|Our Environment: Issue 21 Summer 1999|
Grand old lady of the theatre world
No. 11 in our "Still Standing" Heritage Building Series
Revamped and elegant, the Theatre Royal was a fitting venue for the opening of this year's Carter Group Heritage Week and the Hagley/Ferrymead Community Board Heritage Awards.
Those who have worked so hard to preserve and enhance this grand old theatre were acknowledged with a certificate in the good caretaker section of the heritage awards. The theatre was also a runner up in the Built Environment section of the City Council's 1999 Environmental Awards.
The Theatre Royal remains one of the country's finest surviving live theatres, Senior Heritage Planner Jenny May told the awards ceremony last month. "It owes its survival to the refusal of Christchurch lovers of both theatre and heritage buildings to allow the site on which it stands to be developed. Most importantly it owes its survival to the dedication of the Theatre Royal Trust and Friends of the Theatre Royal," she said.
Recent improvements include the enlarging and refurbishing of the circle foyer and the relocation of amenities and offices. A major earthquake and fire protection programme is expected to be completed next year, 20 years after the theatre was purchased by the Trust.
The theatre's history is as colourful as the entertainment presented there: vaudeville theatre, early moving pictures, wrestling, drama productions, ballet dancing and concerts. Public attachment to the building stems partly from fond memories of past stars and shows.
The existing Theatre Royal is in fact the third Theatre Royal in Gloucester Street. Christchurch's first theatre, the Canterbury Music Hall, was built in 1861 and renamed the Theatre Royal five years later. In 1876 the building was replaced by one designed by Alfred Simpson.
Designed in the Edwardian Baroque style by the Luttrell Brothers, the third version was a sturdy red brick building with Oamaru stone dressings. It opened in 1908 with a performance of Blue Moon.
With its traditional horseshoe-shaped dress circle and gallery and fibrous plaster decoration or walls and dome, the theatre was described as "the most modern and comfortable South of the Line".
Twenty years later the Royal underwent major changes so movies could be screened. In just 14 weeks the contractors rebuilt the interior, according to the theatre brochure.
Only the dome, famous for its Italianate painting by Christchurch artist William Williams of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream remained.
Support pillars were removed and the circle and gallery cantilevered to give clear sight lines. An elegantly proportioned 3 metre wide marble staircase rose to the dress circle, replacing the old wooden staircase.
Little change occurred for the next 40 years. However in 1975, the owner J C Williamson Theatres, began scaling down activities after almost 100 years in show business promotion. The historic theatre's future looked bleak.
Supporters of the theatre rallied to save the building and the newly-formed Friends of the Christchurch Theatre Royal attracted widespread support from city leaders, companies, the Historic Places Trust and many individuals. Finally, in 1980, the Theatre Royal Trust committed itself to the purchase and restoration of the theatre. Administered by the Theatre Royal Foundation, the daily running of the building is now in the hands of a Board of Management, with fundraising and voluntary contributions from Friends of the Theatre Royal and other benefactors.
The Theatre Royal, with its grand interior and excellent acoustics, continues to attract bookings for shows like Rush which performed there this month. It looks set to provide many more years of entertainment.
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