Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Lost Lyric

Upper Symonds Street and the Lyric Theatre, photographed 10 January 1928 by James D Richardson.  Ref 4-2181, 
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. By kind permission.

Such a shame that we no longer have the Lyric Theatre, which used to be at 160-162 Symonds Street, just north of Khyber Pass. According to Jan Grefstad in his unpublished Auckland Cinemas history (2002),  the Lyric was built in 1911 by a syndicate, A C Symonds & Co, and leased to Haywards Pictures (the family of Rudall Hayward, noted film maker).
The big Lyric Theatre, under course of erection at the top of Symonds Street, is to be opened for the first performance on November 1. In making arrangements for fitting up this building the comfort of the patrons has been the first consideration, the furnishing alone costing over £1000.
Undated clipping, from valuation field sheet file, ACC 213/121b, Auckland Council Archives

NZ Graphic 8 November 1911, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19111108-23-1

The building had seating for 1400, half of which was in the upholstered circle area. "One of the best kinematograph machines is to be fitted," the article above promised. The total cost of the furnishings was quoted at £12,000 -- the building permit value was £5200. The grand opening ended up being on 6 November 1911.

Interestingly, the valuation records show the owner as at 1912-1913 was George John Draghicavich, while the occupier was John Dalrymple, gentleman. But, very clearly, the Lyric was one of the jewels in the Hayward chain of early cinemas in this country.

Wanganui Chronicle, 20 December 1911

The Lyric even featured its own Ladies Symphony Orchestra, and in 1913 specially screened "Experiments with X-Rays" for the benefit of doctors and other medical professionals.

In 1914, a major first in this country's cinematic history took place at the Lyric. From the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry for Charles Frederick Newham:

Charles Newham moved to Auckland by 1914. While continuing to make scenic and topical films, he was associated with George Tarr in producing a lengthy dramatised film, Hinemoa, that year. Tarr wrote the script and produced the film with financial backing from Edward Anderson of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Newham operated the camera and was responsible for the technical aspects of the production: processing, printing, titling and tinting. Hinemoa was filmed at Rotorua with an all-Maori cast drawn from the Reverend F. A. Bennett's Maori choir. The production was New Zealand's first story film and, with a length of 2,500 feet (a running time of about 42 minutes), its earliest dramatic feature film. After a première season at the Lyric Theatre, Auckland, the film received a very good distribution through the principal picture theatre circuits of New Zealand, and was later screened overseas.

The Lyric had its part to play during the First World War.

A novel and useful idea has been instituted by the management of the Lyric Theatre, Auckland. Lady patrons who wish to help in the scheme are given a pair of knitting needles and a ball of wool. They are expected to knit as much as they can during the evening, and then the next night the work is handed on to somebody else to add to. Scarves are the articles now in hand, and during Monday night's entertainment many ladies availed themselves of the opportunity of helping in the work. Special lighting has been installed, by which it is easy to knit and yet enjoy the pictures, as the globes are shaded so that they will not interfere with the screening.

Evening Post 2 June 1915

And immediately afterward.



An innovation which promises to be of exceptional value in the training of territorials and senior cadets has been introduced by Lieutenant-Colonel Duigan, DSO, of district headquarters, Auckland, states the New Zealand Herald. This takes the form of the moving picture, by means of which various phases of territorial training are illustrated. It is considered that the visualising of the work by the medium of the screen will give the members of the forces a better understanding of the elementary principles necessary to thorough training ...

The first series, comprising three films, was screened at the Lyric Theatre, Auckland, on Monday night, when, in addition to several members of the district staff, there were present 400 members of the coast defence infantry.
Evening Post 21 April 1919

It was even part of the story of the early days of the NZ Labour Party, still feeling their feet.

Mr John Payne, M.P., delivered an address at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday night, in the course of which he said that before the Labour Party could obtain a majority it would have to get the farmers with it; but while it ran the farmer down it could not get his confidence. Moreover, while some of the Labour leaders enunciated pro-German sentiments the party would never make headway. To be successful, the Labour party required business men, but it would never get business men to put themselves under the thumbs of Messrs. Fraser and Holland.

Mr Payne was subjected to continuous interruptions, and Mr Way made a strenuous protest against the insinuation that a section of the Labour Party was pro-German. 

Wanganui Chronicle 30 October 1918

By July 1917, the theatre was managed by J C Williamson & Co, then by February 1919 Lionel Lawrence “Laurie” Speedy (1892-1982) came onto the scene, working with the Haywards. Speedy was born in Birkenhead and started out his entrepreneurial career selling blackbirds at the age of 10, later turning a rowing boat into a ferry service for workmen who had missed their regular ferry from Birkenhead to Chelsea, and engaging in beekeeping, with his younger brothers selling the honey.He came to manage several picture theatres in Auckland, not only the Lyric on Symonds Street but also the Tudor in Remuera, before building the Picturedome in Milford in 1922. His father J H Speedy was chief engineer at the Chelsea Sugar Works in 1897, while his grandfather Major James Speedy was a resident magistrate in Waiuku during the Waikato Wars. LL Speedy founded LL Speedy & Sons, one of the North Shore's most prominent real estate firms, in 1924.

Phillip G Murdoch took over the management in 1923, under the Lyric Co Ltd, headed by Archibald Bishop. The architect Horace Lovell Massey was involved with some rebuilding at the Lyric in 1926, according to the NZ Historic Places Trust. Lyric Co Ltd were to operate there until Kerridge-Odeon took over the lease in 1951.

From July 1930, the Lyric took on talkies. It closed in 1933 to modernise and reopen from that December as the State Theatre. Kerridge-Odeon finally closed the theatre 30 March 1960, and sold it to the members of the Chinese community in Auckland, but with a covenant that they were not allowed to show movies there on a commercial basis for 10 years. During that time, Phil Warren organised dances, two nights a week on Fridays and Saturdays, and dubbed the hall the Oriental Ballroom. The Chinese Film Committee, were finally able to start the screening of films in both Mandarin and Cantonese from 1971, but this was shortlived.

Photo by Diana Wong, Grey Lynn.

In 1972, the theatre reopened once again for the showing of general films under Graham Kahn. Until 1980, other cinema operators would work under the Chinese group's film showing license, but after that, that was it for the Lyric/State. For a time, according to Grefstad, it was a skating rink (Rainbow Roller Skating Rink), interesting as there had been cases of former roller skating rinks in the early days being converted into picture theatres ...

But, by 1983, it was all over. In disrepair, after use as a sleepout by the homeless and street kids, the Lyric was demolished. In its place today, a block of single-storey retail shops. No image, sorry -- but take a look at the scene on Google street view if you want to compare the now with the past.

In this case -- I prefer the past.


  1. I went to the Rainbow Roller when I was 10 or 11 ... it was more or a roller disco type thing with music .. and if you were lucky you held hands with a nice girl and went round the ring...

    In the early 80's it was the setting for a 'Dippa' iceblock ad on TV too

  2. Cheers for that. I wish I could remember the ad ...

  3. Is this in the part of the big Symonds Street block that was gradually demolished in the '80s and '90s for the road widening in the late '90s? It seems like its fate was sealed!

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I looked it up because I found a movie programme from the Lyric, from 1915, for "The Goose Girl." It had been rolled & stuffed into a crevice of the western wall of St Paul's Church, Symonds St, where I work. It must have sat there for 102 years :) If i could post pictures I would.

    1. Nothing stopping you emailing them, Simeon ...

    2. As it says on the right -- my email is in my profile ...