Sydenham Empire Picture Palace (The Metro)

The Sydenham Empire Picture Palace was an early Christchurch cinema which opened in a former Presbyterian church at the corner of Elgin Street and Colombo Street in 1911. A new cinema, The Metro, was built in 1936.

McKenzies in Sydenham
McKenzies in Sydenham. Creator (cre): Christchurch Star. © Christchurch Star

In 1911, due to the suburb of Sydenham experiencing a growth in population in the initial decade of the twentieth century, Philip Walter Soanes, a builder, and Mr Hulston selected the area as the site of a new moving picture theatre. Rather than construct a purpose built theatre, a Presbyterian church situated on the corner of Colombo and Elgin Streets was renovated.

The theatre was originally able to seat 750 people, though in the following year it reportedly could seat 850. An orchestra provided the music for the films. The original manager, John Cox, sometimes also provided a singing voice to accompany the films.

The operating box was situated at the back of the theatre on the ground floor. Like many operating boxes of the time, it was lined with asbestos to prevent fire damage. The theatre also had a fireman stationed there during its screenings to assist if a fire broke out.

The Sydenham Empire Picture Palace opened on 2 January 1911. The films screened included Pepita, the Smuggler’s Daughter, Athaliah, La Ricorda, The Incendiary Foreman, The Donkey That Was Not An Ass, and The Kidnapped Servant.

In March 1912, the proprietors discussed whether they should turn the company into a public company, The Sydenham Co-operative Pictures Limited, with shares for purchase. In July 1912, Walter Williams took over the management of the theatre. However by November of that year Hayward’s Picture Enterprises took over the management of the theatre and the supply of its films. John Hounsell, who had previously run the Colosseum theatre, was appointed the manager in December 1913.

At a meeting of the shareholders in 1915, the chair, Harry Thomas Stubberfield, raised the possibility of installing a dress circle.

In 1918, while screening the film, A Gambler’s Soul, a fire broke out in the operating box. The manager, H. Williams, had removed a burning piece of film and thrown it to the floor where it ignited further sets of film. The fireman took the burning reels and disposed of them outside. This prevented the fire from spreading but the film was cancelled for the remainder of the night.

By 1922, it was known as King’s Theatre, Sydenham. By June 1931, movies with sound were being shown at the theatre.

At a meeting of the Sydenham Co-operative Pictures Limited in June 1935, it was decided to sell the building. The original building was demolished in June 1936 and a new, modern theatre building was built in its place by W. Williamson to designs by Cecil Wood. The new theatre opened as The Metro.

Unable to compete with the influence of television, the owner, D. Spence, decided to close the cinema. The Metro screened its final film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, on 28 December 1963. The building was purchased by McKenzies Limited.