History of the
Mercury Theatre

A detailed account of the Theatres History from the DPA Consevation Plan.

The Theatre is Proposed

First known as Kings Theatre, the Mercury Theatre was built in 1910 by John Fuller and Sons. This famous vaudeville family of father, three sons and two daughters arrived in NewZealand in 1895 and toured the main centres with a variety programme. Their Myriorama programmes featured coloured pictures of landscapes or historical events projected onto a screen from a lantern slide machine operated by JohnJnr, while Ben gave a commentary. John Snr sang baritone to his daughterLydia’s soprano. By 1900 Fullers Vaudeville was the biggest in New Zealand leasing theatres in Auckland,Wellington and Dunedin.In 1905 the company took over the Princess Theatre in Dunedin.

The Myriorama Company, from left: John Fuller Jnr, Lydia Fuller,John Fuller, Howard Chambers,Benjamin Fuller and Hettie Fuller. (“Top of the Bill”, Peter Downes.) 

John Fuller had recognised the potential of silent film and the company had been screening films in theatres, but he realised that a purpose-built theatre was needed. He was also in competition with Henry Hayward who was also in the film distribution business. Land was obtained in Upper Queen Street fora cinema/theatre. John Fuller & Sons already owned the Opera house in QueenStreet where live theatre would continue and the new theatre was for silent film and vaudeville.

The commercial centre of Karangahape Road, 1910 with Upper Pitt Street to the right.(G W A Bush,Decently and in Order.) 

Since the turn of the century the Karangahape Road ridge had become a busy commercial and retail area. Nevertheless, there was some scepticism expressed at the proposal to build a theatre so far from Queen Street. 

It is perhaps a bold bid to erect so finer structure in Newton, but in selecting a site in Upper Pitt Street, two doors from the end of a penny tramway section in busy and progressive Karangahape Road, Messrs. Fuller and Sons have shown a keen appreciation of the configuration and growth and future ofAuckland City.’

The Theatre is Designed

John Fuller employed architect Edward Bartley, who was nearing the end of a distinguished career during which he had designed many of the city’s prominent buildings including Fuller’s Opera house in 1882. Edward Bartley was concerned with safety and insisted on building with fire resistant materials. The walls were lined with asbestos sheets and the asbestos drop curtain was the latest of its time, an innovation which was to cause enormous problems for later owners.Brick was used for load bearing walls and the stairs were built of concrete rather than timber. Until this time films had been shown in existing halls and theatres with the equipment set up in the middle of the audience. However, the film was highly flammable this practice was not considered safe. In April 1910 the WeeklyGraphic & NZ Mail reported: 

King’s Theatre now in the course of erection for Messrs Fuller & Sons will be the largest building of its class seating many more people than his Majesty’s… Through the very favourable configuration of the land and other special circumstances the architect has been enabled to plan the fire escapes and exits from the dress circle, the stalls and pit all opening on the level ground.

Exterior of the Kings Theatre. The Hallenstein Brothers Building constructed in 1912 directly alongside the theatre is not yet in place in this image, indicating the photo dates to between 1910 and 1912.Note the hanging light sat the upper floor level, since removed.
Source: Auckland Museum PH-NEG-B2847. 

The King’s Theatre was designed at a time of great change in theatre design and demonstrates the transition between Edwardian theatres and the first cinemas.5 It has been suggested that Henry White who specialized in theatre design had some input into the design. White was particularly concerned with sight lines and except for a few seats in the back of the pit all seats in the house had an unobscured view of the theatre or cinema screen. Another feature of the design was the connecting stair between the stalls and circle.Until this time most Edwardian theatres strictly separated audiences that paid different seat prices. The stairs occupy the area usually taken up by boxes which of course could not be used for film screenings. In designing the staircase and cross aisle to arrive in the mid-circle the usual high stair climbing was avoided. It also left the rear of the circle for projection equipment.6 Mr W. E. Hutchinson won the contract to build the theatre for £7,770. 

