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New Zealand's oldest provincial cinema in Raetihi will re-open in April for movies

March 27, 2024 — Gary Griffin-Chappel, Chairperson of the Theatre Royal (Waimarino) Charitable Trust announced today that after some repair work and repaint of part of the theatre, the theatre will again be able to host movies. To celebrate this a re-opening ceremony and documentary film premiere of ‘Paddlewheels on the Wanganui’, will be held on the 27th of April 2024 commencing at 7pm.

Mr Griffin-Chappel went on to say that "The Royal Theatre, also termed Theatre Royal Raetihi, was built in 1915 as a movie theatre, by a renowned local sawmill owner John Punch. Being designed by Whanganui Architect Thomas Battle, it is reported to be the oldest independently built cinema in New Zealand and the oldest provincial Cinema in New Zealand still in existence.

The theatre had a long period as a cinema, being run by the Thompson family for many years up until, we believe, the late 1980’s when it was closed. After that it sat barely used until a trust was set up in 2000 to manage it and do restoration work.

Over the next couple of years work was done to build a new stage, add a back wall, new entrance, and staircase. From around 2002 a theatre troupe, the Phoenix players presented 3 or 4 theatrical productions a year, along with the theatre hosting the Waimarino Art Awards.

At an AGM of the Trust in August 2022, a new group of trustees was elected and with the closure of the Phoenix Players it was agreed that the theatre needs a new direction. With a focus on the theatre becoming integral to the community, introducing live shows with comedy nights, live bands and working with the local college to utilise the theatre for rock nights and biannually use of the theatre for the school production to the theatre.

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Also returning to the original use of the theatre as a cinema, this is something we really want to achieve with an idea to have Saturday afternoon matinees for the children in the region along with showing movies from the theatre’s early times, with the silent movies and other movies that fall into the older than 50 years, since then there is no risk of copyright infringement, back to the golden days of the silver screen. With the nearest cinemas an hour away north or south and having spoken with local people we feel there is a need to bring the cinema back to life.”

With this in mind Mr. Griffin-Chappel searched for information on operating a cinema and was lucky to find Mr. Graeme Moffatt, who had just completed the task of restoring Dannevirke’s Regent Cinema to an operational status after being closed for ten years, and asked if he would be willing to provide some guidance and support on their journey to return the golden years of the movies to the region.

Mr. Moffatt who is also a documentary filmmaker, has already screened a documentary onto the back wall of the theatre in 2015, using his own projector and sound system as there were no equipment available at the time.

He called in to the theatre in early August 2023 and after discussing what was required he confirmed that he is more than happy to assist in getting the theatre back to operating as a cinema once again.

Graeme began looking around for some secondhand equipment for a sound system and projector, and after finding a suitable projector, this was purchased along with a surround sound system.

A local farmer donated some seasoned logs off his farm and these were milled at the local sawmill, to provide sufficient timber to construct a seven by three metre frame to support a stretched fabric screen, which has now successfully been completed.

The theatre is now ready to screen movies and the first will be the Premiere of Mr. Moffatt’s latest documentary titled ‘Paddlewheels on the Wanganui’, which is based on a book of the same name published in 1967.

The story relates to the exploits of a Hatrick riverboat engineer, who worked in a variety of river boats on the Whanganui River between 1912 and 1919, and as the Royal Theatre was opened during this period and Raetihi is the closest cinema to the area where the boats operated, it was chosen as the ideal location for the premiere.

This event will take place on Saturday 27th April 2024 commencing at 7.00pm, and will coincide with a re-opening celebration for invited guests for the screening of movies, and will comprise of the screening of a number of films, including the iconic ‘This is New Zealand’, prior to the premiere screening.

© Scoop Media

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