The Savoy Theatre, Cathedral Square

The Savoy Cinema, Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Source: CCC Heritage Images
The Savoy Cinema, Cathedral Square. [1]
After World War One, there was a growing appetite for the glitzy glamour of the ‘Jazz Age’ and Hollywood. Christchurch residents were hungry to embrace American culture and its new commercialism. Soon the Victorian and Edwardian city was punctuated with ‘picture palaces’ that appeared to shoot up in rapid succession. The movie theatres which were built in Cathedral Square, changed its European influenced to a new brash Americanism.

An early theatre on this spot was the Liberty Theatre which was built at 50 Cathedral Square, between the Lyttelton Times Building and Warner’s Hotel. The planners’ initial intention was that it might serve as a buffer zone for the Lyttelton Press printing machines, which made a constant noise day and night and caused the Warner’s Hotel guests to be awoken at night. The north wing of Warner’s was demolished to make way for this theatre, but it wasn’t the first theatre on this spot.

Gaiety Theatre

The Liberty Theatre c. Source: Canterbury Museum
The Liberty Theatre [2]
As far back as the 1870s, musical and theatrical entertainments had been performed on this spot. In 1877, J. L Hall had taken the Canterbury Music Hall on a two years’ lease, and renamed it the Gaiety Theatre. He opened on Easter Monday, 1877 with a comedy and burlesque company.

In 1879, the then proprietor, Mr Richard DeLias, repainted and redecorated the Gaiety Theatre for the opening of the ‘Victoria Loftus Troupe of British Blondes‘ season  –  ‘a process it was in great need.’ When the Australian burlesque troupe opened in September, they attracted large audiences, much to the disdain of the Star, who noted that it ‘reflected little credit upon the good taste of the pleasure-seekers of Christchurch’. [3] Their new programme included “Harry Le Clair’s laughable version of the great musical burlesque, entitled the Indian Maiden” and this piece drew particular criticism, described as ‘disgusting’ and ‘repulsive’ and not suited to the ‘gentler sex’.

“The play”, reported the Star “appears to have been specially written with a view to show how far men and women can sink in the scale of decency, without exhibition the smallest atom of shame.”  [4]

The theatre did not possess the necessary ‘scenery or appliances’ to be able to stage large plays and was soon considered too small. The lease was taken over by the grandly named Mr D’Orsay Ogden, an American actor, and the theatre underwent extensive renovations. It reopened on Boxing Day, 1879, as the Academy of Music.

“It is now really a theatre, having been fitted with a dress circle, provided on the American plan, with a number of small family boxes, a ceiling built in, and the walls decorated.” [5]

View of Cathedral Square 1926
ictured from the left are the Cathedral Chambers, the Lyttelton Times building, the Liberty theatre, and Warner’s Hotel. Shown behind the theatre is the stack of the Christchurch City Council’s Manchester Street rubbish destructor which heated the Tepid Baths. The Godley statue is on the lawn to the north of the Cathedral where it stood from 1918 to 1933. The tram shelter in front of the Cathedral was demolished in 1931. To the right of the Cathedral are the Government Buildings and the Dalgety’s building. [6]
The Academy of Music was not set to last either, and in 1883 the old theatre was  leased to the Salvation Army as barracks for two years. It then became part of Warner’s Hotel, and was known for a time as  Warner’s Assembly Rooms, used for meetings and bazaars.

Liberty Theatre

Designed by the architect, Alfred Luttrell, the theatre opened its doors on September 8th, 1917. The advent of the moving pictures business meant that the theatres could be big, such as the Liberty which could seat 1,400 theatre patrons. On a Saturday night, this theatre would be filled to capacity.

The new movie theatres brought about a new trend in ‘courting’ by providing a place where couples could go out together in an acceptable, public area while being able to sit together in the dark and in privacy. Suddenly an opportunity opened up for the younger generation to have the freedom for unsupervised romancing.  Being asked out to go to the movies by a man was the ‘new’ way to date. Being able to sit together, hold hands, put your arms around each others shoulders and enjoy coveted kisses in the dark, was now a norm in the ritual of dating.

Charlie Chaplin Impersonator Liberty Theatre
Mr Leonard Doogood, Charlie Chaplin impersonator, in an Oldsmobile motor car, outside the Liberty Theatre, Cathedral Square, Christchurch. [7]
The back row of a darkened cinema became the renowned place for romantic encounters. In the 1920s, the New Zealand Picturegoer’s weekly column ‘From the Back Row’ featured a kissing couple more interested in each other than the movie being screened.

