History - The Scenery & Lighting

The Scenery


"When the theatre opened, it was equipped with four sets of scenery painted by the most successful New Zealand scenic artist of the time, Neville Thornton. Each set was made up of eight or nine pieces. There was also a pair of proscenium wings very handsome, representing fluted columns with gold brocaded magenta velvet curtains frequently used no matter what was represented by the scenery behind." (Thomson)

The four sets, or what was termed 'the stock' comprised what was known among the profession as best chamber, second chamber, street scene and landscape. The landscape represents a picturesque Swiss Lake (a portion of the contractor's native country , and including the famous Lake of Lucerne), showing a mountainous background, flanked with wooded banks and tall firs, the transparent waters of the lake being painted with realistic effect, enhanced by the shadows cast by the wooded shores and Alpine trees. The drawing room scene is very elaborate - heliotrope and gold wainscoting, handsome French dado, and pale green panels, beautified with handsome bases in Cameo work, containing bouquets of choice flowers in natural colours. The proscenium wings are also very handsome, representing fluted columns, with gold brocaded magenta velvet curtains. Of the scenery collectively the artistic effect produced is most pleasing the curtain drop is of heavy maroon plush and was supplied from the well-known local furnishing establishment of Mr A T White, who is responsible for the very excellent upholstering of the dress circle and orchestral seats, together with the dress circle railings. (WH 30/1/1900)

The Lighting

Lamps are suspended from silk cords with iced shades which hang from the dome. Lamps in brackets are also arranged around the walls. Over the main entrance is  a bracket carrying a large globe with lights in the interior. (Opening night record)

lightingOptIt was a remarkable feature of the new building because 'electric lighting was quite new in New Zealand theatres'. Stage lights included 3 borders each containing 18 lamps and 30 footlights. On each side of the stage were movable ground lights, each carrying 10 lamps. Below the switchboard was a dimmer with connections at five different points under the stage floor for the production of scenic effects. The main switchboard carried a voltmeter main, controlling the switches and fuses on a slate base. Two large distributing boards on stage were used for controlling lights on stage and in the auditorium.

The Wanganui Opera House was lit from the outset by electricity rather than gas. An erratic supply caused early problems and for the opening season power was generated in the theatre.

Later in the season, this supply had to be supplemented by the Council's traction engine and later still by a 16 HP engine (pictured). As the noise from this often drowned out the performers, the Council had, reluctantly to fall back on gas until electricity was laid on from the town's tramway system.

The plant was located in the basement at the rear of the stage and was a Crossley special electric lighting gas engine built in 1899. It was guaranteed by the makers to give 19.2 HP with a constant BHP of 16.5 running at a speed of 250 revolutions. The dynamo was Crompton made, with an extra fly-wheel and an outer bearing capable of lighting 166 16 c.p. lamps. Unlike the more common steam powered generators it had an interna; combustion single cylinder engine which ran on the town's gas supply. The gas mains delivered gas to a large bellows arrangement on the wall and this in turn was fed to the motor, a kind of reservoir supply. This was ignited in the cylinder and the large 7ft (2m) flywheel belt drove the generator. It was still in working order in 1958, believed to be the last one of its kind.

Electricity still meets needs

Today electricity continues to meet most of the energy needs of the theatre. On warm nights the balcony on theOHnight first floor is open and floodlighting makes the front of the building look spectacular. Wanganui-based Midwestern Powerco gifted $4000 gift of exterior floodlighting for the Victorian theatre in 1992.  The gift was a gesture made to mark the company's 70th year. Powerco board chairman Peter Warnock said the directors believed the opera house was a worthy recipient of the presentation because it was used by people from throughout the region. The old floodlights cast a lot of shadows and needed replacing. Powerco improved under-verandah lights at the same time. The engineer who designed the system, Neil Griffin of Corys Trades and Electrical Supplies, of Wellington won a national exterior lighting award in the 1993 Institute of Illuminating Engineering National Lighting Awards. Mr Griffin's design was awarded one of two premier awards, from 36 entries and 8 finalists. The Opera House holds the award. (WC5/10/1993)

Details from "A Grand Victorian Lady" by Penny Robinson

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