News | 7 June 2022
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The history of St James Theatre

The year 1912 was a historic time for Wellington with the opening of the iconic St James Theatre, which took just nine months of construction to complete.

The facade of St James Theatre.

In fact, 1912 was a historic year for Wellington, New Zealand, and the world. It was the year the unsinkable ship The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York, USA. While New Zealand had three Prime Ministers – Joseph Ward was briefly succeeded by fellow Liberal Thomas MacKenzie, before Reform politician William Massey took over.

For Wellington and Wellingtonians, the highlight of the year was the construction and the opening of the iconic St James Theatre (then called His Majesty’s Theatre or Fullers… more on that later). The St James Theatre has played a significant role in the social and cultural lives of Wellingtonians as a leading venue for theatre, film, music, and ballet, making it one of the treasures of Wellington City.

A black and white photo of the seats and stage inside St James Theatre.
Interior of the St James Theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington. Burt, Gordon Onslow Hilbury, 1893-1968 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-015972-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23036543

Opened on Boxing Day 1912 as His Majesty’s Theatre or simply as ‘Fullers’, St James was built for Messrs John Fuller and Sons, a successful vaudeville and variety theatre company. The building was designed by Henry White and took only nine months of construction to complete! The company focussed on performances such as slapstick comedians, balladeers, jugglers, acrobats, tumblers, and dancers, which were all extremely popular through to the 1930s.  

In 1926 the theatre had a series of major alterations carried out, with the addition of new floors in the top eastern end of the fly tower to the designs of S and A Luttrell. Three floors of offices were added which housed the offices of John Fuller and Sons. 

In 1930 the theatre closed as a live performance venue to be rewired for sound. When it reopened (which happened almost immediately) it was renamed the St James, and the theatre was able to play its first movie with sound (and Technicolour!) – The Warner Brothers’ ‘The Gold Diggers of Broadway’. 

A black and white aerial view of Wellington.
Aerial view of Wellington, Courtenay Place in 1947 (St James bottom left). Wellington City Archives, 00278:10:11

Ownership of the theatre passed from John Fuller and Sons to the Kerridge Rank Corporation in 1942. These new owners focused on entrepreneurship, and hosted a number of touring revenues, dance troupes, and theatre companies in the St James throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most notably, the theatre presented two plays by Sir Terrance Rattigan: ‘The Sleeping Prince’ and ‘Separate Tables’. The stars of these shows included Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir Lewis Carson, Meriel Forbes, and Sir Ralph Richardson, who was considered one of the ‘holy trinity of male actors’ that dominated the 20th century stage.  

In the 1970s the St James fell into decline. Kerridge Odeon (previously Kerridge Rank Corporation) sold the theatre to Chase Corporation in 1986, igniting public concerns that the building was going to be demolished. On 7 May 1987, the theatre hosted its last movie – Wanted: Dead or Alive – before closing its doors.  

An aged film photograph of the ceiling and chandelier in St James Theatre.
St James Theatre interior, 1990. Wellington City Archives, 00444:14/26/12

A huge campaign to save the theatre was established and in 1993, following many years of failed deals and opposition, the St James was purchased by the Wellington City Council. An $18.5 million restoration plan was set out in 1995 and with Council, Wellington Community Trust, Lottery Board, and public contributions, the restoration commenced.  

The Royal New Zealand Ballet hosted a variety of dazzling performances, with the St James hosting their 50th anniversary performance of Romeo and Juliet in 2003. 

The paranormal activity of the St James was investigated in 2005 on the New Zealand television show Ghost Hunt. St James is infamous for an array of ghosts haunting the venue – the most well-known is Yuri, the ghost of a Russian performer who fell to his death from the theatre flies. Yuri is reportedly a friendly ghost, who likes to turn the lights on and off, and has been credited with saving the life of a stage projectionist…twice!

Others said to haunt the auditorium include a ‘wailing woman’, Stan Andrews, and a boys’ choir.

The stage and seating in St James Theatre under construction.

The theatre hosted TedxWellington in 2017. St James was closed for major restrengthening and refurbishments in 2019.

After three years of being closed, the iconic St James Theatre is set to reopen mid-2022 and host a variety of shows, including TEEKS with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Wellington Opera - La Traviata, The Ryman Healthcare Season of Cinderella, Les Misérables and Macbeth.