Epsom’s Cinema… from silent “flicks” to loud avant-garde

Epsom’s Regent Theatre at 427 Manukau Road, near the Greenlane West intersection, opened in the mid-1920s and closed in the early 1960s only to reopen as the upmarket Lido Continental Cinema. It remains, though greatly changed after several make-overs to create boutique theatres.  


The Regent was planned and built by joint owners, Lawrence Henley, his wife May and her 2 sisters on land which had been the scene of a major fire in 1915. Seven shops, some with accommodation above, were destroyed in the blaze leaving vacant land between Alba Road and Queen Mary Avenue: the new theatre would fill something like half the frontage available.

The fire left a big gap on Manukau Road’s frontage
G .A. Walker, Auckland Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150304-50-6

The Regent Opens

The Regent opened on July 29th 1924, as the most luxurious local cinema of the day. The seats, carpets and décor were unequalled in suburban Auckland and its popularity was proven from opening night, with many more patrons in the queue than could be accommodated in its 900 seats.

Officially opening the cinema, local resident and politician Gideon Lawrence Taylor, said the Regent was a building of which local residents might be justly proud. He described it as “one of the best-designed picture-houses in the city where patrons enjoyed more space per person than they would in any other theatre – four and a third square feet was allotted for each”. Mr. Taylor congratulated Messrs Turner and Ford, the lessees, on their fine addition to the district.

The curtain then opened that first evening on Ivor Novello and Gladys Cooper starring in The Bohemian Girl, complete with an orchestra providing the accompaniment to the silent movie.

(This show, dubbed the “sweetest romance ever screened”, was supposed to be the financial saviour for its U.K. makers, Alliance, but despite very good box office returns Bohemian Girl could not save the company from collapse. It was “The End” for Alliance.)

In September 1925 Messrs Turner and Ford mixed live action with the movies for a time, devoting mid-week evenings to talent quests, or as they advertised it, “Giant Amateur Trials”  and “Vaudeville Trials” with worthwhile prize money. In 1927 some nights were given over to live acts: selected artists from Fullers Theatre in the city appearing at the suburban venue complete with the 7-piece “Regent Orchestra”.

In May 1927 patrons were advised there had been a change of manager at the Regent, “whose aim is to cater for the wants of the picture-loving people of the district in such a manner that will warrant them good entertainment with the least possible inconvenience.  Select programmes for a select suburb”.

Thomas A. O’Brien

The reference about a new manager may have been that notable Australian showman, Thomas O’Brien who came to Epsom and took over the Regent Epsom for a year or two in the late twenties. Earlier he had been employed in the industry but soon branched out on his own leasing or buying theatres, first in Dunedin and then moving on to Auckland where he operated many cinemas in his name. The jewel in the O’Brien chain was to be the Civic, Auckland, which he had built and opened in 1929., and was at the time the country’s largest cinema, invariably advertised as the “Showplace of New Zealand” or “The Dominion’s Greatest Theatre”. Much more than a cinema, the Civic had a stage with full lighting, a barge which rose up from the basement into the auditorium, complete with a 30-piece orchestra, a Wurlitzer organ and, on the lower floor, the Wintergarden tearooms and cabaret. The theatre’s “sky” effects with moon, twinkling stars and clouds were its decor hallmark.

As the economic depression in the late 1920s began to hit, Regent Epsom was one of the theatres to hold a “Benefit Carnival” with proceeds going to assist families of the unemployed. To save costs newspaper advertisements were reduced to one or two-liners – just the name of the cinema and the title of the movie showing. Larger advertisements, with Regent’s phone number for the first time, resumed in mid-1928. Invariably the Rialto Newmarket and the Regent Epsom had the same, concurrent, attractions so they shared advertising space in both the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Star.

However, the 1930s depression put O’Brien out of business: his bankruptcy estate had a deficiency of some £58,000.

The Moodabe Era and Talkies

Amalgamated Theatres Limited took over some of his cinemas, though the company, soon to be led by the Moodabe brothers Michael and Joseph, had by this time already leased the Regent, Epsom from the owners, Henleys.  The company announced in May 1930 that it had added the theatre to its chain and was installing “the latest American talking equipment because the suburb is important enough to have its own talking theatre”. The first “talkie” was shown on 31st May 1930, Atlantic starring Franklin Dyall, Madeleine Carroll and John Stuart.

Accompanying publicity advised “…the public will have the opportunity of hearing the purest English spoken in an epic of the sea, the wreck of the Titanic in 1912… ….the great liner is seen to strike an iceberg, the passengers are hastily removed to the boats, but when these are all away there are still numerous souls on board, the equipment being insufficient for all. There will be a full programme of talking featurettes”.

From June 26th 1930 Amalgamated re-branded the cinema New Regent Epsom although not all advertising copy included the “new look”. The company took over the Civic in 1934.

