History - The Cinema

The Municipal Pictures

"The Borough Council, at a special meeting last night, decided not to disturb the present arrangements whereby municipal pictures are shown at the Opera House."

"Cr Green: If the Opera House were closed tomorrow the prices of other picture shows would be increased."

"Cr Richardson: The Opera House has shown a better class of picture and has filled the bill. Cr Oakley Brown: Mostly Buffalo Bill. Cr Richardson: Perhaps you know more about him. Cr Oakley Brown: Perhaps you go to the municipal pictures." WC 31/3/1922

The picture company was prepared to pay 1750 pounds a year for the Opera House; the offer was equivalent to 1000 pounds a year more than the council received from lettings and pictures as disclosed in the last balance sheet." WC 12/9/1923

"It is the Municipal Pictures, with their overflowing Saturday night houses, that give the Opera House its working profit, 1800 pounds to be expended for the good of the municipality." Mr G. Murch, Town Clerk (WC 11/6/1926)

"At first I had few friends but this all changed on my becoming a member of the Chum's Club. This was a Saturday morning film show which took place in the Opera House and consisted of serials and feature films, mainly Cowboys and Indians, with such stars as Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. This was the highlight of my week and my first introduction to this wonderful building, a place which would feature prominently over the next 7 years."     Leslie Austin, 11/1998

"When live shows came to town the Movies were cancelled." Jean Hussey, usher. (12/1998)

Throughout its life, those footing the Opera House bills have always sought ways of making it pay. With photography well established by the turn of the century, and the public fascinated by images of other places, magic lantern shows became an early form of entertainment. A Mr Toomath is recorded as showing these from an aisle in the stalls. Films were popular with the public and the year the Opera House opened, 1900, three films were shown, relating to the Boer War, and in 1902, a film about the King's Coronation.

In 1909 the committee proposed that a light connection for picture machines be placed in the floor of the pit. Companies using the machine were to be charged 5/- a night. Crosher and Sons, who had installed the lighting in 1899 were called on to supply and erect cable and resistance complete with switch board. Their account was for 26 pounds 14 shillings. The light for the picture machines (Bioscopes) came direct from the council's plant.

By Friday, 13 May 1910, the council arranged "Wanganui's second permanent picture show", under the Thompson-Payne management. A large audience arrived to view a programme adapted to suit all tastes. They viewed a series of pictures, (of) variety, beauty and all round excellence a very large proportion of the films being artistic coloured studies of the very best quality, well-entitled to be classified as masterpieces of cinematographic art; the coloured studies included a charming representation of the picturesque beauties of the Mexican river Paunco, a delightful scenic glimpse of tropical Ceylon, a stirring illustration of one of Fennimore Cooper's fascinating stories of Indian adventure, two or three fine dramatic studies, and a thrilling and romantic portrayal of Lieut. Rose's starting experience with the "Robbers of Fingall's Cave". A particularly pleasing picture was an exquisitely coloured semi-religious romantic study entitled "Sister Angela" which was presented with appropriate organ accompaniment. The black and white films were also of excellent quality, and comprised some really capital comics. The facial expressions incidental to the pictorial explanation as to "Why Girls Leave Home" was excruciatingly funny and provoked roars of laughter, while the incomprehensible trickery of the moving picture camera found striking exemplification in "An Awful Symphony."

In May, 1911, the lighting failed while Fullers were screening pictures. A magneton ignition was to fitted to the engine to supplement the present ignition. The engineers were told that a condition of their employment was to overhaul the engine at least once a month. On Christmas Night in 1912 and 1913 pictures were shown in the Opera House but in 1915 Mr Paul Langton held a recital instead. The New Zealand Picture Supply Company held a lease for showing pictures in the Opera House. In 1918 they were asked about their future intentions. However, with the end of World War I, and the development of a mass movie market, the Wanganui Borough Council leaped on the movie wagon and contracted in 1920 with Paramount/Municipal pictures to screen silent movies in the Opera House. For the next 10 years movies dominated the Opera House programme.

Before deciding to operate a Municipal Movie Theatre, the council, in 1917, had discussed the matter keenly, following an Opera House committee recommendation that it "procure the necessary plant for showing pictures in the Opera House on vacant nights, the charge for admission to be 6d upstairs and 3d downstairs". There was a degree of dissension, and an indication that one councillor at least had an interest in another picture show.

