Theatre History & Ownership

 

Mercifully our Grand Old Lady of Christchurch Theatre has survived the massive earthquake and considerable aftershocks that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011. She is now well on the way to full restoration and repair, with the current target of April 2014 for reopening. Some extensive earthquake strengthening work undertaken in 1998/99 has without doubt saved this 100 year old Heritage building from complete collapse but some significant deconstruction was required to secure and protect the key interior and exterior heritage elements. The rebuilt and restored Isaac Theatre Royal will once again rise like the shining star she is on Gloucester Street in 2014. see latest update

DIANA, LADY ISAAC: 1921-2012

Diana, Lady Isaac

The Board, Trustees and Management of Isaac Theatre Royal offer their sincere condolences and deepest sympathy to family, friends and colleagues of the wonderful and much-loved DIANA, LADY ISAAC who sadly passed away on Friday 23 November 2012, peacefully in her sleep, aged 91.

The Theatre Royal in Christchurch which bears her name will be eternally grateful for her generous support during the 2004/2005 refurbishment. The ongoing rebuild and restoration of the ITR after the earthquakes of 2011 will continue to celebrate and honour her memory for countless future generations.

Tributes have been led by Prime Minister John Key saying “...she was an outstanding champion for Canterbury, the arts and conservation” and that “...her legacy will endure through the Isaac Theatre Royal and the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation...”.

Lady Isaac was vibrant, generous, witty and gracious. She will be missed immensely, but her philanthropic work will live on for years to come through the many thousands of patrons who walk through the re-opened doors of the restored and rebuilt Isaac Theatre Royal from mid-2014. Read More

The First 100 Years of the Theatre Royal

History of the Isaac Theatre Royal book

The Isaac Theatre Royal is an entertainment venue that can take you by surprise. So absorbed with finding your way to your seat, you don't pay much attention to the surroundings – until you sit down and look up.

They don't make them like this anymore, anywhere. The ITR is a suberb and beautifully restored heritage theatre, boasting a decor and atmosphere modern theatres will never capture. With Edwardian architecture at its core, the building has been developed and added to over the years, but all who have worked on it have strived to keep the spirit of the theatre alive, so that the performers have the best possible venue to work with, and the audience has the best possible experience.

And there have been many, many performers in the ITR's one hundred years of treasured shows, actors, music, and drama. The history of this well-loved theatre is as colourful as the variety of entertainment which has been presented in it. Over the years wrestlers and boxers attracted their fans, their seasons often immediately followed by concert artists or ballet companies, early moving pictures – in fact, every type of entertainment imaginable.

But more about that later. Let's look at the history of the space where it all happens first.

The early Theatre Royals

There have been three Theatre Royals in Christchurch. The first was a wooden building opened in Gloucester Street in 1863, over the road from the present building. Originally called the Canterbury Music Hall, it later became the Royal Princess Theatre and then, after refurbishment, the Theatre Royal. It served for many years, but a better facility was wanted, so it was replaced on the same site with a new building, also made of wood. This second theatre was a new and much improved performance structure, designed by Christchurch architect A.W. Simpson. It opened on 4 November 1876, and operated for several decades until plans for a bigger theatre were hatched.

The second Christchurch Theatre Royal
The second Christchurch Theatre Royal, on the right above.

JC Williamson

J.C. Williamson c. 1905

The third Theatre Royal was owned and managed by the mighty J.C. Williamson Theatres Limited, which was a theatre company operating in Australia and New Zealand in the 1900s. It was owned by James Cassium Williamson, an American actor who first arrived in Australia in 1874. Williamson soon established himself as an Australian and New Zealand theatre entrepreneur, growing a successful empire that in its hey-day owned or leased six theatres in Australia and three in New Zealand, and brought Australasian audiences the finest theatre and some of the greatest theatrical names in the world.

The New Zealand theatres included His Majesty’s Theatre in Auckland (demolished in the 1987 property development boom), the Grand Opera House in Wellington and the Theatre Royal in Christchurch.

Third time lucky

When work on the third incarnation began on 20 November 1906 the Christchurch Press confidently stated that the building would be 'one of the most modern and comfortable south of the line'. The Australian brothers Sydney and A.E. Luttrell designed the original French Renaissance-style building, and acted as architects and structural engineers during its 15-month construction.

The Theatre Royal in 1907, Image from Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0061.

Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1907.
Reproduced with permission, from Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0061. Source The Canterbury Times, 7 Aug. 1907.

Opening night 1908

Opening night 1908

The third Theatre Royal was opened in February 1908 with a performance of “The Blue Moon” by the Williamson Musical Comedy Company. The house was packed.

