift, twisting as it ascended into the auditorium. When the spectators got their first glimpse of the gleaming console, Ron would crank up the volume as if to announce its “arrival” and then the organ would continue rising until it reached its place, a total lift of some 10 meters. A powerful spot light on the instrument, stage-left, meant it was easily seen from every seat. The organ could emulate practically every instrument of the orchestra from “thunder kettle drums” to piccolo, from clarinet to glockenspiel. Timpani and other special musical effects like bells, horns, cymbals, castanets, triangles, xylophone, chimes, bird calls, whistles, etc, were centred in the balconies on the walls high above the audience. The Wurlitzer theatre organ has, with some justification, been described as a “one person orchestra”.

Civic’s Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ fully elevated

Ron Boyce (not in the photo above) was very obliging if anyone made a request, and if he knew a staff member, or a patron for that matter, was celebrating a birthday he would include “Happy Birthday To You” in his half-hour repertoire before the movies at 8 o’clock or in his bracket of tunes during the shorter “half time” interval. Ron would watch the time so that his session was ending as he descended, disappearing into the bowels of the theatre, so the movies could start promptly at 8pm.

Wurlitzer 260 “Special”
Orion Centre, Campsie

The organ was officially a Wurlitzer Opus 2075, 3 manual, 16 rank-style 260 ‘Special’, built by the Wurlitzer Brothers in USA, a company which made a range of organs, but specialised in models designed to provide atmospheric music in cinemas for silent movies. The advent of talkies, about the time the company supplied the Civic, saw a fall-off in business… Wurlitzer continued to produce church and band organs before diversifying into its famous juke-boxes into the 1970s and beyond.

The Civic’s organ was sold and removed in the late 1960s when a small cinema was planned in the Wintergarden basement:  a proposal that did not eventuate. The restored instrument is preserved in a theatrette at the Len Southward Museum on Kapiti Coast, New Zealand.

The Wintergarden

As has been mentioned, the Wintergarden had been a popular setting: cinema, tea-rooms, a restaurant and a late-night dance floor/cabaret venue from the time the Civic opened in 1929, part of James O’Brien’s dream of a total entertainment showplace. But the Wintergarden was never more popular than during World War Two, the early 1940s, when it came into its own as the preferred nightspot for US servicemen stationed in, or passing through, Auckland. They took their “recreation time” in Auckland very seriously and frequently booked the whole place out, sometimes hired their own band and ensured popular dancer Freda Stark was on hand to entertain. Even in my time at the Civic, more than 20 years later, the risqué floor shows, the dancers and the night club antics were still talked about. In war-time the doormen took strict measures to try to prevent alcoholic drinks being smuggled in. They also had to occasionally quell fights when American servicemen intervened trying to take a girl off her Kiwi partner. And doormen often witnessed the exchange of gifts, such as hard-to-get nylon stockings, cosmetics and chocolates, between the Americans and local women. The Americans stationed Military Police near the Civic in case of disorder.

In 1963 the Wintergarden was mostly in darkness, deserted week after week, 300-400 distinctive wicker (rattan) armchairs arranged on the former dance floor.

Wicker chair similar to those in the Civic Wintergarden, ebay

I guess these were survivors from the 1930s and 40s hey-days of the place because there were matching dining tables. In my time the chairs were set out roughly in rows across the old, polished, black-and-white tiled dance floor which remained. Unusually for seats in a cinema they were not fixed to the floor.

Having them set up in place probably saved a child’s life just before my time. The story was told by Hector Olsen that a kid had accidentally fallen from the dress circle, some 10m above the Wintergarden, the plunge broken by a wicker chair on the dance floor below. The chair’s cane-work having just enough “give” to absorb the fall, prevented serious injury, or worse.

Just off the Wintergarden to the left was a sizable workshop where Ralph Seager supervised a staff of two, George Mc and Don Reardon, painting billboards and making signage. They were kept busy creating all the signs required at the Civic for its billboards, etc, plus the other 5 first-run Amalgamated cinemas on Queen Street and for the Lido Cinema at Epsom. Included in their work were the front-of-house signs, to a template and size, that would be used at suburban and other theatres on the circuit nationwide… they all had the same size front-of-house billboards.

The Wintergarden also gave access on the same level to the boiler-room with its oil-fired boilers which powered the heaters in winter. And towards the stage, off prompt, (left) there is a door leading to the stage and also down to the basement, thence to the barge and the organ.

Steps descend further into the depths, now well below street level, where once the Ligar Canal flowed. Here at the deepest part of the building are situated powerful water pumps, deployed as required to prevent flooding of the lower parts of the theatre. These pumps needed constant maintenance so they were ready at a moment’s notice to rid excess water. This was likely if there was a sudden downpour in the city – it was a certainty if heavy rain coincided with the time of high tide on the Waitemata Harbour. This meant water in the drains could not flow into the harbour; it would back up and spill over into the Civic’s foundations. The Civic’s caretaker was responsible for “manning the pumps” and his duties were so important that there was a special clause in the Caretakers’ Industrial Award providing for an allowance to be paid whenever, day or night, he found it prudent to visit the Civic to check the water levels against flooding and, if necessary, activate the pumps.

There was a second large area under the Civic, known just as” the basement” and in October 1930 it was found to be an ideal space to be fitted-out as a miniature golf course. The mini-golf craze was sweeping the world and a specialist in the business came from the United States, creating the design of the 18-hole course at the Civic and bringing equipment for the fit-out.  Much later the space became Auckland headquarters for the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB).

Night Spot Again

In April 1963 it was decided to re-open the Wintergarden as a night spot, the theme to be pop music with young adults the intended patrons. Promoter Bill Hennah hired the place from Amalgamated Theatres Ltd and arrangements were made that it would open on Friday and Saturday nights once the cinema patrons had dispersed.

Security had to be tightened to prevent people from the Wintergarden accessing the theatre. This proved difficult because the only toilets available were in the stalls, accessible by a staircase which had to remain open to and from the Wintergarden. Security guards maintained temporary barriers. The other shortcoming was that silence had to be maintained in the Wintergarden until the movie concluded. This meant that bands performing in the new night spot could not set up or rehearse before the movie had finished, severely delaying their first set. Bill Hennah built in a coffee shop and snack bar: no alcohol was allowed. The cane chairs were rearranged into groups of six around some of the old wicker tables that had been in store. It was a miracle that, after all the time of disuse, the lighting for the dancefloor still worked, including special effects. A few light bulbs were replaced and we could all see just how the lighting had contributed to the mood in Wintergarden in decades before!

The latest night club was not a success. Poor patronage over a month or two did not cover expenses. For the first 8 weeks there were delays in opening the Wintergardens’ doors and intending patrons did not wait around, leaving to find other night-spots. The hold-up was caused by the 8pm session of the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty” which didn’t end until 11.10pm and “nothing could move” downstairs until patrons had left the auditorium. It was a most unfortunate coincidence… the new night spot and a long film.

And then security remained a problem. Especially when it was discovered after the first night that clever patrons were smuggling alcohol into the night club. Perhaps they had heard about the tricks of the trade from earlier times at the Wintergarden about just how easy it was to get booze in. Because the same toilets were used for both the cinema and the night club, small bottles of gin, whisky, vodka etc, could be hidden in the restrooms (including inside the cisterns) during the movie, and then later accessed direct from the night club without having to pass the inspecting doorman at the entrance to the Wintergarden. Hector Olsen said this had been a known practice by US servicemen, the small bottles “planted” in the toilet cisterns or hidden underneath paper towels in the rubbish bins!

