Napier, 1965

When I was a young manager on the “relief circuit” for Amalgamated Theatres I never knew where my next port of call would be. With Easter fast approaching, and without any instructions, I thought I might be home in Auckland for the holiday break. But it was not to be.  

 “This time It’s Napier…”

In 1965 I was asked by Amalgamated Theatres’ Business Manager, Mick Sayegh, to relieve Bertie Bolton, the manager at the “State” Theatre, Napier.  He had ben manager there for many years and was going on holiday after almost continual illnesses of one kind or another, mostly bronchial. Bertie wanted to start his break at Easter. I was at home in Auckland between relieving jobs, not long having returned from a stint in Wellington at various cinemas there, and just having not long before having purchased my first car, a pre-loved Morris Six. I decided to take it on the trip to Napier. My friend Glenn-Ross would travel with me, motoring south on Good Friday, spend Easter in Napier with me and return by plane on Wednesday in time for a half-day in school. Neither of us had been to Napier before.

It was cold weather and the trip from Taupo to Napier seemed interminable, particularly the long winding up-and-down hill section of the highway that was still unsealed. But eventually we arrived on the coastal flat at Eskdale and knew we were coming to the end of the journey. As arranged, we checked into the Spa Private Hotel on the sea-front north of the city centre, and settled in.

The Spa Private Hotel on the waterfront, Napier

Arriving at the “State”

Bert Bolton had already left town for his holiday when I arrived. On Saturday morning, as planned, I went to the cinema to meet the senior cashier, Jean Tylee, to pick up the keys, get orientated, and to look over immediate tasks.

State Theatre Napier in the 1940s – unchanged in the 1960s
Tapuhi, Alexander Turnbull Library

Jean explained she had rostered extra people on for the afternoon sessions (2pm and 5pm) which weren’t going to be extra busy, to allow me the day off, returning in time for the 8pm session.  Jean had been employed at the “State” for many years: she was goldmine of information about the building, the staff, the patrons… to say nothing of her extensive knowledge about Napier and surrounds. She had lived all her life in the city, her house high above the street on the waterfront north of the central business district: if I am not mistaken the local jail was her next-door neighbour.

Jean was a walking encyclopedia, not in a know-it-all way, but when she was asked about anything she shared the answers, put in a matter-of-fact way. You could guarantee what she said was correct in every detail. Her experience at the “State” told me she was well able to handle the afternoon sessions in my absence. Time to look around Napier!


Glenn-Ross and I took off on a journey of exploration, first having a drive around Napier visiting Marineland, the aquarium, the “Veronica” bell and the War Memorial Fountain.

War Memorial Fountain


HMS Veronica Gardens

We soon came across the statue of “Pania of the Reef” amid manicured waterfront gardens.  We were not moved, apparently like so many visitors before us, to caress the beautiful maiden’s bronze bosoms!  We left her unmolested.

Pania of the Reef – 1965

We walked through the Anglican Cathedral and had a look at the nearby fire station. In ‘the suburbs’ we also paused at Kennedy Park which had at the time been very much in the news, subject of an almighty squabble involving Napier City Council. Councillors had raised a loan to build motel apartments on the Park which was public land, despite objections from Napier motel owners who said the competition was unfair and that the Council had no place in business. Heated disagreement and protracted legal action ultimately ended in the Supreme Court which ruled the Council had exceeded its authority and could not operate a motel on Kennedy Park. By that time some 35 units had been erected, so the Council was in some difficulty.  But victory for private enterprise was short-lived. Empowering legislation was passed in Parliament allowing the City Council to continue the business. Nevertheless, it was something of a test case – local authorities everywhere realised they could not legitimately run a commercial business.

It was interesting to drive through Kennedy Park among the motel units which had caused so many headlines and so much fuss over several years.

