Heritage: Mercury Theatre

MERCURY THEATRE (KING'S THEATRE 1910)

Architect - Edward Bartley (1839–1919)



Located just off Karangahape Road is one of the most important buildings in Auckland; THE MERCURY THEATRE, which is the oldest surviving theatre in Auckland, built as the KING'S THEATRE in 1910.

The KING'S THEATRE went through several name changes; THE PRINCE EDWARD, THE PLAYHOUSE before eventually being named the MERCURY THEATRE in 1968.

Had this building been located almost anywhere else it would have doubtless enjoyed landmark status simply because of its engaging façade. However it's position on a relatively narrow sloping street means it is quite difficult to really take in and appreciate the quality of the architecture.

The building was designed by Edward Bartley as an imposing piece of Edwardian Baroque architecture but it's importance lies not so much in it's appearance but in its history.

The Fullers company was one of the businesses concerned with public entertainment in Auckland at the turn of the 20th Century, providing excursion tours by boat and coach. In 1910 they expanded by constructing the KING'S THEATRE on what was then Upper Pitt Street.

The new theatre opened on 28 November 1910 at a cost of £7,777.

26 November 1910


The new “Luxurious" theatre was intended by the owner Benjamin Fuller to be as up-to-date and as safe as possible. To begin with electricity was provided both for the auditorium and the stage lighting [gas flames and flimsy scenery and costumes were often a fatal combination] Most importantly the stage was separted from the auditorium by an Asbestos Drop Curtain in case of fire.

Bartley's fit-out of the interior used components chosen to be as fire-restistant as possible. Little wood was used and the staircases are constructed using concrete. All the interiors have ceilings made of pressed tin panels. Pressed tin ceilings were common in many buildings of this period partly becuase they were thought [erroneously as it happens] to be a fire retardant surface.

Although intended primarily as a live drama venue the KING'S THEATRE was built with the facilities to screen the new Electric Moving Pictures. This was to prove very important for the survival of the building since it actually has a very shallow stage. In fact it opened in 1910 with the showing of a Film, obviously a very up to date and modern thing to do.


Moving Pictures Come to Auckland

Moving pictures were first shown in Paris in 1896, within six months they were being shown in the AUCKLAND OPERA HOUSE and over the next 14 years several theatres and halls in New Zealand were converted to show Motion pictures on a regular or permanent basis.


Cinema Posters March 1911 in Nelson


The first purpose built Cinema in Auckland was the 1911 LYRIC THEATRE on Upper Symonds Street (demolished). The oldest purpose built cinema is the VICTORIA CINEMA in Devonport from 1912 [which is also the oldest Cinema in continuous use in the Southern hemisphere.]

In 1911 the KING'S THEATRE showed the first Colour Film screened in New Zealand. This film was apparently screened at Fullers three major Auckland theatres; the GLOBE, Queen St, The KINGS THEATRE, Newton and the OPERA HOUSE Wellesley Street.

This film was not just a coloured in Black & White Film, but one of the twenty or so early colour processes that were experimented with before Techicolor was perfected in the mid-1920s, the earliest colour film process was patented as early as 1899.

The colour film shown in 1911 will have used the 1908 Kinemacolor process which required two projectors. One projected a red and the other a green image which had to be carefully syncronised to create a coloured moving image.

This was created by the viewer's persistence of vision. The process was not ideal; quickly moving items like the wagging tail of a dog tended to appear alternatively red and green. It was very easy for the two projectors to get out of synchronisation creating an irritatingly blurred image so Kinemacolor was swiftly superceded by other processes.

1911 Kinemacolor


It isn't known what the colour film shown in 1911 was called; it would have been very short and was of course silent.

These short films tended be non-fiction pieces with topics chosen to show off the novelty of colour; shots of flowers and gardens and events such as fashion shows.

If they were pieces with storylines they were often very simplistic comedies with settings and costumes chosen to highlight the use of colour; this scene with circus performers is an example.