 Hector Olsen

I reported to the Manager, Hector Olsen, as his right-hand help during normal office hours and with some work, as required, in the evenings. Hector was a life-long veteran of the movie business and nearing retirement when I joined. He was mid-mannered and even-tempered, I never saw him rattled and I never heard him swear or cuss. From day one he was a mentor and fast became a friend.

Hector Olsen,
New Zealand Herald

Hector, it turned out, had been with the Moodabe brothers, founders of the firm Amalgamated Theatres, from their earliest days. But before that he had worked for the Clelands who from January 1925 showed the same double-feature silent movies at two of their theatres, the National in Queen Street and the Lyric in Symonds Street. Both theatres had orchestras to accompany the films.

First double-feature programmes at National and Lyric, 1922

Prior to 1927, 15 year old Hector Olsen’s job was “switch boy”, rushing the reels of film from one cinema to the other. Just as soon as a reel was finished on Title A at the National, Hector would grab it, run outside to hop on the first passing tram-car and deliver the can of film to the projectionist at the Lyric in Upper Symonds Street. He then switched the programme by taking the reel just completed from Title B at the Lyric and, similarly, race with it to the National. By the time he got between theatres another reel would be ready for him to deliver. Sessions at both theatres were carefully timed to allow for Hector’s continuous “switching”. The National later became the Century Theatre and, like the Lyric, it disappeared in later years.

The Lyric in the 1920s as Hector Olsen knew it
J D Richardson – Auckland Libraries Collection

In 1927 Hector saw better prospects at the Hippodrome Theatre, operated by Michael and Joseph Moodabe. The Hippodrome had opened as the Globe, changing its name in August 1920… and, in 1922 it was purchased by Michael Moodabe and Frederick Rayner. Mr Rayner was later bought out and replaced in partnership by Joe Moodabe: the foundation ownership of Amalgamated Theatres was set. Hector’s work more or less paralleled the rapid expansion of the company, serving as manager in various cities and towns throughout New Zealand. Hector spanned the days of “silent movies” to “all talkies”.

Showmanship

In the mid-1940s Hector joined the team at Amalgamated’s Civic under the then manager Joe Shriner, a legendary showman from vaudeville days noted for his intense and novel marketing of whatever show was playing. Hector told the story of one act, inspired by Shriner, becoming a duo “Hector and Joe” presentation. Shriner, who had a good singing voice, decided to warm-up the theatre audience with a rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway”. Shriner agreed Hector was the better looking of the two, so Hector was told to front under the spotlight on stage with a “dead” microphone. He mimed the words while in the dark just behind him stood Joe, singing for all he was worth into a “live” microphone. The two didn’t think they would get away with it, but their song was an instant hit and they were obliged to continue night after night for the three-week-long season!

Hector himself was a showman when it came to promoting movies. While managing the Regent in Whangarei he was to screen the very popular 1935 movie “Curly Top” featuring child-star Shirley Temple.

Itunes- Apple

With the film’s famous signature-song “Animal Crackers In My Soup”, Hector decided to hold a grand pet show at the theatre with a prize for the best-turned-out animal… and free tickets for all those who entered their pet. There was no shortage of contenders. Hector often told the story: “…the finalists were whittled down to a beautiful white Muscovy Duck and a well-groomed German Shepherd dog. Both came forward with their owners and, while the judges were deciding the winner in front of the big crowd, the dog leapt up, grabbed the duck and with one good chomp took its head clean off. It took quite some pacifying to comfort the owner of the Muscovy… and the kids who had witnessed the event. “I bundled all the children into the theatre as quickly as possible and told the projectionist to start ahead of time… anything to take their minds off the drama outside the theatre and get them fixed on Shirley Temple’s on-screen adventures!”

As an aside, the Regent Theatre in Whangarei has the distinction of giving its name to the suburb which burgeoned around it at the northern end of the city’s main street. Regent is now an established, flourishing suburb.

Despite the long relationship with the Moodabes, Hector was always a bit on-edge whenever they visited the Civic.  Joe Moodabe , Mr J.P., as he was universally known, would often attend to watch a movie and Hector was always on hand to greet Mr J.P. on arrival, to join him at the interval and to farewell him after the show. Before Mr J.P.’s arrival staff made a quick inspection of the theatre – often my task – mostly to ensure every light bulb was working. If, during his visit, Mr J.P. spotted just one of the lights out, and the Civic had hundreds of bulbs, he would remind Hector of the company’s policy: “every bulb must be lit”. Hector would take all steps to replace the bulb then and there if it was accessible so that it would be going again by the time the houselights came up after the movie… otherwise replacement would be made “…first thing in the morning with our longest ladder”.

Hector had time out to recover from heart troubles while I was at the Civic, replaced by Brian O’Halloran, transferred from Wellington. I got on well with Brian: he was one to let his staff get on with their jobs in trust and confidence. Happily, Hector recovered and returned to the Civic after my time, Brian going to the Plaza to replace Jim Downie who retired.

The Team

The Manager headed quite a team to keep the Civic going.

Caretaker, Charlie Groves, had four or five helpers to keep the theatre clean. They began early in the morning and were rostered, taking turns, to clean the place between sessions. In addition Charlie saw to first-aid maintenance of broken furniture, manned the pumps as required in the sump below the Wintergarden and replaced blown light bulbs. Charlie was an aficionado of cricket, a member of the Cornwall Club and had the distinction of scoring more runs than any Club player before, or after, him. This is explained by revealing his position – he was the scorer, season after season, for all the major games played at the Club’s grounds on the slopes of One Tree Hill!

The hard-working cleaning team in the stalls and front-of-house in my time consisted Jeannie Cain, Anne Moses, Hilda Brown and Gladys Tucker – others toiled away upstairs but I didn’t have so much to do with them.

Front-of-house consisted the main entrance right on the corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets (as it is today) with its high arch above the doors, enormous billboard and the physical entrance across terrazzo flooring to the box offices from which cashiers sold tickets. For the first week of a season, and for every Friday and Saturday night, seats in the stalls and dress circle would be “on block”, that is every admission ticket would be accompanied by another ticket with a seat number. This enabled patrons to reserve their favourite seats, and, for the cashiers, to ensure there was no over-selling when there was a full house. The back stalls weren’t put on block… nor were the seats in the Wintergarden.  Having purchased their tickets, patrons continued through the front-of-house inner doors, crossed the marble floored foyer on their way either to the stairs (up to the dress and back circle), or through to the stalls on the same level, or downstairs to the Wintergarden.

Staff guided patrons all the way. When it was a popular movie there could be some 3,000 patrons to get seated in a relatively short time so it was essential to help patrons find their way. Two, sometimes three, staff members greeted patrons and assisting them just inside the inner doors, then at each of the five entrances to the auditorium there would be a total of five doormen and ten ushers. Doormen checked that the patrons were at the right entrance, ripped their admission ticket in half and referred them on to the appropriate usher. It was a well-oiled machine with the objective to get everyone seated before the lights went down and the National Anthem “God Save the Queen” struck up. Latecomers were assisted to their seats by ushers with torches, and by built-in tread lights on the stairs. By the time a full house was seated the ushers were ready for a rest: climbing up and down the stairs was strenuous. The circle doormen had an additional duty… assessing when the Back Circle would be filled up. In these rare circumstances they had to judge, and make the decision, when to open the Wintergarden and to move ushers to assist with patrons down there. If the Back Stalls had been oversold, “surplus” patrons would be led back downstairs and into the Wintergarden. Some, not wanting to view from there, had their money refunded. It was the same admission price, 3/4d for the Back Stalls and the Wintergarden so the tickets were interchangeable.