The façade on Upper Pitt Street in rendered plaster shows Edwardian Baroque influences in its proportion and decorative features.The verandah along the width of the building had a barrel vault over the central entrance. The side entrances were reserved for stall patrons while the central door was for the dress circle. The theatre was designed to seat1,800: 1,100 in the stalls and 700 in the circle. Interior decoration included plaster cornices and friezes, and pressed steel ceilings.

An artist’s impression of the interior of the King’s Theatre. (Auckland Public Library A12116) 

Opening night on 28 November1910 featured John Fuller himself singing ‘Geraldine’ in front of a capacity crowd. Short films were interspersed with variety acts including a team of acrobats. Although the electric dynamo failed several times throughout the evening it was successful and thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.7 Having accomplished this John Fuller retired in 1911 leaving the running of the business to his sons Benjamin, John and Walter. He died in May 1922.8

The Theatre in Operation

TheKing’s Theatre was a popular cinema for the next six years showing such films as Tweedle dum Misses the Train, Mazeppa and the Girl of TripleX. In 1916 the theatre was leased to an Australian theatre company who provided a diet of sentimental plays:No Mother to Guide Her, How Hearts Are Broken, From Mill Girl to Millionairess, and HerRoad To Ruin.9 Undoubtedly, these morally uplifting fantasies provided solace for the war weary Auckland audiences.

Reverting to cinema after the fourteen-month run, the equipment was upgraded to show talkies. After their father’s death in 1922 the older brothers moved the headquarters of the company to Sydney leaving the New Zealand affairs to youngest brother, Walter. His main interest was the theatres in Dunedin and Wellington and so he leased King’s Theatre to NewZealand Picture Supplies (owned by Hayward) as a cinema.

A New Entrance for the Theatre

By the mid-1920s Karangahape Road had become amain thoroughfare and shopping centre. On either side of UpperPitt St were the large department stores of John Court’s and Hallenstein Bros., and further along Karangahape Road were Rendells, Lewis Eady, MapleFurnishing and Hugh Wright’sMenswear. Bud Atkinson, an American impresario suggested that the theatre would be better served by an entrance from the main street rather than the existing side street entrance.

The new entrance was planned to connect Karangahape Road to the theatre at a point behind the horses on the right. This photo was taken prior to the construction of the new entrance. (APL W-378). 

John Fuller & Co and New Zealand Picture Supplies combined to purchase a narrow strip of land 17 yards wide and 131 yards long running down from Karangahape Road. Architect Daniel Boys Paterson was commissioned to design a suitably impressive entrance. 

Mr C A Lee is progressing well with alterations to the Kings Theatre, Newton, Mr D B Patterson being the architect. The contract calls for the provision of an entrance now afforded from a side street, and this is the principal provision of the proprietors. The main theatre will not be affected, but the approach to it will be considerably improved and modernised. About £6,000 is to be spent.

The new Prince EdwardTheatre entrance can be seen behind the Policeman (compare with previous photograph). (APL 3408B) 

As the ground sloped it was necessary to provide steps. Two flag poles flanked the arched entrance in the narrow façade.The barrel-vaulted ceiling was plastered, and the floor tiled with small hexagonal tiles in a black and white pattern. The last part of the vaulted ceiling was in gold, green, blue and clear stained glass to let in light.From the entrance lobby a staircase led up to the circle lobby, now known as the dome room, where an elegant elliptical stained-glass dome in the art deco style provided light. The elegant restrained decoration contrasted with the Baroque plaster decoration of the theatre. 

N.Z. Pictorial News of August 7th, 1926 gave a glowing description of the new entrance headed Newton’s Fine PictureTheatre. 

The beautiful hallway opening on to the main road is, perhaps, the most magnificent in the SouthernHemisphere. The floor is laid with mosaic tile sand the stairway is marble. The ground floor and the circle foyers are spacious and furnished with comfortable lounges, richly upholstered. Soft shaded lights, in pink green and gold, give a diffused glow that is very pleasing. 

