Seen at the Tudor: A History of the Tudor Theatre

Tudor Cinema NZ [1]

“Seen at the Tudor” reads the title of a weekly column that appeared in the newspaper Remuera Round between 1945 and 1947.

Each of these articles lists the names of some of those present at the Tudor on the previous Saturday evening. Though generally known as the Tudor Theatre, the Tudor was Remuera’s local cinema. But it was more than a cinema. For many years it was a centre of social life in Remuera.

The building of the Tudor Theatre at 333 Remuera Road, where the Tudor Mall now stands was completed in 1926. In contrast to the smaller cinemas of today it was large, seating an audience of 1066.

Like many cinemas of the time it was designed to exude an aura of fantasy. As the name implies the interior was in a Tudor style. You entered through a foyer lined with panels of dark wood each one bearing a carved emblem. Either side of the foyer twin staircases led up to the lounge and the ‘best seats’ in the circle.

The lounge was reminiscent of the sitting room of a gracious home, with dark paneling, comfortable armchairs, and a fireplace. Tudor Rose emblems and a coat of arms adorned the wall above the mantelpiece. An unusual feature of the lounge was a circular opening with a wooden surround and upholstered seating. From here you could look down to the foyer below.

As a business the Tudor had shaky beginnings. In the financially troubled years of the late 1920’s the theatre changed hands several times. By 1930 the well-known Fuller Hayward Theatres Corporation managed the cinema. Henry Hayward often called ‘the father of the New Zealand motion picture industry’ was President and Managing Director of Fullers Hayward. His son Phil was an executive in the firm.1

Because of financial difficulties Fullers Hayward decided to close the Tudor. On a Saturday night in 1930 they showed their last film. But Phil Hayward stepped in and raised the required 280 pounds to take over. On the Monday evening films were shows as usual.*

Once Phil Hayward took over the shaky days ended and the Hayward family ran the Tudor continuously from then on. During World War II when finding staff was difficult Phil Hayward and his daughter Jill ran the cinema. When Phil’s son Selwyn returned from World War II he entered the family business and in 1948 on the death of his father took over the management.

There was a big change at the Tudor in its early years. The first films shown were silent with a live piano accompaniment but during the 1930’s sound equipment was installed. Audiences could now enjoy ‘the talkies’ and the musicals that soon became popular.

For a time, during the 1930’s, the Tudor was both cinema and dance hall. After the evening film session was over the area between the stalls and the stage became a dance floor, known as Moulin Rouge this enterprise was run by a Mr. Speedy.

The 1940’s and 1950’s were golden years for cinemas. ‘Going to the pictures’ was a regular occasion for many. By the early 1950’s Auckland had 65 city and suburban cinemas. ii The New Zealand film history, Celluloid Dreams notes that “During 1945-46 on average, every person in the country went to the movies 22 times a year, a rate exceeded only by the America’s.”iii

Selwyn Hayward, who booked and hired the films for the Tudor aimed for quality. After the city cinemas the Tudor had first call on MGM releases. MGM were known for their slick, polished productions. The Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound and the dramatic features, Indiscretion starring Barbara Stanwyck and The Dark Mirror with Olivia de Havilland were among those films shown during the 1940’s. Later the comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with the zany Danny Kaye was a hit with audiences. *

Henry Hayward and his son Phil formed Auckland Cinemas Ltd., which subsequently managed the Tudor together with a chain of Auckland suburban cinemas. Especially popular movies were shown for longer than the usual three nights or were brought back for re-runs. Selwyn Hayward recalls the teasing he received from patrons about the number of times he showed The Great Waltz.