The doormen (the likes of Ken, Laurence, Ed, and Dave) had the responsibility of being “last out” after the movie had ended and the patrons had left. Each doorman checked out the seating, toilets, exit tunnels and corridors to ensure no one was lurking and then reported downstairs, giving the all-clear. The senior doorman at night, Bruce McDougall, often made his own, final, check before he was satisfied the place was secure.

Doormen, together with the ushers, provided fire safety measures that were required by law at all “places of public assembly” which of course applied to cinemas. When the Civic was occupied there had to be at least one qualified Safety Officer (once called a Theatre Firemen) among the doormen who would act in the event of an outbreak or if there was a suspicion of fire. Prime duties included, before each session, checking all exit ways were clear and easily-opened (in the Civic’s case this was a number of doors leading into the street on all four sides), ensuring all EXIT lights were lit and, in the event of a fire, ensuring the fire brigade had been called the emergency egress system activated.

Rialto Theatre, Capetown

This set-up turned on a number of lights in the auditorium and at the exits: when ushers saw these lights go on they knew to go and open the exit doors ready for an evacuation. If there was a confirmed fire or serious suspicion, the operator would be advised to douse the movie and put on the house lights and doormen and ushers would organise patrons to leave. The Manager was routinely involved. Ideally, the audience was evacuating from the building before the fire brigade arrived. This set-up was tested periodically by doormen and then there was also a regular snap- inspection by an officer from the Fire brigade. He had to be satisfied the procedure was working and the staff knew their duties.

Cashiers

No one worked harder than the cashiers – those who staffed the box-offices selling tickets, balancing the books and accounting for all the cash. Of course it was an all-cash business in those days, long before credit cards and EFTPOS was invented! Cashiers had to be quick sellers especially during school holidays and whenever there was a “block-buster” attraction. They could see the queue snaking around past the ticket-box and, out of sight, into the street beyond. They knew they had to get the crowd in ahead of start-time: speed was of the essence but at the same time so was accuracy with the money and patience with patrons who, even though they had queued for some time, often approached not knowing quite where they wanted to sit and how much money it would cost – or worse – started a search for cash in the bottom of a handbag or a wallet.

Yvonne, Sharon, Biddy and Cath were senior cashiers and proved excellent sellers and ‘front of house’ diplomats dealing with the huge crowds. They would have to quickly calculate the price of the tickets (adults and children in family groups), figure out any change and hand over both the change and tickets… and then rapidly on to the next patron. No time for niceties! At peak times we would have 3 cashiers selling with front of house staff marshalling the queues as patrons fronted the ticket boxes. These helpers would also point out the signs advising prices so that, hopefully, by the time patrons got to the cashier they had made their choice, and could make their purchase without dithering.

The cashiers also looked after the box-plan for the Lido Cinema at Epsom, a facility so that those intending patrons in the city during the day could book, and pay for, seats at the Lido. This was an added chore until 5.30pm weekdays when the box-plan was transferred to the Lido, ready to sell at the evening session there. Occasionally the inevitable happened – someone wanted to book seats at the Lido when cashiers were flat-tack in the mayhem selling for the Civic’s matinee sessions during the school holidays. The Lido patron was either asked to wait or come back later, or there was an assurance tickets would he held for the person who could pick them up and pay for them at the Lido that night.

Another chore for cashiers was a constant watch on the amount of coinage and the number of smaller banknotes they had on hand to give as change…“the float”. This was a daily stock-take with a resulting visit to the bank to top up… at busier periods it might be two or three times a day and often a last minute stock-up on Friday afternoon to ensure they did not run out of change over the weekend when banks were closed. Occasionally the Civic would be short of coin in the float on Saturdays and we would ask other city theatres to help us if they could… and sometimes they would ask the Civic for help.

As mentioned, the cashiers were each responsible for balancing their sales with cash, plus the float, and then it was the senior cashier’s job to check it before being taken to the manager in his upstairs office for further checking and preparation for banking. And during school holidays when there might be 2 full houses (11am and 2pm), a well-patronised 5pm session and another full house at 8pm, we are talking big sums – many thousands of dollars.

The Money Trail

The Civic was handling even larger sums over Christmas, New Year and Easter, just when the banks were closed. The Civic, like other cinemas, usually had a special “holiday” feature movie which often attracted full houses. The result was, what with takings and the big “float” of coinage we carried to give as change, there were very large sums on hand. Easter was particularly awkward with banks closing early on Thursday before Good Friday and not reopening, in those days, until the following Wednesday. Banks did not have “night deposit” facilities.

The money trail at the Civic began at the box office when patrons purchased tickets. Just before my time patrons paid an amusement tax to the government, a few pence added to the cost of each seat, but that had recently been done away with.

Each person, having paid, is issued with an admission ticket. Cinema takings are calculated on the basis of these numbered tickets. Before the cashier starts selling, a ticket is torn off the roll and kept, the “start ticket”. Once the house is in, the numbered ticket after the last sale is also torn off and kept. These tickets are then pasted on the docket and simple subtraction gives the number of admissions and thus the takings.

The takings were counted first at the box office together with the coin float. Good cashiers “balanced the books” at this stage of the process. Docket books and cash were then taken to the upstairs office where the manager checked the accounts and the money. This is where the exact balance, (or not), was determined.

And all this had to occur before 9.45 each evening when, by today’s standards in our risk-averse society, an almost unbelievable nightly ritual began.

Just before a quarter to ten 2 Civic doormen engaged a taxi from the rank opposite the Civic and positioned the cab outside the theatre’s front doors. Just after 9.45 the two doormen went upstairs to the office to uplift the money, the canvas bags full of cash now in a locked large Gladstone-type leather bag. Sometimes it was too heavy for one man to carry. It was taken out to the waiting taxi and the accompanying doormen would ask the driver to proceed down Queen Street. First stop was at Cinerama Theatre (Mayfair as-was) where, as the taxi pulled up, a doorman would bring out Cinerama’s bag. Next stop was opposite the Plaza where its doorman would leave the theatre, cross Queen Street with the bag and deposit it in the taxi. The Century was next for the pick-up and lastly the Oxford at the foot of town opposite the Chief Post Office (now Britomart Train Station). With all 5 bags in the taxi it did a U turn and then moved left into Customs Street to pull up outside the front doors of the old Waverley Hotel, site of the present Grand Mercure Hotel. The two doormen, sometimes assisted by the hotel concierge and the taxi driver would then carry the bags through the hotel foyer and into the office where there was a large walk-in strongroom. The doormen saw the bags were deposited, the door closed and locked before they returned in the taxi to the Civic.

This procedure went on for years. Takings and cash floats from all Amalgamated’s downtown theatres, amounting to many thousands of pounds, were thus collected and transported by taxi in the same way and at the same time each evening. It’s a wonder the doormen were not robbed: the nightly procedure easily discovered by would-be thieves.

