Wanganui Opera House

Wanganui Opera House

The Building

"Looking at it from the street…you could almost imagine it to be the wooden image of a big, very much overgrown Sudan camel, with a hump in due proportion." (WC? 10/2/1900)

"The general design of the building is of the Tuscan order (pillars and pilasters) for the lower storey, and the Doric for the upper one, and…somewhat in keeping with the Borough’s other building alongside, the Council Chambers. (WH 30/1/1900)(now demolished).

"By great good fortune, the plans Stevenson drew up survive…" (John Thomson). The plans are held in the Whanganui Regional Museum. Copies are displayed in the bar/sweet stall lounge at the Opera House. The six sheets show "plans at basement, ground floor and dress circle levels, a longitudinal cross-section, and external elevations." They provide extensive information about a New Zealand nineteenth century theatre. Some variations to the original plans were made when the theatre was being built, and other alterations have occurred since. Water colour painting on the originals suggests the architect indicated paint colour possibilities. Although it has not been determined whether these colours were the ones eventually used, the pale cream, grays, tans, and reds, or alternatively the deeper cerises with pale cream, tans and grays, are accurate tints for the era, and provide an insight into how Stevenson envisaged the building could look.

Builder Meuli, for reasons unable to be determined today but possibly due to the geography of the site, constructed a theatre in a mirror image of the remaining plans, to hold 1025 patrons, in around five months, ready for the official opening on 9 February, 1900. For a theatre of its time, it was of a moderate size. Thomson noted that the main opera houses and theatres in New Zealand at the time could hold audiences of between 1250 and 1500 people. While the New Zealand theatres were larger than ‘the typical new London theatre of the 1890s’ they were ‘more like the new English provincial theatres, being, like them, ‘touring theatres’.

The Wanganui Herald of the day recorded that "the building which is of wood, resting on massive concrete foundations, all the inside walls being plastered. In size, it compares favourably with any theatre in the colony, the auditorium measuring 60 ft by 60 ft, affording seating accommodation for over one thousand persons, that is to say, 237 in the dress circle, 172 in the orchestral stalls, 166 in the pit stalls, and 450 in the pit…the convenience of the orchestra has been studied, a space the full width of the building and six feet wide having been railed off, the floor sunk down sixteen inches below the auditorium so the audience may have an uninterrupted view of the stage. The dress circle and orchestral stall seats are of the latest pattern, with cast-iron frames and upholstered backs, the latter to tip up, thus giving ample room for persons to pass in front of those sitting down…" The circle itself was supported from below by 18 cast iron pillars, painted to imitate marble, and which spoiled the view of patrons. Even today patrons avoid buying seats located too close to the pillars. Behind the circle was a reception and refreshment room.

Thomson noted that the circle seats in "individual iron framed American opera chairs," were fairly new in New Zealand, but eliminated overcrowding in the "better" parts of the theatre. A distinction was made between orchestral and ordinary stalls. Seven rows were individual chairs in the orchestral stalls, and the next four rows were "pit stalls" where patrons sat on upholstered benches with back rests. Behind them was "the customary four foot barrier behind which came ten rows of plain backless benches - the pit." Those in the pit had no room to move being allowed only 13 in of bench space a person. The floor was raked but there was an early complaint that ‘the slope was not sufficient to enable those in the back rows of the pit to see clearly."

The Herald commentator noted that "the entrances are all from the St Hill St frontage, and ample provision is made for egress in case of alarm of fire, there being two escapes from the back of the circle, two in the stalls, and two in the pit, all opening outwards, and the merest putting down of a bolt is sufficient to open both doors at the mouth of exit. In fact, with a full house, the building will be an empty one, in case of alarm, within the space of two or three minutes. (Ibid) Thomson noted that "one reason for the small entrance was the need at times to control the crowd, which in the 19th century, when queuing was unknown, could be quite violent when trying to enter. This system was not used, but altered to accommodate the expectations of ‘dress circle and stall patrons for a grander entry. Instead of building the committee room between the two doors at the front, Meuli modified the plans to provide ‘a wide passage between a central dress circle entrance and a broad staircase leading to a reception room above. The door at the front on the left hand side led to the stalls, with a partition shielding patrons from those in the pit".