Worthy of special note is the magnificent oval lead light dome above the circle foyer, designed and executed by Messrs. Herbert Brothers. Blue, gold, green and black are woven in a wonderful geometrical design, which is thrown into vivid relief when illuminated. Lead light windows in the wall above the stairs and elsewhere, form a rich decoration when illuminated. All the excellent lighting effects have been executed by Messrs. Crosher and Sons.

Views of the new entrance from Karangahape Road and towardsKarangahape Road. (NZ PictorialNews, 7 August 1926.)

The Theatre is Renovated

At the same time the theatre itself was renovated. The seating was reduced by 300 and every seat now had an uninterrupted view. Mr George Tarr designed a new stage and cinema screen.
The screen stands in an artistic framing of white Grecian pillars and low, white steps with two great bowls at the foot, at either side.”

Mr Tarr’s new stage and screen setting. (NZ Pictorial News, 7 Augus1926.) 

Note: Historic Places Trust (Now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) Proposal for Classification states, ‘in 1925 legislation was passed requiring a separate fire-proof box for projection equipment. Such a box was not shown on the original drawings and so it is presumed that a permanent and fireproof projection box was added at the rear of the circle in 1926.’11 

The theatre re-opened under the management of the Fuller-Hayward Theatre Corporation and BudAtkinson with the new name of PrinceEdward Theatre. A total of £17,000 had been spent on the renovations which included heating in the ticket boxes. Films were shown continuously from 11 a.m. to 10p.m. and the programme changed three times a week. Monday evenings were reserved for vaudeville programmes.

The Auckland Star also enthused over the new entrance stating that it had been most artistically renovated and decorated and improved 1,000-fold. The main film on opening night was Michael O’Halloran, about a little newsboy who possessed the philosophy of a sage.

The End of the Theatre's Days as a Cinema

The theatre’s life as a cinema, however, was to be short lived.In December 1926 Fuller’s Opera House in Wellesley Street West was burnt and the stage programmes booked for that season were transferred to the Prince Edward. TheFuller Company was energetic in rectifying this situation and in December 1927 the St James Theatre opened in Queen Street and became Fuller’s principal venue for live theatre. The Prince Edward reverted to a cinema once again. 

Throughout the Depression and the ensuing World War II, the Prince Edward remained a cinema. Little was done to maintain the building and furnishings, owing to the poor economic times. The old theatre was shabby and run down and in September 1947 it closed.

The interior of the theatre,mid-1940s. (APL J Bellingham Collection NZMS 114).

A New Owner

On to the scene came the young entrepreneur, Robert Kerridge. He bought the ailing Fuller- Hayward Theatre Corporation including all the theatres. With the energy and enthusiasm which was to build him an empire, Kerridge set about renovating and upgrading the building for live theatre.It opened with the rather prosaic name, The Playhouse, with a resident company called the West EndPlayers. The season began with a play perhaps aptly named, ‘Fools Rush In’.16 When this company moved south, an American group,The Pasadena Players, took their place and presented four plays before they too moved on. Throughout the fifties plays, musicals and reviews were performed interspersed with films.

The Karangahape Entrance is Closed

In 1956 the Karangahape Rd entrance was closed off and sold to Lum Joe Ng. Norman Ng Building was emblazoned across the front of this narrow building and he ran a greengrocer shop in the long entrance for many years. The Upper Pitt Street entrance, now known as FranceStreet, was re-opened. The dome room and the foyer beneath were retained in the theatre.

The Mercury Theatre is Established

In 1966 The Auckland Theatre Trust Board was formed for the purpose of ‘providing Auckland with a permanent professional company in its own theatre’. After looking at many other properties The Playhouse was bought for $110,000 from Sir Robert Kerridge in 1967. Plans were drawn up for the conversion and upgrade. The France Street foyer was to be renovated and a 75-seat restaurant introduced by cutting into the rear stalls area. The rear of the circle was closed off to form a theatre workshop for rehearsals and an intimate venue for smaller plays. Seating was reduced to 630 in the main theatre to improve audibility and sight lines. ‘Our primary aim is to establish a satisfactory relationship between actor and audience’.

