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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

' Little Gem Should Be Preserved '

' Little Gem Should Be Preserved '

page 27

'Friends, hail and welcome, triumph and delight
At your fair presence, fill our hearts tonight
With this pretty building, nobly graced
With beauty, form, intelligence and taste,
To cheer the city's still increasing throng
With music, scene, and character and song…'

These lines began the Prologue read by Mr Neville Thornton at the opening night for the Theatre Royal on 18 July 1878. Since its opening, the theatre has been in continued use, bringing pleasure, enrichment and satisfaction to generations of Nelsonians. Today, over one hundred and twenty years later, it is still in regular use and provides an important link to Nelson's past.

The opening of the Theatre Royal was greeted enthusiastically by the Nelson community. As The Colonist of 20 July 1878 reported 'Lovers of drama, and who would not be ranked amongst that class?, must have been delighted to see so enthusiastic an audience as that which assembled at the new theatre on its opening night'. In a city of just six thousand people, almost one thousand filled the theatre designed 'for 800 on wooden beams and a dirt floor'. 1

The seating arrangements in the new theatre were described in The Colonist of 16 May 1878. The report observed, as was desirable, that illbehaved boys or men could not hide themselves in a gallery, where they would not be subject to inspection, for the purpose of annoying the more decent members of the community.

The opening performance was for the benefit of the Theatre Building Fund. It celebrated the work of a company, chiefly composed of members from the Nelson Lodges of Oddfellows, who had erected the theatre to provide a suitable place for touring theatrical companies and to serve as a meeting place for their group.

The Theatre Royal's initial success continued throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. It was in frequent use, with a great variety of entertainment being staged. By 1880 the Nelson Amateur Dramatic page 28Society was well established, staging sparkling comediettas and screaming farces. Bell ringing and magic lantern shows were other highlights in the early days. 2 Such was the popularity of entertainment at the theatre that a special train from Foxhill to Nelson became a feature of many productions staged in the following years.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the profitability of the Theatre drop, however, and it was sold to Harry Saunders in 1904 as a consequence. To suit the increasing sophistication of the community, Saunders carried out major alterations. The hard forms that had till then comprised the seating were replaced with tip up seats. The upstairs seating was replaced with ornate seats purchased second hand from a theatre in London. The mud floor was covered and a projection box was installed to satisfy the increasing demand for moving pictures.

A wide variety of entertainment continued during Saunders' ownership, from hypnotists to acrobats, tragedies to comedies, charity concerts to dancers. Even occasional wrestling and boxing bouts were staged. Touring companies were frequent and popular visitors 'giving entertainment with a breadth and living power that only the stage can give'.

Sadly, however, the coming of the pictures killed the professional and amateur stage. They were something so new, so revolutionary, that people flocked to them. Pictures of the Zulu war were among the early releases, and lucky seat numbers were offered to attract attention. Initially, the City Council's road roller, which was parked in a pit between the theatre and the adjacent lodge building, was used to supply power for the picture plant. 3

The outbreak of World War One in 1914 saw another change in the use of the theatre, when the flickering black-and-white pictures were halted as the declaration of war was put across the screen. 4

Stage entertainment became 'escapist' and many cheerful musicals were produced. The Theatre Royal rapidly became the heart of patriotic war meetings and fund raising events, with the auditorium seating being removed for a two week Patriotic Carnival in 1914. Anything that was fund raising for the patriotic cause, from women offering jewellery to auction for the relief of Belgium in 1915, to raffles and charity performances, prevailed over the pictures.

page 29
Theatre Royal interior 1917. FN Jones Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 6 x 8 29.

Theatre Royal interior 1917. FN Jones Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 6 x 8 29.

page 30

Following the end of the war the Theatre Royal continued to screen pictures until 1936. By this time it had become run down and was seldom used. The Majestic and State Theatres had been built and opinion was that even the Regent Theatre screened films better. 5 The Depression also brought about a decline in shows. The Nelson Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, which had previously aimed to perform an opera and a comedy annually, went into recess as a result of the cost of staging shows, and economics also severely reduced the number of touring companies.