The money trail continued when each theatre was responsible to pick up its own bag next morning from the Waverley Hotel and deposit the cash in the bank. For the Civic’s deposits it was often a long session with the teller at the Bank of New Zealand’s Town Hall Branch who counted each note and coin by hand before totting up all the cash and giving a receipt.

Sometimes if I was in town for the evening or on duty at the Civic I would offer my own car for the “cash-run”, reimbursed by the usual taxi fare. The night-deposit service at the Waverley ended when the hotel closed for demolition in 1964: the South Pacific Hotel arose on the site, now the Mercure.

Amalgamated Theatres Limited was thus forced to rethink the overnight storage of the company’s cash and decided to install a safe in a corner of Hector Olsen’s downstairs office at the Civic.  The nightly “cash run” was reversed, the taxi starting downtown at the Oxford. Smaller bags were used so they would all fit into the new safe.

Several Civic doormen met the taxi out front each night and escorted the bags into Hector’s office, and to the security of the safe.

It was the caretaker, Charlie Groves, who on his arrival at the Civic early one morning discovered Hector’s office door wide open, the alarm system inoperative… and the front of the safe blown open, the money bags gone. Detectives soon swarmed the place… the modus operandi matched several other safe-breaks in Auckland, followed by similar thefts in other North Island centres. At last police made arrests, including one of their own who allegedly had been the “lookout man” armed with a police radio.  The Civic’s safe had been blown by using a rubber contraceptive and explosives, the details of which I won’t go into. But the resulting blast buckled the safe’s door and, in this case, released the lock… and the cash.

Another larger safe was purchased and installed in the front lobby. Workmen hollowed out a space for it in a pillar behind one of the billboards: the billboard, showing the poster for a “coming attraction” was in fact a “secret door” which opened outwards to reveal the safe behind. A new rule was invoked… when the taxi arrived with the bags at least 2 Civic doormen were to close the main doors while the cash was being put in the safe. The doormen were to stay in the foyer for the duration and reopen the doors immediately the safe was shut to satisfy fire egress safety rules. Locked doors did not go well if there was sudden evacuation because of fire! The new safe had more capacity, it had the latest alarm, it was well out of sight and the foyer was left bathed in bright light all night.

Full House

I was not long in the job at the Civic when, Queen’s Birthday Weekend in June 1963, I saw a real busy period unfold with the MGM movie “Mutiny on the Bounty”. It was a sell-out, all 3 sessions daily on the Friday, Saturday and Monday. Prices were increased a little for the ‘block-buster”. Hector had anticipated we would be busy and asked me to work, assisting with the crowds wherever there was a pressure point. It certainly was busy. Queues lined up to get to the ticket boxes, they stretched right along the Civic frontage on both Queen Street and Wellesley Street. We found a difficulty on Saturday night when patrons were all a bit later arriving. This meant that by the time we opened the Wintergarden the show had begun and it was tricky getting people to their seats in the gloom. Extra ushers from the Stalls were called on to assist.

The Civic certainly came alive when it was a Full House, an atmosphere that must have been reminiscent of the theatre’s opening and its busier decades. It positively hummed.  At half-time the place suddenly swarmed with people, some going outside for a breath of fresh air, others on Saturday night going out to buy the Saturday evening sports paper “The 8 o’clock”, while some bought ice creams and sweets. Yet others made a comfort stop. All realised it was just a short break: best to hurry! On screen during interval would be all the latest advertising slides (10 seconds each was the rule) while Ron Boyce would be playing away on the organ. Then, within minutes, the front-of-house, the lounges, sweet stalls and staircases were again deserted as the patrons disappeared inside to resume the story of the mutiny, part 2. The whole theatre, except the soundtrack, is quiet again with all eyes glued to the screen.

The movie was well-received by international and local critics “… a spectacle…”, although some thought Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) was too much a foppish ship’s officer, possibly to contrast the “evil” Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard). It was the first time a sailing ship had been built for a movie, part of the film was shot on location in the South Pacific and it was reputed to be the first film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 wide-screen. It was nominated for seven Oscars, though won none. It had been anticipated by the industry as a “blockbuster” but it cost more than its receipts, thus it was considered a box office flop. Perhaps the South Pacific connection kicked in with Auckland audiences: the Full House sign was out again for the second and third Saturday nights and the season was pushed out to 8 weeks at the Civic, a total of 144 screenings: a record season while I was on the staff there. It was a long film, hence just 3 sessions a day with evening sessions ending at 11.10pm.

Those Long-Run Seasons…

While mentioning the 8 week season of the Mutiny of the Bounty, it’s timely to mention other long-run seasons while I worked at the Civic.

“The VIPs” an all-star cast headed by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, September 1963, screened for 5 weeks (120 sessions). The movie benefited greatly from publicity surrounding the making of “Cleopatra” in which the same two, Taylor and Burton starred. They were involved in an extra-marital affair on set which created headlines and then Taylor fell ill with pneumonia for which she required a tracheostomy. She had been paid a record $1 million by Fox to make the movie… its cost soared when scenes shot in England were junked, to be re-filmed on the new set in Rome. There was also a rumour that Taylor held the makers to ransom, the studio idle, until they paid an additional sum to show the scars of her tracheostomy in a revealing blouse.

The Christmas attraction, 1963, “In Search of the Castaways” also showed for 5 weeks (116 sessions). It was Disney’s world wide search for a sea captain, starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. It had local interest when their international quest brings them to New Zealand.

Its season was matched by “The Prize”, March 1964, (120 showings), starring Paul Newman, Elke Sommer and Edward G. Robinson, a tussle over the rightful claimant to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Four week seasons included “The Password is Courage”, March 1963, (Dirk Bogarde, Maria Perschy and Alfred Lynch) – black and white – was based on a series of true wartime escapes; the last successful attempt to end the movie is on a commandeered German fire engine.  “Move Over, Darling” featured Doris Day and James Garner, promoted locally by an oversize Sleepyhead mattress strung from the ceiling above the Civic’s foyer. “Love in Las Vegas” (Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret), “Night of the Iguana” (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Debora Kerr, Sue Lyon) and “Murder at the Gallop” (Margaret Rutherford) all played over 3 weeks.

Hector Olsen, reviewing his tenure as Manager of the Civic in 1973, said the longest running movie in all his time was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. “It received a terrific promotional boost in its ninth week when it won 4 Academy Awards: the crowds flooded in, and it went on to be the longest running film ever at the Civic”.

The film won Best Cinematography, Best original Score for a Motion Picture other than a Musical, Best Music, Song, and Best Orgibnal Screenplay. It had also been nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Sound.

…And One That Wasn’t 

I’ve seen the statement on a website that “The Sound of Music” was the longest season at the Civic with the claim “… it ran for 18 months”. Incorrect. “The Sound of Music” enjoyed its phenomenal season screening at the Plaza Theatre in Auckland, situated on the East side of Queen Street just up from Victoria Street, right opposite (the then) Amalgamated Theatres’ Head Office.

Sunday Screenings

When I first joined the Civic there was controversy about showing movies on Sundays and other “days of observance”. The Civic had two Sunday sessions for some time: aging movies, different titles to those shown Monday through Saturday, sessions at 2pm and 8.15pm. Auckland’s combined clergy, through their Association, successfully held out for Sunday night sessions not to begin before 8.15 – I presume to give churchgoers to evensong services time to travel to cinemas in time for the movies.  For years the clergy maintained that movies should have a “General Exhibition” Censor’s Certificate – “suitable for universal exhibition, for all ages”.  But that broke down. If my memory serves me, the Civic was the only downtown cinema open on Sundays in the early 1960s.