"The Mayor said it was a very important recommendation and no doubt there would be differences of opinion." He proposed to defer the discussion to a special meeting. Said Cr Thompson: "I have pleasure in seconding that." Cr Spriggens: "Do you propose to take the debate now?" The Mayor: "It is open for any councillor to say what he likes tonight." Cr Spriggens: "All right. I will have a go in a minute." Cr Thompson: "I hope the venture will be a good one." Cr Spriggens: "I rise to oppose it." Cr Dunstan: "I presume I should retire in this matter?" The Mayor: "That is entirely a matter for yourself. The fact that you are interested in another picture show does not debar you from taking part or voting. You are legally competent to do so."

(Records show Mr Spriggens had an interest in the Majestic (His Majesty's Theatre) which had opened in 1913.)

Eventually, the council agreed to screening movies in the Opera House, partly because councillors believed the cost of attending other cinemas was too expensive and the citizens ought to be 'fairly treated'. They made arrangements with Paramount Artcraft in Wellington who agreed to supply silent films and provided a theatre manager, Lacey Smith, who took up his post in 1920 in the Paramount Municipal Picture Theatre, the Opera House.

Before any movies could be shown, the Opera House had to be revamped. By May, 1920 this was complete and huge crowds filled the building to overflowing at the opening Saturday screenings.

"The inauguration of Paramount Pictures in Wanganui took place when at both sessions the building was filled to the point of overflowing. Familiar though the Opera House is to Wanganui citizens the audience at the opening session was surprised and pleased at the transformation effected as the result of structural alterations on a comprehensive scale the interior has been changed out of recognition. There is now a far greater degree of convenience and comfort than previously. The seating accommodation is greatly increased, in brief the citizens now have a modern and in every way up to date picture theatre." (WC 17/5/1920)

In the absence of the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, Mr Spriggens officiated while Paramount's head, Mr Pickford, also attended. He said "the intention of Paramount Pictures was to give Wanganui the best in everything there would be no better pictures shown in the larger cities. The days of the old picture show was gone and in its place was the picture theatre, well equipped, well directed, and with the latest in screens and motor work."

"A splendid programme was put on, the pictures showing on the screen with a perfect clearness, The favourite, Mary Pickford, appeared in 'Mâ Liss' and 'Fatty Arbuckle' in "Backstage". Supporting films (an important aspect of such occasions where intervals provided a chance to buy refreshments from vendors circulating in the theatre) included a clip of HRH, the Prince of Wales, at Wellington."

One viewer, Ngaire Comrie of Wanganui, noted years later that the movies were "black and white and silent, the characters jerking their way awkwardly about the screen with the dialogue appearing in print beside them." At length, that great invention, sound, which revolutionised the movies, came into being, followed by colour. We watched enthralled as an actor moved gingerly among some artificial flowers gasping out uncertainly a few faltering bars of "Tip-toe through the Tulips". (Midweek)

Paramount Municipal Pictures knew how to keep their clients on side with subtle marketing techniques. On 14 May, 1921, a year after Opera House movie screenings began, the council received from Paramount a congratulatory telegram, the quickest way of communicating in the days before every business and household had telephones.

Live music always featured at the silent movies. Pianist Edgar Collins is recorded as the first to play in Wanganui to assembling audiences, during the interval, and on their departure. Later, an orchestra, led by George Holloway, performed, with George's wife, Nancy (nee Gibbs) as the lead violinist. Other performers included Joe Dempsey on the cello, Bill Upton on the double bass, S Cornfoot on the drums and Wilfred Shardlow on the saxophone and xylophone.

Mr Smith managed the theatre almost solely for cinematograph entertainment and travelling shows and local theatre companies wanting to use the opera house were charged a rental based on the average nightly takings of the picture show. For many this was too high, and they chose to use His Majesty's Theatre instead.

By 1930 the movies were making much less money. After analysing costs and consulting with the movie companies, the council, aware that some people preferred  silents to sound and having tried to foster silent films, decided, with some reluctance, to abandon its involvement in running silent picture shows. A letter from Australia and New Zealand Pictures Ltd notes that they would not be releasing "any further silents', as they were no longer profitable. While they believed that "Hungarian Rhapsody orchestral throughout (sound being synchronised on discs) would be a tremendous relaxation from sound films," they noted also that "our latest information from abroad signifies that the mechanical form of amusement will increase in all spheres. Reproduction of sound by mechanical means is just about perfect and as far as the "talkies" are concerned nothing very much is left to the public's imagination".

