It’s curtains for theatre
The curtains are falling on Whangamata’s iconic cinema. Its long-time owner Ron Slater, whose father ran the cinema before him and who owned Thames’ cinema too, was planning to close the cinema, which new owners say has become a victim of Netflix and other online platforms. “The entertainment world is changing, and with the competition of online streaming, running the cinema is not a financially viable option for us,” says purchaser Laura Priestly and husband Andrew. “We are yet to develop plans, but we would like the essence of a community space to remain — maybe a multipurpose space that could be used in many ways, such as hosting functions, live music, indoor markets or even pop-up movie nights.” Tickets are booking fast for its final screening on Saturday night. Whanga local Paul Shanks remembers the “good old days” of going to the movies, when the surf flick Endless Summer showed past midnight. “I don’t know how old I was when I first went to then Ron’s dad theatre, but do remember I had to wait until the 1am showing of Endless Summer. It was a full house, and I had to sit on the floor up the front. “When the side exit doors opened up at the end of the movie you spilled out onto grass under pine trees and would walk back home through what are now fenced sections. People would say hi as you cut across the section . . . this was a strong part of Whanga beach culture.” A great surf movie drew packed crowds back then, but struggle today. A showing organised by Paul’s wife Jan of Girls Can’t Surf drew repeated audiences earlier this year, but there were plenty of seats to spare. While there’ll be no more Jaffa rolling down the wooden steps, making out in the dark or witty one-liners from the audience, its new owners are reassuring the community that changes aren’t always bad. Prior to its current role as the community cinema, the building was Hunt’s Beach Cabaret and operated as a dance hall. “As much as we know the community loves our cinema, unfortunately the cinema as we know it will not remain,” says Laura. “It was once a dance hall, so there’s always change.” The couple said they had always been interested in the cinema, but were hesitant to purchase because it required a lot of work. “It is charming. But the purchase of the building and land comes with its challenges.” Thames-coromandel District Council had previously considered designating the bright-pink building for its architecture in the post-war development of Whangamata as a holiday town, but it is not a historic listed building. Laura says the couple plan to update the building in keeping with this surf vibe style. “We want to keep the character of the facade of the cinema because that’s what is quite iconic about it. It kind of makes Whangamata, Whangamata . . . the old surf town vibe rather than just a modern building with a glass facade.” She said with recent land sales on the main street, Whangamata is in an era of “development”. “In our eyes, this is not always a bad thing, people living above the main street of town enables more people to use the facilities and offerings and adds vibrancy. “However, there is a particular charm and character about the present Whangamata main street, which is the reason so many of us love living here. For us, it is important that the renovation of the cinema focuses on retaining and preserving the community offering it has provided for so many years.” In 1967, Whangamata Amusements Ltd was given permission by the Thames County Council to screen movies on Sundays, on condition that they were G rated and did not clash with local church services. Heritage experts say the building makes a colourful contribution to the appearance of Port Rd and is representative of the community facilities established in the 1950s and 1960s in Whangamata.