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God Save Our Movie Theatres

The Celluloid Circus: the Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre by Wayne Brittenden
Godwit, $50. Reviewed by CHRIS BOURKE

The last time I heard ‘God Save the Queen’ at the pictures, the film was Dirty Harry. The theatre was the King George on Lower Hutt’s High Street; the ticket cost 30c. I remember a man wearing an RSA badge ticking off my gang of 13-year-olds. Maybe we were ostentatiously refusing to stand to attention. That was in 1973, when some filmgoers still saw standing for the anthem as a requirement of citizenship. After all, our cinemas from Kaitaia to the Bluff declared their fealty to the monarchy with names like the Regent, the Majestic, the Kings, the Empire and the Empress. I can hear the drum roll, Fernando.

The final death knell in the golden age of New Zealand cinemas would soon be struck with the introduction of colour television. Since 1960, the upstart medium had crippled the film industry and many theatres were left to deteriorate, inhabited by double features and rats. In the 1980s home videos arrived, and so did the asset-stripping vandals – Pacer and the Chase Corporation – who hired demolition teams to obliterate the grandest buildings on the main streets of New Zealand.

Wayne Brittenden grew up with the smell of the Nibble Nook in his nostrils: popcorn, Jaffas and diluted orange cordial in the foyer, musty carpet in the stalls. His father Cedric was a long-time theatre manager for Kerridge-Odeon, and like many of his colleagues he lived his job. By day he plotted promotions to draw the crowds away from the competition, the Amalgamated chain. Six nights a week – plus a charity screening on Sundays – he would hold court in the foyer dressed in a tuxedo, greeting his guests.

The Lido, Wellington, early 1970s.

In 1946, New Zealand had 568 picture theatres. We loved the flicks like nobody else, not even the Americans: that figure translated to one seat for every six people, compared to one for every 12 in the US. Since early in the 20th century, going to the movies here was more popular than going to church, and Brittenden is correct to stress the religious metaphor.

In Europe, a town’s cathedral, hotel or railway station was the grand and definitive building that inspired the population. In suburban and provincial New Zealand it was the picture theatre. These cathedrals of the movies commanded the awe and excitement that was lacking in the hardware stores, knitting shops and other occupants of the main street. The posters and stills – the movie cathedral icons – usually changed twice a week. Many of the faithful came every Friday or Saturday night. Some even had permanently reserved seats – family pews – and God help anyone else who occupied them.

By the early 1920s, cinema was a boom industry. It brought theatricality to small towns which had theatres but rarely saw plays. And the managers and projectionists understood how to ramp up the drama. Films could be presented slapdash or with style: the waterfall curtains bathed in changing hues of pastel colours, like a Hollywood premiere, then drawn aside in perfect timing to the music and the dimming of the lights. Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox fanfare encapsulated this in 20 seconds, but first came ‘God Save the Queen’ and the censor’s certificate, the weekly newsreel and a cliff-hanging serial. And a visit to the Nibble Nook at intermission.

Brittenden wanted to capture the memories of those who worked in the golden age, and for their customers to revel in nostalgia. “Those too young ever to have bought an ice cream from a tray boy or watched the lights play on a waterfall curtain must make of it what they will.”

His book bears the attention to detail of someone passionate about his subject, and the many years he has spent working it. Thanks to the splendid photo archives of Kerridge, nearly every cinema in the country is shown in its splendour, inside and out. Plus, all the accoutrements: the foyer day-bills, the ice cream trays, the old packets of Heard’s chocolate peanuts.

But The Celluloid Circus is more than an exercise in nostalgia, it is the epitome of social history at its most accessible. We can learn from the past: what we lose when we destroy much loved public buildings, how we have always discovered ways to get around oppressive social standards, but how those standards had value as well. The cinema was a community activity like no other, involving fantasy and the imagination, enjoyed together. With six o’clock closing and no television, there wasn’t much choice. For those wanting an alternative from MGM or Ealing fare, there were the film societies (though liking sub-titled foreign films was tantamount to being a fellow traveller).

