Designed to be a bathhouse, now a museum, one of New Zealand's most photographed buildings was also once at the centre of New Zealand's live music scene.

By the early 1960s, the famous Rotorua bathhouse was set for demolition as its population decreased and maintenance costs seemed never-ending, but a local chef saved it from the scrap heap.

In 1965 Charlie Pihera opened the doors on Tudor Towers, a silver service restaurant set in the foyer and mezzanine of the building with an enormous sunken dance floor built across the gap.

Entertainment was an essential ingredient of the venue with local Māori performers playing a key role in Cultural Concert Parties.


In 1971 Timos Devliotis and his wife Cherie took over the lease, upscaling the operation into Bay of Plenty's first cabaret bar.

At the time it was the only cabaret bar in New Zealand to hold a license for seven nights a week.

Tai Eru was the entertainment manager, drawing in big names like Billy T James, Tina Cross, The Senators and, if there was a gap in the lineup, Sir Howard Morrison would step in.

Rotorua architect John Leary designed the now infamous three-tiered stage that dominated the upper floor.

In her memoirs, Cherie Devliotis said this "engineering masterpiece soared up to the ceiling and out and around in twirls, high above the customers' heads was a stage to hold a white baby grand".

The Devliotis contract was terminated in the early 1980s when a group of musicians, the band Cairo, took over the lease.

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Band member Richard Anaru said it was an "incredibly fun time".

The band Cairo Richard Anaru, left, Raymond Marama, Ernie Semu and Rob Patterson. Photo/Supplied
The band Cairo Richard Anaru, left, Raymond Marama, Ernie Semu and Rob Patterson. Photo/Supplied

The band drew an international following and people travelled from around the country to enjoy their performances.

"We started out in Auckland and our manager at the time said a business opportunity had come up in Rotorua.

"It was a first for any band in New Zealand to also own their own bar, so we were doing something a little different."

In the early days, the band were performing seven nights a week, drawing up to 18 tour buses and making $30,000 a night.

Cairo now Mickey Ututaonga, left, Rob Patterson, Richard Anaru and Ernie Semu. Photo/File
Cairo now Mickey Ututaonga, left, Rob Patterson, Richard Anaru and Ernie Semu. Photo/File

"It was absolute magic, always filled to capacity. The Towers was a big part of the New Zealand music scene and everyone played there.

"The atmosphere perpetuated good crowds and our shows were fabulous, absolutely fabulous, they were really great."

The band was Anaru on guitar, Rob Patterson on bass, Ernie Semu on keyboards and Mickey Ututonga on the drums with several lead singers rotating in.

House DJ Don Patterson could be found above the stage at the DJ booth.

Once guests got past the bouncers at the door, among those All Blacks Steve McDowell and Hika Reid and Commonwealth Games boxer Mike Sykes, they would make their way up the "unbelievable staircases", Anaru said.

"The stud on the roof was about 30m and there was a giant chandelier hanging down.

"It was just one of those places, it was just fantastic."

Anaru said some of the best nights were the ladies nights where everyone would get completely dressed up.

"It was a different world back then and we had to wade through that.

"There was an amazing wine cellar, we would go in there and dust off a bottle, we once found Dom Perignon from the early 1960s, which was worth about $50 a bottle, of course, we drank it."

In 1990, when the lease came up, the band made the decision to walk away from the bar.

"The band stayed together but eventually we chose different paths, but we're still all really great friends.

"I think they're on the mark at the moment with keeping it as the museum, we've still got the Tudor Towers there in the Government Gardens and it deserves to have a new history."

Aneta Pratt and her friends had many wonderful memories at the nightclub.

"It's such a unique venue because of its grand splendour.

"I'm so grateful to have been around to appreciate the talent and magic of Cairo."

She said the sunken dance floor and onlookers around it encouraged them to think they were all "dance floor champions" and truly let their hair down.

"It was indeed a very sad day when they closed the doors that final night."

Her friend Mat Stokes said The Towers was the place everyone in Rotorua would end up.

"As a teen trying to sneak past the bouncers, usually some relative, walking up the stairs and hearing Don Patterson mix those beats.

"Then having the privilege of watching and listening to probably one of the best cover bands in New Zealand, Cairo, play the latest tunes from the radio.

"That was every weekend."

He said after that live music in Rotorua became "almost obsolete".