Continued the Herald commentator: "The ticket offices are very well arranged. The pit and stalls entrances are on the left and right wings of the building, whereas the circle entrance is in the centre of the St Hill St frontage leading to a roomy, corridor, from whence a broad staircase conducts to the reception room above. Adjacent to the reception room is the ladies’ cloakroom, fitted and furnished with all necessary requirements, the linoleums being laid by Mr Herbert Taylor. Off the ladies’ cloakroom is situated convenient lavatory and retiring rooms, and the comfort of the gentlemen is also considered in the form of a hat and coat room, also with conveniences.

Thomson records that "the curtain was of dark maroon plush…and matching the dress circle railing and upholstery of the seats. There was no drop curtain" while the Herald recorded that. "The stage accommodation is in proportion to the rest of the building. The width being 50 ft with a depth of 44 ft, or 43 ft 6 in in the clear, and the height is 20 ft to the flies, or an uninterrupted height of 48 ft to the gridiron, whilst the proscenium opening is 26 ft in width, with a height of 24 ft 6in. Access to the stage is gained from the right of way, (next the Council Chambers), through large folding doors, and here there are also two large fire escapes." Thomson also noted that …" The stage was raked only by 6 in. The gridiron was 39 ft above the stage, and allowed for the flying of all scenery… the fly galleries, 20 ft above the stage, were linked across the back, and served as a painting frame…used by local amateur groups, and to effect repairs to travelling scenery."

The Herald wrote that: "At the back of the stage is a large scene dock for storing surplus scenery, also four commodious dressing rooms, fitted with washbasins and other conveniences complete. Above these dressing rooms are three living rooms for the convenience of the caretaker, and in this connection may be mentioned that the fire escape from these rooms leads to the open domain (the hill behind led into Cook’s Gardens, housed the bell tower, and was where the families of the caretaker hung their washing. It was reached by a landing between the back of the Opera House and the hill side).

The whole of the space underneath the stage and dressing room is taken up by a cellar, the walls and floor of which are all concrete. The cellar forms a convenient store room for all paraphernalia incidental to theatrical business, and a portion of it is walled off for an engine room." (WH 30/1/1900)

"The general decorations of the entrance to the dress circle, the auditorium, the dome, and the proscenium, reflect most creditably on the skill shown by Mr Robert Hughes, the interior painting subcontractor. The dome, particularly, is well worthy of special mention - the artistic blending of the colours and gradations of tints being most harmonious…the proscenium pillars, with their Corinthian caps, all in imitation marble, with gold lining, stand out in bold relief, with magnificent effect, added to which the gilding of the cast-iron railing of the dress circle, with its neat filigree work, enhances the pretty and effective appearance. The mouldings round the dome and proscenium and the Corinthian caps and bases are part of the plasterers’ art and the dressing of the walls and ceilings lend additional tone to the whole." (John Jones, plasterer)

Thomson notes that "the auditorium was comparatively narrow, and the circle ended at the proscenium on each side, "strengthening the intimacy of relationship between actors and audience".

Ten large windows provided some ventilation and lit the auditorium and dress circle in the day time . Other ventilation was provided with "twenty-two ‘hit and miss’ ventilators fitted into the walls, and in the dome itself is an ornamental cast-iron ventilator, twelve feet in diameter, whilst on the top of the roof…are two Louvre ventilators, each eight feet square, finishing with a three feet Boyle’s patent ventilator. At night electricity was used to light the theatre, ‘power for which is derived from a 16 hp Crossley Brothers engine". An Auckland firm, Messrs Wm Crosher and Son, installed the electric light. Lime-light effects were also available, and gas was laid to the stage "in case of emergency and for special use on nights of rehearsal." On opening night, the Chronicle noted that: "Sprinkled beneath the dome, suspended by silken cords, are numerous fairy-like electric lamps, while the walls at regular intervals bear handsome brackets furnished with larger lamps." (WC 10/2/1900)


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69 St Hill Street
Wanganui 4500, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
(06) 349 0511
Wanganui Resources

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