As I recall it, it was a short drive from the Park to Vigor Brown Street. Its name had intrigued me since early childhood when I first saw it written by my mother as the address on the envelope of a letter written to her friends living in Napier. I can’t recall their name but I think the husband served in the same unit as my father during the war. John Vigor Brown, without the ‘u’, was an immigrant from Australia in the 1870s whom the street had been named after. A businessman, his talents were soon realised and after he settled in Napier he was elected to public office, notably the Harbour Board and Borough Council. He was voted Mayor in 1907, a position he held for many years: opportunity to develop the port and put in place many other public works. After the earthquake in 1931, still mayor at age 76, he led restoration, first canvassing the Government for funds and then appointing key officers to ensure Napier was rebuilt “better than before”.  So he was responsible for all the art-deco buildings so admired all these decades later!

Having traversed Vigor Brown Street, we drove to Hastings, had a look around the shops in the business area and returned to Napier.

Back to the Office…

We had an early dinner, returned to the hotel where I changed into my dinner suit ready for the 8pm session at the State. Evening dress was unexpected, I was to discover, because Bertie usually attended in the evenings in civilian suit. Jean explained he wore an extra layer or two to keep warm: often retaining his overcoat and scarf while in the office as well as turning on the one-bar electric heater for additional warmth.  The manager’s desk was tucked in a small room behind the ticket office on the Dickens Street frontage.

I met all the staff on duty, toured the projection box and the auditorium. It was there that I found several quaint features that the locals called “party boxes”, separate small rooms upstairs, partitioned from the main auditorium, that each seated 2-6 people. I attended to the usual managerial duties, saw the house in and checked the books from earlier sessions. At interval I walked about the cinema in conversation with staff members or those among the patrons who willingly engaged.

I recommenced the book work in the office and realised that I was suffering Bertie’s complaint – I was cold and turned the heater on.

A Long Trek

Next day was fine and I had the day off. Glenn-Ross and I decided to visit the gannet nesting area at Cape Kidnappers. We drove as far as we could towards the Cape, to Clifton, and finding the tides suitable, decided to turn down offers of a tractor ride along the beach. Instead, we elected to walk beneath the cliffs to reach the gannets – and back, careful to beat an incoming tide. It was quite a hike: we paced ourselves, and at one stage debated whether to hitch a ride when the tractor/trailer passed us. We stuck it out, walking across shallow bays, wading through rock pools, climbing up and over reefs and, wherever possible, trying to stay on the softer sand where it was easier-going. Once near to the Cape we climbed a steep track to a vantage position. It was well worth the trek and climb: there were hundreds of birds below us – some appeared to be nesting while others were departing and returning to the site, wheeling in the wind high above the sea and the cape before making their steep descent and alighting on the rock.

Given the incoming tide, we knew we did not have much time to linger if we were to return without having to wade across shallow inlets.

Cape Kidnappers

I recall we encountered a small hut where a sign offered drinking water, accompanied by an enamel mug or two. Help yourself service! We accepted… refreshment was welcome in the heat of the day. It was then that we probably realised that we had come quite unprepared for such a long walk! We set out back along the beach. We were getting tired. The tractor was going toward the Cape on its last trip to pick up any stragglers and as it passed us on the way back to Clifton we thumbed a ride, joining the few on the tray of the trailer for a rock ‘n roll, bumpy, trip over rocks and ruts and squishing through streams. I don’t think the trailer had any springs and the old mattress slung on the tray absorbed few of the constant jolts and shocks.

Talking to fellow passengers on the trailer I found out why we were feeling a bit tired. A woman told me it was about 4 and a half miles (8 km) from Clifton to the Cape! So we must have walked at least 10 kms!

Needless to say after that long walk, the exercise and all that sea air we slept well that night. Nowadays one can take a helicopter to the Cape or stay at a nearby luxury resort before making the short walk to see the gannets.

Easter Monday, we took in the old port area, the newer suburb to the North of Napier and a beach or two beyond the Eskdale turnoff.

Next day we motored inland to Rissington to see a Motor Museum there and then early evening, we found a restaurant. I had excused myself from the State until mid-evening…  it was a “farewell dinner” because Glenn-Ross was flying out next day. By arrangement with Jean Tylee I arrived at the cinema immediately after interval to “do the books”.

