What’s upstairs??? Is the old theatre still there? Where are the seats? Can you still show movies?
In it’s heyday, the Ambassador Theatre was the meeting place of Pt Chev. It’s little wonder people are still asking about it. It was where friendships were cemented, lovers met, shillings were spent and in the weekends the 1000+ seat theatre was fully booked out.
The Early Years: 1929-1956
The Ambassador began construction after Albert Beazley and John Francis Punch purchased the lot in from Hallyburton Johnstone in May 1928 (Feb 1941, ACC 41/109 Auckland City Archives). The first newspaper clipping advertising films showing in the new cinema is dated from 13 April 1929 (Auckland Star, Volume LX, Issue 87).
In a collection of stories called “Pt Chevalier memories, 1930’s-1950’s”, collated by Padmini Raj, the following anecdote is recalled by Donald Welch:
“Ambassador theatre aka the bug-house. What memories. Seats smelled of old dust, sneaking in through the toilet windows. Manager “Shorty” Dunn complete with grim face shining his torch onto mischievous kids, booting us out.”
It was the time of Jaffa’s rolling down the aisles (the downstairs floor was wooden but the upstairs circle was carpeted), ice-creams were licked, antics were shushed in the darkness.
Jan Williams recalls: “Mr Dunn was the manager of the local theatre, The Ambassador. All the children would go to the Saturday afternoon matinee. Before the pictures started, we would all stand and sing “God Save the King”. Bryan T. Binns recollects:
“At interval, there would be a mad rush for the side door of the theatre to buy a penny ice block or maybe a sherbet dab, which was a fizzy fruit tasting powder in a white bag with a lollypop in it.”
These fleeting memories belong to teenagers and kids with sticky fingers but they are not to be diminished: war-time sensibilities had struck. The screen played an important part in people’s lives and the early years of the cinema have etched into people’s minds.
I once had a lady walk in almost in tears and say “this is where I met my husband. He since passed away. I was 14 at the time. At 16 I had my first child.”
The Later Years: 1956-1985
In 1956 the cinema, which had been independently operated until this time, was taken over by Kerridge-Odeon and the name was changed from The Ambassador to Point Chevalier Theatre.
The Ambassador had shown mainly B-grade movies, with new movies arriving first to the Queen Street cinema complexes owned by Kerridge-Odeon and Amalgamated Theatres. These companies were owned or partly owned by offshore investors and therefore could afford the higher price of new material, also sharing the cost across their multiple sites.
From the 1960s onwards, with the introduction of television and during the baby-boomers’ time, cinema attendance declined. This led to the closure of many local cinemas and eventually the Pt Chev Theatre closed it’s doors in 1985.
What next? 1985 to present day
Between 1985-1996 the building was left in a derelict state; it was briefly a church for the Assembly of God, and local street kids squatted there for a while. The original movie screen, seating and all projection equipment was removed c.1986 when the cinema was closed.
Peter Roche acquired the space in 1996. Part of this contract (according to Auckland City Archives) was that he could not show films there for 25 years. Peter, along with a team of Theatre At Large volunteers, worked to restore the interior of the theatre which was in such a bad state there was concern that the building would be condemned.
Peter has been utilizing the space since then, and still does. Due to the scale and nature of his neon work, the dark theatre space is perfect and there are few other spaces where he could create these works. His art can be seen at Gibbs Farm and he regularly posts new work on his Instagram account.
Nowdays, the Pt Chev theatre performs a different function. But in some ways it never stopped performing. There are no seats, there is no screen. While it does not seem like it will show movies anytime soon, we will be celebrating the Ambassador Theatre’s 90 year birthday in April. It’s not going to be one to forget.
Keep an eye out on our events page here.