And when it came to Anzac Day, 1964, there were two sessions of the regular week-day show, “The Prize”, right at the end of its long run. In days gone by concerts and movies on Anzac night held in the Civic all benefitted members of the Returned Servicemen’s Association:  the Civic was chosen to host the Auckland City Council’s official municipal Anzac night function.

Other Managers

While the Civic was the main-stay, Amalgamated Theatres Limited had other Queen Street theatres. I should mention from time to time I had contact with their managers… either they relieved Hector on a rare day off, they sometimes sought coins because they had run out of money to give as change or, rather more occasionally, they would pop in for a brief social visit.

From the bottom of town, Jimmy Beavis managed the Oxford, Vic Hutter (later Ted Patton) was at the Century, Jim Downie (later Brian O’Halloran) ran the Plaza and Mr Brown had the Cinerama.

Most had been with the firm for many years. To me, they were of the “old school”, one or two known as set in their ways. Like the one who, soon after I had left the Civic, liked an early evening tipple but overdid it the very night there was a grand premiere at his theatre and ended up losing his job: he had insulted the Mayoress as he welcomed her to the cinema.

And to complete the snapshot, Amalgamated had these other Auckland theatres at that time with those managers as I can now recall.

Tivoli, Karangahape Road (near Grafton Bridge corner): Avon, Newton, managed by Jimmy Beavis for a time, (Great North Road opposite Ford, John W Andrews): Rialto, Newmarket (Broadway opposite the Post Office): Lido, Epsom, Colin Broadley (Regent as-was, Manukau Road near Green Lane): Crystal Palace, Mt Eden (opposite Windmill Road); Princess, Dominion Road, Malcolm Williamson, (Mt Eden): State, Onehunga , Ray Bell, (upper Queen Street now the Mall): State, Devonport, Bill Sayegh, (top of the village): State, Greenlane, Leo Kenny, vice Regent Epsom (Green Lane East where McDonalds now is).

Head Office

These managers, both city and suburban, would regularly visit the Head Office of  Amalgamated Theatres Limited situated on Queen Street in premises above Jaffe’s Menswear… more or less opposite 246 Queen Street which, ironically was Head Office for Kerridge Odeon, owners of New Zealand’s other chain of cinemas.

Managers would submit their various documents, pick up any internal company mail, perhaps have a chat with Business Manager Michael (Mick) Sayegh, swap advertising slides and gather up posters and photos. This publicity material was used out front of each theatre to advertise movies, and was used over and over again. Reg Weedon, the storeman, kept copious supplies of this advertising material in the basement underneath Head Office, the entrance (appropriately) off Theatre Lane, now long gone. Reg ran it a bit like an exchange. Managers brought in last week’s material, swapping it for their upcoming programmes. Occasionally, when titles were being shown at many cinemas at once there would be a shortage of photos and posters. There was then extra effort as Reg “topped up” his stocks from the relevant film company.

Bringing in the slide box was a weekly chore for managers. The box contained the advertising slides shown on screen before the movies and at interval. This weekly check by Frank McMilllan and his team at the subsidiary company, Dominion Screens Limited, meant they were all up to date so the advertisers were invoiced appropriately, that the slides were clean and not scratched. Each manager returned his box to the cinema the same day, ready for the next session.

Any anomalies with accounts, ticketing, banking etc would be addressed by Johnny Petit, or if it was really serious, by the accountant Richard (Dick) B. Bartleet or the Company Secretary R. (Bert) H. Allen. Thursdays, Mr Bartleet was not to be interrupted as he counted out the notes and coins appropriate to each salaried staff-member in Head Office. His desk would be covered in money, pay-slips and envelopes as he sorted out each payment, pushed it into the pay-packet and sealed it.

Occasionally he would get an urgent call to see to some other pressing matter while he was busy at this task. It became a security issue, and I am sure senior staff connived on the day it was decided to give the company accountant a wake-up about the need for security and confidentiality surrounding pay.

So this day while he was out of the office on other urgent affairs and with the door wide open, it was agreed one of the seniors would carefully gather up all the notes and coins along with the envelopes and hide them. Remarkably Dick did not notice anything wrong when he returned to his office: he had forgotten all about the wages. It was not until late morning when a staff member, as arranged, asked Dick if the pay was going to be ready, as usual, in time for the lunchtime break. Dick suddenly realised he had totally dropped the ball, that he had forgotten the wages and now the money had disappeared, probably stolen from his desk in his absence. Now, everyone in the office was going to know about it. Panic peaked, and the police were about to be called. (The conjecture was someone had slipped in, unnoticed, through the  back door from Theatre Lane and taken the lot). Just when things were about to boil over Dick was told that a clerk had cleared away the cash with best intentions for safe-keeping… and here it was, all he cash, and he could now resume the pay-out on schedule. After that Dick locked himself in his office while making up the wage packets and did not leave his desk under any circumstances until the task was complete!

Each Thursday the managers of Auckland cinemas collected the pay from Head Office for those they employed and it was up to each of them to count the notes and coins, pop the money into pay-packets and hand it to staff-members.

Projection

In my time there were 2 projectionists who had been with the Civic for some time: Herbie Freeman and Dick Barr. They took turns, 2 sessions each day: either 11am and 2pm or 5pm and 8pm. I think they alternated the early and late sessions week about: Sunday movies, just afternoon and evening, providing the switch-over.  There was usually a young trainee-projectionist to assist: Peter Wright was one who trained as a projectionist – and then got a sole-operator position with the opposition!

Just before my time it was a matter of course that all projectionists had to hold a licence to operate which meant they had served their time learning the business, had passed examinations and proved to an inspector they were competent. The Union contested the dropping of qualifications and at one stage said its members would only work with those who held a licence. But with licensing abandoned the industry soon opened up to those seeking positions as projectionists. And later, of course, with new technology there was no longer need to know about projectors, film, the sound system, amplification and lenses… it was digitised and run by computer.

Civic’s projection room
Auckland Museum, MOTAT

The projectionist, whether it was Herbie or Dick, remained captive in the projection room for the duration of the movie. They would usually come down to the ground floor office for a chat between sessions. Discussions usually centred on whether the movie for the next feature, or Sunday’s films, had arrived at the Civic. Both projectionists liked to get the films well ahead of time so they could take them up to the projection room for checking. First-run features were often new prints so had to be checked… and perhaps lightly waxed to help them through the Civic’s projectors. Sunday night movies were usually titles that had done the rounds of city, suburban and provincial cinemas, and they definitely had to be tested for breaks, poor joins or “oiliness”, a coating of oil sticking to the film picked up as it has repeatedly passed through older, often well-greased, projectors on the circuit.

The projection room, or projection box as it was more often called, was well ventilated and had exhaust pipes from the top of the machines to the open air. These conveyed the hot, toxic gases given off by the process of burning the carbon-arcs which ignited white-hot, producing the intense incandescent light enabling the image to be projected to the screen. In the Civic’s case the projectors were at a steep angle to reach the screen below, the “throw” to the screen was one of the longest in New Zealand. There were other dangers – the arcs gave off intense heat with its inherent fire risk and the rays were blinding, injurious to the human eye.

