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The new His Majesty’s was a
          substantial theatre which seated 2,355
          on three levels; Wellington’s largest and
          the first steel-framed theatre in the
          southern hemisphere.
            The frame allowed for an
          unsupported 80 foot (24 m.) roof span,
          with resistance to earthquakes.
            White’s solution to poor sightlines
          was to use cantilevered steel beams to
          support the balconies, thereby reducing
          to three the number of posts in the stalls.
            The style he chose for the exterior
          has been described as ‘restrained
          Edwardian Freestyle’. Freestyle was a
          mixing and matching of classical
          elements, the intention being to achieve
          coherence of form. His design did so  The film which brought sound to the screen at His Majesty’s - now the St James -
          admirably.                        was Warner Bros.’ On With The Show, the first all-talking, all-singing, all-colour musical.
            Because he chose a variety of
                                               The opening movie was Sweet Nell
          materials for the interior, all of first class
                                            of Old Drury, plus a range of short
          quality, reporters at the opening described
          the theatre as having ‘a cheerful
          appearance’. Today we call it ‘theatrical  Fullers ran films for nine months,
          rococo derived from Louis XV’.    but on 15 September 1913 His
                                            Majesty’s reverted to live shows and
            I can personally vouch for White’s
                                            vaudeville, due to very strong
          skill with the acoustics of His
                                            competition from other cinemas. It
          Majesty’s. We hired the theatre once
                                            remained a live theatre until wired for
          for a promotion, and standing on the
                                            sound in 1930. Its first sound movie
          stage I was able to carry on a
                                            was On With the Show, one of those
          conversation with someone in the upper
                                            early musicals concentrating on revue
          circle without raising my voice.
                                            sets. To mark the switch back to films  As the world remembers them: Vivien
            White didn’t challenge the                                         Leigh and Lawrence Olivier.
                                            the name was changed to the St James.
          convention of separating the social
                                               In March 1945 Fullers effectively
          classes. To our eyes, one deficiency of                                 The fight to save the building was
                                            bowed out of theatre management. Sir
          the design was the small street-level                                long and drawn out. In the end a trust
                                            Robert Kerridge purchased 61 Fuller
          foyer, dominated by the centre staircase                             was set up with funding from the
                                            theatres, including the St James,
          to the circle. The era of large foyers in                            Lotteries Commission, various
                                            bringing his chain to 131. From the
          New Zealand was a decade away.                                       sponsors, Trust Bank, Wellington City
                                            date of the purchase live shows were
            The frontage did however follow                                    Council, and the public.
                                            interspersed with films.
          White’s maxims about ventilation and                                    In an enlightened move, a local
                                               For many the unforgettable theatre
          safe egress, by offering five entrances:                             government building adjoining the
                                            moment was when Lawrence Olivier
          the two outermost doors gave access to                               theatre was acquired. This became a
                                            and Vivien Leigh trod the boards for
          the stalls, the central door was to the                              large entry foyer, space for a
                                            the Old Vic Theatre Company in 1948 -
          circle, and the other two were to the                                café/restaurant, rest rooms, plus a
                                            the first couple of English theatre
          grand circle.                                                        substantial upstairs lounge, all the things
                                            performing in the perfect theatre.
            His Majesty’s nearly didn’t open as                                lacking in the earlier design. Backstage
                                               Olivier said at the time, “Don’t let
          planned on Boxing Day 1912. One                                      was entirely rebuilt and the auditorium
                                            any theatres be pulled down. The
          crucial detail went awry when more                                   was restored to its former glory.
                                            building of theatres seems to be an art
          than sixty percent of the seats were                                    The final cost was $NZ 21.4
                                            we have lost.”
          shipped to the wrong island, and                                     million, but the end result is a
          finished up in Dunedin. A frantic    The final regular film screening was  magnificent theatre, the live show and
          management was forced to borrow seats  in January 1986. The last movie of all  festival centre for the city. The
          from all over the region, many no doubt  was Wanted Dead or Alive, shown 7  adjoining Local Government building
          substandard compared to the ones the  May 1987.                      in Art deco style now houses the
          Fullers and their architect had in mind.  The theatre had changed hands in  booking office and a busy café. It
            The theatre was packed for the  1985 for $NZ 3.5 m. The new owner,  blends in well with the theatre, and is
          opening, at which the Mayor of    Chase Corporation intended to pull it  often used for art displays.
          Wellington City, David McLaren    down and build a high-rise office block.  When the extensions were
          officiated. The beauty of twin boxes at  However, a public outcry about a  completed the old front entrance was
          each of three levels and the ceiling  theatre held in high regard, in a city  closed, but White’s original doors have
          decoration was much praised.      that had already lost a number of  been retained. ★
                                            theatres, stalled the plan.
                                                                                       CINEMARECORD 2006     7
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