The theatre opened on 1 May 1968 after renovations of around $250,000 under the name Mercury Theatre. The first production was The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie. 

The old Playhouse has been transformed. In place of the old 1300 seater cinema is now a modern 700 seater auditorium, with colourful décor, widely spaced seating, a smaller workshop theatre and a spacious restaurant and foyer.

The modified auditorium following the creation of the secondary theatre at the rear of the circle, but prior to the creation of a restaurant (now main foyer) in place of the rear stalls. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673-16.

The modified auditorium following the creation of the secondary theatre at the rear of the circle, but prior to the creation of a restaurant (now main foyer) in place of the rear stalls. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673-16.

Renovated entry foyer c. 1968. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673

Renovated entry foyer c. 1968. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673

The upper level of the Dome Room, looking through to Dress Circle, c. 1967. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage
Collections 1673-13.

New main entranceway, with new entry points created at either side of main doors, c. 1968. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673-02.

View from stage, late 1960s. The orchestra pit is visible, along with the two pairs of entrances to the auditorium from the Karangahape Road entrance on the north wall.
Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1673-19

Further Renovations

In 1970 the Garrick Bar was built on the first floor above the foyer. It utilised the original first floor windows and the pressed steel ceiling. It was the first liquor license to be granted to a theatre in New Zealand.The Garrick Bar was opened by the Hon. Robert Muldoon, a sometime thespian. 

Mrs Worthington’s Bar took on the art deco theme of the ground floor lobby of the old Karangahape Road entrance where it was built in 1973. Keeping to the 1920s style, architect Don McRae installed genuine light fittings of the period and had art deco wallpaper printed in Wellington. The specially made chrome framed tables and chairs were upholstered in black and orange. The opening was planned to coincide with Noel Coward’s play HayFever.21 With its two bars and two theatres running plays, musicals and opera the aim was to make Mercury Theatre a complete social centre for Auckland.

The space beneath the Dress Circle prior to its transformation into the GarrickBar. This image is date dc. 1967. Note that the archways that appear in the following image are not yet in place at this time. Source: Auckland Libraries HeritageCollections 1673-04.

The Garrick Bar, 1970.(APL J Bellingham Collection, NZMS 114).

The End of the Mercury

The Mercury Theatre celebrated twenty years in 1988 and the Auckland Sun ran a story. Actors reported there were three ghost sin the building: an old caretaker who had been beaten to death by people who had broken in one night; a young boy who was said to have died in the building of the theatre, and a woman who stands in the dress circle. They also commented on the shocking acoustics and the size of the rats, one of which ran across the stage during a performance.

By the late 1980s the structure was in dire need of repair. Throughout its 80-year history and renovations nothing had been done to the structural fabric of the building. It needed re-roofing, new guttering, and the brick walls required strengthening to bring the building up to current earthquake regulations. The asbestos was an enormous problem and it was not licensed as a public hall due to the absence of a sprinkler system. Stinking water regularly flooded the green rooms. To restore all this, an estimated $4 million was required. The Mercury Restoration ProjectCommittee was brought together in May 1989 and commissioned architects JASMAX to prepare specifications and drawings for the restoration. It was envisioned to eventually buy back the Norman Ng building and restore the Karangahape Road entrance. 

With an initial grant of $40,000from the ASB Community Trust and various fund-raising events which accumulated $85,000, the committee started off positively. It was, however, to prove too difficult to raise the required funds. A proposition to offer the theatre as a third theatre for the Aotea Centre was also rejected. With debts of over $300,000 the liquidators moved in and in October 1992 and it was decided to sell the theatre.

Demolition Averted

By now the building was in danger of being demolished. In 1990, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered the building as Category C under the then Historic Places Act 1980 (December Board Meeting1990). It subsequently became a CategoryII building under the 1993 Act.Although it had been valued at $900,000 some years previously it was now difficult to find a buyer willing to invest in the repairs. It was sold first to an unknown identity and then to Symon Peters and John Zam for an undisclosed sum in February 1993. 