In the morning I reluctantly took Glenn-Ross out to the airport for his trip home. He was in school uniform because he was going on straight to school. It was only when we reached Napier airport we realised the whole flat area comprising the runways and adjacent farmland was all a legacy of the earthquake, hitherto underwater, part of the bay. Photos in the airport waiting area documented the before and after.

It was a melancholy departure as Glenn-Ross left on NAC’s Fokker Friendship for Auckland…

 “The Yellow Rolls Royce”

Now alone, I put in much more time at the State. I noted we were to be screening a very popular block-buster movie “The Yellow Rolls Royce” with its all-star cast – Rex Harrison,  Ingrid Bergman, Shirley MacLaine, Omar Sharif, George C. Scott, Art Carney, Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau.

I had been relieving at the State Theatre, Wellington, when it screened there and managed to get extra publicity for it by inviting British singing star Gracie Fields to opening night. She, perchance, was on a New Zealand tour and in Wellington at the time. I noted she was not performing on the Friday night so through her agent, J. C. Williamson’s manager, Arch Elliot, arranged for her to come to our premiere.

Gracie was still recording in the 1960s and 70s

I had found a yellow Rolls Royce owned by a veteran vehicle enthusiast in the Hutt and arranged for Gracie to be picked up at her hotel and delivered in style to the State just in time for the movie. She was presented with a grand bouquet of yellow flowers as she stepped out of the Rolls Royce – and ‘click!’- the photographer from the Dominion newspaper got a great picture of the emerging Gracie which featured on the front page of the Dominion the following (Saturday) morning. Arch Elliot told me later that he thought the picture and write-up benefitted Gracie’s box office as well as ours.

There was no Gracie Fields to repeat the publicity stunt in Napier when the movie opened there, nor could I find a yellow Roller. But there were a few of the famous cars in the Bay and I arranged for them to parade through the town and park up outside the State theatre: drivers and passengers as guests, all welcome to see the film about “The Yellow Rolls Royce”.


As a side-bar promotion I wanted something to do with motoring prominent at the State for the duration of what we could expect to be an extended season, given the movie’s popularity.  Somehow I got on to the agents for Fiat cars, Faulknor Motors, and the fact they were heavily promoting the Fiat 500, the baby model. I wanted maximum exposure with the slogan, something like, ‘Not everyone can afford a Yellow Rolls Royce’, or similar, alongside the Fiat 500. Faulknors agreed. I was keen to hoist two cars high up on the cinema’s verandas over the footpath, one on Dickens Street, the other above Dalton Street. But City Council permission would be needed and, besides, there was some doubt whether the aging structure would support the weight of the vehicles, even though they were among the lighter mini-car class!

The Longest Cinema Promotion…

I did not want to test fate. I knew very well the story surrounding the gala opening night for “The Longest Day” at the opposition’s Odeon Cinema.

The premiere was in aid of the local Returned Services Association, and to set the scene outside the cinema the Army had arranged to deliver a tank. There it was, outside the Odeon with its turret turned and barrel adjusted as if it was about to deliver a shell the length of Hastings Street. I am sure the Formal Gala began well… all the guests in their civilian finery and uniforms (with medals!) welcomed out front on the red carpet and, after drinks, taking their seats to watch the movie, without doubt a block-buster hit. But when, mid-evening, time came to remove the tank it somehow threw one of its tracks and there it was immobilised in the middle of the intersection and had to remain for 48 hours until military engineers arrived with equipment to restore the track and move the tank out. Meanwhile there was considerable inconvenience at the heart of the central business district, the road closed in one direction, with traffic having to go around it in the other. While it probably wasn’t positive publicity for the Army, the film or the R.S.A., some say all publicity is good publicity… and “The Longest Day” probably got its share!

So for “The Yellow Rolls Royce” I decided not to tempt disaster on the verandah, but rather to drive the Fiat into the foyer and display it there. The catch-line was “No parking space here for the Yellow Rolls Royce but plenty for the Fiat 500!” To get the car in we had to take down one of the main doors at the front of the theatre. Once unscrewed at the hinges the door easily admitted the car, in fact it was driven straight up to the ticket box and onto the carpet.