So began an increase in other entertainment including wrestling, boxing, dancing, and public lectures, at the Opera House. Lacey Smith transferred to the Regent Theatre where Paramount Pictures then screened their movies. After a period with no films being shown at the Opera House Amalgamated Theatres (PLAZA) of Auckland leased the Opera House from the late 1930s until 1950 while the Plaza Theatre was being renovated. From October, 1937 Amalgamated Theatres Ltd leased the Opera House initially for three years, but renewing the lease at intervals until 1950, when the picture licence was transferred to the new Embassy Theatre. The Standard projectors which Amalgamated Pictures installed in the Opera House were transferred to the new Embassy when it was built. Standard appear to be a clone of the American-made Simplex and may have been manufactured by that company.

Those involved at the Opera House found that, as can be the case in any business, operating the movie theatre was not always smooth. Correspondence between the movie marketers and the council was frequent, with a variety of exchanges relating to technical quality of the film, the standard of the movies, their suitability for local patrons, and annoyance when the anticipated movie did not arrive, or was replaced by another, unannounced. One Opera House picture theatre operator, C W Howe, reported of 'Love and the Devil' programme, "Arrived in very bad condition. Gazette unable to be shown. And the 'Star' nothing else but bad joins and in rotten condition. Please find enclosed bad joins and pieces that I had to cut out." A later operator, Arthur Gaskin reported on the film, "Spite Marriage" that, "this programme arrived in a shocking condition with "binders off 3 spools, and the film had run off spools, covered in oil and dust, four breaks in film not repaired, film had run off sprockets and travelled along centre of film, which was marked with the sprockets. Also sprocket holes torn out."

In 1935 the council sold to the Religious Films Society in Manaia for 15 pounds each, its two American manufactured "Powers" 6B Biograph machines. As they were complete with stands, 15 spools, carbon arc lamps (110 amps) and 4 Delmeyer lenses, interest came also from Foxton, and the Cinema Supply Company in Wellington.

Despite the problems of management, the audiences loved the movies. Special sessions for children were shown on Saturday mornings. Leslie Austin recalled the Chum's Club associated with those screenings. "The Chum's Club was a great place to meet and make friends and no better way than when birthday time came around. Before the main feature film the manager, Mr Broad (Jim), would come on stage and announce the names of all those who had a birthday that week. All would troop up onto the stage and receive from Mr Broad a birthday cake, to be taken home to be shared with the family. One would never dream of eating it there. I suppose there was an age limit on the Chum's Club as I don't remember much about it after 13 or 14 but those few years remain one of the happiest memories of my childhood." One of his friends recalled that: "We watched serials such as 'The Last of the Mohicans'. We daren't miss them. It was just like Coronation Street these days. We had movies. It was only sixpence to get in. They had a list of our birthdays. We would go up on stage and get half a cake iced with our names. The Majestic and the Regent had A-grade movies. The Opera House had the Bs." Another caller remembers "going up for my cake. It was stale. We couldn't get a knife into it." He joked "I think it had been baked for the year before and they forgot to give it to me."

In 1950 the Embassy Theatre was built, and Amalgamated Theatres Ltd, of Auckland, wrote to the council (City Corporation) seeking its written consent to transferring Amalgamated's existing license from the Opera House to the Embassy Theatre. That was arranged and movies at the Opera House ceased aside from occasional screenings of such items as "New Zealand in Colour" with Colour Films of New Zealand.

Opera House Projection Room

An early scene of the "box" shows two Powers projectors with low intensity arc lamps. The near arc was capable of showing slides by shifting it to the left of the projector head thus showing the slide past and onto the screen. The rod supports are clearly visible protruding towards the camera. There is no evidence of any electric motor and it is presumed that these were hand cranked. Note the fire extinguishers behind each projector. There are no flue pipes installed and a fan at the far end window would have been essential for the projectionist. The estimated period of the photo is mid to late 20s. Powers 6B projectors were manufactured in 1913 and marketed in New Zealand by Harringtons Ltd. They cost 105 pounds each. The price included fire proof spool boxes, arc lamps and a rewinder. Other evidence suggests the man in the picture is likely to be Lacey Smith, the Municipal Picture Theatre manager. (Eldon Burkitt, Wanganui)

Enticing Advertisements

Preceding the council's decision to operate a movie theatre was the attraction of other movie theatres in Wanganui. Advertising was enticing, and often overwritten. But the public responded with enthusiasm and as early as 1912 Percival's Pictures had on offer in Wanganui.

