Historic theatre's future in the spotlight

By Yvonne Tahana

The dress circle foyer of the St James in 1999. Photo / Salmon Reed Collection
The dress circle foyer of the St James in 1999. Photo / Salmon Reed Collection

The future of the St James Theatre - once one of Auckland's premier venues but now sliding into decay - will be highlighted today as the Government weighs up national convention centre bids.

Auckland City Council's The Edge is one of five contenders for the proposed centre, which could cost between $200 million and $500 million.

Under The Edge's plan, the St James would become the main venue for theatre, opera and ballet instead of the Aotea Centre, which would be incorporated into a new convention and exhibition centre.

Today, the Herald opens a campaign to save the St James, which has been closed since a fire in 2007 and is listed by the Historic Places Trust as category one.

Built in 1928, the ornate Spanish colonial-style building was once considered so beautiful that the man who commissioned it, Sir Benjamin Fuller, pronounced it "the theatre perfect".

Theatrical immortals Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh trod the boards there, and successive generations of Aucklanders knew it as a cinema and a music venue.

Documentary maker Richard Hodges, a long-time admirer, is making a film about the theatre.

"I was in town recently and I just happened to wander past. It was all boarded up. There was a jewellery guy [selling] on the side. I went out the back and all the marble steps had been chipped and the foyer on Lorne St has become a sort of toilet and it's really horrid. It just struck a chord with me - how the mighty have fallen."

Much of what made the St James so stunning is hidden behind a facade which SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge's father, Sir Robert, put up in the 1950s, designed specifically for a visit by the Queen.

The family once ran the Kerridge Odeon theatre circuit, which at its peak owned 133 cinemas, the largest chain in Australia and New Zealand.

Mr Kerridge calls the false front "horrible". He is responsible for gaining heritage status for the St James in 1988, and started the lobby group St James Saviours last year.

"My father didn't make many mistakes, but he did on that occasion, because he wanted to modernise the theatre so he put up a false front. I don't think the Queen would have noticed it, really. Behind that horrible front exists that lovely facade. We're hopeful it'll be restored."

He supports The Edge's plan.

"Aucklanders are longing to see that theatre come back to life again. It is certainly a very compatible marriage. I'm absolutely in support of it because it's a mechanism by which the theatre can be saved."

Mr Kerridge said there was something wrong with the heritage laws if a protected building could lapse into a state of disrepair.

Owner Paul Doole has previously indicated the property could be for sale.

The Government valuation is about $11 million.

Mr Doole has permission to build a 39-storey apartment complex on the site but, because of the venue's status, he must leave the St James standing and build around it.

He could not be reached yesterday.

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MAYORAL HOPEFULS AGREE

The Herald asked Super City mayoral candidates about saving the St James Theatre:

Auckland City Mayor John Banks: "The St James restoration's best estimates are north of $50 million. It needs to be restored to its former grandeur as part of our great entertainment heritage.

"I think we would want a conversation with Greater Auckland about just how we would start that restoration because the funding would be substantially borrowed."

Manukau City Mayor Len Brown: "I think every Aucklander wants to see the St James brought back to life. If we are going to become a great events city, we need great stages for those events. We also need to protect and preserve our built heritage. I'm committed to bringing together philanthropic organisations and individuals, community trusts, the private sector and the council to see how we can restore that magnificent building."

North Shore City Mayor Andrew Williams: " It's a marvellous theatre that's just sitting idle. I think it should receive significant funding from government in terms of heritage support. It'd be very good for tourism and the wider economy.

"It was an absolute travesty that His Majesty's Theatre got bowled in the late 1980s, and we can't let another of this standing get bowled again."

Colin Craig: Has no policy on the theatre.

- NZ Herald

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