Sunday, April 26, 2009

Goodbye, St. James, goodbye

In 2007, while walking down Wellesley Street and approaching Mayoral Drive, I spotted a small rectangle of paper. Picking it up, I saw that it was a soiled stalls ticket from the St James Theatre on Queen Street. There had just been a fire – this was part of the damage.

This morning, news coming through on the NZ Herald website says that the tower development next to the 80 year old cinema is to go ahead. The article is headlined: “Towering over history”. They will be moth-balling the old theatre, sealing it away from water, entombing it. An impression of the developers’ plans is here.

The theatre opened 5 July 1928, constructed for John Fuller & Sons Ltd. According to the late Jan Grefstad (Auckland Cinemas, 2002), it was formerly the site of Auckland’s City Hall in the 1860s, replaced by premises for home furnishers Tonson & Garlick which caught fire in 1896. Then, a three-storied brick building replaced that, which was in turn demolished for the theatre, built at a cost of over £70,000, and designed with live vaudeville acts in mind. J. T. Julian & Sons were the builders (also builders of the Majestic, Everybody’s theatre, and the Auckland Railway Station on Beach Road.)

The first “talkie” was shown 26 December 1929, and by the early 1930s vaudeville was phased out. The theatre became the base for the Mareo Orchestra by the mid1930s, conducted by Eric Mareo who gained fame for something other than his musical prowess. He was sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Callan in the Supreme Court on June 17 1936 for the murder of his wife Thelma, after being first tried in February that year by Mr. Justice Fair, but was reprieved by the Executive Council on 5 August 1936, which commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He walked out of Mt Eden prison a free man 11 May 1948.

The theatre saw the installation of a large, curved screen in 1953 for the film “Quo Vadis”, and it staged the world premiere of “The Million Pound Note” on Boxing Day 1953 before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I don't think I can isolate any cinema experiences from when I first went to see movies in town with my mother back in the early 1970s, but I know I did see movies there, and at the Odeon and the Westend, all part of the same cinema complex. That was the days when seats for popular movies could be booked, weeks in advance. I do remember standing in long queues that stretched down Queen Street. The St James, though, always seemed one up on the later neighbours, with a sweeping staircase from the ground level which took you up to the circle seats. A lesser Civic, but still grand.

The theatre closed in 1999.

Jan Grefstad ended his study in 2000, with the statement that “the St James is set to be renovated in a major refit … so it can rightfully stand alongside the Civic, Aotea Centre and the Town Hall “The edge” for entertainment engagements in the future.” Sadly, that won’t happen now for some time to come, if ever.


  1. The posting prompted me to get out my small reference, Cinemas of Auckland 1896-1979 by Bruce and Selwyn Hayward, whose family history in Auckland cinemas goes back almost to the beginning of the 20th century. It's a thin volume and typical of the Lodestar Press's offerings (published 1979). One of its strengths is photos and a location map of many of our suburban theatres. The cover is partly a reproduction of newspaper cinema ads from 1953: Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers were starring in Monkey Business at Avondale's Grosvenor and, just to make this comment a little more relevant, the St James was showing The Malta Story with Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness!

  2. Excellent reference, that book, Phil. According to Jan Grefstad's research, Norman Haywood (brother to Rudall) took over management of the St. James by 1936, and in November that year was "among the novel items of presentation ... the famous St James Airmail review title for the newsreel made by Rudall Hayward for his brother Norman. This film title was substituted for the usual Gaumont British Newsreel title."