By Tom Etuata, Digital Communicator Museums Wellington
When I was a child living in Wellington in the 1970s, the Wellington CBD had an abundance of movie theatres.
My parents would take me and my siblings to the movies nearly every weekend and school holidays. To me they were magical picture-palaces of escape, where I learnt to love all things about film and film-making.
Little did I know at the time that these old-style movie theatres were about to close, be demolished and lost forever. The advent of television in the 1960s, and the late opening of bars and restaurants had taken away a willing movie-going audience. So, by the late 1970s to the mid ’80s, these theatres (which were now getting old, drafty and very expensive to heat) were destined to face the demolition wrecking ball.
It’s interesting how many movie theatres were located in the Wellington CBD over the years and have now gone.
There was the Majestic Theatre, Lido Cinema, Tudor, Mid-City, Roxy (on Manners St, not the current one in Miramar), The Princess, The Regent, Plaza, Rialto, Cinerama, Paramount and The King’s Theatre (which was the first purpose-built movie theatre in NZ when it opened in 1910).
Here’s a few photos of some of the lost movie theatres of Wellington and the locations today:
A couple of old style movie theatres still stand today (thankfully). The Embassy (which used to be called the Deluxe) still operates and the St James which is currently undergoing earthquake strengthening and though only used as a live concert venue, had screened movies from its opening in 1912 until 1987.
The Paramount building still stands on Courtenay Place but closed in 2017 – and is now a mere empty shell. Reading Cinemas has recently closed due to Earthquake damage. Other than the Embassy, Lighthouse Cuba is the only other cinema complex that is open in Wellington city.
It’s great to see the old-style movie theatres come back to life in the suburbs. The Empire (originally opened in 1925) in Island Bay and the Roxy (Originally called the Capitol and built in 1928) in Miramar. And there’s the still-going-strong Penthouse in Brooklyn (which opened in 1939). There’s also the quirky private movie theatre and museum – Time Cinema down at Lyall Bay.
My favourite movie theatre when I was a kid was CINERAMA.
Located on 59-61 Courtenay Place, it was the movie theatre where I saw STAR WARS for the very first time in the Summer of 1977. I was 6 years old.
Apparently one 16 year old Peter Jackson also saw it there too.
Built in 1933-34 it was originally called the State Theatre until 1966, when it was renamed Cinerama – part of a chain of movie theatres which used three overlapping film projectors to screen movies on a huge wide curved screen. (Cinerama theatres had already popped up in Auckland and Christchurch).
In 1972 the curved screen was replaced with a wide-format flat screen to enable the screening of 70mm wide format films. At that time it had the largest conventional screen in Wellington (even exceeding the Embassy). In my youth, Cinerama was the place to see the top films of the time. Not only did I watch Star Wars for the first time there, I also saw Battlestar Galactica (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dune (1984), and dare I say it, Crocodile Dundee (1985), Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) and Top Gun (1986).
With commercial property developers (like the Chase corporation) taking over a number of old Wellington buildings in the 1980s, Cinerama eventually closed and was demolished in 1987.
Even though it’s long gone, the memory of Cinerama still lives on.
Here at Wellington Museum the original front sign is currently displayed in the Attic.
Shining brightly in glorious neon technicolor.
Ngā Mihi Nui to Gabor Toth, Local and NZ History Specialist from Wellington City Libraries. Check out their Wellington Recollect website – which is a great resource of Wellington history.