Michael J. Moodabe, Governing Director, Amalgamated Theatres Ltd
Auckland Museum Collection

An innovation was the introduction of “two for one nights”, a scheme which allowed two patrons to see selected sessions for the price of one ticket. This generated much-needed revenue for the theatre and for a couple of hours provided audiences with an entertaining escape from the harsh reality of those straitened times. The promotion continued into the war years.

Another innovation was choice of movies specially suitable for children and screened at matinees on Saturday afternoons. They were advertised as “Young Children’s Hearts will be kept Happy and Clean at Special Children’s Matinees To-morrow at the following Amalgamated Theatres…”

The Regent boasted central heating from the winter of 1937 and deaf-aids for hard of hearing patrons from 1940.

 War Years

The spread of World War 2 to the Pacific prompted another kind of film to be screened at the behest of the Fire Controller in March 1942. “Incendiary Bombs” was a short illustrated movie showing how best to deal with incendiaries should they be used by the enemy. And later in the war New Zealand troops in action overseas were shown in newsreels, the footages shot on location by the Government’s publicity unit.

Occasionally the Regent was without movies for a night or two. Labour Party candidates often addressed local constituents at the cinema in the lead up to an election and Christian services were held in war-time, one aptly named “The Menace of Japan”. Pastor S. M. Uttley would, advertisements said, reveal amazing bible facts about the Orientals.

In early 1943 Aucklanders had a wide choice of entertainment at the cinema – there were some 43 operating in the city and suburbs.

During the war years the Regent Epsom was a favourite with American servicemen stationed at US military’s 4th General Hospital in Cornwall Park. Mr Lou Smith had the sub-lease at this time but had to relinquish the arrangement when he was called up on active service. Amalgamated Theatres Limited took over the lease and in the late 1940’s the Regent had a major renovation. The seats were re-upholstered, new red and gold carpets laid and the restrooms updated.

 My Uncle Pat – Regent’s Fireman     

When I first visited the Regent in the early 1950s my Uncle Cyril (Pat) Carlyon worked there part-time as Fireman/Doorman. In those days all cinemas and theatres were classified “places of public assembly” and had to have a designated member of staff as Fireman to ensure there was no overcrowding and that there was an orderly evacuation in case of emergency.

Theatre Firemen ensured all Exits Doors were lit.
Rialto Theatre, Capetown

In cinemas the danger was in the “celluloid” itself, the film was made of nitrate-based material which was highly flammable. Hence, in all cinemas the projection boxes and the vaults where film was stored had to be fire-proof.

“Safety film” later replaced the nitrate stuff, with much less risk of fire.

Local pals and I were regular patrons of the 1.45pm Saturday matinee at the Regent, usually a movie specially selected for kids, different to the Saturday 4.45 and evening sessions which were for the grown-ups.

Some kids arrived at the Regent on their bikes. These were parked in the alleyways either side of the theatre, and chained and locked to a post or to the building’s convenient cast iron down-pipes. You always removed your tyre-pump from the bike and took it with you into the theatre for fear it would disappear while you were away. Parents in post-war family cars brought other young patrons, dropping them off outside the theatre. It was considered most “un-cool” for grown-ups to accompany kids to the matinee session.

Even though Uncle Pat was on the door, I preferred to do my own thing so I could accompany my mates. This meant paying 9d (9c) admission for a seat in the rear stalls.

There were cheaper seats down the front but even in those times there was something of a social divide: that section was for the “poor kids”. Most of us wouldn’t be seen dead in the front stalls. Besides, it was rumoured, sitting so close to the screen “ruined your eyesight”. 1/-  (a shilling, or 10c these days) was my weekly budget from meagre pocket-money for the movies… 9d to get in and 3d for a few sweets, a sherbet dab or chocolate covered marshmallow known as a Buzz Bar. If I had a few pence more I might buy an ice cream. An absolute extravagance would be an ice cream dipped in liquid chocolate.

Jaffas, Goodies and Baddies

I can’t recall much misbehaviour during the kids’ sessions, apart from the rascals who used to think it worthwhile enough to waste some of their precious Jaffas, marble-like sweets, by rolling them down the floor in a quiet or tense moment in the film.

Jaffas, sweet combination of orange and chocolate

But cheering on the “goodies” and booing the “baddies” was allowed, and all part of it. Beams from ushers’ torches would quickly pinpoint anyone overdoing it, or caught standing on the seats. That was a no-no. A “blackout” was calculated as just cause for shouts, stomping and wolf-whistles. Inattention by the projectionist, or a splice in the film parting, occasionally resulted in a breakdown resulting in a pitch black auditorium, and the longer the interruption, the noisier the young crowd became. I recall that one afternoon something serious must have gone wrong in the projection box. There was an extraordinarily long break and youthful protests reached such a crescendo that the house lights were turned on. The manager appeared in the auditorium at one of the exit doors, Uncle Pat at the other. Both men had the looks of a stern headmaster, easily conveying the message that if any of the kids overdid it they would be sent home. There was great relief all around when finally the house lights dimmed and it was on with the show.

