Thursday, 27 November 2014

St. James Theatre

Queen Street’s St. James Theatre has been in the news recently, with the announcement by its new owner of plans for restoration, in conjunction with the development of an adjacent 39 story residential tower.

The Category 1 listed building was opened in July 1928, with a performance of the London Musical Comedy ‘Archie’. The images below are the cover and the centre pages of the programme from that evening: 

Ref: New Zealand Ephemera - 'Archie' - A Musical Comedy In Two Acts. Gala opening performance of the St James Theatre, July 5 1928. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 

Ref: New Zealand Ephemera - 'Archie' - A Musical Comedy In Two Acts. Gala opening performance of the St James Theatre, July 5 1928. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 


The St. James theatre was designed by architect Henry Eli White for its owners Sir Benjamin Fuller and his brother John Fuller. White was responsible for a number of theatres in Australia and New Zealand, including the St. James Theatre, Sydney. This was also built for the Fullers, who owned a significant theatre and retail businesses across the two countries.

At the time the St. James was designed, live performance was dominated by vaudeville: musical and comic entertainment. The St. James was quickly adapted to the newly popular ‘talking pictures’ however, with the addition of a film projector 18 months after opening. The St. James has accommodated live performance and/or film during different periods of its lifetime.

Ref: Auckland Star, Volume LX, Issue 296, 14 December 1929, Page 10

The “new thrill” of movies at the St. James commenced on Boxing Day 1929 with ‘The Gold Diggers of Broadway’.

Ref: Auckland Star, Volume LX, Issue 302, 21 December 1929, Page 20

The Projectionist for that very first night was Jack Cook, who remained in that role until his retirement 41 years later at age 74 (‘Out with the light.’ Auckland Star, 6 February 1970, p6).

This photograph, from either the 1930s or very early 1940s, shows the elaborate exterior façade and pinnacled tower of the St. James.


However, the façade and tower were hidden by the addition of metal sheeting in order to modernise the appearance of the building in time for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.


The image below shows the St. James in 1956 or ‘57:


And this image is from the 1970s:


Looking at the outside of the building now, it is hard to picture the treasures of its interior.

Ref: View of St James Theatre from Queen Street, November 2014.

Ref: View of St James Theatre from Lorne Street, November 2014.

However, its Spanish-Renaissance style interior is well preserved. The main auditorium has three tiers of seating plus boxes, elaborate lighting and ornate plasterwork decoration; items of heritage value include statuettes, the terrazzo flooring and the grand marble staircase. Have a look at the New Zealand Herald’s St. James Theatre Picture Gallery and the photos on the Save The St. James Facebook page.

Closed in 2007 due to safety concerns following a fire in the west wing of the complex, there have been a number of plans for the St. James mooted over the years, with an active Save the St James Campaign running since 2010. 

Unrealised plans have included:
  • A 2004 proposal for an adjacent 36 storey apartment and retail complex (Esther Harwood. ‘St James would have mixed old and new.’ Auckland City Harbour News, 10 December 2004, p3).
  • A 2009 proposal for an adjacent 39 storey apartment and the sealing and mothballing of the St. James (Heather McCracken, ‘Towering Over History.’ New Zealand Herald, 26 April 2009, p21).
  • A 2010 proposal by for the St. James to be restored as part of a new Convention Centre (Brian Rudman, ‘St James Theatre restoration would be sweet music to the ears of many’. New Zealand Herald, 9 August 2010, pA7). 

In the light of the current proposal, Aucklanders may well be wondering if the St. James might again become worthy of its 1928 proclamation as 'Auckland's Greatest Theatre.'


Auckland Libraries has a number of resources to explore if you are interested in learning more of the Theatre’s history:


  • Auckland's greatest theatre: St James Theatre, "the theatre perfect", Auckland's show place, article by Douglas Harley; compiled by Alan Webb.
  • Auckland cinemas. Jab Grefstad, compiled by Alan Webb (2002). See Part 2, pp.79-83. 
  • Find newspaper articles and other items via Index Auckland – use Advanced Search to Subject search for: St James Theatre, Auckland and also through the New Zealand Card Index – keyword search: “St James Theatre”
  • Locate performance and film programmes, brochures, posters and flyers via the Ephemera Index – Subject search for: St James Theatre, Auckland
  • Search Heritage Images  for photographs – use Advanced Search to Subject search for: St James Theatre, Auckland
  • Search Papers Past for digitised newspaper articles. Due to their being a number of St James Theatres both in NZ and elsewhere, the best results will be achieved by limiting your search to the relevant Auckland newspapers only (Auckland Star & New Zealand Herald), using the Phrase search for St James Theatre, limiting to the dates and content type you are interested in, and using additional keywords.

Author: Rachel, Central Auckland Research Centre

2 comments:

  1. If you'd like to hear some of the soundtrack to the 'Gold Diggers of Broadway' that the customers on Boxing Day 1929 heard, have a listen at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/GoldDiggersOfBroadway1929

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very interesting. I'll be sure to take a closer look next time I pass.

    ReplyDelete

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