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History of the Regent Theatre: 1973-74

By Allan Webb Prev | Next

The Regent Theatre had been operated by Waikato Amusements (Graeme Edwards and Moston “Moss” Spiers) for ten months and was due to close at Christmas, 1973. Whilst they had played some top movies to strong attendances (Fiddler On the Roof, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry and Percy) the competition for movies with the Empire Theatre and absentee management were probably two major factors for the poor financial position. Very little had been spent on the theatre for a decade and it was in a dirty and uncomfortable condition. Sunday screenings had not been up to expectations (with two features and double pay for the staff and both theatres operating, Sundays were not economical like they were in other places), midweek business was generally poor and matinees had ceased. The Regent Theatre Company, which had been running the Theatre before Waikato Amusements, had tried Sunday screenings and had stopped having them due to poor patronage.

Moss approached me and offered me the lease, which I accepted and I commenced business here on January 11th, 1974. An arrangement was made with Moss for the purchase of the lease but a month after I had taken over the running of the Theatre the Assignment of Lease was still not signed. Russell Dixon of the Crystal Palace Theatre offered Graeme more money than I was to pay and they tried to get me out but, by that time, I decided I was in it for the long haul. I had been running the Regent Theatre at Te Aroha for almost four years, whilst living in Auckland and I continued to operate it for a further three years.

That was when there was a gradual rise in the takings at Te Awamutu and a decline at Te Aroha. I shifted to Te Awamutu and immediately closed midweeks, but as it was the school holidays, I put on a matinee each Thursday. I increased the children's price of admission, but only a half of that which I wanted to (from 30 to 35 cents) because it was strongly opposed by the then Manager, Mrs. Janet Anderton. Those matinees were successful.

I wanted to single feature Fridays but Mrs. Anderton was adamant that the Empire showed double features and if the Regent didn't, no one would come. I was very soon to learn that that attitude had always prevailed between the two theatres in that they both kept to the same policies such as programming and pricing. This was probably one of the main reasons that neither theatre ever progressed.

After a week, I went to single features Friday and Sunday and got permission from the Council to start earlier on Sundays (from the restriction of 8:15, which was far too late, to a 7:45 start) then reopened midweek screenings again.

As the Regent was considered unviable by Columbia Warner films, they transferred their product to the Empire which now had the lion's share of the product and a very strong line-up of titles. The Regent, however, had a very poor schedule with poor box office films and repeat after repeat programmes.

I took over the Theatre when it was in a very poor state. Although Graeme had made some superficial “improvements” by draping the walls with orange non-fireproof curtain (which the Fire Department made me remove), and placing five infra red heaters at the back of the circle (which were virtually useless), moving the screen forward and putting in a “new” draw curtain (which he removed one morning while I was at school, teaching) the Theatre was still a 'dump'. It was dirty and smelt and leaked badly in several places.

Moss had installed a pair of Ernon IV projectors which were always snapping film. The sound was appalling and the amplifiers were forever breaking down. The ventilation was non-existent. The huge propeller fan in the ceiling at the rear of the auditorium did not operate. The vents had been covered up and it was forgotten about, so in summer the theatre was stifling hot.

The seats were the originals from 1932. Most were covered in 'bristly' moquette or what was left of it and stuffed with flax fibre. The moquette used to rip the ladies' stockings. They were very small seats; uncomfortable, dirty and smelly. The distance between the rows was a mere 2' 7” and 2' 8”. No wonder the seating capacity originally had been a staggering 800 in such a smallish area. A few of the seats had been covered in a brown vinyl but were still uncomfortable as they had not been rebuilt, but at least they looked better and were cleaner than those covered in moquette. The vinyl seats were all at the front of the theatre so I moved them to the back and took out all the seats that were ripped.

The Gents' toilet absolutely stank as it evidently had not been cleaned for some time and with a pitted concrete floor and the hot summer weather, it was unattractive to say the least.

