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Inside the St James Theatre

Jan 28, 2015 Theatre

Some of the best things in Auckland this year were announcements of how it’s going to get even better.

This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Metro.

We stood waiting in the musty darkness while someone searched frantically for a long-forgotten switch. And then, suddenly, the house lights were on and the colossal illuminated arches lit up, and the St James Theatre was visible in all its glory — a magnificently gaudy jumble of gilt detailing, classical statuary, French baroque and Moroccan tile.

The St James was designed by Dunedin architect Henry Eli White and opened in 1928 as a venue for vaudeville acts; a cinema projector was added a year later to capitalise on the movie-going boom.

On Queen St, thousands of us pass by it every day, but few have been inside since a fire in a neighbouring building forced its closure in 2007. Now, finally, things are starting to move.

In October, new owners Relianz Holdings announced plans to restore the theatre as part of a $175 million deal to build a 39-level residential and retail tower next door. They’re careful not to make any guarantees — in-depth evaluation of the building’s prospects will take at least six months — but development director Mike Gibbon says early signs are promising. All going well, the theatre might even reopen ahead of the project’s scheduled completion date in 2018.

In the meantime, Gibbon is making plans, including meetings with local theatre and cinema operators. “The St James was always about both stage and screen,” he says. “We’re not interested in filling it half the time and leaving it empty the rest. We want Aucklanders to be able to use it every night of the year.”

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