Here’s a good time to tell the story of a first-release film, “Woman of Summer” (1963 -Joanne Woodward, Carol Lynley, Claire Trevor, Robert Webber, Richard Beymer) and the problems it gave to both the Civic’s projectionist and sign-writer.

The film was meant to showcase two Fox contract stars, Marilyn Monroe and Pat Boone, but with Monroe dying in 1962 and Boone turning down the film on moral grounds, the movie struck the first of its problems. There was another setback when the title was changed in late 1963. In this part of the world the name “The Stripper” was adjudged too risqué in “the more sensitive” Australasian market. Advance publicity material – billboards, photos, newspaper advertisements and posters had earlier been released by the Censor in Wellington, Doug McIntosh. He ordered that most of the images on the material had to be changed, toned down. One of his requirements, in addition to agreeing with the change of title to “Woman of Summer”, was the retro-painting of “more balloons” to cover the dancer’s naked flesh before the images could be seen in public.

In New Zealand it was “Woman of Summer” with more balloons to cover up,
moviegoods.com

I recall seeing the blue pencil marks, drawn by Doug McIntosh himself, on the poster indicating the painting-over he required. Ralph, the sign-writer had a lot of work to do, painting out the old title, giving the film its new name and then painting balloons!

But where was the film itself? It was eagerly awaited at the Civic… but there was no sign of it. Here it was mid-week and with its first showing on Friday morning, projectionists were anxious. Enquiries revealed it was “being returned from the Censor’s office”. The delay indicated that the Censor had  some difficulty deciding if there should be any cuts in the name of public decency. And then, at last, word that it would be arrive on the train from Wellington which pulled into Auckland station at eight o’ clock on Friday morning. The film would be rushed to the Civic, the projectionist would come in early to deal with the quick turnaround, rapidly inspecting and making it ready just in time for the 11am session. Fortunately the train was on time, the carrier was on the platform to take delivery and get it to the Civic. Reel by reel it was delivered to Herbie Freeman in the projection room. A little later there was a call on the inter-phone from Herbie. “Missing a reel up here, bring up reel 5, send it up. I need it right now to have a look at because there was a break near the beginning of reel 6 and I may need to make a splice”. By now it’s approaching 10am, one hour before the first session. I looked in the cans in which the film had been transported. Empty.

“Herbie, there are no more reels, we’ve searched, the cans are empty. Sure you haven’t got Reel 5 up there with you?”

It was the classic case of being “one reel short of a feature film”. Urgent inquiries were made through Amalgamated’s Head Office without any light being shone on the problem. Hector rang the Censor, Doug McIntosh, in Wellington with a person-to-person call. The conversation went something like this …
Hector Olsen: “We’re missing Reel 5 of “The Woman of Summer”, due to hit the screen in 50 minutes. Maybe it’s lost? Maybe you didn’t send it? Any idea where it might be?”

Doug McIntosh: “Yes, it’s here. And staying here. It’s on the cutting room floor where it belongs. I made so many excisions in Reel 5 I’ve ruled out the whole reel. The few feet I did allow you will find have been attached to reel 6!”

Douglas McIntosh “Yes, it’s here, I have it!” Evening Post – National Library of New Zealand

This explained Herbie’s earlier discovery of a join at the beginning of reel 6. The Censor had thus cut some 1,000 feet (300m) from the movie.

Herbie re-numbered the reels to prevent confusion and the 11am session got underway. Thanks to the Censor’s cut it ended about 10 minutes earlier than we originally thought! Some patrons said they could not follow the plot – some vital elements of the story-line seemed to be missing! The film had just a one-week season at the Civic.

The assistant projectionist was responsible for showing the advertising slides before the session began and at interval. Dozens of slides were shown each session, refreshed weekly and most featured local advertisers, along with slides advertising upcoming movies at Amalgamated’s city cinemas plus the obligatory public safety message “Note your nearest Exit in case of emergency”. Sometimes “No Smoking” signs were shown but never, I noted, when we showed an advertising film for cigarettes, notably Peter Stuyvesant – “your international passport to smoking pleasure!”

With the beginning of the slides it was Herbie or Dick’s cue to make their way up to the projection box. They would go up the main staircase as far as the Circle and then by pressing a panel in the wall they would open a door that led into a passage that took them, via the fire exit, up to the projection box.

Both Herbie and Dick were sticklers for starting on time: reluctant to hold the show at Hector Olsen’s occasional request because of immense crowds. “Give us 10 minutes to get ‘em in!” he would call down the inter-phone and then go off to organise the crowds at the front-of-house, corralling patrons to the box office and then on into the theatre to their seats.  Hector would then give the signal on the inter-phone and the session would start.

The Patrons

The Civic showed mostly first-run feature movies which were popular with regular theatre-goers and impulse viewers alike. Then there was the Civic’s capacity of around 2,000. Put into the mix a blockbuster movie shown during the school holidays, when movies were especially popular family fare, and you have thousands of patrons passing through the place on any one day.

Prior to 11am and 2pm sessions the queues would be practically around the block, surrounding the Civic on all sides: certainly they would stretch up Queen Street to as far as Atwater’s building one way, and on the other side up Wellesley Street to the Bledisloe Building.

I recall “Nikki, Wild Dog of the North”, “It Happened at the World’s Fair’ (Elvis Presley), “The Castaways”, “Flipper” and “Love in Las Vegas (Elvis Presley again) all attracted huge school holiday crowds and films at other times which also had queues around the block were “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “Move Over Darling”, “The VIPs” and “Bon Voyage”, the last of which cashed in on Fred MacMurray’s starring role: he had become a well-known TV star after a long movie career. So in this case the movie industry, suffering at the box office because of the popularity of the small square box,  leveraged off TV!

Patient patrons queued: extra cashiers were employed in the ticket boxes at these times to speed the selling, trying to ensure everyone was in on time before the theatre darkened and the first half started. At interval there was a mad rush by hundreds of people from the theatre. We knew that for  some patrons it was a short walk across to the other Civic, the Civic Tavern, right opposite the theatre, for something stronger than orange juice. It was always a hurry to get a full house back inside within the 10 minutes, ready for the feature. Sometimes a few house lights were left on to assist late-comers find their seats, the lights extinguished after the credits ran through or once the storyline-proper began.

And then there was always a rush when there were full houses to make the changeover from one session to another. We would encourage patrons to use emergency exits so they avoided the crowds at the front entrance waiting to get in. Extra cleaners were on hand to quickly give the place a once-ver. Selling sometimes began before the first session ended, queues waiting in the foyer and on the stairs for the “all clear” immediately cleaners had finished. With the movie “The Prize” the turn-around between sessions had to doubly quick. The film was so long – original cut was 134 minutes – it was just possible to squeeze in the usual 4 sessions a day, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm.

Over the years we had patrons who got lost in the theatre, kids separated from mother. Some patrons were sick, some fainted or had heart attacks. Some lost their personal belongings (or had them stolen by other patrons). Others complained about their seat, the sightline to the screen or of a woman with a big hat blocking their view. Sometimes there was objection to the behaviour of others around them. Some found fault with the movie itself. Some only had themselves to blame, like the sailor in uniform who was a patron one Saturday night in the last row, high in the Back Circle. The first half had not long begun. An usher was sitting on the step and became aware of a conversation between two women that she was overhearing and was about to stop.

