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Lyceum Theatre

Georgia Kerby - Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum


Cinema in Whangarei has a history of over a hundred years. Our first theatre was the Theatre Royal. The earliest display of moving images was via a “Projectoscope” or “Kinetoscope” in 1898, two years after New Zealand’s first cinema screening. This was set up like a large magic lantern but with a reel system for rotating short lengths of nitrate film. A backdrop of sound to the display would be provided by a phonograph or live musicians. Over the next ten years various displays of silent moving images, projected by Bioscopes or Chrono-biographs, were fondly attended but the town’s enthusiasm for these events suffered from the lack of space available in the theatre. It was time for a new theatre.

Whangarei photographer Ernest de Tourret was clearly an enthusiast for all things photographic and cinematic. As manager of the Theatre, he oversaw the display of silent films at the Theatre Royal through West’s Pictures, supplied by international agents Hayward’s Picture Enterprises. Sometimes the Kamo Town Hall was used as well. At the start of the 1910s De Tourret became the proprietor of land on Cameron Street to house a new theatre- the Lyceum.

Real progress came on 1st December 1911 when De Tourret signed the plans for West’s Lyceum Pictures. He had support from Hayward’s Picture Enterprises, as one of New Zealand’s leading film distributors. Whangarei’s new theatre was to house a second floor ‘dress circle’ of 160 people and lower floor seating for 600 people. This week’s Our Treasures is a photograph of the Lyceum from the street, donated as part of the Arthur Almond Collection, sourced from Mr L. Wilkinson.

Evident in our photograph, the date of signing documentation was given to decorate the building, even though it was constructed the following year. Manager De Tourret possibly named West’s new theatre after the famous Lyceum Theatre in London which was often reported about in the Northern Advocate.

Construction was not delayed. Bricks landed at the Town Wharf in January and the last film series was played in the Theatre Royal on 8th June 1912. West’s Lyceum Pictures formally opened on the 12th June 1912 by the Mayor Mr. Steadman. Costing around ₤3000, the final construction by F. Cuthforth, designed by Morland and Moran, disappointed some local reviewers in servicing only utilitarian needs rather than artistic expression.

At this time, Cinematographs were relatively new technology and liable to overheat. Fire safety was therefore taken into account in the theatre construction by housing the operator and film equipment in a concrete box. The film itself was housed in fireproof casings. However, an argument occurred between the Fire Board and Borough Council about granting a license to the theatre. The Fire Superintendent suggested the need for a fireman at each screening as had occurred at the old Theatre Royal, while the Council suggested this was an unnecessary precaution and would not fund the staffing. Obviously the discussion was resolved as the theatre continued to be a well-attended success.

The opening of such an up to date picture theatre provided Whangarei and wider Northland with access to the latest pictures four nights a week. Over its years of showcasing tragedy, drama, romance and hilarity the Lyceum gradually kept up with technology and added ‘talkies’ to its suite of silent movies.

In our photo, film posters advertised outside the theatre include “The Power of Love” and “The Handicap”. Described as “the great star melodrama”… “which fairly throbs with intensity”, the Power of Love featured at The Lyceum for several screenings in August 1912. Instead of advertising running time, the length of film was the fact of more import. The Power of Love was held across 2,600 feet of film, quite an impressive size for the time. Also screening in August was the Handicap, helping us date this photo to the first year of the Lyceum Theatre’s service.

Cameron Street was the hub of business in the first decade of the 1900s.T. A. William’s had an office for his The Rising Sun land estate agency at the front of the Lyceum building. Next door must have been a chemist or grocers, as the advertisement “Wolfe’s” schnapps is visible on the side. The reverse of our photograph records “Now the Odeon. Mr Thomas Sly, father of Mrs Mason, also collected tickets there under ownership of a Mrs Martha Mason”. Since the Lyceum, Whangarei has witnessed the rise of the film industry through the Odeon and the Regent theatres. If a replacement building is ever constructed for Event Cinemas I do wish we could have something that harkens back to the glamour of the early cinema and start of the ’talkies’.