The talent that was lying dormant could not be kept down indefinitely, however. It sought expression and a vigorous youth, the Nelson Repertory Club, arose from the ashes. 6 The Club made extensive use of the Theatre Royal and, after becoming an incorporated society, purchased it in 1944. Although there was little money around following the Depression, the Repertory Society 'dug deep', before the opportunity was lost for all time. 7 The previous owner, Noel Jones, had advised his intent to sell the historic seats and convert the Theatre into a joinery factory.

No other venue would suit the Society as well as the Theatre Royal did, and it was compelled to consider the purchase of the building. Members took out debentures and, after they had been paid off, an upgrade of the building began. The stage was widened through the removal of the inner pillars and the auditorium was repainted from a ladder strung in a trapezelike fashion, with guy lines to the wall. 8

Following World War Two the Theatre Royal once again saw patriotic forms of entertainment. A seven-night revue, Hello Victory, was staged in 1946 in aid of the Returned Services Association (RSA) building fund. The concert section of the RSA, the Tin Hat Club, staged their annual reviews at the Theatre Royal, and these became a major feature of the year.

The 1960s saw another decline in theatre audiences. Television began to take hold of households, reducing the number of people attending the theatre. Fewer touring companies were visiting Nelson, although only one production in the decade lost money. The building was becoming increasingly run down by this time. The flood of August 1970 further added to this problem, with inadequate drainage leaving the orchestra 'with a barefoot conductor in rolled up trousers and its members' chairs in six inches of water'. 9

page 31

In 1978 the Theatre Royal Centenary was celebrated, with a large fund raising appeal being launched to inspire the Nelson community to take part in restoring the historic theatre. A general upgrade of the foyer and auditorium was undertaken, and the theatre was repainted in its original colours. A jubilee revue, The Show of the Century, was staged by the Nelson Repertory Theatre to celebrate the Theatre Royal's rich and exciting past.

No further major refurbishment has been seen, and it is in desperate need of an upgrade. The building is still largely in its original form, with much of the structure and features dating back to 1878. Despite problems with ownership over the years, the Nelson Repertory Society is now pledged to an all-out effort to make the old theatre a sustainable asset. It has contracted an architectural company to produce a conservation plan.

The high cultural and historic value of the Theatre Royal is also recognised by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Builders must now initial and date any work undertaken. The elaborate decorative work and architecture of the auditorium creates an enchanting atmosphere and the stage, which has seen such variety of entertainment over the years, continues to inspire many.

The Theatre Royal is a valuable asset to the Nelson community, providing an important link to the past, and is reputed to be the oldest wooden theatre in the Southern Hemisphere on its original site. 10 It is one of the few live performance venues from the nineteenth century to 'survive the pressure of development, change of use and ravages of time, fire and natural disaster'. For more than one hundred and twenty years the Theatre Royal has provided Nelson with entertainment and reflects a 'huge investment of human effort'. 11

This unique theatre has touched generations of Nelsonians and, as world-renowned actor Robert Morley proclaimed on visiting it, the Theatre Royal is 'a little gem that should be preserved'. 12

page 32
Theatre Royal exterior. FN Jones Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 11260

Theatre Royal exterior. FN Jones Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 11260

page 33


1 Nelson Mail , 17 July 1998.
2Nelson Repertory Theatre Inc The Show of the Century Nelson: Stiles, 1978. p 4.
3 Nelson Evening Mail 2 Nov 1946.
4 NEM 12 May 1990. p 7.
5 Nelson Repertory Theatre Inc op cit. p 11.
6 NEM 2 Nov 1946.
7 NEM 6 Mar 1945, 12 May 1990.
8 Palmer, J Theatre Royal Conservation Plan Nelson: Palmer & Palmer, 2001. Section 3.5.
9. Nelson Repertory Theatre Inc op cit. p 18.
10 NM 17 Jul 1998.
11 Palmer op cit. Section 4.1.
12. Mrs E Hayter Personal comment 14 Jun 2001.