The Majestic Theatre
Originally the southwest corner of "Cabbage" Wilson's market garden, the Majestic Theatre site was designated in 1874 for an hotel as part of Wilson's Newmarket commercial development. William Wilson had become the city's first Mayor in 1868, but failed to attract an hotelier prepared to pay £117 per annum for a 21 year lease, so by the later 1870s a large two storey wooden building was erected on the corner as the premises of the grocers Hubbard, Hall & Company, with the offices of the Commercial Union Assurance Company above.
The Australian Luttrell brothers: Alfred Edgar (1865-1924) and Edward Sidney (1872-1932) established one of New Zealand's foremost architectural practices when they arrived in Christchurch in 1902 after winning a competition for the design of third White Hart Hotel in High St (demolished in 1984).
Alfred acted as the principal designer and engineer, while the smooth-talking Sidney co-ordinated building programmes and dealt with clients. Their skills and versatility made an impact on the architecture of Christchurch that remains an important and visible contribution to our architectural heritage.
Also building contractors, among their surviving projects are the 1902 Lyttelton Times Building (now the X-base Backpacker's Hostel) and the 1905 Royal Exchange building (now the Regent Theatre), both in Cathedral Square, the 1906 New Zealand Express Company building on the southeast corner of Hereford and Manchester Streets and the 1908 Theatre Royal in Gloucester Street.
After Alfred's death in 1924 the design work of the firm was undertaken by Jack Hollis and Allan Manson. Manson took over the practice when Sidney Luttrell died in 1932 (renamed as Manson, Seward & Stanton in 1936). In 1929 Allan Manson and Jack Hollis designed two major buildings, with similar facades, for the city.
Beath's Department Store at the corner of Colombo and Cashel Streets was originally intended to be six storeys, but the Great Depression put the project on hold and the store, which is now The Crossing transit centre, was completed at three levels in 1935.
The other project was the five level Majestic Theatre building for John Fuller & Sons Ltd at the corner of Manchester and Lichfield Streets. The original design proposal was for a three-tiered auditorium, with seating for 4,000, but this was later modified to two tiers with seating for 1,650.
Unlike Beath and Co, Sir Benjamin Fuller’s (1875-1952) cash rich Australian company, backed by their sixty-four New Zealand theatres, with unmortgaged freeholds, survived the Great Depression better than most.
The new theatre was the city’s first with a steel frame (of 380 tons), and the brick clad exterior was rendered with stucco to create an effect of two-tone Sandstone blocks, separated by white pointing.
The Fuller’s new building was completed in early 1930, with the western third of the upper three floors as offices. Known as Majestic House, with a separate entrance on Manchester Street, the offices were occupied by the Department of Labour (now Work and Income New Zealand).
Promoted as "The Show Place of Christchurch," the city's largest theatre was leased to Christchurch Cinemas Limited, which was made up of a partnership of Hayward Pictures Ltd, Waters and Spence Ltd, Fuller Pictures Ltd and Edward Joseph Righton of Christchurch. Fitted with sound apparatus for the "talkies," and seat plugs for hearing aids, it opened on the 1st of March, 1930.
Good though the restrained Art Deco exterior is, it is the theatre's auditorium that is probably the more significant. For more than three decades the discreet luxury of an interior in the Hispano-Moorish architectural tradition would ensure that the Majestic remained preëminent among the thirteen theatres within the central city.
The Fuller-Hayward organisation was also the original promoters of the Miss New Zealand contest, which was billed as a “Quest for a Screen Type.” Ten provincial finalists were chosen from the more than two thousand hopefuls who entered the contest. The finalists toured the country appearing in a spectacular show at the new Majestic Theatre, after which the patrons voted for the contestant of their choice.
In 1946 Christchurch Cinemas Limited was sold to locally born Sir Robert Kerridge (1901-1979) and in that same year the Majestic was badly damaged by fire. The building was subsequently renovated under the supervision of the Architect Harry Francis Willis (1893-1972), who had designed the 1932 New Regent Street development and the now concealed 1934 Art Deco facade of the State Cinema at the northeast corner of Gloucester and Colombo Streets.
By the 1950s there were fashion parades during the interval before the main feature and even three-dimensional films (requiring patrons to wear spectacles, with red and green lenses). In 1960 New Zealand cinema ticket sales peaked at forty million, but within three years television was beginning to take its toll on Christchurch cinemas. However, the large theatre, with its excellent stage facilities, enjoyed a revival with the Startime Spectacular live music shows. There were also performances by some of the legendary Rock 'n Roll groups of that era, these included the Beatles, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five and Manfred Mann.
The theatre closed on the 28th of August, 1970, becoming Moby Dick's Nite Spot. The club is probably best remembered as the salubrious venue where the legendary Christchurch glam rock band Odyssey performed regularly. Six years later it was again badly damaged by fire and the night club closed.
The Christchurch Revival Fellowship, which had originally met in the old Horticultural Hall on Cambridge Terrace after being established in 1962, owned a building opposite the Majestic by 1976. On that fateful Sunday morning the churchgoers looked on as the old theatre burned. A member of the congregation purchased the gutted night club and two years later the Christchurch Revival Fellowship became the City New Life Centre, but it would still be another year before restoration was complete. With seating reduced to eleven hundred the former theatre is now known as the Majestic Church.
It is understood that there is a proposal to restore the Art Deco Theatre and it is to be hoped that the facade will be returned to its former glory.
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