Although the foyer had been altered and enlarged to share with the South Pacific Coffee Lounge in 1963/64, the unattractive and grubby looking black and grey carpet was beginning to show signs of wear, although the general appearance was still quite reasonable. This meant that the foyer, toilets and auditorium (there were no doors into the theatre proper) were open to the public all day while the Coffee Lounge was open for business. This was a hopeless situation as it could never be kept clean.

The auditorium was also very dirty with thick crusts of dirt around all of the seat casts, which had been there for over four decades and the place smelt musty. There was a peculiar smell over the far side which I was to learn came from the honey of wild bees which had got in between the brick wall cavity and when it rained, water seeped all along the inside of the wall.

The colour scheme inside the theatre was unsuitable although designed by an architect, so I was informed, who had advised white walls and white ceiling with an unpleasant matt brown 'relief'. This was ghastly as far as reflection was concerned. I remember seeing a picture before Moss put in the 'new' projectors. They had Simplex projectors on Universal bases with Western Electric sound. The picture was small, very dull and yellowish.

The first programme screened by myself was Five Fingers of Death plus on Friday only, Charge of the Black Lancers which took a total of $408.00 in four days, a very good take at a top price of 80 cents. The following week two repeat films, The Red Baron plus Doctor In Trouble, with the first Thursday matinee (Snoopy Come Home) produced $206.90. The next weekend included Anniversary Day, which was a public holiday and a double Feature, Beach Red plus Massacre Harbour played Friday and Sunday and Exodus on Saturday and Monday. For the matinee and night sessions on Thursday, Yours Mine and Ours screened. All of the films were repeats. The total box office receipts were $355.90. From then on I opened every night and started the regular Saturday Matinees the week after that.

By this time I was a resident of Te Awamutu. Prior to that I had still been working at Te Aroha, still residing in Auckland but staying several nights in Te Aroha and coming over to Te Awamutu to project the Thursday afternoon film.

It was during one of the two matinees that I lost Columbia Films to the Empire. Leo Hancock came down from Auckland and offered me a group of titles. The prices were next to the titles and I told him that as I had just taken over the Theatre, it was difficult for me to assess the level of business and the film hire I could afford. The prices did seem to be very high in comparison to what I had been paying at Te Aroha, which was doing much better business than Te Awamutu. He then went down the road to see Skip Caldwell who was the Manager of the Empire Theatre. Skip took him out to lunch and Leo told him to offer $5 more on each of the titles and he could then have all their films. This meant that I had to survive on a lot of repeats, films that were dated quite late after their original opening and poor films for the next four months. To give an example, the latest James Bond film, which started in the cities in December, was not offered to Te Awamutu until May the next year.

The behaviour of the patrons was appalling on Friday nights. It was like a busy railway station with people going in and out all night. I roped off most of the theatre seating areas, put in blue lights in the ceiling light sockets and left them on all Friday night, locked the front doors and toilets after interval and had extra staff to supervise the auditorium on the Friday plus the Saturday Matinees which started off with great success.

There were regular breakdowns and at other times the show was stopped until the audience came to order. Sometimes I would evict large numbers and tell them not to return.

Mrs. Anderton was there for a couple of weeks when I was absent and then went on holiday never to return, stating in a letter I found under the door that she did not approve of my running of the Theatre. She had been working there for many years and was not prepared to give me a chance after her conflict with the previous management.

After several months, the 'roughs' stopped coming to the Regent and frequented the Empire only. The 'good' people would not come to either theatre, so there was a period where few attended.

By now, the figures were starting to go up each week at Te Awamutu, but at Te Aroha they were going down. There are a lot of little important things that need to be done to give the best possible side of the Theatre to the patrons. It takes a long time to build up a good reputation but that can be destroyed almost overnight. Unfortunately, I did not have sufficient time to devote to Te Aroha. I had to leave it to staff and I picked the wrong manager to take charge.