With its then traditional horseshoe-shaped dress circle and gallery, and elaborate fibrous plaster decoration of walls and painted dome, the Theatre Royal was considered at the time one of the best of its type in the southern hemisphere. Special attention was paid to acoustics and the theatre to this day enjoys a fine reputation for sound quality.

In 1928 the Royal underwent a huge upgrading, partly with a view to the screening of films. In a specified 14 weeks – to the day – and at times employing as many as 260 men, the contractors completed a total rebuilding of the interior. Only the dome remained untouched, famous for its Italianate painting of scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, by G.C. Post of the Carrara Ceiling Company of Wellington (not Christchurch artist William Williams as has been quoted elsewhere).

The painted ceiling of the Isaac Theatre Royal

Support pillars standing within the seating area were removed and the circle and gallery cantilevered to give totally unimpeded sight lines. To replace the old wooden staircase, an elegantly proportioned 10ft wide marble staircase rose to the dress circle. On August 4th 1928, the beautiful “new” Theatre Royal reopened with a performance of “The Student Prince”.

For almost 40 years little change occurred. But in 1975 the scaling down of activities of J.C. Williamson Theatres, after almost 100 years in show Australiasian business promotion, caused the firm to look hard at its investments in New Zealand. The Wellington Opera House was sold, and as there were no apparent buyers at the time for the Theatre Royal, it was decided reluctantly that the only alternative was to demolish the theatre and sell of the land. And it came very close to happening.

The Foundation

In the late 1970s the people of Christchurch faced the distinct possibility of losing their historic theatre. Initially under the title “The Friends of the Christchurch Theatre Royal”, strenuous public effort was made to save the theatre – support came from all quarters, public interest, City and county councillors, historic places trust, local societies, national touring companies, entrepreneurs and many others.

In 1979 – a catalyst group comprising Messrs Malcolm Douglass, Stephern Erber, Malcolm Ott, Colin Robertson, David Stock, Sir Miles Warren and Noel Wesney, formed the Theatre Royal Foundation, with the task of raising capital to buy the theatre from Williamson. 

The right-of-stage box beneath a portrait of the famous Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry IrvingAfter a year of hard work, the Foundation was successful in saving the building at the eleventh hour – actually within forty eight hours of the bulldozers moving in.

Then followed many years of restoration work, often with very little budget. Malcom Ott recalls "...we were running the whole thing on a shoestring. We jogged along covering costs and there were a lot of crisis, but we managed to survive. The stage was inadequate but the thing was, we had saved the theatre."

Between the years 1998 and 2000 improvements included the enlarging and refurbishing of the circle foyer, relocating toilets and administration offices, and major earthquake and fire protection work throughout the building.

It limped along in this fashion for a decade until it became clear that the business couldn't keep pace with the necessary restoration work. Bookings were declining, the backstage was deteriorating, and the theatre was no longer meeting the expectations of hirers and audiences.

The theatre re-born

The latest redevelopment, and by far the largest coasting $6.2 million, was undertaken in two stages run simultaneously over a nine month period from 2004 to 2005. 

The first stage was the demolition from the Proscenium back of the original brick fly tower and dressing room structure to make way for the new, much larger modern concrete fly tower and dressing room facilities. The Proscenium was widened by 1.5m and the new stage and fly tower are wider and deeper. 

Looking onto the stage of the Isaac Theatre Royal

Stage two involved the upgrading of facilities within the existing heritage-listed public ‘front of house’ areas. Increased entertaining and refreshment facilities, additional toilet facilities and replacement of and increased seating were provided.

Isaac Theatre Royal from the stage looking out

Now administered by the Theatre Royal Foundation, with the daily running of the theatre watched over by a board of management, the Isaac Theatre Royal is a superb Edwardian-style theatre, recognised as being one of New Zealand’s premier venues for the performing arts.

Like to know more?

History of the Isaac Theatre Royal bookThe Theatre Royal, Christchurch book traces the story from its beginnings in the late Victorian period, through the dazzle of the J. C. Williamson years to the present day. This is also the story of heroic community action: the saving of an almost derelict theatre in the 1980s and its transformation into a performing arts venue for the 21st century.

The book contains more than 300 illustrations, including rare B&W photographs from collections around the country, glorious colour photographs of the theatre’s splendid interior, and historic posters and material reproduced from theatre programmes down the ages.

Principal contributors: Professor Howard McNaughton, Peter Downes, Adrienne Simpson, Associate Professor Ian Lochhead, Edmund Bohan, Catherine Hurley, Malcolm Douglass, Sir Miles Warren, David Clarkson and Philip Norman.

The Theatre Royal, Christchurch – an illustrated history
216pp ~ softbound with flaps ~ ISBN 9780958288804 ~ $40 + $5 postage.
Published by Clerestory Press, Christchurch

Order your copy now

Download the order form (PDF), fill it out and post it back to the Isaac Theatre Royal.