The Civic, one of the few remaining Atmospheric Theatres in the world, was built in 1929 and specifically designed as a 'movie palace' for talking pictures ('talkies'), which had just been introduced to New Zealand. The first purpose-built cinema of this type in the country, The Civic has become a much-loved Auckland landmark and entertainment venue.
The Civic Auditorium
The Civic is of Rococo design, with Indian-inspired motifs in the public foyer including seated Buddhas, twisted columns and domed ceilings. The main auditorium features turrets, minarets, spires, tiled roofs, Abyssinian panther statues and a soft-top ceiling which gives the effect of a domed blue sky with twinkling stars and floating clouds - a recreation of the Southern Hemisphere sky-scape. The main auditorium could hold 2,750 people at its opening, and even now at its reduced current seating of 2,378 over two levels, remains the largest theatre in New Zealand.
History of The Civic
When built, The Civic had several unique features such as the Wintergarden in its basement from which movie-goers could watch the main screen in the auditorium above, a rising orchestra pit, and the second largest Wurlitzer organ in the Southern Hemisphere. The exterior design incorporated shops facing the street which brought in valuable income during the Depression.
This spectacular building, which was constructed in just 33 weeks, bankrupted its owner (local entrepreneur Thomas O’Brien) but survived the Great Depression and demolition threats, was extensively restored in the late 1990s, and was re-opened on the 70th anniversary of its first performance, on 20 December 1999.
During the restoration, terrazzo floor tiles depicting lines of elephants and a fantastical front curtain adorned with flamingos were discovered. The tiles now form an edge around the vestibule; the front curtain was in a deteriorating state, so in 2000 a perfect replica was handmade by local Auckland embroiderers and is now used for special occasions in the Civic Auditorium. The restoration also provided the opportunity to convert to live theatre capacity and upgrade to modern movie screen technology. As a result The Civic has become a popular venue for major touring shows while once again providing Auckland’s most sumptuous cinema experience.
During World War II, The Civic came to life when the American servicemen were in town. The Wintergarden Cabaret became the home to troupes of adagio dancers, the most popular of these being the diminutive and infamous Freda Stark. Known as “The Fever of the Fleet”, Freda became the star attraction due to her scant attire which ranged from a coat of gold paint (which apparently took several hours to apply and kept her warm during her performances) a G-string and feather headdress, to stark naked on one occasion due to a costume malfunction.
Stark's Café and Bar
, at the entrance to The Civic, is an Art Deco homage to Freda Stark, with the interior adorned in lustrous gold paint. It has become a popular spot for patrons and artists both before and after shows.
Learn more about the history and stories of The Civic
Life goes on at The Civic
Since the restoration, The Civic has hosted international musicals, concerts, theatre and film. In 2000, to celebrate the re-opening, The Philharmonia Orchestra of London with conductor and concert pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy performed in the Auditorium, and a movie season of Gone with the Wind
and four-week season of classic movies lit up the big screen again.
Since then some of the world’s major musical and theatrical shows have been staged at The Civic including Chicago
, Spirit of the Dance
, Slava’s Snowshow
, Russian Imperial Ballet’s Nutcracker on Ice
and Sleeping Beauty on Ice
, MAMMA MIA!
, Bugs Bunny on Broadway
, Menopause the Musical
, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage, STOMP, Fiddler on the Roof
(with Topol), We Will Rock You
, Priscilla Queen of the Desert - the Musical
, Phantom of the Opera
, My Fair Lady, CATS, Mary Poppins
and Jersey Boys - The Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
The venue has also hosted leading international singers and entertainers such as Norah Jones, Joe Cocker, Blondie, Bryan Ferry, George Benson, Diana Krall, Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Elaine Page, Katie Melua, The Seekers, UB40, Counting Crows, Marcel Marceau, John Cleese, Eric Idle as well as hosting the annual NZ International Film Festival.