The Fiat parked in the foyer of the State Theatre, Napier

Incidentally the cost of a Fiat 500 at the time was £600. And, ironically, fast-forward to 2007 when Fiat re-introduced a new version of a similar-shaped vehicle, celebrating 50 years since the first 500 hit the road.

“The Yellow Rolls Royce” did very well, with coverage in the local newspaper (picture and write-up in successive editions showing Rolls Royce cars outside the “State” and the baby Fiat inside).

Patrons leave after the premier of “The Yellow Rolls Royce”

A Remarkable Feat

I was still recalling the long drive over the Taupo to Napier road that we had experienced on the afternoon of Good Friday.  As sole driver it seemed a long haul.  So I had every sympathy with, and a whole lot of respect for, a motorist I read about in the Hawkes Bay newspaper at that time who had a nightmare trip along that road. He was driving a Jaguar and was a little over halfway between Taupo and Napier when his head and side-lights failed. Undaunted, he turned the car around, and using the car’s small reversing light and tail-lights backed the car all the way into Napier, arriving just before dawn!

I could hardly imagine how he pulled off this feat but had to believe it because it was written up so authoritatively in the press article. The man was named and was on business in Napier and said his first port of call when he arrived in the Bay was to get his headlights fixed. Naturally!

Complaint #1 – The Cold Office   

I was aware of complaints about two things at the State.

The first grizzle affected me. No matter what I did I was always cold in the Manager’s Office.  No wonder Bertie was so often laid low with bronchial complaints. He was not a young man. Bert suffered … and now, so was I!  Then I noticed that as soon as the house had gone in, it was Jean Tylee’s habit to put her overcoat on.  She, too, was feeling the cold. I carried out a few tests. Lighted matches were blown out by the draught whistling between a side door and the front doors. I deployed a lighted candle to trace the air flow and the flame was blown out from the side door, through the unprotected office, on under the door which connected it with the ticket box, through the ticket box, over the counter and out the main doors. It was a proven wind-tunnel. I figured a partition might be worked into the foyer’s design without making it objectionable to the eye but which might deflect the draught. To prove the point I got one of the ushers to ask her husband, a carpenter, to bring in a sheet of hardboard which we propped up near where I thought a partition might help. The wind tunnel abated as if by magic just as soon as the deflection was put in place. Within a week I had successfully argued for funds from Head Office to build in the partition and paint it to match the rest of the foyer. The usher’s hubby soon completed the work and both the manager’s office and the ticket box were much warmer: cosy, in fact. Skipping ahead a bit, I had a brief note from Bert once he returned from leave, thanking me for “his warm office and clear lungs!”

Complaint #2 – Sound Problems

The second concern was muffled sound in some parts of the auditorium – important because it affected patrons’ enjoyment of the movies. It was well-known which seats were affected. Frequent patrons avoided seats in that block, and if the theatre filled these seats were among the last to be issued by the cashier in the ticket office.

Now it was time for me to look at the problem. The shape of the “State” was plain, like a large rectangular box. More than two levels high, as were most cinemas, it had the screen high up at one end, ground floor stalls with quite a significant rake, plus seating and the party boxes upstairs in the circle behind which was the projection box. At some stage the theatre had been redecorated, perhaps to reflect the art-deco look, with what looked like giant brightly-coloured shiny domes attached, haphazard, along both side walls. They looked like buttons or bubbles. When discussing the sound problem with the projectionist he said he thought the domes had been placed there to reduce unacceptable echo which was experienced immediately following the redecoration. It seems the sound from the giant horn-speaker behind the screen had been bouncing off the expansive walls, causing unacceptable echoes in the stalls. The domes were designed to break up the sound as it reverberated around inside the cinema. During our discussions we got a box office plan and shaded the seats known to be worst affected by the muffled sound. From the domes on the wall we drew lines into the shaded sections. While this didn’t prove anything conclusively, it appeared the domes could be to blame. I had the brain-wave that the shiny high-gloss paint might be causing deflections of the sound and discussed this with the one most likely to know about such things, Ray Bullen, the engineer at Amalgamated Theatres’ Head Office.  It was agreed I would get the domes repainted in the same colours but in thick matte paint in an effort to remedy the reflections. It took two coats to “roughen up” the surface. Problem solved, the sound was A1, evenly spread throughout the auditorium.

