Much as we might not like it, in Auckland’s constantly changing cityscape, but entertainment venues come and go. Some fall to property developers (His Majesty’s, The Kings Arms), others are “repurposed” (The Gluepot). And some are simply bowled so an empty hole in the ground is all that remains, often for many years (The Box/Cause Celebre) if not decades. Road widening has taken out a few (Armadillo/ Kurtz Lounge), but just as often leases expire, people move on and times simply change.
At some level – again, we might not like it – we have to accept these things in the expectation and hope new venues for live music will emerge. But with property prices the way they are and the coagulation of apartments in ever-expanding Auckland – places I grew up thinking were the distant suburbs are now “central city” in real estate ads – things aren’t looking good.
But few things are more grating and unacceptable than seeing a wonderful venue with a deep history being left to rot away. We’re talking about the once majestic St James Theatre between Queen and Lorne Streets, in what has sometimes been called the “entertainment precinct” of Auckland, that area between the Town Hall, Q Theatre, Aotea Centre and the Civic Theatre.
The extraordinary St James opened as a variety theatre on 5 July 1928, switching to films in late 1929. Today it is classified as a Category I historic place – “of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value”.
In recent decades it has hosted scores of international artists, among them Miles Davis, James Brown, Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas, Slayer, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pet Shop Boys, Joni Mitchell, and Jeff Buckley.
“I was there for one night and can still remember the breathless excitement in the room,” says Josie Campbell of the original Seven Worlds Collide shows.
Graham Chaplow recalls, “arriving at your circle seating to find a piece of paper with the words ‘make me fly’ written on it. First time I realised the art of making paper darts was lost on generations younger than mine. Had many requests to make paper planes from my fellow punters at the sixth and final great show that went on past midnight with its many jams.”
Ray Harmen remembers it well: “Eddie Rayner [of Split Enz] invited me to attend a rehearsal for this gig at the St James Theatre. I worked just across the road at AUT [Auckland University of Technology] at that time. I stood with Dave Dobbyn in the wings when Neil brought out his tea-chest bass for a number.
“He struggled to nail the rhythm so Eddie said to Neil, ‘Let Harm do it’. Neil replied, ‘Harmen is not me!’ I showed him how to simplify his approach to the song ... and he was away.”
Besides his True Colours and Seven Worlds Collide extravaganzas, Neil Finn made many appearances at the St James: with the Finn Brothers in 1996 and 2014; in 1998 on his Try Whistling This tour and later for the One Nil tour in 2001.
Today the St James is in a permanent limbo since it was closed after a fire in 2007, only intermittently reopening for concerts after some restoration. But the developer’s funding for an adjacent apartment complex – which allegedly would have allowed for restoration of the theatre – didn’t eventuate. Since then discussions, delays, negotiations, council meetings … all the usual nonsense.
There have been a number of unsuccessful campaigns to rescue the grand old lady, like that one over a decade ago which had British stage and screen grandees Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen lending their illustrious names – which got attention, right up until the time they left town.
At the time of this writing the once distinguished and distinctive theatre, a rarity in the Southern Hemisphere, lies in ruins.
It can be seen in the Avantdale Bowling Club’s video for ‘Years Gone By’ (above) and in Tami Neilson’s ‘Kingmaker’ video. Twenty years earlier, Eye TV (formerly the Nixons) were there for ‘One Day Ahead’. Drummer Luke Casey recalls, “The beautiful tan leather seats are all over our video … shot by Greg Page in that lovely theatre. They ripped them out shortly afterwards I believe.”
More would be ripped out, ripped up and abused in recent times. In the past few years as the theatre has stood empty and ignored behind a wall of plywood boards and rough sleepers outside in blankets, the place has been vandalised, tagged, had copper pipes and electric wiring stolen, and there are areas of water damage. Part of the magnificent dome has collapsed. It is a dire indictment of the disgraceful lack of vision, money and will on the part of many, mostly local and national government bureaucrats.
Yes, to restore the St James would be expensive. But to offer some insight into how important the theatre has been, let’s look at just some of the local musicians who have played there down the decades. It’s a very diverse list.
Russell Brown remembers: “Scribe on his album tour in 2003 – the album’s gone platinum within a few days of release and he’s at the peak of his powers. Only a short gig (he didn’t have that many songs) but he’s highly charismatic and it seems like he can go anywhere from here …”
“True Colours is a bit weird,” said Chris Faiumu of Fat Freddy’s Drop. “There’s just too many bands. I think our set is only going to be about 30 to 40 minutes whereas at our own shows we usually play for about two-and-a-half hours. But True Colours is a good thing for the kids and we have a good time playing in front of all sorts of crowds. As for our set, we’re going to try and avoid doing some of the hits.”
The St James – which could accommodate around 1200-2000 people – was the kind of venue which suited local artists of all persuasions, from Th’ Dudes, Hello Sailor and Hammond Gamble in October 2006 to Shapeshifter that same year.
And The Mint Chicks, who brought the roof down. Literally. As Claire Trevett wrote in the New Zealand Herald in July 2007: “A concert billed as one that would ‘rattle the foundations of the historic St James Complex in Auckland’ did just that when chunks of plaster fell on to the heads of two concert-goers.
“The pair were taken to hospital where one, a 17-year-old youth, required stitches and the other, a female, was checked for concussion. They were struck by plaster that fell from a decorative portal during the Mint Chicks concert at the St James Theatre in Queen St last Wednesday night. The Mint Chicks were playing as a support act for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. St James manager John Griffiths said the vibrations and sound waves from the music had dislodged the plaster in the theatre, which is a category-one building on the Historic Places Trust register. ‘It’s an old, old theatre, built in 1936 [sic], and there is a lot of ornate plasterwork,’ Mr Griffiths said. ‘It was an exceptionally loud concert, the loudest there has been at St James for a long time.’ ”
Most people who played there have some memories of the place.
Nigel Russell: “We played there in the Spelling Mistakes in 1980 at a Sunday night double feature. A promoter thought that having a band at intermission playing on the stage in front of the screen was going to be the next big thing. It wasn’t. I think we played between Midnight Express and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.”
Andrew Maitai of Powertool Records: “I ran Indie Club, mostly in the St James Grand Circle, but occasionally in the foyer of the [adjacent] Westend throughout 2007. I was doing that five nights a week from Tuesday through to Saturday. I would have five acts play per night … I still can’t believe that I even managed to find 25 local acts every week!
“Indie Club is a show whereby every patron received a free CD upon entry. At one stage Miriam Clancy did a residency whereby she was MC and performed. Even on nights where there were international acts in the main auditorium, we would still do Indie Club, starting at the conclusion of their show. I often found myself sitting up in the Gods by myself watching bands like Sigur Ros. Ben Harper even attended an indie club because he was wanted to see local guitarist Kara Gordon (aka Jimi Kara) perform. It was a pretty amazing time and the Grand Circle was an absolutely stunning room to play in. I have very fond memories of that place.”
Don’t so many of us? The stately décor and beautiful lights, standing in a queue down the long entry waiting for tickets and admiring ourselves in the mirrors, the quiet bars upstairs, the private room right at the top for the elect ...
Promoter Simon Grigg remembers, “When there were loads of dance parties in the early 2000s, we used to use Sir Robert Kerridge’s old office behind a hidden door in the mezzanine as kind of a private room. Mahogany walls, huge sofas, and private bathrooms.”
It’s a measure of just how important the St James was as a venue when you consider it could host the bFM Oonst dance nights but then the next wave of indie artists: Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Fazerdaze in late 2015, Tiny Ruins the following month, then Lontalius.
The old cinema-cum-theatre which hosted Comedy Festival acts, film festival flicks, the experimental sound and vision Interdigitate events – and once showed The Sound of Music for months at a time – also allowed for the sounds of Sola Rosa, Pitch Black, Shihad (and Pacifier), The Datsuns, Cut Off Your Hands, Hollie Smith, SJD, Phil Bell (aka Sir-Vere) doing his Major Flavours Vol 2 launch (“was insane”), The Feelers, Ha the Unclear …
Matthew J Ruys (Matty J) remembers the musical he wrote with Kerry Scanlan and Phil Fuemana which played the St James in 1991: “It was Fight The Power and was a musical about a bunch of teens navigating life in a rough neighbourhood.”
Some say sound never dies, so music put into the world resonates out there forever. And memories don’t ever die, just become distilled into some emotional shorthand and a few key moments.
For many punters, the specific years of gigs may blur but some memories are deeply etched, as Robin Kearns notes: “Ah, so many St James memories. Here’s one. Some time back in very early 2000s [the True Colours festival, 2001] Hugh Sundae hosted a Music Month event there in which various performers yarned with him on sofas then performed. My sister and I were seated up front by the stage around a cheap plastic table.
“An animated Chris Knox leapt from the stage onto the table which began to buckle as he liberally sprayed us with enthusiastic saliva. By some miracle the table stayed in one piece as we wiped our brows after the most intimate performance ever.”
As Russell Baillie noted in his Herald review, “[Knox] mounted a one-man audience invasion with front-row table dancing. And in the finale of ‘Not Given Lightly’ he stopped the number for a short sharp lecture on rock song structure before interpolating the lyrics of his fellow musicians’ anthems into the last chorus.
“Not something you see every gig, that.”
Can that be topped? Yes, it can. Because Murry Pretscherer (aka DJ Murry Sweetpants) and Jodi shared an even more special moment there. “I proposed to my wife onstage at St James,” he tells us. “It was Nice’n’Urlich on New Year’s Eve. She was dancing by herself on stage in front of a full house while I was hanging out side of stage. They had a thing where you could text and it would appear on the screen behind the boys, so I wrote ‘Jodi will you marry me’ and pointed it out to her as it scrolled across.
“All seems to be going well so far. We’ll be 19 years deep this January.”
For further information on the current effort to keep the St James viable there a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Savethestjames