Each matinee session began with a sound recording, without pictures, of the National Anthem, God Save the Queen, and everyone was expected to stand up for it. Other sessions had the anthem on the sound track of a very well-used, scratchy film showing shots of the Queen during her Coronation and, side-saddle, mounted on a big, placid, black horse during Trooping the Colour.

The matinee usually opened with a slightly dated Fox-Movietone Newsreel, (showing mostly events in Australian and a few elsewhere).

Topics in the news were dated and mostly Australian-
this item recorded the arrival of post-war immigrants
Australia Broadcasting Corporation

There just had to be a cartoon or two (greeted with cheers of welcome), sometimes a well-worn James A. Fitzgerald travelogue which you could always tell was ending when you saw a picture of a sunset accompanied by the memorable commentary “…and as the sun sets slowly in the West, we say a fond farewell to….”

Serials and Half-time

This was often also the signal for the audience to give a rousing welcome for the latest episode of the weekly serial. These seemed to be mostly in 10 parts, “Spider Man” was popular, so were Al Capone-type gangster yarns, both a relief from a string of Western serials.

And no matter if you didn’t see the previous Saturday’s episode, or couldn’t recall exactly where it left off, at the start of each installment there was always a quick reprise of the story to date. Each episode ended in a climactic pitch in the storyline, guaranteed to hook young patrons who would find it compulsive to return the following Saturday to see the next thrilling development. The serial over, it was time for the “commercial break”, a trailer showing scenes from an upcoming movie always ending with the Censor’s Certificate on screen, latterly complete with what rapidly became the familiar signature of the Censor himself, Douglas McIntosh.

Douglas McIntosh, Censor 1960 -76
Evening Post Wikipedia

When this appeared it was a signal to the projectionist to close the curtains and get the house lights on for interval.

But before the curtains had drawn together the youthful audience had begun the mad scramble towards the lolly shop. This was next to the cinema and had an en-suite counter through on to the foyer. Whether it was to the counter or the shop proper, there was a head-long rush to buy sweets, ice creams and soft drinks. Even Uncle Pat and the ushers demanded – even commanded – “walk, walk, don’t run!”, but with little effect. Everyone knew there was just a 10 minute interval to make their purchases and, if necessary visit the toilet… and it was in that order, we kids knew our priorities! If you got back to your seat soon enough, there was a slide show on screen, advertising mostly local businesses, then “the Regent’s pre-imminent attractions” and always a message assuring patrons that “all the exits to this theatre are marked” and with the request to “note the exit nearest to your seat”. Soon enough the houselights went down, the curtain opened and the main film got underway. Movies like Gigi, Treasure Island, The Magnificent 7, The Greatest Show on Earth, Lilli, Hans Christian Andersen, The Living Desert, The King and I, and Fantasia.

A job at the Regent… and Royalty

My early teenage years, and Uncle Pat had left the job. I had given up the Saturday afternoon matinees in favour of the 4.45pm sessions, and managed the extra pennies to sit upstairs. Sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, I became a regular, perhaps appreciating the more “sophisticated” movies with more adult themes than those at the Matinee.

The new doorman/caretaker, Ned Birch, asked me one day if I would like to earn a few shillings, helping him sweep out the cinema after the kids’ session and after the 4.45: the latter was always a bit of a rush to prepare the theatre for the 8pm session. I agreed. Free admission and a bit more pocket money for sweeping up lolly wrappings!!

I was introduced to the cigar-smoking manager, Leo (“Whacker”) Kenny, who had been with Amalgamated Theatres Ltd for many years. At first he kept his managerial distance but later he was to become a firm friend and colleague. A few weeks after our introduction I remember plucking up enough courage to ask him why the upstairs seating was called (a bit grandly, I thought) the “Royal Circle”, proffering the explanation to him that perhaps it was just to fit in with the name of the place “the Regent”?.

He immediately put me right, with a return comment as quick as the uppercut he was once so well known for in the boxing ring – and that had earned him his nick-name. “Nothing to do with it, son. It’s named the Royal Circle because we are often patronised by royalty”. I left it at that, not daring to press the obvious, perhaps the sarcastic, “What royalty? Royalty, a King or Queen right here in Epsom? And at the Regent watching movies….?” Implausible! Anyway, I thought, his dead-pan, direct and brief reply probably hid the fact that he was pulling my leg. But I only had to wait a few weeks to see that he wasn’t.

One Saturday Mr Kenny was out front, on the kerb, patiently waiting for someone to arrive for the 4.45 session. Within minutes what appeared to be a late-model New York taxi arrived only it was painted a sleek, shiny black instead of the trade-mark Big Apple yellow. It was left-hand drive, so the uniformed driver stepped straight on to the footpath and hastily swung open the wide rear door. Out stepped a very large, tall, Polynesian woman. Mr Kenny greeted her and her companion then personally ushered them through the foyer and on upstairs to the best seats in the house. Queen Salote of Tonga had arrived. Her Majesty was resident for the time-being at “Atalanga” in St Andrews Road (as she often was) and had come out to the movies, now seated in the appropriately named Royal Circle!  Mr Kenny had been right all the time!

