Friday, May 22, 2009

20 December 1929 – Opening of the Civic Theatre

On the night before the gala opening of Auckland’s fourth and last “picture palace”, the new theatre was outlined in a blaze of red lights, a fiery radiance that could be seen all across the city, a promise of spectacles that came to be associated with the Civic.

The Civic Theatre gained its name from the civic square development put forward by Auckland City Council as early as 1925 but unfortunately failed to go ahead at that stage after rejection at a public poll in April that year. The land, bounded by Queen Street, Cook Street, Albert Street and Wellesley Street was to have been a new civic administration centre, to go with the grandeur of the Town Hall already in place. Before that, it was the site of Auckland’s City Market, and was a Market Reserve from 1855. After the poll failure, and with the site already cleared of buildings that had been leased from the Council, new leases were entered into for buildings on the periphery of the old Market Reserve. One of these leases was given to Thomas O’Brien.

O’Brien purchased and operated his first theatre in Dunedin in the early 1920s, after working for the theatre chain company of Fuller-Hayward. In 1925 he became the owner of Everybody’s Theatre in Auckland’s Queen Street and went on to acquire a number of other cinemas in the Auckland area, including the Rialto in Newmarket, the Theatre Royal in Kingsland and the Regent (later the Lido) in Epsom.

There was controversy which reached government levels over the funding for the building of the Civic, but O’Brien still managed to have the opening night on 20 December 1929 as planned, showing the citizens of Auckland the detailed design by Australian architect Charles Bohringer.

However, the timing of the Civic theatre counted against O’Brien. The Depression in the 1930s, along with O’Brien’s choice to screen British rather than American movies contributed to poor attendances. His company collapsed and he returned to Sydney in 1932. The Civic passed to Amalgamated Theatres in 1945.

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