Bob Kerridge: Grand old lady in need of TLC

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Future generations of Aucklanders, and New Zealanders, deserve to enjoy the St James Theatre's splendour, says Bob Kerridge.

The St James Theatre is protected - but it needs to be taken care of. Photo / David White
The St James Theatre is protected - but it needs to be taken care of. Photo / David White

There resides in the heart of Auckland a theatre so spectacularly beautiful, even by international standards, that it deserves the description accorded to it by the man who commissioned its construction, Sir Benjamin Fuller, when he pronounced it "the theatre perfect".

Yet it sits, doors closed, in darkness and in silence, neglected, and threatened by its own decay. Designed by Dunedin-born Henry Eli Wright, the St James Theatre was built by contractors JT Julian and Son, who were also responsible for the Auckland Railway Station.

"Erected in record time" its grand gala opening was on July 5, 1928 to a performance by the London Musical Company of Archie.

Later that year the St James hosted the Fuller-Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Company in a presentation of Verdi's La Traviata.

What a scene those opera nights in this palatial theatre would have been with Auckland's gentry, men smartly attired and women in long flowing gowns.

For the convenience of motorists on arrival, an attendant was stationed in Lorne St "to attend to patrons wants in the safe parking of cars".

Gratuities were not permitted for services rendered, and any doctors expecting messages or phone calls were required to "register their seat number at the Box Office".

On Boxing Day in 1929, the St James screened its first film, the Warner Bros musical comedy The Gold Diggers of Broadway, which was historically significant as the second talking movie with synchronised speech.

Ironically, it was this venture into movies that would contribute to the demise of the St James as a live theatre, with the quality of its films declining as new specialised cinemas opened around it.

Being specifically designed to house live shows, the St James remains the only theatre in Auckland dedicated for this purpose and it is here her best memories remain and her future destiny resides.

The floorboards of its generous stage hosted theatrical icons, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Sir Ralph Richardson and vaudeville shows including the Ziegfield Follies, Pleasures of Paris with Sabrina and in 1963 the record-breaking Black and White Minstrel Show.

In 1972 the West End production of Charlie Girl with Anna Neagle, Derek Nimmo and a very young Johnny Farnham was imported in its entirety, and in 1956/57 Armand Perren froze the stage to create the perfect ice rink for his Spice and Ice show.

The Russian invasion started in 1963 when the Georgian State Dance Company performed their spectacular traditional routine, soon to be followed by the Omsk Siberian Company, while 1982 witnessed two major ballet productions, the first from the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet Company followed by the stars of the Russian Ballet.

And it was in the St James Theatre, at a Royal Command Performance, that Howard Morrison stood centre stage at the footlights and sang How Great Thou Art in a premiere performance that would launch his solo career.

These are also the visions for the future with the stage again coming alive with the theatrical attractions of today, including long-running seasons of popular shows such as Wicked, Jersey Boys, The Lion King and Miss Saigon. These draw us across the Tasman because the one venue here that could do them justice languishes in darkness.

Given the demise of other significant theatres, I was concerned that the St James may follow in their dust, and accordingly in November 1988 the Historic Places Trust placed a Category 1 listing on the interior of the St James.

What is of interest is that the unique Queen St facade of the St James, with its decorative elements, including a landmark tower which could be seen from the waterfront, is unfamiliar to Aucklanders, as it was hastily hidden from view behind metal sheeting to coincide with the visit of the Queen who attended a film premiere there in December of 1953.

Mercifully the authentic face remains behind it to one day see the light of day again.

The totally intact interior is spectacular with its grand marble staircase, its unique boxes that house "special patrons", its three levels which include the Grand Circle, its array of thousands of coloured globes concealed behind the highly decorative plaster and leadlights, and its ornate auditorium that has only once been repainted.

That formidable task fell on the shoulders of a jovial Scottish painter and decorator George Bell, who in 1963 quoted £1500 to undertake the task.

He worked from a swaying platform hooked up through the ceiling to the rafters where he lay on his back with the ceiling only an arm's-length away.

Audiences far below were oblivious to his presence as he worked by shielded torchlight so as not to disturb them.

The repainting of the St James also involved attaching by hand tens of thousands of 5cm square gold leaves, one at a time, to the ornate plasterwork on the walls and ceilings.

Such beauty and such history must not be lost to neglect, and the St James Theatre must be rescued, restored and resurrected to its former glory for future generations of Aucklanders, and indeed New Zealanders, to enjoy.

Mercifully many agree, including the Auckland City Council who has placed its own Grade A protection over the entire building.

The "St James Saviours" (as I have labelled them) exist and are about to set about this important task, for the splendour of the past and the future will not be lost.

* Bob Kerridge is executive director of SPCA Auckland and a life member of the Historic Places Trust.

- NZ Herald

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