Queen Salote of Tonga, Clifton Firth – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 34-375

Up until this time the same movie would be shown at the 8pm session on Friday, on Saturday at 4.45 and 8pm and again at 8pm on Mondays. The programme would change midweek, Tuesdays to Thursdays, often starting at 7.30pm to accommodate a double feature, two movies back-to-back separated by a much later interval.

Then Sunday night sessions started amid consternation from clergymen across Auckland who thought movies might prove a preferred attraction to Evensong, leaving empty pews. Patrons at the Sunday night sessions were offered different movies to the weekend fare, though at first there were restrictions that only “family” movies (U – Universal – Censor’s classification: for Universal Exhibition, all ages) would be shown. It was also either agreed by the Company, dictated by the clergy, or regulated by the City Council, that Sunday sessions would not begin until 8.15pm, after evening services had ended and allowing a little travelling time from the local churches. It was ironic, I mused, that the Reverend Father from the local Catholic church was often in the audience for our Sunday night features.

More Work and “The Big Go”

Caretaker/Doorman Ned Birch (Roland Edward Samuel Birch) had long settled into his routine of cleaning the Regent by day and doorman’s duties in the evening. He was very short, five foot nothing, slightly built and was one of the old school. Two weekly publications, “Truth” and “Best Bets” were his required reading, he loved his pint and I don’t think he had ever held a driver’s licence. He biked to and from work, his trusty roadster cycle parked in the security of the Gents toilet while he was at work. Ned befriended me and nick-named me “Shorty”, much to my amusement, given that I was taller than him. Then one day Ned told me that he was going on leave, coinciding with the school holidays. Would I do the cleaning each day? And change the photos in the showcases and signage out front to match the current and upcoming programmes?

“Hans Christian Andersen”
One of the posters I recall at the Regent. MGM

Good money for a teenager! He had checked with the Manager and found that I was an acceptable stand-in. I did it, and got a few more pounds for doorman’s duties on Saturdays and Sundays.

I couldn’t be the sole doorman on duty because there still had to be a Fireman/Safety Officer in attendance during all sessions, so a qualified replacement had to be found to replace Ned Birch. I was considered too young for this onerous task. And it was too risky to operate without a Safety Officer. There was the patrons’ safety. Moreover, it was never known when the Fire Brigade inspectors were going to make one of their unannounced visits during an evening session, followed by a drill of the emergency evacuation routine.

Sometimes these “snap” checks were not quite the surprise they should have been, for once one theatre had received a visit, phone calls between managers would advise that the inspectors were doing their rounds.

I decided to try to get my Safety Officer’s “ticket”. I was to pose as the son of a Theatre Manager, which, Leo Kenny advised, would increase my chances as in “learning the business”. Well, I was not quite his son, but I thought it was probably a good ruse and, after all, my Uncle Pat had been the cinema’s long-time fireman! I presented myself at Central Fire Station one afternoon as arranged, seem to recall putting up my age a bit, and after running through the by-laws, rules and procedures with a Fire Brigade Officer, walked out with my “Safety Officer’s Certificate For Places of Public Assembly”. Perchance I was working that night and when I told Mr Kenny that I had succeeded he said that to mark the event I was to do the duty. So I completed the checklist and  signed the Logbook for the first time. On his return from holiday, Ned Birch could not believe that I had attained the certificate. The web of importance and authority he had spun for years about the position had been smashed… and by a teenager, at that.

But it was not long before he realised an advantage. He found he was no longer tied to the theatre during session times. When I was on duty, and having obtained consent from the Manager, he could now leave for short periods, handing over the Safety Officer role to me. This was usually on a Saturday night when it was but a short walk to cross Manukau Road and go around the corner into Greenlane to enter Alexandra Park where he could pursue his interest in horse racing, putting to work his study of the “Best Bets”. He was able to have an “on course” bet or two on the various races and watch the “the big go”, as he always described the feature race of the night, and still be back at the Regent in time to see the house out and lock up at the end of the session.

I left school about this time to take a job with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s fledgling News Service, reporting for radio, later television. Some of those at the Regent noted that I had abandoned the cinema, beset by dwindling audiences, to join the NZBC, the very demon whose television programmes on the small screen were wooing away theatre patrons in their droves, ruining the cinema business.

Goodbye Regent – Hello Lido   

But big things were happening at the Regent, Epsom. In 1962 it closed. Amalgamated’s works team led by Harry Dilger moved in and gave the place a complete refit. The theatre was renamed Lido Cinema, to be an “art house” with foreign films, mostly from Europe. Colin Broadley, a new, young, manager was appointed. He offered me part-time doorman’s work and I accepted.

