Auckland: Elephants in the skies – the Civic Theatre
Picture this: Auckland, New Zealand, prior to 1929. Stores only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m Monday to Friday, few restaurants not open late. Although the first commercial film was shown at the Opera House in Auckland in 1896 and there were over 600 cinemas in New Zealand by the 1920s (a statistic states that in 1927 there was 1 cinema per 1000 inhabitants), there was nothing like the Civic Theatre, which opened its doors on December 20, 1929 amidst great fanfare. Built in only 33 weeks, it made the visitor of the new talking pictures gasp with wonder as soon as he entered the foyer: Inspired by Indian décor, 414 elephant sculptures hold up columns and light fixtures and guard Buddhas sitting crosslegged on niche pedestals in golden light. Blue and pink neon lights (in 1929!) backlight twisted columns and turrets.
Once in the main hall, which used to seat 2750 visitors, you think you are outdoors in a Moorish garden with minarets and spires as you look up - a domed cobalt blue ceiling full of twinkling stars and projections of the Milky Way (shown in their April 1929 position) explain why the theatre is called "built in the atmospheric style". Nowadays, it is only one of seven theatres built in this style still in existence and operation and the only one in Australasia.
The extravagant show curtain depicts an idyllic landscape of flamingos traipsing in a rhinestone-studded lagoon, overhung with branches of hand-embroidered cherry-tree blossoms, framed by two mighty columns of intricate, Moorish lattice-work, crowned by elaborate turrets that reach into the sky and are guarded by two statues of golden Abyssinian panthers with glowing green eyes.
Originally designed by architects Charles Bohringer and William Leighton for the businessman Thomas O'Brien in the style of the famous "Eberson theatres", the building contained several innovations, including a tearoom with dance floor (the Wintergarden) in its basement, from which patrons could observe the main screen and look straight up into the cobalt-blue star ceiling. There was also a 'gondola' orchestra pit which could be lifted or lowered as needed and featured the second largest Wurlitzer organ in the Southern Hemisphere.
With the onset of the Great Depression, which also hit New Zealand, attendance figures dropped. A contributing factor may have been Mr. O'Brien's insistence on showing British films rather than the more popular American ones. In 1968, the Wintergarden cabaret was closed and the last film shown was "LA confidential" in 1998. Sadly, by this time, the once so glamorous building had fallen into a state of disrepair. After a NZ$45 million (approx. €23 million/US$ 30 million) restoration, it reopened exactly 70 years after its inauguration, on December 29, 1999, and is now operated by THE EDGE® , a company formed by the municipal boards to manage various Auckland venues. Once again, the Civic Theatre is the pride of New Zealand and now hosts visiting musicals, the New Zealand Film Festival and other top acts.
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