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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Gisborne: A Popular Show Town

Gisborne: A Popular Show Town

There was no lack of musical and histrionic talent in Poverty Bay even in the early days. In 1872 Gisborne had a Musical Society and an orchestra known as “The Musicale,” and Ormond had a Garrick Club. The Turanganui Amateur Dramatic Club followed in 1873. Established in 1886, the Gisborne Choral Society was resuscitated on three occasions. and disbanded in 1932. The conductors of the Gisborne Orchestral Society (1892–1913) were: T. Wildman (1892–3), H. G. Spackman (1893–6), W. Marr (1896–01), G. Palairet (1901–2), E. N. Sidebottom (1902–06) and M. L. Foster (1906–13).

The Gisborne Amateur Operatic Society (formed in 1892) produced: “Iolanthe” (1892), “Rip Van Winkle: (1894), “The Mikado” (1896), “Iolanthe: (1903), “The Gondoliers” (1906), “The Geisha” (1912), “Les Cloches de Corneville” (1913), “San Toy” (1916), “A Country Girl” (1922), “The Toreador” (1923), “Floradora” (1924), “A Runaway Girl” (1925), “Miss Hook of Holland” (1926), “The Arcadians” (1928), “The Belle of New York” (1929), “Rio Rita” (1937), “The Cingalee” (1939). Producers: A. F. Kennedy (1892–1906), Tom Pollard (1912–13), J. A. Rosewarne (1916), Theo. Tresize (1922), T. E. Foster (1923–24), F. Read Wauchop (1925–26), O. Cardston and J. Davidson-Baxter (1928–29), W. George (1937) and Eva Moore (1939). Musical directors: F. Dufaur (1892), H. G. Spackman (1894), W. Marr (1896), E. N. Sidebottom (1903), M. L. Foster (1906 to 1923 and 1926–29), A. E. Lawrence (1924) and W. C. Kohn (1937–39). The society was resuscitated in 1949 to present “The Belle of New York.” Cecily Gregory was the producer and T. W. Lighton musical director.

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In 1906 the Gisborne Harmonic Society (M. L. Foster, conductor) was formed, but it was disbanded in 1909. A contemporary organisation—the Turanga Musical Society—gave concerts on the Flats. The Gisborne Liedertafel (which was formed in 1910 and became the Gisborne Orpheus Society in 1915) ceased to function after 1934. Its conductors were: G. Lamont Gurr, W. T. Drake, M. L. Foster, G. Crawshaw and W. C. Kohn. Formed in 1913, the Savage Club orchestra attracted 40 members. M. L. Foster was conductor till his death in 1941. His successor was W. C. Kohn. The Gisborne Competitions Society held its first festival on 8 September, 1913. E. H. Mann was the first president. At the outset there were musical, elocutionary, literary and physical drill sections. Dancing soon became an important section and physical drill was dropped. Secretaries: F. R. Ball (1913–23), A. Blackburn (1923–35), C. Blackburn (1935–48), D. A. Wells (1948—).

Formed in 1916, the R.S.A. Male Choir has had in the role of conductor: J. C. Welby, H. Towsey, G. Crawshaw, T. Birchnall and J. L. South. In 1933 the Gisborne Repertory Society (Incorp.) was established. Miss E. Miller was the producer until 1948. In 1943 the High School Old Students' Little Theatre (Incorp.) was founded. A branch of the British Music Society (sponsored by H. F. Wise in 1946) became the Gisborne Music Society (Incorp.) in March, 1949.

Gisborne's first theatre, the Music Hall (later the Theatre Royal), was built by Captain Read. It stood on the site now occupied by The King's, and was opened in January, 1873. The floor was 7 feet above ground level, so that the windows might be opened without patrons having to put up with annoyance from larrikins outside. It was lighted with three quadrate kerosene burners suspended from the ceiling and bracket lamps on the walls. The first public ball was held there on 23/1/1873. Captain G. J. Winter was M.C.

Gisborne soon became a very popular show town. Due to the enterprise of, in turn, J. R. Scott, S. Stevenson, J. Score, W. Good and W. Barrington Miller, most of the high-class theatrical companies, vocalists and other entertainers from overseas included it in their itineraries. Among them were: Cinquevalli, Dante and Carl Hertz (illusionists), Nellie Stewart (of “Sweet Nell of Old Drury” fame), Harry Rickards (in Shakespearean roles), Bland Holt (who brought his Drury Lane successes), Julius Knight (the romantic actor), Antoinette Stirling (noted English contralto), Genevieve Ward and Marie Lohr (leading English actresses), the Myra Kemble English Dramatic Company, the St. John Hayman Company (with Bert Bailey, the creator of “Dad”), Andrew Black, Philip Newbury, the Pollard and Williamson opera companies, and the New South Wales State Orchestra under Herr Verbruggen.


A sad boating accident marred a visit by an Italian Concert Company on 17 September, 1892. As the visitors were being brought ashore in a launch, a boat containing six lads overturned in the swell on the bar. Some of the men jumped overboard and brought the boys to the launch, but two—sons of John Warren, clerk to Cook County—were found to be beyond human aid. On account of the widespread grief, the concert was poorly attended.

When it became known that bad weather would prevent Madame Patey's Concert Party from getting ashore, some of Gisborne's “young bloods” risked going out to the steamer in the hope that they might make the acquaintance of its members. Eventually, they demanded to see the leading lady, but she would not emerge from her cabin, and they were bundled off. This escapade led to a ban being placed upon the opening of the bar of any Union S.S. Co. vessel whilst it was in Gisborne roadstead.

On account of a strong southerly, the steamer by which Mark Twain journeyed to Gisborne in 1895 could not be detained; he cancelled his lecture. With much interest, however, he watched the tender make a rough passage out to the roadstead to embark a police-escorted prisoner bound for Napier gaol. “What unlawful act could any man possibly have committed to deserve to undergo such an awful ordeal in addition to a page 381 gaol term?” he inquired. Upon being told that the culprit had beaten his wife, the famous humorist still insisted that the extra punishment was outrageous!

Nothing pleased the early residents—natives as well as pakehas—better than an opportunity to see a circus, no matter how tall the charges. Barlow's, the first circus worthy of the name to visit Gisborne, appeared in October, 1876. The pakehas were placed on one side of the tent and the Maoris on the other. Two clowns strolled in on stilts, and the native side emptied before anybody could say “Jack Robinson!” In order to obtain a visit by Fillis's circus, W. Good risked paying the cost of transporting it from Wellington to Auckland (£600) in return for the whole of the proceeds at Gisborne. The season of two nights and two afternoons yielded £1,200.

Moving pictures were first shown in Gisborne by Cooper and McDermott in July, 1901. The first permanent cinema—“Pathe Pictures”—was opened at His Majesty's Theatre on 12 August, 1909, by W. B. Miller. In November, 1910, Gisborne Amusements Company started a rival cinema at the Garrison Hall, but, a month later, it was taken over by Hayward's Picture Enterprises Ltd., and closed early in 1911. Pictures were presented, for some years, at the Opera House, which was opened on 23 October, 1912. A continuous cinema, “The World's,” was also conducted between 1914 and 1917. When the Palace (now the Regent) was opened in 1916 Gisborne had four cinemas. Everybody's (now the Majestic) was erected, in 1917, and The King's in 1933. Only the Regent, Majestic and The King's have been in the field in more recent years.