“There’s no roof in this place, you know!” one woman said to the other

“Yes there is, it’s a false sky and clouds” was the reply.

“No really, I had no idea, there is no roof, and it’s all open, look at the sky!”

“Well, if there was no roof we’d be getting wet ‘cos it’s raining outside”

“But I am getting wet!!!!”

Whereupon the usher looked behind her, and the women, to see a sailor just ending his urinating into the back aisle, the splashes bouncing on to the unfortunate woman.

The usher summoned help and the sailor, with his 2 mates, were ejected from the theatre. The woman was assisted and given money for dry cleaning her clothes and complimentary passes to the Civic. The story ended when the 3 sailors, under escort, returned on Monday morning, ordered to mop out the whole of the Back Circle. Affected by drink, they were apparently overheard by an Officer boasting their ejection from the Civic, and the reason for it, and he put them on charge. They returned to the Civic to carry out their sentence. Charlie Groves, the caretaker, supplied buckets and mops.

Life and Death

While I worked at the theatre there was one death and one birth.

It was May school holidays and the queues were lined up from the ticket boxes… up Queen Street one way, along Wellesley Street the other.  The attraction was Walt Disney’s “Nikki, Wild Dog of the North” and big crowds had turned out for the 11 o’clock session.

Ticket selling was in full swing, the entrance and foyer was crowded with family groups. Then a message was relayed that a man had collapsed in the entrance, right by the doors leading in from the street. Hector Olsen and I went to investigate. The man was in bad way, motionless and insensible. The ambulance was called for. First aiders offered to assist and said it looked like a fatal heart attack. The patient could hardly be treated in the crowded lobby… and if he had passed away there would be enquiries. Hector made the decision to stop selling and those patrons in the lobby were moved outside in their original queue order. We shut the outside doors.

A beat policeman arrived and while he wasn’t keen to move the man he was soon distracted talking with the man’s wife and family. Hector had me direct them to the privacy of his office. The ambulance arrived and the officer soon reiterated what first aiders had said. Hector asked if they could remove the man to the ambulance, and, thankfully, this was agreed. He was discreetly taken on a stretcher from the foyer to the ambulance. Onlookers would not know he had died, no doubt they hoped for the best for the man. We reopened the front doors and resumed ticket-selling. With such long queues, and the disruption, Hector decided to delay the start of the session, but time would have to be made up somehow, otherwise the 11am session would not end in time to manage the audience out of the theatre and the 2pm crowds in.  Hector spoke to the projectionist. Dropping the first item, a travelogue, would gain nearly 15 minutes, and it was agreed to catch up in this way. We sent ushers along the queues advising patrons of the later start, thus satisfying their concerns.

There was one birth in the Civic in my time – a patron delivered of a premature son in the cross-aisle at the rear of the stalls. The high partition meant this was out of sight of the audience… a doctor assisted before the ambulance arrived.

“ ’Gonna tell on you!”

“In Search of the Castaways” was a Disney hit with a great line-up… it starred Haley Mill, Maurice Chevalier, George Sanders, Wlifred Hyde-White and Wilfred Brambell, plus teenage stars… showing during the Christmas school holidays. As Hector would put it: “there were queues around the block”, for both the 11am and 2pm sessions, day after day.

I can’t remember the incident but I was called to the ticket box in the height of the rush to sort out some difference of opinion or another which was holding up ticket-selling. In my haste to settle matters and get sales going again, I might have been a bit brusque and while the woman concerned was happy with the outcome of our brief and hurried encounter, she questioned my approach. I apologised but she wasn’t having any of it. “Straight after the movie,” she authoritatively announced, pointing at me, “I am going down Queen Street to Head Office and I am going to report your bad behaviour! Now, what do you think about that? I know where Sir Robert’s office is and I’m sure he would like to know about you and the way you treat patrons!”

I could see she was what I call “a no nonsense type of woman” and was going to do as she intended. Much to her surprise I replied that, of course, I had no worry if she complained about me… and I encouraged her to do so. “You must take your complaint to the top, don’t wait. I am sure Sir Robert will want to hear your complaint… don’t delay … and If needs be, I will have to answer to him!”

Truth was, the Civic was an Amalgamated theatre. She was intent on taking her complaint to Sir Robert, Sir Robert Kerridge, head of the competing chain of cinemas, Kerridge Odeon. I am sure Sir Robert would have been just as bemused at the woman’s complaint as we were that she was going to the wrong Head Office! I heard nothing more!

Civic Wishing Vase

Visitors frequently came to the Civic, not to see the movies but to make a wish at a special vase in the theatre foyer, just outside the then Manager’s Office. The earthenware vase stood about 3 feet (1m) with the God of Wisdom, Ganesha, central to its the decorations. The four-armed elephant-headed symbol looks weird to the uninitiated. This God of Wisdom adorned the  wishing vase, “calculated to portend the good luck ascribed to it by its mighty potentates”, as an explanation read which was issued to coincide with the opening of the theatre*. “Ganesha…” the text continued, “…is the name given to this Bengal symbol, reputed to be the ancient son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesha was not blessed with an easy life but developed great wisdom, was a charmer of serpents, consultant of the Wise and, as his decorations indicate, deity who could be consulted with confidence for human inspiration and protection in all manner of things”.

In my time at the Civic hardly a day went by without believers approaching the vase to touch it and make their wish.

Auckland Star supplement December 14th 1929

Ice Creams, Chocolates and Sweets

Civic patrons were well catered-for with a ice cream and a choice of confections on sale at the small shops within the premises. This was a separate, privately-run business within the theatre and owner Tom Bluett (later Mr Findlay) also had the shop in the Century Theatre. They had sole-rights for this kind of merchandise within the cinemas.

The main shop at the Civic was on the ground floor in the front lobby and there was another on the first floor in the lounge area. The ground floor shop was open every Civic session, while upstairs was staffed only as required, depending on the attendance. In addition to the shop there were “ice cream boys”, vendors, selling ice creams either delivered to patrons where they were seated in the auditorium or, for full houses, additional sellers were stationed in the lobbies. Because of the huge demand during the 10 minute interval, it was necessary to pre-roll hundreds of ice creams and keep them chilled until required. Mrs Mack, Mrs Ford, Mrs Joyce Tobin  and later Mrs Lorraine Findlay, who managed these operations at the Civic would oversee sufficient stocks were on hand… and during busy school holidays they would complain of sore wrists having rolled so may ice creams into their cones. And they would have assistants at the upstairs shop doing the same: stocking up the fridges with ice creams for the boys’ trays and ready for the almighty rush when interval arrived!  By some special (commercial) arrangement only “Meadow Gold” vanilla ice cream was stocked: it was the same in all Amalgamated ‘s Auckland theatres.

The shops also sold orange drink: Jaffas, the orange-encrusted chocolate sweets, were the most popular.

Two best sellers

Special Events – “Raise the barge…”

There were 3 special events I recall for which the barge, or gondola, was deployed. Without the electric motors and hydraulics, it was quite a task to manually wind the barge from its “hiding place” beneath the stage to its fully raised position nearly level with the stage. As mentioned, the barge was big enough to accommodate a small orchestra or full dance band on its distinctive black and white tiles. It afforded an “apron stage” for presentations right “out front”. Amalgamated’s engineer… Frank Sparks and assistants Norm Hadrup and Ray Bullen had to be on-site to organise the tricky business of raising the barge.

