Cinerama and the Lost Movie Theatres of Wellington

Cinerama and the Lost Movie Theatres of Wellington

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:

Left: Lido Cinema (1975) and The Majestic Theatre (photo ca 1920-1949) on Willis St.
Right: The sites as they are today.
Photo References: Lido Cinema http://books.scoop.co.nz/2009/03/19/god-save-our-movie-theatres/ Majestic Theatre, Willis Street, Wellington. Raine, William Hall, 1892-1955 :Negatives of New Zealand towns and scenery, and Fiji. Ref: 1/1-018115-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22898333

 

Above photo: The Regent, circa 1950s.
Below photo: The site as it Is today on Manners St.
(Notice James Smith Corner and the Bank of NZ building is still there)
Regent Theatre, Manners Street, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-099993-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22757277 Photo taken by unidentified photographer ca 1950s.

 

Left: Kings Theatre and crowd outside Pigeon Park (now Te Aro Park), Dixon St 1966.
Plaza theatre (beside James Smiths building) on Manners St, 1979.
Right: The sites as they are today.
Reference: Kings Theatre, 20th Century Fox. K E Niven and Co :Commercial negatives. Ref: 1/2-214331-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23056224
Outside the Plaza Theatre in 1979 Manners Street, Wellington. Ref: AW-1807. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/38423191 . Photo taken by Ans Westra,1979.

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.

Cinerama, 1978. The front sign is currently displayed at Wellington Museum.
Photographer Charles J Fearnley Date 1978 Reference 50003-1837. Wellington City Libraries Collection Charles Fearnley https://wellington.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/2552

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).

How Cinerama was projected using three projectors and a curved screen.
Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinerama

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.

59-61 Courtenay Place today where Cinerama use to be. Photo: Tom Etuata

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 Telling Tales section on the ground floor.

Shining brightly in glorious neon technicolor.

END

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.