1911 Kinemacolor

In the first decades of the 20th century Moving Pictures were often used as a novelty item before the proper performance of the evening. At the upper end of the market “Artistic" shorts or Travelogues might appear before a piece of Live Theatre. The Durbar at Delhi 1911

At the lower end of the market comedy shorts and cartoons would be included in a line-up of vaudeville acts. List of Early Cartoons.

Emile Cohl - Fantasmagorie 1908

As this newspaper article from 1911 illustrates Fullers apparently provided a whole evenings entertainment with a selection of films.

NZ Truth 26 August 1911


The showing of motion Pictures was obviously much less complicated than organising the many performers, costumes and scenery required for live theatre. This and the fact that during the 1920s films became increasingly longer and more sophisticated meant that cinema began to displace live theatre as popular entertainment.

It was undeniably easier to turn a profit from moving pictures than live theatre and several theatres became cinemas at this time. The KINGS THEATRE was one of several live drama venues in Auckland and it's constricted stage area was probably a major factor in the decision to convert it into a full-time cinema.

To relaunch the venue Fuller decided to build a new entrance, probably because, amongst other reasons, the new [and very large] George Court Store obscured the view of the France Street facade from Karangahape Road.

Directly to the north of the theatre was a slender piece of property between the Hallensteins Building and Bradstreets Drapery Store. On this site was constructed the new entrance to what was now the PRINCE EDWARD THEATRE.

The site for the new entrance cost £ 13,000 and was designed by the architect Daniel B. Patterson who designed many cinemas for Benjamin Fuller.


The PRINCE EDWARD THEATRE was named after Edward, Prince of Wales whose Tour of New Zealand in 1920 was still very much in the public mind. Prince Edward [later Edward VIII] was one of most glamorous personalities of the period and his popularity was on a par with of film stars during the 1920s.


The New K Road Entrance [behind Policeman]

The New Entrance: Ticket Booth [left] and display cabinet [right] The marble stairs decend from Kroad to a lower level to make the ascent up the Grand Marble Stairs more impressive.

The new entrance was designed as a long corridor with a Roman Vault. It was an elegantly slim space, two storied in height and distinguished by marble stairs and oak panelling. As well as large bracket lights the entrance was lit by concealed uplighting (a very modern and glamourous touch).

The New Entrance: The view back to the Karangahape Road Entrance doors. This image shows the Art-deco bracket lamps and the Oak-panelled walls.

The newly restored leadlight skylight arch.

The new entrance was in the form of a broad staircase which decended from Karangahape Road in easy stages down to a lower level. This was largely in order to make the Grand Staircase more impressive.

At the top of the stairs was a new lobby surmounted by a leadlight dome in the Neo-Greek style which was artificially lit from above at night. The whole effect was described in the Auckland Star as “extremely artistic".

The theatre reopened on 16th of July 1926. It became Fuller's most important venue in Auckland after a devastating fire gutted Fuller's Opera House in Wellesley Street West in December 1926 (that building was not rebuilt and was eventually replaced by the rear portion of Smith & Caughey's Department Store).


The Dome Room in 1941

The Dome Room [as it is now called] is an example of the type of sophisticated Palm Court interior which evoked the glamour of the large luxury hotels and ocean liners of the period.

The Palm Court. SS Rotterdam



The PRINCE EDWARD was one of about six cinemas operating in the Karangahape Road area between the turn of the century and the 1960s, when the popularity of suburban life & radio and the advent of television lead to a decline in the cinema business.


The PLAYHOUSE

In 1947 the name was changed to THE PLAYHOUSE. This was partly due to the fact that after the abdication crisis in 1936 the Prince of Wales, then Edward VIII and latterly the Duke of Windsor was no longer a drawcard, but also because the theatre was being used for live drama productions again.

The PLAYHOUSE is a name with a very long history including theatres operating in London since the Restoration period. The current PLAYHOUSE in Northumberland Avenue in London dates from 1907 and is probably the source of the PRINCE EDWARD's renaming. That theatre was known for premiering the works of George Bernard Shaw, and Somerset Maugham as well as being managed by Gladys Cooper.

In 1946 Fullers sold their entire set of public entertainment venues in New Zealand and concentrated on providing ferry services. THE PLAYHOUSE was one of these venues and was thus operated from this time on by the Kerridge-Odeon group.




The ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET

On June 30th 1953 the first performance of the Royal New Zealand Ballet took place at the PLAYHOUSE THEATRE. This was a historic event made all the more intriguing by the fact that the Playhouse's stage is very shallow. Even staging small dramatic performances is often problematic but for the needs of a Ballet performance the stage is ridiculously small. Perhaps this was when the stage was built out beyond the proscenium arch.

The opening work, entitled 'Dance Without Tears' was choreographed by Poul Gnatt.

Fokine's “Les Sylphides" with Gloria Young and Poul Gnatt

Gnatt had been the principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet until moving to New Zealand and founding the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Poul_Gnatt Royal New Zealand Ballet


During the 1950s the theatre had a resident company, the New Zealand Theatre Company. In the early fifties, plays, musicals and reviews were performed interspersed with films. In 1956 the original entrance in France Street was restored. In 1967 the Playhouse closed, and the 1926 entrance was sold off as a separate property.



THE MERCURY THEATRE

In 1968 the Cinema became the home of the MERCURY THEATRE COMPANY. The building was extensively refitted to serve as the company's headquarters and principal venue. The name was derived from the Mercury Theatre Company established by Orson Welles in New York in 1937.

As the K Road entrance was now no longer available the France Street entrance was reopened as the main entry to the theatre. The auditorium was reduced in size at this time, part of the rear of the stalls was partitioned off to create a larger lobby.

The rear part of the upper circle was separated from the auditorium and a secondary performance space created for smaller productions. The Dome Room was now used as a rehearsal space and dance studio. The renovated MERCURY THEATRE opened with a production of J. M. Barrie's comedy, The Admirable Crichton. The Company's range of productions was eclectic; a dozen or more shows were presented every year, ranging from children's pantomimes to cutting-edge drama.

The company presented classics by Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan and Chekhov, as well as new works from playwrights such as Christopher Hampton and Tom Stoppard. New Zealand authors were well represented; including Roger Hall, Bruce Mason, and Maurice Shadbolt.

List of Productions


The musical productions ranged from items like Chicago, The fiddler on the roof, Porgy and Bess, The Sound of Music, South Pacific and WestSide Story, to full-scale operas, such as like The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, Gounod's Faust, Madame Butterfly and Turandot. Although the Mercury drew large audiences, the costs of maintaining a full-sized company and mounting lavish productions were high. The opening of the Aotea Centre in 1989 also changed the landscape of Live drama in Auckland.

In 1992, to the disappointment of Auckland's theatre-going public, the company closed. The final production was an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, written by Alan Bennett with music and songs by Jeremy Sams.

The MERCURY THEATRE had been the focus for live theatre in Auckland for over two decades. Both as a venue and as a training ground for actors, it played a significant role in the theatrical life of NZ and is remembered fondly by a great many people.

The Rise and Fall of the Mercury Theatre

In 1992 Auckland City Council renamed France St as Mercury Lane to honour this memory.

Mercury Theatre Records




The MERCURY THEATRE building is currently the premises of the Equippers Church.

During the time it was used as the MERCURY THEATRE the interior of the auditorium had been left intact but was painted matt black. The Equippers Church has tried to recreate the original colour scheme of cream, red & blue. Much of the detailing has been painstakingly highlighted in gold.

The PLAYHOUSE 1948


The building is available for hire and recently saw the production of a theatrical work for the first time in over 15 years when the Auckland Opera Studio staged the opera “The Seven Deadly Sins" in 2006.

The MERCURY THEATRE is now owned and operated by: www.equipperschurch.co.nz


Current view of the auditorium Note the builtout apron stage




Fly My Pretties - September 2013

Fat Freddys Drop 2011

The Show Must Go On - Auckland Arts Festival 2011

Rhian Sheehan ~ Standing In Silence ~ May28th 2011

Stolen Girlfriends Club - September 23, 2010

Beyond the Box - Kurt Weill's - The Seven Deadly Sins - 2006 Mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew (left) and dancer Anita Hunziker