Crystal Palace Theatre

The Crystal Palace was a cinema in Cathedral Square which was designed by John Steele Guthrie and built in 1918. 

Woman in Cathedral Square
Woman in Cathedral Square. Contributor (ctb): Nola Cowie, Photographer (pht): Frederick George Radcliffe, Publisher (pbl): Frank Duncan & Co. Ltd. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Crystal Palace Limited was a theatre company formed in 1916 with Vincent Beebe as the managing director. The other directorates were Walter Hill, David Redpath, George H. Scales, and John T. Sutton. In October the company took over the management of the Starland theatre on Colombo Street. The aim was to form the strongest picture theatre company in Christchurch which would be represented by the construction of a new theatre in Cathedral Square. The company also allowed Christchurch citizens to purchase shares. In this manner it marketed itself as ‘the people’s theatre’.

The new theatre, named The Crystal Palace, was designed by theatre architect, John Guthrie. The building was situated on the northern side of Cathedral Square, next to the Grand Theatre. The most impressive feature of the building was the thirty two metre high tower. This was divided into four different forms of Classical architecture, topped by a circular lantern with a beacon. Inspired by the use of lights on the tower of jewels at the San Francisco Exhibition, seven flood lights were used to light up the tower at night. 

From the entrance a staircase led to the first floor foyer which featured a lounge and a smoking room. Doors in the foyer led into the dress circle.

Set within a colonnade stage was a screen which was to be the first of its kind in New Zealand. The screen made use of a ‘gold cloth’ which was designed to absorb jarring light and therefore present a clearer image to the viewers. Electric fountains with water effects were set in alcoves on each side of the colonnades, giving the impression of a Venetian garden.

The ceiling featured lights hidden behind leadlight panels which could be changed by the picture operator to suit the atmosphere of the scene being shown.

The ground floor seating plan differed from the standard Australasian format, in that the seating was tiered and curved, like that of the dress circle. This allowed the viewer, regardless of where they were sitting, to have a full view of the screen. Having researched a variety of styles for the auditorium seats, the directors used seats that were made in Christchurch rather than importing them from overseas.

At the time of its construction, Vincent Beebe told The Press that the Crystal Palace was “…the only theatre of its kind south of the equator.” When discussing the theatre he made sure to emphasise the term ‘palace’, informing reporters that this was a new kind of theatre, one which would differ from the standard theatres in terms of grandeur.

The theatre opened on 6 April 1918. In the afternoon a meeting of shareholders was held, followed by an evening session. The first films shown were Heart and Soul and Max in a Taxi.

In 1920, a new company, the Greater Crystal Palace, was formed by Beebe, R. A. Chaffrey, Norman Rutherford, and F. S. Rutherford. The company bought out Crystal Palace Limited and took over the management of the theatre. A permanent 20 piece orchestra, under the conductorship of Alfred J. Bunz, was hired to provide music. At the time it was claimed that this was the first time a picture theatre company had taken on the permanent employment of an orchestra. Although the decision to take on a permanent orchestra was initially criticised, the theatre soon received praise for its performances.

The first ‘talking picture’ to be shown at the Crystal Palace was In Old Arizona which screened in August 1929. The theatre made use of the latest equipment to prevent sound distortion.

In November 1932, the theatre became the first all-British theatre in Christchurch, meaning that it would only screen films that were British rather than produced in Hollywood. This was a result of a policy which was discussed at the Ottawa Conference which sought to promote British films in the British Dominions.

In January 1935, the theatre’s ownership passed to J. C. Williamson Picture Corporation Limited, which immediately started to renovate the theatre. The entrance lounge was enlarged, wider modern seats were installed, and modern sound and projection equipment was upgraded. In September 1936, the theatre came under the management of Amalgamated Theatres.

The theatre underwent further modification and was reopened on 9 May 1963 as the Carlton Cinema. As part of this modification the building lost its infamous tower. However, the auditorium was enlarged, and could now seat up to 804 patrons.

The theatre building was eventually demolished in 1986 and was replaced by a shopping complex.