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Civic Theatre, Auckland


Civic Theatre (1929)

New Zealand’s greatest atmospheric cinema

The Civic occupies colonial Auckland’s old marketplace, replaced by shops in 1918. These in turn came down a mere seven years later, victims of the council’s latest grandiose plans for a civic centre. And there things rested, for the site lay empty after ratepayers struck down the council’s scheme. In 1929 the chastened council leased it to Thomas O’Brien Theatres Ltd, which ran up a massive new picture palace in just nine months to a design by Bohringer, Taylor and Johnson. It cost £200,000 (equivalent to $18.5 million in 2013) and could seat 3500, the jewel in a phenomenon that saw New Zealand cinema admissions soar from 550,000 in 1917 to 30 million in 1939.

The builders cut many corners but nevertheless constructed an impressive example of the new ‘atmospheric theatres’, the opulently decorated picture palaces that enjoyed a brief heyday from the late 1920s. New Zealand built three: Dunedin’s St James, Christchurch’s Regent and the Civic, with its Moorish and Hindu arches, pierced screens, minarets and balconies, all overarched by a twinkling ‘sky’. Fittingly for the ‘Queen City’, the Civic’s interior is a high-camp riot, a Pierre et Gilles photograph come to life. In 1987 the Historic Places Trust saved the building, which reverted to council control eight years later. Early in 2000 it emerged from a major council-funded facelift, our last proper atmospheric theatre (the Regent’s interior was burnt out in 1979 and Dunedin’s fell before ‘adaptive reuse’ in 1997).

Further information

This site is item number 85 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • Wayne Brittenden, The celluloid circus: the heyday of the New Zealand picture theatre 1925-1970, Godwit, Auckland, 2008

Text: Gavin McLean, 2013

Main image: Paul Capewell

Other images: aa440 (Flickr), Daniel Pietzsch (Flickr) and Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose (Flickr)

Historic image:

Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: WA-15987-F (photographed by Whites Aviation)
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of their images.

How to cite this page

Civic Theatre, Auckland, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated