The story of movies in Whiti – it all started in 1977
By Fred Gapes
Movies had ceased screening in Whitianga around the mid 1960’s. In 1977 my business partner, Barry Chapman, and I were introduced to Amy Lee, a local senior representative on the Whitianga Town Hall Committee, who was incredibly supportive in helping us obtain permission to resurrect movie screenings at the Town Hall. We thought that it would be a great idea to re-establish at least Christmas and Easter holiday movie screenings.
We were able to lease a 16mm projector from an Auckland Cinema Exhibitor for the Christmas period 1977 and 1978 seasons and we then secured 35mm projection equipment for screening from 1979. The reliability of the 16mm projector proved to be a little questionable. I vividly recall the very first screening in 1977 (‘Gumball Rally’) when the projector refused to start. I thought there would be a riot! There was a lot of thumping on the walls as I attempted to rectify the projector issue. We finally got started and all was well. The locals were particularly thrilled to have their movie screenings return to Whiti.
Barry and I both had full-time jobs in Auckland, so we could only commit to holiday movie screenings. With our projection duties and the help from our families, we used to alternate working the first and second half periods of the Christmas season. Our wives sold tickets and our children took tickets at the entrance and assisted with the cleanups. Local chap Alan Anderson manned the door for the mid-evening sessions. Our families enjoyed and looked forward to our annual trek to Whiti to entertain the locals and holiday makers. There were several camping-grounds in Whitianga in those days and nothing much else in the way of entertainment, so the movies were well received. Some locals brought their cushions along for the wooden seats. In later years, most of those were replaced with upholstered seats.
One not-so-pleasant memory I have was when an intoxicated male from out-of-town attempted to gain entry to a movie. I intervened and asked him to leave. He became agitated and pulled a full bottle of beer from under his jacket whilst threatening to disfigure my face. With that, a burly local lad standing behind him grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and sternly told him that we had come to Whiti to entertain the locals and not to be threatened by the likes of him. With that, he tossed the inebriated fellow and his beer outside.
Sirens and screams across the town The local fire station, with the fire siren placed on the roof, used to be next to the hall and on one occasion, when the siren went off during a movie screening, a young volunteer fireman in the audience enthusiastically sprung to his feet and attempted to jump over empty seats behind him sending other wooden seats flying, nearly starting a panic. I immediately turned the lights on and stopped the projector. What later seemed an amusing situation could very well have been quite serious, considering there would have been several out-of-towners in the audience who may not have been aware of the placement of the siren. (The fire station is no longer next to the Town Hall, but the siren still is!)
We stayed at the Chantelle Lodge (previously on the site of the current TCDC office), a convenient stroll down from the Hall. My wife recalls a special late screening of the 1976 version of “Carrie”. She had gone back to the Lodge after the session and was reading in bed when she heard loud (mainly female) screams. Close to the end of “Carrie,” there is a rather frightening sequence, which was the reason for the screaming. It was a still night and no doubt the disturbing screams could be heard across the town.
Local business owners were very supportive. Noel and Nicola Hewlett were happy for us to place movie posters in their supermarket windows to help promote the daily screenings.
We had special-event screenings over the years, for instance, screenings of “Dances With Wolves” for the intermediate and senior pupils at MBAS and mid-year ‘new release screenings’ of “Babe” (the talking pig), the original “Toy Story” and many more. Children’s admission ticket numbers were drawn before the start of the sessions and the lucky winners received a prize.
A fire prevented us from showing movies in the 1982/83 Summer Season. A cooking incident in the kitchen/supper room during local group preparations for a Saturday night event in September that year had resulted in a fire getting out-of-control and causing extensive damage to the stage/proscenium, movie-screen, and roof. The projection-room, which housed our 35mm equipment was badly affected by smoke and water damage. Fortunately, we had adequate insurance cover. The Thames Coromandel District Council repaired the Hall and we were up and running in time for the 1983/84 season.
By the mid 1990’s it was becoming more difficult to access 35mm prints of recent releases, due to the increasing number of cinema Multiplexes retaining their copies for longer periods, thereby reducing our choices of recent titles for screening in Whiti. After twenty years in the Town Hall, we decided to on-sell our little business in 1997 to a local chap, who continued screening movies until around the year 2000.
However, we were not content with having a permanent break from screening movies at Whiti. We felt that as the town was showing signs of considerable growth following the go-ahead given for The Waterways, maybe it was time to consider establishing a permanent movie complex for the district. We scouted around possible avenues and eventually discovered through Noel Hewlett that a shopping complex was being considered for the site of a prominent Lee Street Motel run by Marion and Lou Sikiing. I approached Lou to gauge his opinion on including two cinemas within his complex for us. We had known Lou for several years and to my surprise, his response was, “why not?” We opened with “Lord Of The Rings- Two Towers” on 18 December 2002, and Mercury Twin Cinemas was born. The rest is history.
It was a gamble because of the size of Whitianga. A provincial cinema (let alone two) for the population of the town and surrounding districts didn’t make a lot of sense to some in the cinema industry, but we had several years of holiday movie-screening experience in Whiti, so we knew that not only were the movies enormously popular with the surging holiday numbers, but the Whitianga district was destined to keep growing rapidly.
The cinema industry was forced to convert to the digital format by 2012, so at great expense, the 35mm equipment was replaced with digital projectors, which proved to be a considerable advantage in terms of an improved viewing experience, a smoother operation of ticket and candy-bar sales and better access to new ‘day and date’ (simultaneous) international releases.
The Cinemas have been a 20 year success story and nobody in the industry should ever have doubted our dreams. I on-sold the business in 2014, although I still miss the thrill of entertaining our patrons and I wish the current owners, Matt and Anne-Marie McDougall, all the very best success. May there be many more billion-dollar “Avatar” blockbusters!!