The Crystal Palace Theatre

What was left of the Crystal Palace Theatre was demolished in 1986, I would have been 10.  My love for movies (and Christchurch’s history too actually) was planted in me when I was very young.
During the school holidays, my mum and I would bustle down to the bus stop outside the Caltex Petrol Station on Harewood Road and with the bus fare in my warm tight little hand – as I always insisted that I pay the driver – awaited with great excitement for the arrival of the good old Christchurch’s Big Red bus service to town.  We were off to Cathedral Square; we were off to the movies!!!!  I can still feel that childhood excitement bubbling away when I recall those days, not really so long ago.

Many of us will remember the days when our movie threatres were scattered around the boundary of The Square, before the arrival of the cinema multiplexes that meant a certain death to these free standing movie houses.  When I was queuing up along The Square’s pavements of the 1980’s, the Crystal Palace was known as the Carlton Cinema.  The grandeur of the original building was long gone but I remember my parents talking about it, just in passing, saying to each other, “Do you remember when it was the palace?”

The Crystal Palace opened on the 6th April 1918 at 75 Cathedral Square.  There were 1088 seats.   As television was a distant dream, heading out to the flickers was a huge deal.  People dressed in their Sunday best and if you wanted to attend the Saturday night viewing, you had better buy your tickets as early as Wednesday so you weren’t disappointed by missing out on a seat.  Before the movie would start, all would rise as the National Anthem would be played.   It was a special way to be taken into another world, although films from other countries weren’t showed until the 1930’s.  In fact, the Crystal Palace was the first movie house in New Zealand to show British films.  You can almost imagine the excitement of the crowds when sound was introduced in 1929.

In 1963, the Palace became the Carlton and the 32 metre tower that really was the crown of the place was removed.  It had been a much loved icon of the skyline of Christchurch.  The electric fountain and the monogrammed screen curtain were removed and the seats were lessened.  Business continued on until the 1980’s when one by one, the threatres of Cathedral Square closed and disappeared.  At least the name Crystal Palace was remembered as plans were drawn up of what could be built in the vacant lot left behind.  Someone perfectly described the replacement as ‘nondescript’ and that was what the Crystal Plaza Arcade was – never walked through it once.  Like many other buildings at the moment, its future is uncertain due to quake damage.

Just for your general interest, the first film viewed in New Zealand took place at The Opera House in Auckland on the 13th October 1896.  The oldest surviving still-working cinema is in Central Otago and New Zealand’s first film maker was Alfred Whitehouse who made his first movie in 1898.

Again, always, I hope that whatever is coming next for Christchurch, these old names stay and remain for those future generations to look up, see and ask those questions that all historians love to answer 😉

*photo of quake damaged Crystal Plaza Arcade courtesy of https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz*
*photo of Crystal Plaza Arcade sign taken by Annette Bulovic*

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