We plan to build it back up to what it was in the past which will retain the live theatre production skills in Auckland. I would encourage young people to go into the theatre profession and keep them in Auckland.

Unfortunately, that partnership broke up and the grand old theatre was again on the market. It was bought by theApostolic Church (Auckland City Church, who later renamed as Equippers Church)which stated in an unidentified newspaper report ‘We do not intend to change the character of the building’. 

In 2014, the theatre was purchased by Equippers Church and the main theatre continued to be used for church meetings and venue hire. EquippersChurch is now about to embark on an ambitious project to structurally upgrade and refurbish the building.

Chronology of Events

Date

Event

1895

John Fuller and family arrive in New Zealand to tour the vaudeville circuit.

1910

Kings Theatrebuilt opens as cinema.

1916

Australian TheatreCompany leases the theatre for 14months.

1920's

The building is leased to New ZealandPicture Suppliesas a cinema.

1922

John Fuller dies.Fuller Company headquarters moves to Australia.

1926

NZPS and John Fuller& Co combine to renovate the theatre. A new entrance is built from Karangahape Road. The Dome Room is built. The building is renamed Prince Edward Theatre Dec. Fuller’s Opera House burns down. The current stage programme is transferred to the Prince Edward Theatre. Fireproof projection box installed at rear of circle.

1929

Fullers-Hayward TheatreCorporation is formed.

1930

The St James Theatre is opened for Fuller’s live performances.The Prince Edward reverts to a cinema.

1947

Prince Edward Theatre is closed and sold to Robert J. Kerridge.It is renovated and re-opened as cinema and theatreand renamed the Playhouse with resident New ZealandTheatre Company.

1956

The France Street entranceis restored andtheKarangahape Rd entrancesold.

1966

The AucklandTheatre Trust Boardis formed.

1967

The Playhouse is closed.

1968

The  building is renamed the Mercury Theatre. Major renovations are undertaken –  the back of the stalls is converted to 75-seat restaurant; a small workshop  theatre is constructed at the back of circle and seating is reduced to 630. Cinema converted to live theatre  venue. Proscenium arch plasterwork removed. Booking office and kiosk added.

1970

The Garrick Bar is opened on 1st floor. It becomes the first theatre to have a liquor licence.

1973

Mrs Worthington’s bar is openedon the ground floor.

1982-
1986

The seating is renovated.

1989

The Mercury Restoration Project Committee plans major repairs and renovations: leaking  roof, toilets, foyer, and box office.
The New Zealand Historic Places Trust turns  down an application for registration.

1991

Plans are made for a $4 million upgrade.

1992

As the first stage of the renovations the Worthington Bar becomes toilets and a new reception area is created.The project falters when the MercuryTheatre Company is unable to raise the money.

1994

The New Zealand HistoricPlaces Trust registers the Mercury Theatre as a Category II Historic Place.Additional structural beams are installed above the stagearea.The Theatre is purchased by the AucklandCity Church.

2014

Change of ownership to Equippers Church

Schedule of Owners

Date

Name

Owner

1910

King’s Theatre

John Fuller& Sons

1926

Prince Edward
Theatre

Fuller and Hayward

1947

The Playhouse

Bob Kerridge

1967

Mercury Theatre

Auckland TheatreTrust

1993

Mercury Theatre

Symon Peters & John Zam

1994

Mercury Theatre

Auckland City Church

2014

Mercury Theatre

Equippers Church Trust  Board

2018-Present

Mercury Theatre

Equippers PropertyTrust

Architects

Date

Name

1910

Original Structure
Keith Draffin – Senior Assistant
Henry White – some input  to interior and  seating design

1926

New Entrance and Renovations
Daniel Boys Patterson
Messrs Herbert & Sons - stained glass dome
Messrs Crosher &  Sons - lighting

1968

Renovations
Don McRae

1970

Garrick Bar
Don McRae

1973

Mrs. Worthington’s Bar
Don McRae

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