Over the years there have been several unplanned disasters that caused loss of profits. Most would be due to power failures, but in 1974 there was a power shortage and the authorities decided to cut power on Saturday afternoons when it would least inconvenience the public. That decision would have an adverse affect on Cinemas as the Saturday afternoon sessions were usually most profitable. They had decided to shut down the electricity supply each Saturday afternoon starting from May 4th. The Empire was not screening Saturday afternoons at that stage and Skip rang and offered me the use of his theatre for Saturday matinees as they had an auxiliary source of power. The whole theatre could be run by a generator which was housed at the rear of the building. If I transferred my patrons to his theatre they might have got used to going there instead of the Regent so I decided to run two sessions, one at 11am and another at 3pm, which would have been outside the power cuts. I remember that the 11am session, which was a Terry Toon Cartoon Parade, ran over a little longer than it should have and we had to open the exit doors to get enough light in for the 79 children to leave, as the power had already been switched off. About 100 people came to the 3pm show to see Carry On Armada plus Carry On Sergeant. Luckily enough, the power situation was not as bad as expected and that was the only Saturday that was affected.

At that time, the Empire was running a hugely popular programme made up of two big films, Enter the Dragon and Dirty Harry, when about 400 people came on the first Saturday night. It was shown there for a fortnight, which was unprecedented in those days.

The first school holidays in May we had a total of 17 films and 4,395 admissions with two sessions daily.

At that stage, I was getting films from United Artists, International Film Distributors and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, while the Empire had Twentieth Century Fox, Cinema International Corporation (Distributors of Universal and Paramount Pictures), Columbia and Warner Brothers. So at that time, I had three suppliers with the poorest films and the Empire had five, with the strongest titles.

The product we had to show was poor and there were an awful lot of repeat films. In July, 1974, John Garrett of Columbia Warner Films put in 'The Exorcist' on direct transfer from the Carlton in Hamilton, after having an argument with Skip at the Empire. 958 people attended in six nights. John had come down to see both exhibitors and offered the same titles with set prices. I had pleaded with him to supply film to the Regent and he asked to look at my line-up. After using the 'F' word to describe the films I had coming, he said I could not possibly survive and I agreed. He asked me if I would stay here if he did supply me with their product, then went to see Skip. He came back and told me there were 130 at the Empire to see The Adventures of Barry McKenzie next to our 17 or 18 admissions. He told me he would be in contact and went. I didn't like my chances but I found out a long time later that Skip and John had an argument and Skip had told John that he could not supply films to the Regent. John did not like being told what to do with his product and obviously decided to give the Regent the films. This meant that Columbia Warner films were to come back to the Regent but the Empire had played some of their top movies to good business before this happened. Enter the Dragon, Magnum Force and Black Belt Jones were three of the major box office hits that would previously have played at the Regent.

At this stage, karate films were doing huge business. This was probably the turning point for me at the Regent, product-wise, although the benefit of better programming was not evident until mid November onwards. The Empire still had some excellent hits from the other film distributors and played films like The Sting, The Poseidon Adventure and Jesus Christ Superstar.

I could not get repeat films that the Empire had shown, yet they were able to get some of mine. International Films allowed me to select the films that I wanted for repeat screenings when the original contract was signed. This was a bit difficult as you could not always predict what level of business a film would produce until after the first screening. However, this stopped him from getting all the karate films from that company which did very well every time they were screened here.

I had difficulty trying to gain any cooperation from Skip at the Empire. I could see far too much money going to the local paper, as we were both advertising double column ads in the three weekly issues. I suggested we placed our ads together, taking a single column each, but he rejected this proposal. I was going to put my prices up as the 80c top price was insufficient. I was going to increase it to 90c and went to see Skip and suggested we both go up at the same time, but he refused to do so. (He eventually ended up charging more than us when his business dropped away). I asked him what matinee sessions he was going to run in the holidays and he decided on Tue, Thu and Sat afternoons. I said I would run mornings on Tue and Thu so as not to conflict with his sessions and afternoons Mon, Wed & Fri. However, when the ads came out, he had decided to screen matinees every day. He would not advertise his programmes for the weekend until Thursday so I didn't know what he was going to show. He would find out what films we had and book in a similar type of show.

