Review: The Celluloid Circus: the Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre
Wheldon Curzon-Hobson

Reviewer Wheldon Curzon-Hobson is a New Zealand writer. His second novel Near A Canal was described as “… easy to read, evocative of its setting and the characters are beautifully drawn … " His reviews are written in a similar vein, selecting books with inspiring characters and history. He is married with two young children who continually encourage him to 'open his eyes a little wider' to the wonders of the world.

By Wheldon Curzon-Hobson
Published on December 19, 2008

Author: Wayne Brittenden

ISBN: 13: 9781869621469
Publisher: Random House NZ.

This a marvelous read capturing the splendor, the fun and the characters from the heyday of New Zealand cinema.

Author: Wayne Brittenden
ISBN: 13: 9781869621469
Publisher: Random House NZ.

Going to the movies didn't used to be just about watching a film. Through meticulous research, interviews and photographs, Brittenden captures the spirit of cinema in its heyday: the magnificent architecture, the fascinating characters, and the audiences who became thoroughly involved in voicing their emotions and opinions.

In the late 1970's a raggedy bunch of primary school children leapt, or fell, out of the old Howick bus. They charged at the doors of the  Civic, Auckland, New Zealand, their teacher desperately trying to keep control. In front and behind were hundreds more children, all attempting to enter the cinema at once. They dashed up the stairs to the very top and entered another world. There before them was a magical scene, the night sky above with stars flickering, and before them, forever etched into their memories, were the two lions on either side of the curtain, their red eyes flashing. They were shown to their seats, just as the curtains opened to reveal the screen far, far below.

In the early '80s the Monterey Cinema in Howick was where a group from school went to watch an altogether dubious movie as a reward for winning a House competition. The highlights of the afternoon were not just the rustling of rats, the jaffas being thrown, the dreadful jokes being told by the students in between the awful jokes on the screen, but the collapsing of a seat as a student sat down. The chair gave no warning, the whole thing completely gave way and he was left sprawling on the ground.

Such are just two of my first memories of movies. Others spring to mind when I was young: the showing of Star Wars at the massive screen at Cinerama, a double feature of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Classic before it became a porn cinema, wonderful times at Charley Gray’s and The Academy, the Film Festival at St James’, the list goes on and on.

Cinemas form such an important part of our personal and social history. Wayne Brittenden brilliantly captures these magical memories encountered throughout New Zealand prior to the arrival of the multiplexes. The Celluloid Circus lives and breathes the splendour and personalities of the cinemas of yesteryear, many of which no longer survive in New Zealand today.

What makes this book particularly special, even above and beyond the meticulous research and fascinating detail of the buildings themselves, are the personal stories and photographs of the personalities from the heyday of cinema. Brittenden has searched out the quirky and untold stories behind the cinemas throughout New Zealand; the managers, the ushers, the projectionists and others who made these buildings living, breathing entities. There are hilarious stories of managers trying to outdo other local managers, of feuds between cleaners, of projectionists and what occurred in their booths, and what illicit frames of film were cut out from R rated movies. 

This book is a treasure: it captures in both words and images a vitally important part of New Zealand culture over the past century. It is a book to enjoy, to treasure, to discuss and reminisce. And for the younger reader, it is an opportunity to discover why their parents and grandparents mention the movies with a sparkle in their eye.