I think the staff were bemused that the young relieving manager had fixed two long-standing problems.

Bertram Yeatts Bolton

Staff at the State told me that Bertie Bolton was a graduate from live theatre, that he had been one of the last of the vaudeville men in New Zealand. I believed it.

I have since found that he was member of the troupe called “Diggers Pierrots” which during World War One had entertained troops at the front in France, and elsewhere, and then, post-war, toured Australia and New Zealand.

The Digger Pierrots in France during the First World War
Alexander Turnbull Library

The group repeated many of the wartime songs and added newer ones, combined with other burlesque and stage entertainment. J. C. Williamson managed the group and its popularity can be gauged by its sell-out  five week season at Sydney’s Theatre Royal. They toured Australia and then came on to New Zealand where Bertie Bolton was their advance manager, going on ahead of the troupe to advertise and arrange their tour.

The entertainment was very popular in New Zealand, too… so much so that the tour was extended several times, mainly to play some centres for the second time. Some advertisements say Bertie was a trombonist in the accompanying travelling orchestra.

Bert was advance manager for other touring acts and then in 1924 switched to film as manager for Universal Pictures based in Wellington. He subsequently worked for various companies managing or revamping properties… the Opera House in New Plymouth and then  in 1933, the brand new Plaza theatre in Napier. The State was built about the same time.

Bertie had traversed show business from live performances to silent movies, often accompanied by a pianist setting the mood and then later by the “talkies”, with sound. And black and white gave way to colour and the narrow standard screen to Cinemascope.

Jean Tylee and the Earthquake

Jean Tylee was a survivor of the 1931Napier Earthquake and one evening we got talking about the terrible loss of life, damage and changes caused by the big shake, and the fires afterwards, in both Napier and Hastings.

Jean had a book, a limited edition, I think published by the Hastings newspaper soon after the event, depicting aspects of the earthquake in text and photos. Jean advised that it was a rare book, that its value had greatly appreciated over the years but she kindly lent it to me to read. It wasn’t until I had grasped the full details that I realised just how devastating the earthquake, and its aftermath, had been.  The fires that followed the ‘quake, it seemed, had done more damage than the actual jolt and rumble.


I received word that Bertie was ill again and would be late back from holiday, and I agreed to stay on until his return.

Jean Tylee: Diagnosis

It must have been the end of a month and one of the tasks was to balance the books. There were several separate accounts – wages, revenue and entertainment tax being the main ones. This particular month I could not get the figures to reconcile. I could always add the figures “in my head” without an adding machine or calculator. I started with the wages book but adding the columns… pounds shillings and pence in those days… was getting me nowhere with a different answer every time I tried. I began to fret that my mental calculations were somehow going awry. In desperation I called Jean Tylee to the office. “I can’t get this to balance: it’s my addition. Watch me while I try again”. We agreed that I would call out the numbers as I whipped up the column. I thought I was doing great, zoomed up the figures in the “pence” column following progress with my pencil, and calling out the sums. Just as I was about to announce the answer Jean interrupted. “Look where your pencil is!” Somehow I had strayed across the work-sheet moving left, from column to column, so that the last few figures I had added  were not in the right-hand pence column, where I had begun,  but way over to the left in the pounds column. No wonder things weren’t adding up and as a consequence the monthly returns could not be completed.

Jean immediately said that she thought I might benefit by wearing glasses.

The very next day I was off to the opticians, I think the name of the company was Styles. Tests revealed I would benefit by prescription spectacles. So at age 19 I started wearing glasses – just for ‘close work’, it was explained. I had no further trouble adding multiple columns of figures.   The books were balancing again!

 Don Low in Town

About this time I had a message from long-time friend Don Low who was coming to Napier for a couple of weeks, relieving in NZBC’s Napier radio newsroom.