Epsom people who had been regulars at the Regent (well, many of them until television had come along) were horrified at the loss of “their” theatre and its Hollywood, Pinewood and Ealing fare, together with their favourite film stars. Some residents knew I was a local and were often very vocal in their comments about their loss, all but blaming me! But most of them were ill-informed, at home watching television in the evenings, unaware of the very small patronage the Regent, like other suburban cinemas, was suffering.

Conversion to the Lido to attract niche audiences was Amalgamated Theatres Limited’s reaction to this competition from television. Some said it was Company Director, Michael Moodabe Junior’s own brainchild to win back business.

Lido Continental Cinema soon after conversion from the Regent

The Lido was an instant success. Auckland had been starved of “art” and foreign movies for decades, apart from brief (one night, mostly) showings at annual Film Festivals. Keen audiences travelled from distant suburbs to Epsom to see the special offerings at the Lido, some movies enjoying seasons lasting many weeks.

Most had Censor’s Certificates restricting them to audiences aged over 16 or 18 years. Many of the films were sexy and the risqué advertising on theatre billboards reflected this content, much to the distaste of some Epsom residents. The kids’ own Saturday matinees were gone. The aging Queen Salote ceased her patronage! And no longer were there regular, “fixed” bookings, week after week, for those patrons who came to the Regent no matter what the movie and had permanent reservations to ensure they secured their favourite seats.

The other objectionable aspect your average movie-goer had was the sub-titling: translation of the dialogue by captioning along the foot of the frame. Would-be patrons would ring the box office, ask if the film was subtitled and if it was, promptly ring off, uninterested.

However, local predictions of failure and a speedy return to Regent days could not have been more wrong. The Lido went from strength to strength drawing movies from the considerable reservoir of top quality films which had built up over the years without a suitable outlet in Auckland. And, of course, very recent releases were also shown. Some locals thought they would give the Lido a chance and go to see the Bergman film that was advertised. But they walked out, sometimes angry, when confronted on screen with a movie directed by Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, (perhaps it was Wild Strawberries or The Virgin Spring), whose work they just couldn’t take and which they had mistaken in the advertisements for a movie featuring the popular star, Ingrid Bergman!

The Makeover

The Lido set out to be on a par with, or even a cut above, city cinemas to match the expectations of its new “discerning” clientele. The place was painted inside and out, new carpet was laid and there were new drapes and fashionable interior lights helped set the mood. A new heating/cooling system was installed. Ticket office staff and ushers were provided with stylish uniforms and Ned Birch, still the caretaker/doorman, had to upgrade to a more fashionable single-breasted dinner suit, for which he received an allowance. Patrons could also pre-order a taxi to be waiting out front after the movie to take them home.

The adjoining lolly shop gained a coffee-making machine. Hot drinks could be ordered, served at interval, cappuccino often replacing orange juice especially in winter months. And the changes weren’t all out front.

Amalgamated’s engineers, Frank Sparks, Norm Hadrup and Ray Bullen upgraded the projectors, getting the best out of the old C and W machines. These had been made by the famous Australian duo James Cummings and Harold Wilson who pioneered projector design and manufacture, holding international patents for various sprocket and shutter mechanisms, and incorporating sound in the 1930s.

“Lido” had C&W projectors similar to these. Hood Collection of the Library of NSW

The Regent’s projectors had tell-tale brackets which gave away their original age… the supports held the record player, now long gone, which at one time provided the music during silent movies before the days of sound-on-film.

On screen at the Lido there was no more God Save the Queen. Movietone newsreels were replaced by Les Actualites Francaises, news of the world as seen through French lenses.

Weekly newsreel from a French perspective

Patrons could reserve seats in advance, either by phone or at a special booking desk in the city at the Civic Theatre, and they soon realised that reservations were essential for the first week of most films.

Capacity houses, 770, were not uncommon. One Saturday night it was discovered that the Lido was full except for 17 unsold seats, the exact number in the audience that night at the Victory Theatre, Greenlane! Such was the effect of television on typical suburban movie houses and the success of the Lido.

Leo Kenny got in touch, suggesting I give away the job at the NZBC. A position was in the offing at the Civic Theatre, and if I would consider it, he said he would gladly recommend me.

A Career in the Cinema?

The money was better than what the NZBC was paying, and it was plain I would get on fine with the long-time Manager at the Civic, Hector Olsen, whose assistant I was to be. I got the job.

I was at the Civic for about a year, 1963-4, under Hec Olsen and when he became ill, Brian O’Halloran. We had some blockbusters at the time which in their way proved television didn’t have entertainment all to its own. Mutiny on the Bounty, with Trevor Howard as Bligh, but a much more impressive Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, was one of the bigger attractions with the first and second weekend sessions a sell-out at the mighty Civic, with the 600 or so cane wicker chairs downstairs in the old Wintergarden also pressed into use. Another big movie was Terence Rattigan’s Oscar-winning The VIPs, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Maggie Smith, Louis Jourdan, Elsa Martinelli, Margaret Rutherford, Orson Welles and Rod Taylor. Elvis Presley played Viva, Las Vegas, Disney was represented by Bon Voyage and Doris Day starred in Move Over Darling.  

