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Harbour Light Theatre

The Harbour Light Theatre was a cinema built in 1917 at 24 London Street, Lyttelton.

Harbourlight Theatre, London Street, Lyttelton
Harbourlight Theatre in Lyttelton. Creator (cre): Library Staff. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Before the construction of the Harbour Light Theatre in Lyttelton, travelling theatrical companies would often use one of the other halls in the town to present their shows. In July 1916, Arthur William Lane purchased Town Section 37 on London Street for £550. The property was then transferred to Lyttelton Pictures Limited in September. 

The Harbour Light Theatre was designed by John Steele Guthrie. The tenders for its construction were advertised in August 1916. The front of the building faced London Street and was two storeys high with decorative brick towers topped with spherical domes on either side. The entry to the building was framed by large Tuscan columns, with quoin stones on the corners of the building. The material of the building was mostly brick with a stucco finish on the façade painted white in the “California style”. Inside the theatre, the auditorium could seat 500 people in both the stalls and the circle. 

In February 1917, Lyttelton Pictures Limited offered a prize of £5 5s for someone to name the theatre. On 16 February it was announced that the winning entry was Harbour Light which was won by Fred Debenham of Oxford. The theatre was to be managed by Arthur William Lane.

The theatre opened with a ceremony on 20 March 1917. The main film shown at the opening was Deep Purple. At first the theatre management concentrated on screening films three times during the week. The theatre was also the site for an attempt to break a world record when, in July 1920, Albert Steele succeeded in playing the piano for 100 hours without sleep or rest.

In 1920, Lyttelton Pictures Limited decided to refurbish the building so that it could also act as a theatre for live performances. The rear of the theatre building was extended and a stage with up to date fittings and lighting effects was constructed. This was completed by December 1920 and the first performance was delivered by a “big-town” company.

Having the stage meant that the Harbour Light could be used for fund-raising and benefit concerts, public talks, and other social occasions, not just to screen films. Attractions presented on the new stage included illusionists and hypnotists, even vaudeville from the Jolly John Larkin Happy Folks Company. 

In July 1925, the theatre building was seriously damaged when a clay bank to the north of the theatre collapsed into the wall at the rear of the stage extension. Heavy rain had made the bank unstable, with the result that several tons of earth and bricks fell onto the stage causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage. The main building was undamaged and it was possible to continue film screenings although the stage was out of action for some time.

The introduction of movies with sound (talkies) meant that the theatre was renovated in April 1930 to accommodate this new technology. One of the first all talking movies to be shown on 19 April was The Canary Murder Case

In April 1944, Lyttelton Pictures Limited advertised the Harbour Light Theatre property for lease (for a term of 10 years) or purchase. 

In April 1965, the building was purchased by Masters’ Enterprises. Under the ownership of Lang Masters, the theatre was renamed the Harbour Theatre. The building was renovated, new lighting was installed, and the interior was redecorated.

There was an attempt to establish a public aquarium in the building but by April 1970 the building and the steel tanks were advertised for sale.

On Boxing Day 1970, the theatre reopened under the management of F. K. Moloney. However, in April 1971, the theatre was forced to close by the Lyttelton Borough Council as the fire escape did not meet the standards. In 1971, Leo Quinlivan took ownership of the dilapidated building. By then the floor was rotten and the walls were damp. After a major refurbishment of the building, it reopened again in 1973 as a theatre.  It was sold again in 1980 to Frederick E. Read, a film librarian, who was the last owner to use the theatre as a cinema.

In 1983, the theatre was sold to Peter Harris who carried out extensive changes to the interior, including the building of a squash court in the back stage, the stripping out of the auditorium and stage area, and the removal of the original plaster on the walls as well as the projection box. The refurbished building reopened in April 1985 as a BYO restaurant complete with stage.

However by 1988 the Harbour Light had again changed hands, with the new owner Tom Jones using the theatre as a night club and for performance theatre. By 1992 it had evolved into a licensed entertainment and function venue.  It continued to operate as a function venue until the earthquake in February 2011 caused extensive damage to the building. The Harbour Light Theatre was demolished in April 2011.