Lobby of Tudor theatre [2]

The Tudor showed films every night except Sunday but the 8 o’clock Saturday night session was the social event of the week. To make sure of their seats some families had permanent reservations. At one time the Tudor had over three hundred permanent reservations. (Selwyn Hayward 2/12/04)

What was it like to go to the Tudor on a Saturday night? For a start it wasn’t done to wear any old clothes. Women generally wore a good dress and the men a suit or sports jacket, trousers and tie. Regulars would be greeted by name as they arrived. Price controls meant that ticket prices remained stable for many years. Selwyn Hayward recalls that two shillings and three pence (23cents) was the top price for a seat until price controls came off in the late 1950’s.

In the auditorium coloured lighting projected on to the curtain evoked the atmosphere of the feature film of the night. Advertising slides were shown. At 8 o’clock the curtains swung open, the National Anthem struck up and everyone rose from their seats and stood respectfully while it played. Then the lights dimmed and it was time for the movie to begin. The first half of “shorts”, a newsreel, and perhaps a travelogue, was followed by the interval of ‘half-time’ as it was popularly called. This was the time to go out to the lounge or foyer for refreshments. Shirley Brabant remembers vividly the delicious aroma of the freshly brewed coffee you could buy. Sports fans often rushed out during half time to buy the 8 O’Clock, the sport newspaper published on a Saturday night.

The interval was also a time for socializing. As a local cinema with many regulars many patrons were known to each other. Remuera residents Warwick and Shirley Brabant remember Phil Hayward as the genial host mingling with patrons during the interval. After half time patrons took their seats for the main feature. Unlike some suburban cinemas the Tudor never showed double features. The evening entertainment of shorts, interval and main feature was neatly timed to finish by 10.20pm. Remuera residents could be home and tucked up in bed by 10.30!

But movie going was not only for the grown-ups. Saturday and school holiday matinees for children were popular. Writer Tessa Duder recalls that the Tudor offered “more to children than the Rialto.” She recalls seeing Tarzan serials, cartoons, the musicals of the 40’s and 50’s with Esther Williams, Doris Day, Cyd Charisse and June Allyson.iv

A few children sometimes let their high spirits get the better of them. Selwyn Hayward remembers these “naughty ones” rolling bottles or marbles under the seats. If a warning did not half the behaviour the miscreants would be told to leave. As a family-run business in a close-knit community there were many personal touches in the Hayward’s dealings with the cinema’s patrons. Selwyn Hayward relates that he dealt with any grumbles, (there weren’t many), by giving away free passes. Warwick Brabant, a friend of Phyl Hayward’s son Keith, sometimes gained free admission when there were unsold seats. The seats would often be in either of the two boxes that flanked the stage. And Warwick had to wait till the last minute to get in.

For some would-be moviegoers being personally known could have a downside. Films were classified by the censor A (Adult recommended), U (Universal Exhibition) and R (Age Restricted). Staff would soon recognize any underage youngsters they knew who were trying to get in to an age restricted movie.

And there was a community spirit too. Selwyn Hayward offered the Tudor as a venue for school fundraising evenings. The school sold the tickets for a mid-week session and received half of the admission price for each ticket sold and used. For any tickets that were sold and not used the school received the whole admission price.

The golden years of the 1940’s and 50’s did not last. A new entertainment medium, television, arrived in New Zealand. In 1961 there were 4 800 licensed television sets in New Zealand and by 1970 the figure had risen to 627 000. Cinema audience numbers declined sharply over this period from over 40 million annual admissions to 13 million.v The Tudor was no exception to the decline in audience numbers. For many the communal pleasure of going to the pictures was replaced by watching television in the privacy of their own homes.

Management responded to the decrease in audience numbers by closing off the stall area and seating patrons only in the circle. There were other changes too. A wide screen was installed in the mid-1960s and Sunday evening screenings began about the same time. Despite the changes, by 1972 it was clear that the Tudor Theatre as a cinema was no longer a viable commercial enterprise. Reluctantly Selwyn Hayward closed the Tudor. A cinema that had been a focus of social life in Remuera was no more.

Postscript: For a time part of the Tudor premises were used as an insurance company office. In 1980 the building was demolished and the Tudor Mall built on the site.