This position at the Civic later led to a spell relieving managers around the Amalgamated circuit, at first in Auckland suburban houses, later as far away as Invercargill, and then in mid-1965, happily, back to Epsom as permanent manager of the Lido.

Back at the Lido

After settling in, I found I had time on my hands so I re-joined NZBC News, part-time. Days in the newsroom, then evenings and weekends at the Lido worked out quite well.

Apart from front-of-house duties, one of the manager’s tasks was to ensure the cinema had been cleaned. I had only one misgiving and although I tried, I was not able to replace the harsh, penetrating, smell of the disinfectant Ned Birch used at the Lido. It turned out that Head Office purchased it in a job-lot for the whole circuit and I was unable to make an exception, even for the Moodabes’ darling, their precious Lido!

Lido Continental Cinema

The manager also had to keep the place staffed, of course, but this was never a problem at the Lido. Most of the part-timers were young women, often working evenings to save a little extra money for overseas trips or for an upcoming wedding. There were a few others who had been there since Regent days. Without exception they all served the Lido well, respecting management’s wishes to ensure each and every patron enjoyed their Lido experience.

The wages sheet was a weekly chore, and before entertainment taxes were abolished, reconciling the admissions against the Government’s share was another periodic task. And after each house was in, the sales docket had to be checked and balanced with the cash.

Numbers Lie: Tears

This came horribly unstuck one evening. Money in the till did not match the number of admissions on the docket. The cashier could not balance: she was   a long way short of cash. She agonised over her bookwork for some time, then, in tears, came down to my office to share the problem.

Cinema takings are calculated on the basis of 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 night of the problem – and I could see at once what the cashier had overlooked. Never mind what the docket was saying, it was impossible. There was just not that number of patrons in the auditorium!  We proved it by going into the darkened cinema and making a rough count.

A few calculations and we found that the “missing” money was exactly the value of a hundred stalls seats. We suspected the numbering machine had jumped by a hundred when it printed the tickets.

But how to prove it? Auditors are hard to convince. Patrons of yesteryear may recall that having purchased their tickets they proceeded to the entrance doors where the doorman tore the admission tickets in half to “cancel” them. One half was given back to the patron as a “receipt”, the other portion placed in a slotted box. There were two such boxes at the Lido, and they probably held the answer to our problem. Doormen and ushers were asked to remain behind at the end of the performance that night and together we teased through hundreds of ticket butts, first putting aside all the orange stalls tickets.

These were then painstakingly laid out on the foyer floor in sequence. It soon became apparent exactly where the numbering machine had jumped by 100, representing “admissions” on the docket and the “missing” money in the till. A very relieved cashier completed the docket on the basis of a hundred fewer patrons. And to prove it to accountants and auditors at Head Office, I took them the evidence, a bagful of torn tickets. Long-time Company executives believed me, but said mis-prints in ticket numbering were very rare. For all the trouble it had caused, they needed to be!

Money Problems

The cash and money aspect of the business had its worry. What to do with the considerable takings overnight before the bank opened next morning? We had a few break-ins at the Lido and the suggestion was that thieves thought, mistakenly, that the takings had been left on the premises overnight and were easy pickings once the culprits forced their way inside the building.

There was a very definite Company rule that no money was left on the premises. Different managers had their own “security” arrangements. One would go out to his car during the feature movie and hide the money bag in the boot of his Morris Minor car. He did this to avoid being bashed and robbed at what he thought was the most vulnerable time – very visible in his dinner suit “uniform” as, with briefcase in hand, he went out to get into his car at the end of the evening. Another relieving manager who did not have a car travelled to and from the Lido by bus. His “security” measure was to wrap the canvas money bag in newspaper, tuck it under his arm and leave just in time to catch his late-night city-bound bus. Ted Patton said the parcel looked like fish and chips or wrapped vegetables, and no one would be interested in those!.

I used to get quite concerned about the bigger sums of money during holidays. Over Christmas, New Year and Easter, particularly, the banks were closed for days on end. At these times we usually had a special feature movie which attracted full houses. The result was, what with takings and the big “float” of coinage we carried for change, there were big sums on hand and no real safe place to stow it.

Easter was awkward with banks closing on Thursday before Good Friday and not reopening, in those days, until the following Wednesday. I forget the film we had one Easter, but all sessions were a sell out, and in addition there was a repeat of a very popular Lido favourite on the Sunday night. The cash progressively built up until I was so concerned about its safety (and mine!) that I gave Hector Olsen at the Civic a call and got the okay to store the cash in his strongroom until the banks reopened.

The Lido Experience 1

Keeping up the image of the “art house” I personally greeted patrons in the foyer as they arrived, and was on hand to wish them goodnight, the regulars by name, as they left. I sometimes got to chat with patrons, among them university professors, senior clergymen, students, known artists and business people. We often had doctors in the audience, and we juggled the reservations so we could seat them near the exits in case they were summoned during the show.  This often happened, particularly with one obstetrician, who was frequently summoned for urgent consultation at nearby National Women’s Hospital. To their credit, a few Epsom locals returned to the movies. Over time they had cautiously sampled some of the films and had grown to like them. Well, with a bit of careful selection!

