Will the Ambassador Theatre ever show films again?

In April, we celebrated 90 years of the Ambassador Theatre in Pt Chev. Today we observe 1 year since a freak fire incident threatened to end it all. What is happening there now, will it ever show films again and what lessons can we learn from the past?

The only image of the original screen we have ever managed to source. Kindly provided by Allan Webb of Regent Theatre, Te Awamutu. The photograph was likely taken by Trevor Skelton. Date unknown.

The only image of the original screen we have ever managed to source. Kindly provided by Allan Webb of Regent Theatre, Te Awamutu. The photograph was likely taken by Trevor Skelton. Date unknown.

The Ambassador Theatre was built in 1929 and seats were sold out on Friday and Saturday nights during its peak trading years. Attendance dwindled in the 1960s with the introduction of television and also the extended closing time of local pubs and hotels. It stopped showing films in 1985.

Historically, there has always been competition between the Ambassador (or, the Pt Chev Theatre as it was known after 1956) and The Hollywood, Avondale (previously called the Grosvenor) or the Cameo Theatre up in Grey Lynn shops.

Fast-forward to the present day and The Hollywood is having great success currently under the ownership of Matt Timpson. The split between hosting live music events and films is attracting a crowd of interested folk. Showing cult classic films, as well as some new releases, means it has an edge compared to the mainstream cinemas. The Hollywood was one of few independent cinemas to survive financially, and it did so under the ownership of Jan Grefstad 1966-2002 who made it famous through regular Friday and Saturday night screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the 1980s.

The Cameo is presently a trampoline studio and gym, and shows little sign of ever being a cinema again. Meanwhile in another part of Avondale, Ryders Cinema and Roast Dinners offers an unexpected and wonderful experience, operating on Riversdale Rd in what was once a private museum owned by Jack Ryder.

The Ambassador Theatre, Pt Chevalier, is a private art studio that belongs to artist Peter Roche. The artworks he creates here in this space are intriguing and have an element of minor psychological disturbance or danger. I relate this to stepping into a dark/bright space, or getting a mild electric shock.

Peter Roche’s show Cinema at Saatchi & Saatchi. On the left, Trickle. On the right, Shiver.

Peter Roche’s show Cinema at Saatchi & Saatchi. On the left, Trickle. On the right, Shiver.

His glowing linear forms are often based on spontaneous drawing, violently muscular bodily gestures on paper that relate to his past as a confrontational performance artist.
— John Hurrell, 22 November 2012

Peter has owned the building since 1996 and has continued making work here since the fire upstairs in late June, 2018. There was never a cause determined for the blaze, and building repairs currently taking place include upgraded fire safety systems in the building.

However, it is unlikely that The Ambassador will ever show films again. To my knowledge, no cashed-up benefactor has ever come sweeping in with the intention of buying and transforming it back to its former glory - including reinstalling seating, projection equipment, heating, and a screen.

In actual fact, a lot of her glory still remains. The theatre features including vintage paintwork and sconces can still be seen. It is full of valuable and interesting content, as those who celebrated the building’s 90th birthday with us were able to view with their own eyes.

If you want to support local independent cinema, I strongly suggest you visit The Hollywood, Avondale or The Capitol in Balmoral. It is no easy feat running an independent cinema, and hats off to those who do it well.

The Hollywood Cinema, Avondale, during a recent screening of the cult movie “Christine”, a 1974 film adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Photo from Instagram @hollywoodavondale

The Hollywood Cinema, Avondale, during a recent screening of the cult movie “Christine”, a 1974 film adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Photo from Instagram @hollywoodavondale

Alix McEntegart