St James Theatre

The theatre was once heralded Auckland’s greatest, having in his early years played host to royals and theatrical superstars, but now stands largely unused, his floor littered with suspicious plastic baggies. Saint Jim’s front foyer is once again open, but the old boy still faces an uncertain future.

Like any showman desperate for applause, the theatre has been ever-willing to meet the changing tastes of his audience. When the theatre opened in 1928, bawdy vaudeville was all the rage. Within a year, though, the public’s taste was changing and a projector was added to accommodate the ‘talkies’, which had become insatiably popular.

These were golden days for Auckland’s central theatres. The wounds of the Great War were healing and the economy was jubilant. People had money to spend and a well-earned need for distraction. The Saint James was one of several sumptuously decorated theatres in Auckland, all within walking distance of each other – the most famous survivor being the Civic, which opened just a year after the Saint James. For anyone familiar with the Civic theatre’s gilded façade and exotic interior, it seems implausible that the Saint James could ever have been considered an arguably more handsome peer, but in his youth Saint James was a much better-looking chap than what you see today.

Designed by Henry Eli White, the Saint James’s original streetfront was shaped in the Spanish Renaissance style, with two levels of arched windows (which would become the draft for White’s next project, Wellington’s own Saint James theatre). To the right of the main building was a white tower with a regal steeple that rose above the surrounding buildings.

So grand was the Saint James of old that it was twice chosen to host the Queen – and it’s the royal tour that is ultimately to blame for the rusting face we see today. Queen Elizabeth II’s royal tour in 1953 was a big deal, and on the itinerary was a trip to the theatre; naturally the Saint James was chosen as the venue. It’s a uniquely Auckland reaction to respond to hosting famous foreigners by slapping up semi-permanent cosmetic structures that will make us seem more ‘modern’. The Queen Street frontage was hastily clad in a sheet-metal façade and the tower – lofty, pointed pinnacle and all – was boxed off and wrapped in neon signage. Impressed, Your Majesty?

The Saint James would play host to the Queen again in 1983, as well as a score of famous theatre greats in the intervening years, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh among them. Eventually an even more ‘modern’ frontage was bolted on top of the previous sheet-metal façade to proudly proclaim the building as a West End Odeon Theatre Centre. It’s this second facade that is still rusting there to this day.

In the last years of its operational life, the Saint James fell further out of repair and found a new use as a venue for raves and gigs. In his heyday, Saint James wouldn’t have had his threshold crossed without a hat and tie. By 2005, however, revellers in popped-collared polo shirts popped pills where the Queen had once sat. Then, in 2007, a fire finally put the old boy to bed and he hasn’t roused since – but there is hope.

Despite the fire, years of poor maintenance and the rumoured squatters who used his innards as an illicit nursery, the interior of the Saint James is still a sight to behold. On the inside, Saint Jim is much as he always was – and it’s there in the heart of the cavernous main theatre that it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by his splendour. A dedicated team of volunteers and advocates, led by the St James Charitable Trust, are rallying behind a restoration attempt and have employed restoration artist Keron Smith to painstakingly restore the lobby interior to its former lolly-coloured glory.

Saint Jim’s future remains uncertain but there is hope yet. His new owners are planning a 39-storey apartment building right above the old chap but have also committed to restoring the theatre. The grand foyer has been reopened as a café, the main theatre is seeing use as a venue once more and in October The Show Goes On, a documentary about the theatre’s history and attempted restoration, will premiere on the main screen. There is life left in this royal entertainer and with any luck the show will indeed go on.

The exact date of this photo is unknown, but is likely the 1930s or very early 1940s. Photo taken by William Henry Bartlett (1871–1943), courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira (PH-NEG-C21512).

This content by Joel Herbert originally appeared in The Seasonal #01 SPRING