Plaza Theatre (Strand Theatre)

The Plaza Theatre was a cinema designed by Henry E. White. It opened in 1917 and was demolished in 1990.

Plaza Theatre
Plaza Theatre. Creator (cre): Christchurch Star. © Christchurch Star

United Pictures, with its offices based on Hereford Street, became a registered company on 6 July 1916. The aim of the company was to purchase or acquire the lease of a parcel of land situated next to the United Service Hotel on Hereford Street for the construction of a picture theatre. The secretary for the company was R. T. Tosswill. In August, the company advertised for a manager for a new theatre. Alfred Rowley, who had served at His Majesty’s Theatre, was appointed.

The Strand Picture Theatre was designed by theatre architect, Henry E. White.  White advertised the tenders for the building’s construction in September 1916.

The building fronted onto the square and ran southward through to Hereford Street. Next to this, a strip of land formed a narrow lane which was leased to United Pictures. The front façade of the building was designed in Art Noveau, making it the first building of this architectural style to be erected in the square. The façade featured plasterwork reliefs of angels and faces and was framed on each side by columns topped with neon lights.

Within, two marble staircases led from the ground floor entrance to the dress circle. Prior to its opening, the theatre was described as ‘one of the prettiest in the Dominion’ and was praised for its use of modern ventilation and heating technology. It also provided sockets for the use of vacuum cleaners. The theatre was the first to make use of two projectors. Music was to be performed by the Ellwood trio, though a full symphony orchestra was used when The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse screened in 1922.

Shipping difficulties during the construction of the theatre meant that the delivery of marble and tiles was delayed, and therefore the building was incomplete when it opened on 5 April 1917. Although an application for the building to be used as a theatre was made on 4 April, it had been found by the City Inspector that the building was still incomplete and did not meet the standards required by the fire superintendent. The takings earned from the opening night were donated to the Returned Soldier’s Association.

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

In April 1919, Alfred Rowley was charged under the Public Health Act 1918 for keeping the Strand open as a continuous theatre, rather than closing during prohibited hours. The closure of theatres at certain hours was a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

In 1925, the Christchurch City Council purchased the lane next to the theatre in order to create a right of way from Hereford Street to the women’s rest rooms in Cathedral Square. The lane was named Strand Lane after the theatre.

In 1931, the management of the theatre, along with that of the Civic Theatre, was taken over by Williamson Films.

The advent of sound films in the 1930s meant that a more intimate style of theatre was required, as opposed to the previous spacious halls of the past. Accompanying this development was the idea that the viewer should be drawn into the film they were watching. In an effort to reduce distraction, ostentatious decorations were minimised. With these ideas in mind, Williamson Films renovated the theatre in March 1931. The theatre reopened under the new name, Plaza. A British film, Plunder, was selected for the reopening screening.

The exterior of the theatre was redesigned in 1944 by architect Cecil Wood. In July 1944 it closed for four weeks to perform these renovations. The theatre reopened on 3 August with a screening of Casablanca.

Following its closure as a cinema in 1963, the building underwent further changes. The ground floor of the building was converted into the Plaza Arcade with openings on both Cathedral Square and Hereford Street. The exterior decorations of the façade facing Cathedral Square were obscured by an advertisement billboard. In 1977, the building was converted into a recreation centre and meeting place for the Centrepoint Club.

On 17 January 1990, the building was demolished and its former location became the site of the new ANZ building which opened in 1991.