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Nov 14, 2017

The majestic might of a grand old cinema and all who saved her

Back in 1992, Taihape College YES team Majestic Enterprises played a part in saving the Majestic Theatre in Taihape and were widely recognised for their efforts.

Majestic Theatre Taihape

Over the past 100 years, Taihape's Majestic Theatre has accumulated quite a history. Carly Thomas has a look at some of the ups and downs of the little Kiwi battler. 

The Majestic Theatre is being fussed over. The grand old lady has turned 100 and she deserves a bit of a shindig. 

It's been an up-and-down sort of a life for the little cinema. There have been the years of hustle and bustle, the boom years where the Majestic Theatre was the place to be, and then the tough times when the doors shut, the dust settled and the MGM lion had to hold its roar.

The story of the Majestic Theatre is a good one and the centenary celebrations held at the weekend marked the life of a great old Kiwi battler. And it's the story of Taihape too, a town that cared enough to fight and which showed the rest of New Zealand what is possible in a small, but tight community.

The story needs to back up a reel or two to really show how the Majestic's life began, so let's go back to the beginning. Let's go back to black and white.

The year is 1912 and Taihape is booming. In the Main-Trunk-Line town, community life is vibrant and it is by rail that movie reels are dropped off to two enterprising young local men, the Nicholl brothers, Vern and Cyril.

They ran the town's grocery store and, with the popularity of silent films growing, they took it upon themselves to show movies from their premises – films like Cleopatra, Saved from the Titanic and The New York Hat. The need for a dedicated theatre was clear.

The Station Street Theatre was built on Tui St on the site of the original grocery store, just down from the railway station that would time its schedule around movie showings.

The theatre was custom built for silent films, with a piano for a specialised musician to play the film scores. It became local lore that Mrs Webb, who played the piano for the silent movies, could read a book at the same time.

Coming to the "pictures" is a real treat and quite the occasion. Rather than being told to turn off your mobile phones, it is asked that ladies remove their large brimmed hats and that whistling is refrained from.

Then, one day in 1916, at 2.24am, a fire broke out at the theatre. It was totally destroyed, with a witness saying it was "a grand spectacle. The fire was getting fiercer and fiercer. The flames shot up to a tremendous height".

The theatre was quickly rebuilt and renamed The King's Picture Theatre. Clarry Capill, a local teenager, is reputed to have carried all the bricks for the building from the railway station to the site using a sack bag that held four bricks at a time.

When the Nicholls' lease expired in 1926, the theatre was taken over by Fuller Hayward Theatre Corporation and the grand old building finally became The Majestic Theatre, the name that has stuck over the years.

Harold Cardiff was a projectionist and when the "talkies" arrived in 1930, the goods train would pull a passenger carriage and wait until the movie finished to allow the patrons a ride home.

Icecreams coated in chocolate, hard from the freezer, were carried around on trays at half time by children in white jackets and caps. Jaffas were popular and rolled down the stairs, bouncing their way to the wooden floor below.

When floods hit the town, causing a slip on the railway line, getting the film spools in was of the upmost importance. Cardiff arranged for the films to be flown down from Hamilton by a pioneer aviator named Blackmore in the company of a pioneer parachutist, Scotty Fraser.

How wonderful a sight it must have been to see the plane touch down in a paddock in Utiku and then do another lap of glory to take Cardiff and his son Harry up for a spin. From the cockpit they dropped leaflets over the town, like treasure falling from the sky, advertising the film and joy rides at five shillings a piece.

Fay Methven has fond memories of the theatre. She would often wag school on a Wednesday afternoon to go to the matinee. She lived in Utiku, travelling to school in Taihape by bus. Wednesdays were the day her mother would give her sixpence for a pie – "but I used to go without so I could go to the pictures".

The back seats of the theatre were where young courting couples sat and smoking was prohibited. The projectionist always knew when people were ignoring the ban because a fug of smoke would be seen through the rays of the newly installed Kalec GK40 35 millimetres projectors. The projectors came from a British battleship and were suitably solid.

In the 1950s, the theatre was upgraded, and in the 60s, it came into the hands of Gary Cuff. In 1967, a big storm wreaked havoc in Taihape. Hailstones "as big as marbles pelted Taihape for 12 deafening minutes".

The hail settled about four or five inches deep in the main street and, as it melted, flooded buildings and businesses.

Two-hundred-and-fifty "terrified and nearly hysterical" college students were forced to evacuate the theatre when a torrent of water poured through the roof during, what could be, Taihape's worst flood.

By the mid 1970s, many railway families had left the district and, with the advent of TV and then video, cinema audiences began to decline. The theatre closed in 1977, but after a public meeting attended by 400 people, a committee was formed to save the theatre. Its history as a good kiwi battler started here.

John Infield, Berwyn Davies and Eddie Cherry kept the film reels turning after they worked out a system for keeping the cinema running – not for financial gain, but for the benefit of the community.

Rapheal and Margaret Mickleson were noted volunteers and helped out at every movie showing, with Margaret staffing the ticket office and Rapheal looking after the front of house and supervision of children in the audience.

They worked at the theatre for at least 10 years, with Raphael always turned out impeccably in a collar and tie, as he said it set "a good example".

Audiences, however, dwindled, and despite the valiant efforts of a dedicated team, the doors of the theatre sadly closed. The once vibrant and vital space became a place to be walked past, rather than stepped into.

The Majestic Trust wound up in 1991 and the Taihape Borough Council took control of the building.

Taihape College gave the theatre its next lease of life in 1992. In the most amazing hands-on learning experience, a group from the fifth and sixth form business studies classes took on the management of the theatre after it had been closed for a year.

As part of the New Zealand Fletcher Challenge Young Enterprise Scheme, the students were mentored by Mahendra Naidoo and Val Merwood, and the group called itself Majestic Enterprises.

The teenagers sold shares in the company and all of the shareholders got a return on their investment of $180 at the end of the year. They worked hard, showing films twice every two weeks and paying themselves 25 cents an hour.

The group's efforts weren't just noticed in Taihape, but by the Aoraki Award for Innovation as well. It was a nationwide award and they came second, winning $6000 and a whole heap of pride.

Angela Wilson flew to Auckland for the presentation, where she met the prime minister at the time, Jim Bolger, not to mention having a glass of wine on the plane.

They made the front page of The Dominion and were featured in the popular TV programme, Made in New Zealand. They were the stars of an episode that screened in primetime on TV One.

To read the full article, click here.