In June 1928 he closed the Empire for a complete remodelling. The entrance itself had a round ticket box in the middle, reached from either side of the main door. There was a grand entrance leading to a marble staircase which rose to the lavish upstairs lobby. Here was the fascinating opulently Eastern upstairs foyer with lavishly embellished plaster ceiling, arches, colums and palm trees.From here one carried on up either to the left or right into a gracious gallery, based on the Taj Mahal. Murals around the walls formed an exotic backdrop of domes, minarets, saracen arches and a landscape of cypress trees and distant views painted by John Brock (1889-1973), an internationally-renowned stained glass artist, water colourist and mural painter. The auditorium's roof had myriad star-like twinkling lights on it to give an open-air effect withthe occasional moving cloud. An eastern-style ornate plaster proscenium arch framed a full stage, supported either end by barley-twist white and gold columns. A Wurlitzer theatre organ, built by Hill, Norman and Beard of London, which, before and after every screening rose out of the floor while being played. There was a full-sized fly-tower for theatre props along with its own symphonic orchestra. Seating capacity was 2,000. At a reported cost of £100,000, it opened in September 1928 as the Empire Deluxe by the mayor of Dunedin, Mr W B Taverner. On 5 August 1929 it joined the talkie revolution when the movie "The Jazz Singer" was screened. Well-known Dunedin architect Edmond Anscombe was responsible for the overall design. The builder was William McLellan, with Wardrops Ltd doing the plaster work.
A victim of the Great Depression, Thomas O'Brien went bankrupt in 1932, and by November of that year the Empire was again an independent cinema. In 1934 the Princes Street entrance was closed, an a new one was created around the corner from Moray Place. This new foyer was decorated in an oceanliner style. The Empire returned to a chain operated cinema in January 1936 when the Fuller-Hayward circuit took it over until they themselves were taken over by the Kerridge Odeon Group on 27 September 1946.
One of the first sound films made in New Zealand, "Broken Barrier" had its world premiere in September 1952 at the Empire, Kerridge Odeon closed the cinema on 24 September for remodelling. It was at this time the murals retreated behind plywood. It reopened as the St James (named after the High Street cinema closed 1951) by the mayor, Mr Wright, on October 3, 1952.
A VistaVision (cinemascope) screen measuring 26ft by 16ft was installed
on 24 December, 1954. The St James was the first Dunedin cinema to have
Sunday night movies from 1 January, 1961.
LEFT: Installation of the Giant Todd-AO screen in the St James Cinema, Dunedin. The old proscenium can be seen in the background-Photo © Otago Daily Time (from the booklet "Cinemas-Dunedin and Districts-1897-1974) © Knewstubb Theatres
The St James closed on March 28, 1967, for Dunedins first Todd-AO screen and six-track magnetic stereophonic sound. Only 50 seats remained in the stalls, bit the number in the circle remained the same at 796. Before the new screen could be installed, a new proscenium had to be built. The screen, made from plastic pearl coated material and slightly titled, was one of the largest in New Zealand, measuring 60ft by 30ft. New lights were installed at both top and bottom of the proscenium. All facilities were provided for perfect sound reproduction. Disc amplifiers of transistorised design feed the sound to five large multiple loudspeaker system behind the screen; and to add to the effect, seven speakers were mounted to the proscenium and a further twelve were placed around the walls of the auditorium. The 70mm Gaumont-Kalee projectors had built in air and water cooling devices to give smooth running of films, which were subjected to intense heat of the arc lamp. Each Projector developed 30,000 candle-power and could handle both 70mm and 35mm films. The estimated cost of the installation was about $100,000. The St James was reopened on 5 May 1967, with the movie "The Great Race". The last 70mm film screened at the St James in the late 1970's.
By the early 1980s Kerridge Odeon was taken over by the Pacer Group, followed by Everade Cinemas in the mid-1980s when Pacer were into receivership. The St James, inconjuction with Hoyts Century (also closed the same day), gave its final screening on 23 September 1993, to an audience of 400, with a special screening of "Gone With The Wind". The first half was screened at the Century (35mm version), with the second half at the St James (70mm version).
Date Opened: 6 March 1916
Name Changed: 3 October 1952
Date Closed: 23 September 1993
Location: 11 Moray Place West
Operators: Independent (1916-1921); Thomas O,Brien (1921-1932); Independent (1932-1936); Fuller-Haywards (1936-1946); Kerridge Odeon (1946-1980s); Everade Cinemas (1980s-1993).
Taken from "Cinemas-Dunedin and District 1897-1974"
by B T Knewstubb, published by Knewstubb Theatres, © Knewstubb Theatres
1974 (out of print); Updated © Library of Cinema Research Data,
1998, a division of Knewstubb Theatres.