When the Theatre Royal opened on 11 March 1915, it was lauded as the most beautiful provincial theatre in the dominion.
Designed by prominent Auckland architect Hugh C. Grierson, it had a seating capacity of 1001, a grand street façade in Greek revival style, and fine attention to detail inside. The Theatre Royal was Hamilton’s most prestigious theatre.
Even before opening night, the Waikato Times reviewed the new building in extensive detail, noting on March 4, 1915 that “The new building occupies an excellent site...and in itself is a splendid architectural acquisition to the town”. But while it was a splendid acquisition in 1915, by 1994 the theatre, now known as the Embassy, was deemed to have no value by the council and was demolished.
Building of the Royal began in 1913 for Mr Sydney Tombs. Tombs had controlling interests in Hamilton’s Kings and Civic theatres, and was also a member of the Hamilton Borough Council from 1917-1920. The Pirongia born architect Grierson had previously designed the Auckland War Memorial and the Tauranga Town Hall. The Theatre Royal was the first theatre in Hamilton to be equipped with a full stage, and featured a full-height flytower and proscenium. The Times reported that on opening night, ‘The House of Temperley’ was screened to a swollen crowd of 1300.
Of course before the ‘talkies’ hit town, silent films graced the screen accompanied by local orchestras. The Royal hosted a wealth of local and international shows through the thirties and forties, and the Hamilton Operatic Society had regular seasons until 1961 when they began to use the new Founders Theatre.
In 1952, the Theatre Royal’s façade was radically altered in line with the popular practice in the 1950s to ‘cover up’ older architectural styles in buildings. Gone were the grand ionic pillars, and a new ‘modern’ face welcomed patrons to films for half the year, and stage shows and productions for the other half. The theatre also received a new name - the Embassy.
During the 1940s-1950s, going to the flicks was the most popular way of spending a night out, with admissions regularly topping 35 million per year, and peaking at 41 million per year in 1960-61. The 1950s was the Embassy’s hey-dey with Westerns, Rock n Roll and Kung Fu flicks making the crowds go wild. Both the Operatic Society and Civic Choir performed at the Embassy, and the Waikato Museum holds numerous programmes for productions such as ‘Bless the Bride’ and ‘Oklahoma’.
The introduction of television to New Zealand however saw a dramatic drop in cinema admissions. When the Embassy closed its doors in 1991, cinema admission had reached an all time low of only 6 million. Movies were no longer the pastime of choice and cinemas became increasingly uneconomical. Regardless of heritage value, many faced a similar fate; the small pleas for preservation could not outcry the desire for demolition.
In depth proposals for heritage upgrades were presented to council to ‘save the Embassy’. The Cinema, Music and Theatre group proposed that the bland street façade of the 1950s be restored to its former Theatre Royal glory. The plans were rejected and in 1994, the theatre was demolished. Salvageable bricks were cleaned off and sold by council. From the grandest building in Hamilton, to bricks worth 80 cents.
Its fame, however, lives on. Just a jump to the left of where the Theatre’s entrance once stood, is a large bronze statue of Riff Raff, recognising that the Embassy Theatre was the birth place of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Author Richard O’Brien worked in the barbershop on site and was a regular patron of B-grade, late night double feature picture shows, which he credits as much of the inspiration for Rocky. O’Brien gifted his 1973 Evening Standard award for Best Musical he received for Rocky to the Museum, and it combines to provide a tangible history of a lost theatre.