Civic stalls with gondola barge (right) and organ. Archives N.Z.

The first event was the three day International Convention of Jehovah Witnesses in August 1963. Those attending had the run of the Civic… addresses to delegates took place on the barge and so did role-playing scenarios and entertainment.

Roleplaying included how to introduce unbelievers to the Church’s magazine
Jehovah’s Witness Watch Tower Society

These folk do not stand for the national Anthem – I thought it ironic they were holding their convention in the same place where “God Save the Queen” had been heard more than anywhere else! Kitchens and an enormous canteen were set up in the Wintergarden to feed and refresh the hundreds of delegates. As soon as the Convention was over we immediately got the Civic back to normal – it was school holidays and Elvis hit the screen in “It Happened at the World’s Fair” for a fortnight’s season.

The second event was in March 1966 (after my time at the Civic) for the concert by the Rolling Stones. I expect entrepreneur promoter Harry M. Miller chose the Civic because of its capacity: more seats than the Town Hall where the Beatles had performed in 1964.

Programme for the Stones’ Civic Concert

I went into the auditorium to have a look at the set-up on the afternoon of the performance and was amazed by the network of lights and sound gear. There were two concerts on the same night, both sell-outs.

Oddly, there was a vague connection between the two events. About the time of the Jehovah Witness Conference old shops and Chinese restaurants were being demolished at the foot of Greys Avenue to make way for the present Aotea Square and (the then) new Civic Administration Building.  The old buildings were rat-infested, the rodents displaced as demolition gangs moved in.

Rats on the move happened across the temporary kitchen and facilities set up in the Civic Wintergarden for the Conference. Each morning of the 3 day event there was much evidence of the night-time visitors. Plague proportions developed and pest exterminators were called in to mount an all-out campaign – poison, traps and sticky pads.

It was obvious the rats were still around 3 years later when the Rolling Stones were at the Civic. It’s said that between the Stones’ concerts fish and chips were offered to the visiting quintet. Mick Jagger declined, but was persuaded when he was told that “these are real fish and chips not the soggy style he was used to in England” and the food was served in the Wintergarden. Recalling the incident one of the travelling party said Mick was impressed with the Kiwi fish and chips… and spent some time feeding chips to the rats in the basement.

The third occasion on which the barge was lifted was also after my time: it was raised for a gala premiere of the local feature film “Don’t Let it Get You”, produced by John O’Shea for Pacific Films in 1966.

Audioculture

It was basically a musical/comedy romance but the storyline incorporated venues and characters to fit in a crowd of musical talent like the Howard Morrison Quartet, Kiri Te Kanawa, Quin Tikis, Keil Isles and Lew Pryme.  Australian pop-star Normie Rowe had a cameo role at a time when he was at the height of his popularity. The movie was black and white and had but a short season at the Civic.    

 The Civic Shops

I can’t recall all 10 shops within the Civic building but the most popular one, by far, was right next door on the Wellesley Street West frontage, the cafeteria. A cup of tea was 1penny and coffee tuppence with biscuits and scones a little extra. At these rates it was seldom we at the Civic prepared tea or coffee during the day… it was far cheaper and more convenient to buy at the shop!

Shops along the Wellesley Street West frontage
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 345 85 233A

The cafeteria was right next to the Civic’s main door (left in the photo, behind the bus). The other premises included an optician, a clothier and at the corner of Bledisloe Street (centre) there was a coffee lounge, once operated by Civic Manager, Hector Olsen and his wife. To the right of the coffee bar were entrances to a small cinema used by the Moodabes to preview upcoming movies and also offices for the American movie company, RKO: Bill Milligan, manager.  Bledisloe Street, along the side of the Civic was later closed to make way for a government building – today the space is shared to create a Stage Door for the Civic, added in most recent renovations.

The Queen Street frontage,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 345 85 233A

In my day the shop next to the cinema’s main doors on Queen Street specialised in layettes, baby clothes and infant’s outfits. The other 4 shops in the block extended up Queen Street to Tanfield Potter’s shop, the edge of it just discernible on the left of the above photo.

Today, the famous Civic dancer, Freda Stark, is recalled by the name of the coffee/wine bar in shop next to the Civic’s main entrance.

Clifton Firth’s artistic study of Freda Stark, 1947
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-409

Beneath the shops Amalgamated let out a huge area, access from Wellesley Street West, in my time occupied by the TAB’s betting shop and offices.

It was part of my job to collect rents from those tenants who paid weekly by cheque or cash, to provide them receipts and then balance at month’s end.

Departure

I left the Civic in October 1964 when Amalgamated’s Business Manager, Mick Sayegh, asked me to “go on circuit” relieving managers for their holidays or, in 2 cases, temporarily taking over from managers who had been relieved of their duties. This position took me all over New Zealand with a prolonged period in Dargaville, of all places, replacing a manager recuperating from heart condition.

Some managers could not believe it when confronted with this callow youth Head Office had sent to take over and with some justification – Mick Sayegh told me I was the youngest ever to be given the position.

After a time I left Amalgamated Theatres Limited to join the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s fledgling News Service and sometime later, July 1965, I found that my contract position in the newsroom allowed me to also manage the Lido Cinema at Epsom. I subsequently gave away the Lido, joining NZBC News as a fulltime staff member. My career in broadcasting with NZBC, TV2 and TVNZ spanned 44 years until retirement.

Born Again

There were rumours in the 1970s that because the Civic’s lease with the Auckland City Council was expiring, the theatre complex might be demolished to make way for high-rise offices or a hotel. Fortunately, rumour was dispelled when it was decided to give the theatre new life: a general make-over, earthquake-strengthening and additional facilities. Importantly, it was a conservation-based project, designed to protect the iconic building as a heritage asset but at the same time to “future proof” it to ensure widest possible public use… stage shows, movies, pop-concerts, receptions. Work, led by Auckland City Council, began in the planning stages in the 1970s and physically  got  underway in the late 1990s. The revived, modernised-yet-preserved, showplace reopened on its 70th anniversary, 20th December, 1999, at a cost of more than $40 million.

The auditorium after the theatre’s complete make-over, 1999
New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage

Back-stage, the most modern staging, electrics, lighting grid and scenery flies were included, together with dressing rooms and a new Stage Door in what was Bledisloe Street.

Renovated main foyer. David Lawrence, Stuff

Bars were built-in, furnishings redone, ailing plaster-work repaired, and the whole place redecorated to highlight the spirit of the original atmospheric look. The sky in the giant dome was refurbished: the stars were replaced with LEDs, mapped to astronomical authenticity with a prominent Southern Cross, and a shooting star, meteor, was added. Modern projection and state-of-the art sound systems were provided. It has been a Heritage New Zealand Category 1 Historic Place since 1985.

RCC 2020

Sources

J.C. Williamson National Library of Australia www.nla.gov.au

“Peanuts and Pictures: The Life and Times of M.J. Moodabe”, Michael Moodabe, Junior, 2000

Screen New Zealand

New Zealand Herald, Saturday December 12 1973, “One of the Old Breed”, D. W. Lochore

Papers Past – National Libraries of New Zealand

Exhibitors’ Record, Cinematographic Films Act 1928, R. Carlyon

More re renovation:engineering.org.nz