There were a few favourite patrons that I would entertain in the office at interval. We sometimes had special guests. Overseas or industry visitors often attended after arrangements had been made by Head Office.

Film critics from newspapers often sat in on the opening night of a season. And there were those who had special Company passes, sometimes “permanent, all time, any session” passes. Often I did not know who these people were. Nevertheless, special treatment was laid on.

The Lido Experience 2   

To provide the right atmosphere, the projectionist, Trevor Johnson and I would decide on suitable House music to bring the interval to an end just before the feature started,   and for the “play-out”, after the movie while patrons were leaving. Sometimes we could match this with the composer of the sound-track music, and once or twice the ending to the storyline in the film meant it was better for members of the audience to exit in silence. These were storylines that left it to each viewer to draw their own conclusion… better to let patrons depart alone with their thoughts, without music.

We would also often rehearse the first reel of the movie to see what “screen size” should be used. There were three formats, “standard” (all but square) “wide screen” (wider than its height) and Cinemascope, (wall-to-wall at the Lido), the different screen sizes adjusted by the black masking (side curtains). I insisted on rehearsal after the projectionist inadvertently showed the first reel of Evening With the Royal Ballet, a 1963 showcase of Britain’s Royal Ballet,   in “wide screen” when it should have been “standard”.

Publicity photo, An Evening With the Royal Ballet. ebay

I went into the cinema soon after the film had started on one of my regular “first night” checks, took one look at the action on screen and realised to my horror the wrong format had been chosen. The result was that all the dancers were cut off just below the knees and none of the vital footwork could be seen. I decided the size of the picture on the screen must be enlarged from reel 2 even though this sudden change of screen size would jar the audience. Projectionist Trevor had a hard time agreeing with my decision, but it was essential so that the patrons could see the all-star cast – Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, David Blair, Antoinette Sibley, Graham Usher, and Merle Park – from head to pointed toe.

Another reason for checking the first reel before opening night was to find out if the print was brand new… in which case the projectionist had an added chore before opening night. He had to carefully wax the film to ensure it slid easily through the gate of the projector, thus preventing jerking or jamming. Not too much wax, though. An excess has been known to cover and block the optical sound track, causing complete loss of audio.

The rest of the staff didn’t get to see much of Trevor Johnson after he went upstairs to the projection box. He could not leave during “show-time” which began with the showing of advertising slides before each session and ended when the last person had left the auditorium. There was, however, one form of communication with him. Alongside seats traditionally occupied by the on-duty ushers there was a push button which connected with a buzzer in the projection box. If the sound was too soft, one buzz told Trevor, the projectionist, to increase the volume, two buzzes advised him to lower the sound and three indicated the picture was out of focus, or worse, drawing his attention to the fact that the theatre was in darkness with some sort of breakdown. Or, perhaps, that Trevor had been a bit late swapping over reels and everyone had noticed!

I later upgraded this communication system to an inter-house phone between the rear stalls and the projection box so that the exact requirement could be whispered into the hand-piece. I got a “please explain” from Amalgamated executives when they became aware of this phone. At the time it was against Company policy to have projection rooms connected with the outside world by telephone. But my in-house innovation was allowed!

The Lido Experience #3

Archdeacon Kenneth Prebble was a devotee of Lido films and was a frequent patron. He used to wear his heavy black church cope in winter.

A heavy cope worn by churchmen

His preferred seating was upstairs in the front row of the balcony. He would remove his cope and drape it over the balcony in front of him. No problem until one night, perhaps as the result of action on-screen, he became excited, apparently moved about a bit in his seat and the next thing the heavy felt cope fell off the balcony to the stalls below. Imagine what happened next: several viewers were enveloped in the black cape. There were screams and shouts, momentarily mayhem, until ushers calmed the situation, apologised profusely for the shock and interruption, gathered up the cope and withdrew from the cinema. In the glow from their torchlight they could see the reverend gentleman leaning over the balcony peering down into the stalls pondering the trouble he had caused! Fortunately no one complained to management so we decided to hand over the cope without comment. But we made it a rule which Mr Prebble understood: whenever he came to the Lido he surrendered his cope in the lobby before going upstairs. And we banned, absolutely, the draping of overcoats, etc over the balcony.

Mr J P 

It was always great to welcome one particular frequent visitor who enjoyed Lido movies very much… Amalgamated Theatres Limited’s Managing Director, Joseph P. Moodabe. With his brother, Michael, he had founded the company and their partnership had seen the nation-wide circuit develop and the business prosper from the 1920s. Joseph P Moodabe was known to all in the Company, and addressed as, “Mr J P”.