A succinct introductory chapter by David Lascelles lays the groundwork in the history of New Zealand film exhibition, as it evolved from the early theatrical entrepreneurs such as Fullers and JC Williamson, to the long era of the great duopoly: Kerridge-Odeon vrs Amalgamated. At their peak, Kerridge had 133 theatres to Amalgamated’s 68. Brittenden explains how the companies’ two flagship Auckland theatres encapsulated the personalities of their owners, Amalgamated’s Michael Moodabe and Robert Kerridge (our Goldwyn and Mayer). The Amalgamated’s Civic was “flamboyant and larger than life”, KO’s St James “unobtrusively flamboyant”:

Moodabe (or ‘MJ’, as he was known in the trade) was the cigar-smoking, Cadillac-driving showman – the embodiment of the American movie mogul, complete with racehorses. Kerridge (often referred to as ‘RJ’), who viewed the Moodabe style as somewhat vulgar, was the Rolls Royce owner and Empire loyalist, a stickler for protocol who was very conscious of social station, and a canny entrepreneur with astonishingly diverse business interests. Neither was a film lover, they simply loved the industry.

Under Moodabe, Amalgamated was more adaptable, trying 3D and Cinemascope first. Kerridge was advised that stereo was a fad, and turned down the hugely successful Woodstock for moral reasons (it must have been bizarre watching the Queen’s tune as the drugs kicked in). In Dunedin the Methodist Mission owned the Octagon cinema, and insisted on approving every film screened and that all advertising be removed before their Sunday services. A photo shows the occasional decadent film slipped through: a 1947 billboard advertises The Wicked Lady.

Brittenden’s connection with and love for the industry is reflected in his informed, anecdotal style; it is a great relief that the book wasn’t written by a graduate of cultural studies, burdened with academic jargon and theory and missing the drama. But all the analysis one would want is here, and delivered in a way that will stimulate further studies: the cultural etiquette, the allegedly uncharacteristic provincial flamboyance, the social mores, the diversity of the grandiose architecture. (Spanish, Moorish, gothic and especially art deco, every small town had its purpose-built temple. Little did the magnates realise that cinema’s heyday would be over in 40 years and the desecration of their temples would begin about the time Coronation Street appeared).

The charming cinema in Geraldine, Canterbury, is a survivor, largely thanks to the imaginative programming of exhibitor Barry McLauchlan.

By the late 1960s the showbiz ballyhoo had become anachronistic, and people wanted the film and nothing but the film. In the suburbs and the main streets, the large, echoing, deteriorating theatres became auction houses, car showrooms, gymnasiums or bargain warehouses. Those that survived the 1980s blitz evolved in the 1990s into multiplexes, mostly ugly and with incorrect screen ratios.

Eventually the boutique cinemas emerged, ironically returning first-run films to the suburbs where audiences had abandoned their theatres for televisions; now they could enjoy quality “living room”-style presentation, with Lite Licks and clinking espresso cups.

Every aspect of cinema exhibition is examined, with stories that emphasise the humanity and humour: the marketing gimmicks, the idiosyncratic managers, the ordeals faced by projectionists, the theatre cats, the grand foyers, the posters, the censors, the audiences, the intermission and, of course, the films themselves. (And, for completism, a chapter on films about films.)

Brittenden’s solid scholarship is supported by his skill at story telling, and the book’s lavish production. Even the end-papers have a theatrical flair, opening out like waterfall curtains to show the variety of films advertised on the front pages of the newspaper. Only the garish cover detracts from an experience that, photographically, is as sumptuous as Lawrence of Arabia in Cinemascope. Even when the theatres were tawdry, and the seats broken, there was still treasure within.

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Chris Bourke is a writer, journalist, editor, music historian and radio producer. He has a regular blog Distractions and an archive of his journalism and book reviews from the past can be found here.