After he settled-in we met for the first time in a coffee bar. Sitting across from us was young woman. I told Don I greatly admired the attractive young blonde and, that somewhat awkwardly, it seemed I was always bumping into her in the street, at the shops and at the cinema. I wondered who she was. She always seemed to be alone.  A few days later Don rang to say “your ‘girlfriend’ has turned up and what’s more, I know who she is!”  Don had been covering Napier Police Court that day for radio news, a case of a local woman charged with attempting to perform an abortion. The young woman I had taken a shine to was in court giving evidence. She turned out to be an undercover Woman Police Constable (WPC), as she was differentially called in those days, on special assignment from Auckland. She had been a decoy to catch the defendant “in the act”. The aged woman must have been busy because she faced many similar charges after a procession of out-of-town undercover WPCs had called on her services. Part of the prosecution’s medical evidence, I recall, said that the abortionist was a danger to the community: her “patients” frequently suffered physical and mental after-effects.

This, of course, was before the days of reform of the law regarding abortion and the advent of clinics. While abortion wasn’t often mentioned in open company, in private it was known that some doctors could “engineer” examinations and procedures that might induce miscarriage and, by word of mouth and careful referrals, those wanting an abortion might be introduced to health workers providing a covert service. It was widely rumoured that chemists (pharmacists), knew how to prepare “a brew” that might trigger an abortion and then there were numerous procedures and recipes for self-abortion circulating in the community. Some of these were “old wives’ tales”, well-meaning but of dubious efficacy.

By the way, I never saw the young WPC again.

A Rude Awakening

Early one afternoon it was dreadfully cold in Napier. Don and I had a late lunch at our favourite café despite the falling temperatures. He said it was snowing not far from the city, reports coming in from Rissington. Encouraged by the thought of seeing snow falling for the first time in my life I motored out towards the hills just beyond Rissington where it was snowing enough to gather in small drifts. I did not hang about. Having experienced the snow, and the freezing cold, I quickly got on the road back to Napier in case I got stuck.

My interest in fires and fire-fighting was well-known.

Early one June morning, perhaps around 5 am, there was a sharp rapping on my door in the Spa Hotel.

It was the manager summoning me to get dressed so I could go to a fire. Don Low had received word that Hastings Central School was well alight. He phoned the hotel (unused to phone calls at that hour) asking that a message be passed to me saying he was on his way to Hastings… he knew I would like to go with him and so would the manager please alert me because Don would be along in a few minutes to pick me up. This he did and we attended the blaze which was almost extinguished by the time we arrived, but flames had earlier swept through several classrooms.

Fire-fight in freezing temperatures. “Fighting Flames” by Russell Kirby

Hastings Fire Brigade had made a good save, cutting off the blaze thus saving most of the school. Ironically firemen were working in freezing conditions. I recall Don’s inquiries revealed that this gave the fire-fighters problems. Subsequent checking found that the men’s wet uniforms chilled their bodies as they fought the fire. The Fire Chief, Len (Tiger) Harlen, was taken to hospital with concussion and several broken ribs after he fell on a flight of stairs during fire-fighting. He made a good recovery.

Return to Auckland

Bertie Bolton was ready to resume. Before he arrived back in Napier I was on my way back to Auckland, so funnily enough I never met the man.

I had been in Napier more than 2 months. I was not certain what was in store for me at Amalgamated Theatres which was unusual because normally I got a letter from Head Office, Business Manager Mick Sayegh, advising where my next assignment was.

It turned out the manager of the Lido, Epsom, had left the company’s employ and I was asked to take over. Managing the art-house suited me down to the ground. I was very familiar with the place having worked there part-time when it was the Regent and after its conversion in 1962 to the Lido.

What’s more it was very handy, just around the road from the family home in the Epsom “village” where I spent my youth. I looked forward to the up-market audience and getting to know many patrons personally.

It was a dream appointment. I took over on July 1st 1965, the first night of a 1954 French film in black and white, “Lesson in Love”, directed by Ingmar Bergman. It may be unique – he made a brief appearance as a man in a scene at a railway station. Copying Hitchcock! For a Bergman film it had a short (two-week) season.


RCC 2015


Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand

National Library of New Zealand – wartime entertainers

Trove – Sydney stage shows 1920