Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jan Grefstad : Fascinated by Movies

Originally written as an obituary in 2002.
Image from Waitakere News, 11 March 1993.

At 6 am, 9 August 2002, in Auckland Hospital, local resident Jan Grefstad passed away after suffering a heart attack the night before.

For over 36 years, he was an integral part of the life and times of Avondale, as the manager/owner of the world-famed Hollywood Cinema on St Georges Road. Thanks to Jan we have still been able to go down to the local “flicks”, to laugh and cry or simply have a wonderful time watching our very own silver screen, despite the ravages of television, videos and other more-modern entertainment. He had a passion for the cinema, and he shared that passion with us all.

Jan told the Western Leader in 1975 that at the age of nine, living in Green
Bay, he used to supplement his pocket money by making “films” from cartoon figures stuck on rolls of paper, showing them to his friends for a penny a time.

“I’ve always loved going to the pictures,” he said. “When I was a kid, going to the Saturday matinee was my big treat. I got so involved that I began making my own versions of movies. I had a toy projector made from cardboard called a kinescope. It was really for showing postcards, but I wrote scripts, used pictures from magazines and comics to illustrate them, and made my own entertainment. A couple of friends started making films as well and we used to swap them. We copied the movies we had seen and gave ours credits, titles – the works.”

The young Jan Grefstad made himself well-known to the manager of Blockhouse Bay’s own cinema, the Kosy (now the site of Foodtown supermarket), begging for posters or anything else he could make use of. Jack Ofsoke allowed him to help sell tickets on a Saturday, in return for which he got to see the film for free. Later on, he was paid $1 as well.

At 18, while the Kosy’s new manager was in Australia, Jan was in charge for a time. However, he entered Teacher’s Training College, then on graduation taught at Arahoe School in New Lynn, becoming one of the first teachers to have his class making films.

Then, in early 1966 Jan heard that the old Grosvenor Theatre in Avondale was available for anyone to take over the lease with Auckland City Council. In those days, the Grosvenor had a reputation as “a bit of a dive”, and faring poorly against the competition from television which kept the public at home rather than go out to the movies.

“One day,” according to Jan from his history of the Avondale cinema (2001), “Ray (Melrose) asked me if I would like to run the Grosvenor in partnership with himself, as he knew Bruce (Anderson) wanted to give up the business. I agreed and we entered an agreement with Selwyn Hayward to take over on a managerial agreement.”

He took over on 1st March 1966, painted it inside, put carpet in the foyer, lights in the toilets, renamed the cinema “Hollywood”, and ran the cinema until his death. His opening film on March 11 1966 was 55 Days in Peking, a blockbuster to highlight a gala charity event for the Lynndale Athletic Club raising money for young athletes.

In 1969, he equipped the Hollywood with central heating, the local press calling the cinema “Avondale’s Newest Hotspot.” From 1971 to 1974, Jan Grefstad was the president of the Avondale Businessmen’s Association, and campaigned with Charles Funnell for Council to make improvements to Avondale. He was also involved with the Avondale Community Committee and Avondale Citizens Advice Bureau.

In 1974, deciding that there was a market for “golden oldie” movies, Jan transformed a disused warehouse on Queen Street into the Classic Cinema. Difficulties with the Film Licensing Authority regarding special film licences (it was felt that there were enough cinemas in Auckland) led to him forming a cinema club which people flocked to join. Auckland’s first independent cinema in four decades opened in October of that year with a charity premiere of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer organised by the Kiwanis Club of Avondale.

The Mighty Wurlitzer was restored and came to be installed at the Hollywood between 1979 and 1981 with Jan Grefstad’s help, and members of the Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland have conducted concerts there ever since.

In 1980 Jan started showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fixing the Hollywood as a firm favourite with all Aucklanders, and making the Hollywood famous.

On October 31 1999 the Hollywood celebrated 75 years of showing movies to the public of Avondale, West Auckland and beyond. Jan celebrated his own anniversary there of 35 years in March last year.

For some time, he had been researching for an intended history on the picture theatres of Auckland. Jan Grefstad was a man who had a keen eye for history and how precious heritage is, whether it was concerning his beloved cinema and movies in general, or the wider field of local history. He was a keen supporter of both the Avondale Historical Journal, the new Avondale-Waterview Historical Society, and offered me much encouragement regarding my own research into the history of Avondale Central, the forthcoming Heart of the Whau.

His enthusiasm, drive and infectious passion for Auckland’s cinematic history, and his cheerful optimism regarding Avondale’s future, will be greatly and sadly missed.

Image from Western Leader, 25 February 1992.

7 comments:

  1. Is it possible to get me in touch with Jan Grefstad's family or where I can find more information about his parents?

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  2. You can get in touch with his nephew Mark via the Hollywood Cinema's website.

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  3. My name is Peter Vaughan. I knew Jan from the Cosy in Blockhouse Bay where he used to let me see the projection from up the sloping seating arrangement of the theatre. When he went to the Hollywood, it was a closer cinema and every Saturday I went along, did acts on the stage during the 'half time' break with other hopeful kids to win a big bag of goodies.

    I befriended Jan and worked at the Hollywood for years; being a 'torchie boy' (usher), worked the candy bar, and the ticket box, and eventually became involved in projecting the movies.

    The Hollywood, is certainly a Famous Cinema, and there are many more stories untold of the amazing years I spent there.

    I alway told Jan he looked like Dustin Hoffman, to which he used to screw his face up at. He had a lovely sister, a friend Ross and parties that saw the dawn in at times.

    RIP Jan; Warm regards, Peter Vaughan < pythag@xtra.co.nz >

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  4. Thank you very, very much for that, Peter.

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  5. I went to school with Jan's sister Rosalie at Green Bay achool in the 1960's. Even though he was very young, Jan was his sisters guardian and often collected her from school in his Morris 1000. The last time i saw either of them was 1964, but I always remembered them. There was something special in the way he looked after his little sister.

    He was a true Westie battler.

    Mathew

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  6. My reason for asking about Jan's family is cause Jan is my moms cousin. John, Jan's dad, left Norway way back and for a while his sister, Jan's aunt (Hjørdis ),was in contact with Jan's sisters. Unfortunately she lost contact with them but would love to get back in contact with them.
    I have tried sending an e-mail to Mark, without any luck. Does anyone know anywhere else I could try to reach them? It would mean the world to my moms aunt.

    Thanks,
    Silje Helleland

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  7. I remember going to The Classic to see a Three Stooges double feature around 1979. My father took me one day and pointed out my grandfather's factory on the second floor in the Unity Building next door. He told me that when my grandfather was busy he would give him some money and send him downstairs to buy some lollies or ice cream and see a movie. I don't know if I have that right since it was never a cinema then, so he obviously further went further down the road at another cinema. It was a kind of bonding experience and my father reliving some kind fond childhood memory. It's taken me ages to remember which cinema it was, duh! right next door to the Unity Sunday School Building of course.

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