Grand Theatre (Embassy)

Built in 1913, the Grand Theatre was situated in the north western corner of Cathedral Square. The building was demolished in 1960.

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

The north western corner of Cathedral Square was previously the site of a printing firm, Willis and Aiken (formerly Russell, Willis and Aiken Printers and Publishers).

The decision to erect a movie theatre on the site was driven by promoters from Wellington. By June 1912, plans were being prepared for the new theatre.

Collins and Harman advertised tenders for the erection of the theatre and offices on behalf of Charles Clark in August 1912. The external façade of the building was designed in a mix of Gothic and Italianate architectural styles. Within, the auditorium was large enough to seat up to seven hundred patrons, and consisted of both ground floor stalls and a dress circle. The screen was 21 feet long and made of fibre plaster, which prevented it from being disturbed by air flow. This was the first of its kind in New Zealand. The projector was imported from Britain and housed in a fireproof asbestos box.

A special screening was held on Saturday 31 May 1913 which included such films as White Fang’s Indian lover, The Peril of the Dance Hall, and The Purse and the Dog. The theatre officially opened by 2 June with a ceremony conducted by the mayor, Henry Holland.

The Grand screened films on a daily basis from midday through to 11pm. It prided itself on quality pictures and its central location along the city tram route.

By 1918 the increase in new picture theatres in Christchurch featuring the latest developments in technology and audience comfort soon rendered the Grand obsolete. To ensure that it offered the latest styles of comfort and spacious seating, the Grand was closed in July 1918 so that the building could be enlarged and alterations made. The new designs were overseen by architect, John Guthrie, who had recently finished his work on the neighbouring Crystal Palace theatre. As part of the enlargement, the Canterbury Women’s Club building was demolished.

The façade of the original building was retained, however the portico was replaced with a verandah to shelter the patrons who were waiting to be admitted. The entrance hall was thirty feet in width. Within were stairs which led up to the foyer and the entrance to the dress circle. A feature of the redevelopment was that the auditorium featured alcoves on either side of the screen which depicted lake scenes from Italy. It was intended to use these alcoves as stages for singers. A new orchestra, directed by A. L. Sutton, was to accompany the films.

The new Grand reopened at the end of August 1918. As part of its reopening the Grand had secured rights to show films produced by Metro and films made by Olga Petrova.

Demolition of the Embassy Theatre, 1960
Demolition of the Embassy Theatre, 1960. Contributor (ctb): Allan Baxter. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ

In the early years of the 1930s many cinemas in Christchurch started to make the transition from silent films to those accompanied by sound, or ‘talkies’. The Grand was the last cinema to show silent films before closing in July 1931. The closure of the Grand, along with St James Theatre, by Christchurch Cinemas Limited, was due to the decline in patrons as a result of the Great Depression. Although it was announced that there was no certainty when the Grand would reopen, it reopened in June 1932 as a ‘talkie house’.

Over time, the Grand had acquired a reputation for attracting unpleasant audience members. This continued on into the 1950s when audiences would become rowdy and throw items at the screens. Bodgies would also loiter outside. Because of this the theatre soon came to be known as one of Christchurch’s ‘flea pits’.

The theatre was rebranded as the Embassy in 1954.

The building was purchased by the Government Life Insurance Office in November 1959. Demolition of the former theatre took place in February 1960. After this construction started on the new Government Life Insurance building.