J. P. Moodabe.
N Z Herald

A keen movie-goer, he had been a frequent visitor at the Civic when I was there. Now it was a pleasure to regularly welcome him to the Lido. He always advised us in advance that he was coming and he liked the “Manager’s Seats” upstairs, one row off the balcony and on the centre aisle. Sometimes alone, (seat C9) and sometimes accompanied (seats C9 and 10).

After the show Mr J P was just as quick to say that he had enjoyed the movie, or to comment on it, as to mention that he had spotted a light bulb that needed replacing in the auditorium, and which ought not be overlooked!.

Latterly, from about 1966, Mr J P was accompanied by his wife, Dorothy, who also liked Lido fare. Unfortunately I didn’t have much chance to get to know “Mrs J P” as I affectionately called her. One evening, soon after they started visiting the Lido together, Mr J P appeared unexpectedly in my office not long after the feature film had begun. His worried look told me instantly that something was seriously amiss. He summoned me upstairs saying his wife had taken ill. In the darkened auditorium I could not see her state: it was decided to assist her from the theatre.

Out in the lighted stairway it was obvious she was in a serious condition so a staff-member was told to call for an ambulance, stressing the urgency required. I remember trying to recall if any of our doctor patrons were in the house that session, but couldn’t.

We made her as comfortable as possible on the carpeted stairway landing, cradled by Mr J P. The situation worsened to complete collapse and all the signs said we should start rescue breathing. However, at that moment the St John Ambulance crew arrived and took over her care, and after a quick examination whisked her off to nearby Green Lane Hospital.

Later that night we heard that she had not survived a severe heart attack and, in fact, had probably died at the Lido. The staff was greatly saddened. For me, the events of that night in May 1967 were the most traumatic and distressing during my time at the cinema.

Memorable, Popular, Titles

One-off Sunday night movies often played to full houses. Among the titles were those which earlier had extended seasons… Zorba the Greek, La Strada and Les Enfants du Paradis which were brought back intermittently, along with Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita and Rio revisited in Black Orpheus. These favourites packed the theatre every time. And there were extra weekday matinee sessions for Evening With the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and occasionally other suitable family shows which screened during the school holidays. The Italian director Fellini worked his strange magic with the likes of 8 and a Half, Polanski shocked audiences with Repulsion, and everyone’s spirituality was uplifted with Marcelino. Jacques Tati as Mon Oncle and the French farce La Belle Americaine had them in tears of laughter, the latter the only film I know that was in black and white and then for the last 5 minutes or so exploded into full glorious colour.

I recall the prudes walking out in disgust at the sexual romps shown in films like The Green Mare’s Nest.

But then there was the powerful Shakespeare of Olivier’s Othello with Maggie Smith and the Old Vic Company. There were special sessions for students.

“Othello”: a 5-week season at the Lido

We heard the marvellous tenor and soprano voices in the full-length La Boheme,  saw the sensual thriller Plein Soleil,  Bergman’s haunting The Silence, gut-wrenching scenes engineered by Francois Truffaut (400 Blows) and the evocative, dialogue-less The Island directed by the Japanese, Kurosawa. And the works of Jean-Luc Godard: notably La Petit Soldat, Resnais’ (Last Year at Marienbad), not to forget Giulietta Masina’s chaplinesque performance in Nights of Cabiria.

Giuletta Masina in “Nights of Cabiria”

The only feature-length pure documentary that I can recall, The Sky Above, the Mud Below, was a revealing visit to the remote Papua – New Guinea highlands, and a sell-out every session for several weeks. In their own ways, epics all.

Au Revoir, Lido

For several years I worked both the Lido and NZBC. There were few clashes and I enjoyed, equally, both jobs.

But by late 1967 the NZBC News operations were expanding and I was told I could no longer continue as a “contractor” with my hours tagged to work just the more civilised day shifts from Monday to Friday: I must take my share of evening and weekend work. So a crossroads had been reached. I decided to go with broadcasting journalism, leaving Amalgamated, the Lido, my friends on the staff there and the magic of avant-garde cinema.

For me it was not “goodbye” to the Lido but, appropriately, “au revoir” because I would return there as a patron, satisfying my appetite for foreign films.

Subsequently, in 1982 the Lido had a makeover, the cinema reduced in size to about half its seating and shop-fronts upgraded. Remarkably, still owned by the Henley family, Amalgamated Theatres continued to operate the boutique cinema until the 1987 share market crash when there was change in the company’s structure and holdings. Hoyts took over, followed by private operators who again renovated with, ultimately, two small plush cinemas created, complete with armchairs, sharing a new entrance and with the very latest cinema technology.


The Lido today

The Lido continues, still attracting audiences. These days patrons drink coffee or alcoholic drinks while viewing niche or “art” films … or, a little more commonplace, commercial titles.



Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

L.J. (Peter) Henley, son of L. L. Henley, builder/owner of the Regent 1982

First published in Flicks and Pix, Film Buffs Association, 2008

©  R. C. Carlyon 2007 updated 2018.