After that, I decided to go my own way and ignore him. Later on he came to me for cooperation. He wanted some of my films as the tide had changed and the Regent was finally getting more popular product after being starved of good films for so long. I was not interested and continued to go on my own way until the Empire closed in November, 1975.

In January of 1975, Te Awamutu had a total of 13 karate films. Te Awamutu was quite the opposite to Te Aroha where English films, especially comedies, did very well whereas karate films did not perform very well there.

1974 - 75

In November of 1974, the major renovations were to begin. The seating was replaced and reduced to 302. The Dress Circle now had seating on every second row with carpet on the intermediate rows, which gave a lot of leg-room. The seats were made by the Theatre Chair Co. of Auckland and were covered with bright red vinyl. They were originally from the Star Theatre in Papakura and as the theatre was to be closed and rebuilt, these seats were unsuitable for the new flooring.

The whole theatre was painted blue – dark for the ceiling and pillars, which were covered in wallpaper, and light blue for the walls, which were covered in hessian.

A different screen was installed and placed well forward of the original one, giving a projection throw of 65 feet. A silver draw curtain was hung and lit with an array of coloured lights. Both the screen and curtain came from the Bridgeway Theatre in Northcote. New blue, green, mauve coloured carpet, with a circular design, was laid throughout and a new oil fired heating system was installed and the ceiling was insulated. The existing furnace sat loosely on a concrete plinth and fired into a large boiler which not only kept breaking down, but was also a totally inefficient system. The water took about three hours to get hot and about three hours for it to go through the pipes, which were under some of the rows in the back half of the Theatre, which barely warm the place. After talking to the Chairman of the Regent Theatre Company I discovered some radiators, which had the water channeled through them and fans to dispel the warmth, were under the added section of the stage, well hidden. I got them operable and they gave a little extra heat.

I came up with an ingenious idea for cooling, which worked extremely well. At each end of the building, in the roof, there was an apex made up of louvres. I had these opened and huge shutters put over them so they could be closed up in the winter. There were two lattice-work vents that went all the way along the ceiling and I had large shutters put over them that could also be closed during the winter. The fan room in the roof, at the back of the theatre, was opened up. When I came the fan was not operable and had been forgotten about, probably for many years. Under the back vents I had a deflector put in place near the ceiling, inside the theatre, which would stop the air coming directly onto the backs of people. The outside air would come in at the back of the theatre and push the hot air up through the vents in the ceiling and outside through the louvres. A thermostat was put in to regulate the temperature. It worked extremely well until I had an evaporative cooler air conditioner installed at the end of 1983.

A wall was put up in the foyer to divide the Coffee Lounge from the Theatre foyer and a Ticket Sales/Confectionary Bar was put in place. Now the theatre could be controlled by us and apart from the Ladies toilet, which still was being accessed by the Coffee Lounge, the rest of the place was secure. I lost the use of the office in the negotiations that took place between the Lounge tenant, the Theatre Directors, who were the owners of the building and myself. The Lounge tenant had given consent for me to erect the wall until he found out I was going to put in a Confectionary Bar and then he changed his mind. I told the Directors that the wall would go up or they would have the theatre back on their hands. The Chairman, Mr. V. Thomas, was on my side and the decision was approved.

Major alterations: The Theatre was closed for six Monday and Tuesday nights in November and December, otherwise it operated every night throughout the alterations, which were to take nine months. Patrons had to jump over piles of wood and move around machinery. Seating was there one week and gone the next. It was a shambles but no one complained. They saw it was for their comfort, so it didn't matter. I was teaching while the alterations were in progress and that was my biggest mistake. I should have been there all the time as contractors never seem to follow directions and do things their own way, hence most of the work had to be redone at a later time. The building contractor was Alistair Waters and the men he had working for him did not seem to be very experienced. At one stage he did have a very good foreman who didn't stay with him for very long. When dealing with the public one must consider the most extreme situation always; things have to be made as best 'people-proofed' as possible. This was something the workmen who had a part in the alterations could not understand. The seats started to fall apart shortly afterwards as they had been loosely installed. Gradually, other alterations were to prove to be poorly completed.

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