Theatre owner fails. Talking films blamed. Creditors sympathise.
The newspaper headlines were stacked three decks deep. Short and brutal. Four years after Thomas O'Brien opened Auckland's Civic Theatre, the cinema mogul was broke and blaming losses at his other properties that had not been wired for the increasingly popular "talkies".
Thames-born O'Brien would die a poor man on a park bench in St Kilda, Melbourne. But his Auckland legacy endures.
Today, the refurbished Civic is the venue of choice for everything from Matilda the Musical to the live final of reality television show Survivor NZ. The New Zealand International Film Festival screens in the Civic annually. Sir David Attenborough, the Dalai Lama and Joan Collins have all taken the stage. And now, so can the paying public.
Auckland Live, Council's venue management arm, has opened up the Civic for behind-the-scenes tours. The 45-minute guided visits, accommodating up to 30, will run on weekends when the theatre is not booked for shows.
Arrive early at the corner of Queen St and Wellesley St and grab a coffee. Starks is the cafe named after one of the Civic's most colourful characters, Freda Stark. Infamous for her appearance as a key witness in a 1930s murder trial that gripped Auckland, she would go on to further shock and confound as the "Fever of the Fleet", dancing nude for American servicemen stationed in the city.
The book Freda Stark provides detail on her Civic years, performing ballet with the "Lucky Lovelies" and cabaret with the "Pony Dancers". For de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, Stark wore nothing but a g-string and paint - gold, according to those who saw it, but, in reality, glycerine mixed with silver powder that gleamed under an amber spotlight. The solution was toxic, applied just seconds before she went on stage and scrubbed off in a baby bath as soon as she exited. "There was no shower in the dressing room," she recalls. "So Charlie, the Civic's fireman, would boil the kettle... "
Freda performed in the Wintergarden. It's used as a function room now, but back then it was open to the starlit ceiling of the main auditorium. In the afternoons, ladies took tea and cake and watched films (later in the evening, when the dancing began, those teapots were allegedly filled with illicit liquor).
Peter Dobson has worked front-of-house at The Civic for the past decade. He greets our group with a question. How long, he asks, do we think all of this took to build?
Behind us, a floor mosaic of marching baby elephants, painstakingly recreated when just eight pieces of the original were discovered during refurbishments. Above us, the carved and curved grandeur of the foyer.
Five years? Ten years? Dobson shakes his head: "Thirty-three weeks."
The man in front of me just snorts. "They obviously didn't need council approval!"
The Civic Theatre was built in 1929 as a cinema, or, as it was more grandly proclaimed, a "picture palace". It cost $200,000 (about $19 million today). On opening night, it screened the comedy Three Live Ghosts. There is no talk of ghosts on our tour - although it is agreed the place exudes "presence" and at least eight men are believed to have died during its construction.
"There are 58 plaster horses in the foyer and 414 elephants. When the theatre underwent its $42m refurbishment, every single elephant was minus its tusks, broken off by souvenir hunters."
Dobson says ambulances were a constant. Up to 2000 workers clambered over the site, and men lined the street ready to replace anyone injured or killed - the Depression was looming and there was no shortage of manpower.
The tour takes us upstairs and downstairs (but just to the foot of the claustrophobically narrow well of stairs that lead to the projectionist's booth); into dressing rooms and function rooms, backstage and right on to the stage. The auditorium seats 2379, but from this vantage point, it looks smaller - maybe because above us, the fly tower extends seven stories.
In the Civic, your eyes are constantly turned skyward. It's an "atmospheric theatre" of international significance, listed by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as the largest surviving building of its kind in Australasia. Inside feels like outside. You're far, far away, in the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal or a fantastical temple open to the starry night that lights up before every show.
I have a friend who fell in love looking at that sky. It was International Film Festival opening night and the woman next to him pointed out the shooting star (there are two) and for the next five or so years, he contrived to be at any event she was at.
Eventually, she agreed to have dinner with him. They are still living happily ever after.
Tour participants are invited to share their personal memories of the Civic, but, right now, the guide is regaling us with statistics. That starlit roof with its scudding clouds replicates Auckland's night sky as it appears every April 20 at 10pm. It used to feature actual bulbs, but now utilises 1000 fibre optic lightheads.
More numbers? There are 58 plaster horses in the foyer and 414 elephants. When the theatre underwent its $42m refurbishment in the 1990s, every single elephant was minus its tusks, broken off by souvenir hunters.
"Perhaps they thought they were real ivory?" our guide speculates. And why not? Outside is Auckland house prices and congested streets. Inside is elephants and seated Buddhas, Moorish minarets and Abyssinian panthers.
In 1929, Thomas O'Brien acknowledged the majesty of this building:
"Imposing as the structure is, it reflects but to a minor degree the effort and energy that have gone with its erection. All that human ability, genius and mechanical assistance could contribute has been used without stint to create a theatre worthy of the Queen City of the Domain... I await the verdict of my patrons with confidence."
I think the patrons liked it.
The Civic Tours: Sign up to the waitlist at aucklandlive.co.nz to receive dates and times of the next tours ($29.95).