The Greatest of Sensations
The Great Mine Disaster

A wonderful, realistic drama.
A tale of a miner's love and heroism.
The picture that has made Wanganui talk.
Will be screened tonight and tomorrow night only.
Tonight's great programme is undoubtably a galaxy of stars.
Special Notice: Performance commences at 7.50 sharp. Overtures 7.45.

Book your seats today at Hara's
Prices as usual 1/- and 6d. No charge for booking


The Paramount was in full swing and throughout its operation issued notices such as this one (17/4/1924)on the Amusements page of the local papers. Remember that few people travelled any great distance at all. The age of frequent passenger air travel had not yet begun , overseas journeys were made by sea, it took four to six weeks at least to reach England by sea, and few of those at home owned motor vehicles. Indeed, the majority of people still went about on foot, cycled or used horses. Trains were popular for longer national journeys. But, as settlers, hailing from other lands, New Zealanders liked to know what was happening in the world beyond their shores. Hence the build up to "Round the World in 80 Minutes".

"It is not the privilege of many to see all the wonders that the world offers, and any opportunity of obtaining glimpses of foreign cities per medium of the cinematograph film, is seized with avidity. Such opportunities are, unfortunately, all too rare, but Wanganui is to be favoured with such a film on Good Friday. Those who wish to spend eighty minutes of genuine and lasting pleasure, combined with the best of all possible means of seeing the many lands and many people, should not miss "Round the World in Eighty Minutes". Starting from Wellington, the audience travels across the Pacific to pass through Panama, visit New Port and New York, see the sights of Niagara Falls, cross the Atlantic to London, fly by aeroplane to Paris, spend sunny afternoons in the boulevards, inspect the exquisite architectural triumphs of French genius, meet with the French people in their cafes, cross the border into Germany, note the different style of architecture and type of people there, visit Italian cities, touch at Gibraltar, mix with all sorts of conditions of men at Port Said, steam down the Suez canal and spend a day in Colombo, and hit the track again for Auckland via the main ports of Australia. A flight over Auckland finishes what is the greatest tour of the day. A most wonderful treat is in store for patrons."

Wholesome films encouraged.

In those early days, a watchful eye was kept on the contents of films. In 1922 president of the New York-based National Motion Picture League, Mrs Adele F Woodard, toured the world. While the League would not condemn films it considered unsuitable the League's aim was to encourage theatre managers to screen films it endorsed. Members included social welfare and education workers, and school superintendents.

"The standards of the league's reviewing board are high. Films must be wholesome and clever, as it is the chief purpose of the league to safeguard public from insane, namby-pamby and immoral films. The titles must be grammatically correct, there must be no scenes of killing or gun-play, or suggestions of suicide, murder, shooting or torture. Scenes of vulgarity and immodesty are taboo; films must not show scenes such as women and children smoking or drinking, which would tend to offend standards of decent living; they must be scientifically accurate.... scenes depicting lying.... women proposing marriage, distorted views of life, regarding sex relations, family life, filial duty, government and religion are not entertained. "The league rejects all scenes showing divorces, quarrelling, jealousy, infidelity, marriage on slight acquaintance, marriage without love, illegitimacy, neglect of children, hatred, intense fear, revenge, intrigue, envy, superstition.... cruelty, irreverence, and lawlessness. Motion pictures, thinks the league, can be a constructive force, building moral fibre, while they amuse and entertain." (WC 16/5/22)

By 1930 films they had to comment on included titles such as "Wolves of the Underworld", "Matrimony", " Vagabond Queen", "Crazy Countess", " Secrets of the East", "Flying Scotsman", "Thou Shalt Not Steal", "Cocktails", "Emerald of the East", "Blackmail", "Song of Soho", and, in 60% technicolour, "Harmony Heaven", and in full technicolour, "Mamba".


At the Opera House tonight all lovers of good pictures can rely on a first-class programme, when the management will screen for the first time here the exclusive Vitascope three-reel drama, "The Black Snake." The lover of sensation, equally with the admirer of clever stage effects, will find much to attract them in this story of Russia's secret society. The adventures of a detective on the track of a famous, or rather infamous, woman criminal, are cleverly interwoven with the love affairs of a beautiful circus rider and a handsome young Russian. The plot is enthralling in no common degree, and the detective's struggle in the snow with a pack of starving wolves will be found just as sensational as the clever subterfuge by which he gets the better of "The Black Snake." A grand supporting programme will be screened at the Opera House tonight. (W.C. Date undetermined)

Excerpt taken from "A Grand Victorian Lady" by Penny Robinson

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