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Liberty Theatre (Savoy Theatre)

The Liberty Theatre was an early Christchurch cinema designed by Sidney and Alfred Luttrell. It was built in 1917 and demolished in 1997.

North East corner of Cathedral Square
North East corner of Cathedral Square. Creator (cre): Christchurch Star. © Christchurch Star

In December 1901, the new Warner’s Hotel building opened in the north eastern corner of Cathedral Square. However, it was soon realised that the noise made by the printing press of the adjacent Lyttelton Times building was a disturbance for guests. This resulted in an ongoing legal battle between Warner’s Hotel and the Lyttelton Times. The case eventually reached the Privy Council in London in 1907, who ruled in favour of the Lyttelton Times.

The matter of noise and vibration remained a concern for Warner’s Limited, even into the following decade. By July 1915, it was reported that a 60 feet by 140 feet section, on which the north eastern half of Warner’s Hotel stood, had been sold to make way for a picture theatre. This section was made up of parts Town Section 702 and Town Section 700.

The new theatre building was designed by architects Sidney and Alfred Luttrell and was intended to act as a buffer between the Lyttelton Press building and Warner’s Hotel. By 14 September 1915, the Christchurch City Council By-laws and Finance Committee had approved the plans submitted by the architects. Despite this, the northern section of Warner’s Hotel was not demolished until January 1917.

The exterior of the theatre was brick with pre-modernist features. The building departed from older styles of exterior appearance found in theatres in that it was designed to radiate artificial light. The main façade, which faced Cathedral Square, was taken up by eight sets of window bays which reached to a height of three storeys. Atop the parapet was a neon sign with the name of the theatre.

The ground floor, entered from Cathedral Square, contained the ticket boxes and a double marbled staircase which led upstairs to a foyer. Doors on either side of the staircase at the ground floor level allowed for entry to the stalls. Doors in the upstairs foyer led to the dress circle. Overall, the theatre could seat up to 1400 patrons. The dress circle also featured private boxes. The furnishing and upholstery of the theatre was carried out by A. J. White. The screen in the auditorium was originally 800 by 900 square feet and set before this was an orchestra stand.

Prior to opening, the theatre was given the name Liberty, a reference to the war effort which was still taking place at the time. At the time of its construction the Liberty Theatre was the largest picture theatre in the South Island. The theatre was to be operated by Hayward’s Pictures and the first manager was W. G. Sutton.

The Liberty Theatre officially opened on 8 September 1917. As part of the opening ceremony, a troop of boy scouts from Sydenham paraded through the auditorium bearing the flags of the allied nations and were accompanied by the national anthem of each nation represented. The first films to screen were Clover’s Rebellion and The Rink. After officially opening, the orchestra was to be led by Florence Scapini.

Although its main function was to act as a cinema, the theatre was also used as a venue for events other than motion pictures. In 1924, it was used by Rev. John James North to preach his sermons which were amplified across Cathedral Square. The Liberty had the distinction of being the first theatre in Christchurch to screen a ‘talkie’. On 10 June 1929, the film “Mother Knows Best” was shown, accompanied by footage of King George giving a speech at the opening of Tyne Bridge.

In June 1939, the theatre management was taken over by Amalgamated Theatres Limited. To mark the occasion the film “Tailspin” was shown. In 1943, the property was transferred to Liberty Theatre Limited.

Demolition of the former Savoy Cinema
Demolition of the former Savoy Cinema. Creator (cre): Christchurch Star. © Christchurch Star

Renovations were made to the theatre in 1953. The glass on the exterior façade was removed and filled in, a new screen was installed and the seating was expanded to accommodate 1120 patrons. To accompany this, the theatre was renamed the Savoy.  During the 1950s the theatre was also the venue for Uncle Trevor’s Chums Club. This was held by Trevor King on Saturday mornings at 10am. The club would open with screenings of Walt Disney cartoons, a Flash Gordon serial, and then a film. There were also quizzes with prizes.

In 1977, the Savoy was upgraded to become a twin cinema. The dress circle level was turned into Savoy Two, while the stalls were refitted with a new screen to become Savoy One. The theatre building was renamed the Savoy Centre.

A drop in patronage, partially due to the opening of the Hoyts 8 multiplex on Moorhouse Avenue, meant that by 1993, it was no longer profitable to keep the building operating as a cinema complex. It closed in September 1993 and in the same month, the property was transferred to Jan Dobson and Duncan McFarlane.  

Although efforts were made to preserve the building, due to its heritage significance, these were not successful. Demolition of the building commenced in December 1996 and continued through to January 1997. Initially it was proposed that a multi storey building with bars, shops, and a restaurant would replace the former cinema building, however the site remained empty in the years following.

In 2000, the property was transferred to Hotel Holdings Limited. In January 2001, work commenced to transform the empty site into a beer garden for the adjacent Warner’s Hotel. In 2007, under the ownership of Gordon Chamberlain, construction of a new Novotel Hotel started on the site of the beer garden. The western façade of Warner’s Hotel was extended northward, incorporating the former Warner’s Hotel building into the new hotel.