During the mid 1920s the theatre was under the management of well known Christchurch picture showman, Claude Haigh, described as ‘one of the big man in the movie line in the ‘Flat City’. Haige had worked as an agent for numerous acts during their New Zealand tours, including Miss Annette Kellerman, the Australian professional swimmer, screen and vaudeville artist, and a stint as touring manager for the “Famous NZ Diggers” during their 1921 tour – a hugely popular show that featured comedy sketches, burlesques, eccentric dances and a ‘magnificent orchestra’.

The NZ Truth wrote of Haigh:

The Flat City boasts of its picture palaces as being second to none in the Dominion. They are finely appointed, comfortably seated, and, above all, they are priced down to the irreducible minimum. But the programmes are always 100 per cent. “How do they manage to do it on the prices of admission?” people ask. But when one remembers that men like Claude Haigh are running the movie business in Christchurch, efficient service, comfort and popular prices suggest themselves as the natural outcome of such expert control. [8]

Haigh ended his time at the Liberty in 1926 and went on to become the publicity officer for Christchurch Cinemas Ltd.

Florence Scapini

Florence Scapini, ca. 1910-1913
Florence Scapini, ca. 1910-1913. [9]
Like most of the theatres of the time, the Liberty had its own orchestra, all be it one of the smallest at only around ten players, including a flutist, clarinet and trombone players. The first conductor was the young Christchurch born violinist Florence Scapini. [endnote ‘n Historical Survey of the Establishment of an Orchestra Tradition in Christchurch to 1939’. Thesis by Philip Jane.]

During the late 1920s the orchestra was under the directorship of Ernest Jamieson. Despite being described as an older school musician with a gifted appreciation of classical music, his style was believed to be modern enough to give patrons their fill of the ‘nerveshattering jazz’ that was popular at the time. Jamieson was the last conductor at the Liberty, and the orchestra’s final performance was held on June 8, 1929. [10]

Just two days later the ‘talkies’ (movies with sound) were introduced at the Liberty with the installation of the equipment on June 10th, 1929.  This new medium was a powerful influence by introducing strong messages for young New Zealanders who were so removed from American society and its culture.  It did not matter, for American movies popularity grew to become the strongest influence over how the young acted. Whether it be smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol… to make up, clothes, language and even how couples romanced each other – it changed everything.

During the Second World War, movies were produced in great volume and remained a mainstay in the ritual of going out to town.

By 1953, the fashions had changed and the theatre was redesigned by H. Francis Willis and re-named the Savoy.  The theatre’s capacity was 1,287.

By August 25th, 1977, the theatre was re-opened in its third makeover. This remake created two theatres; Savoy One and Two, by R. Monsborough and Gavin Willis. Seating for 385 in Savoy One and 525 in Two.  On September 30th, 1993 the theatres were demolished.  It became the site of the Warner’s Hotel Bier Garden and included an outdoor screen and video projector for sports and movie screenings.

Cathedral Square
A quiet moment in Cathedral Square. The Liberty Theatre can be seen, with its distinctive sign, sandwiched between the Warner Hotel at right and the Lyttelton Press on the left. [11]

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  1. CCC Heritage Images.
  2. Canterbury Museum.
  3. THEATRE ROYAL. Star , Issue 3573, 23 September 1879, Page 3.
  4. GAIETY THEATRE. Star , Issue 3585, 7 October 1879, Page 3.
  5. CHRISTCHURCH. December 19. North Otago Times, Volume XXVIII, Issue 2379, 20 December 1879, Page 2.
  6. Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 6, IMG0031. The weekly press, 25 Mar. 1926, p. 35.
  7. Promotion for the film ‘Sunnyside’ at the Liberty cinema. Photograph by the Steffano Webb Photographic Studio. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference Number ID: 1/1-004184-F.
  8. PapersPast. ‘An Authority on Movies’. NZ Truth , Issue 1062, 1 April 1926, Page 2.
  9. Image: State Library of Victoria Accession No: H38782/899 Image No: b29553
  10. PapersPast ‘He Enjoys Musis’ NZ Truth , Issue 1169, 26 April 1928, Page 4.
  11. Postcard, Private Collection.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Bernard Shapiro says:

    Star Wars premiered here – I went to it as a young lad. And even younger, I remember the upstairs gallery, from which we’d lob ice creams or ‘top dress’ by shaking a coke bottle and open it while running across, the contents gushing out over the stalls.


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