There is more to Te Puke in the Western Bay of Plenty than kiwifruit, and blinkered motorists in transit risk missing Te Puke’s splendid art deco Capitol Cinema.
The noble Capitol Cinema 4 dates back to an early age of film when silent movies had only just been replaced by the first “talking pictures” of the late 1920’s.
Built in 1929, in that year Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was screening - the first talking picture made in Britain, when the renown director began making his famous cameo appearances in his films.
The building, one of the most imposing outside New Zealand’s art deco capital of Napier, was constructed in Te Puke’s main street in by a bridge builder from the Hawkes Bay. It has walls a “good 18 inches thick,” says its current owner Ross Trebilco, pointing to the size of solid, concrete beams. He speculates that he went to particular trouble to make the building earthquake proof (The 7.8 earthquake that would devastate Napier was only two years away – in 1931).
The Capitol was more just a picture theatre; it operated as a town meeting hall, a dance venue and events centre. But it went the way of other businesses in smaller towns - and after more than 40 years service, its doors closed.
The old cinema sat more or less idle for 25 years, used - ingloriously - for storing kiwifruit fruit bins and “rubbish” until Ross Trebilco, a then kiwifruit grower from nearby Pongakawa, purchased it with his wife Evelyn.
Ross had bought the building next door and renovated it, and at that stage was approached by the owner of the Capitol to purchase the old Cinema as well.
“I got it pretty cheap,” he says of the cluttered old theatre that in fact, had the biggest stage in Australasia at that time.
The kiwifruit grower set about becoming something of a combined historic building rescuer and movies entrepreneur, restoring the building to a near-original state. Much of the interior was original in any case, including ornate ceilings, finely detailed art deco mirrors, and large painted frescoes featuring Mount Maunganui scenes. One large painting features what appears to be the Milford Sounds with Mitre Peak in the centre.
Some of the wooden interior made from Asian jarra wood (also used in railway sleepers), was “so hard you couldn’t hammer a nail into by hand,” says Ross. It was sold to furniture makers.
The Capitol’s entrance is a focal point of the restoration, hinting at the opulence of the original cinema-going experience. The painted frescoes that date back to the 20’s, cleaned up, have retained much of their original colour - as a reminder of just how grand cinemas were in the 1900’s, before the rise of the modern pack-‘em- in ‘multiplex.’ Wide, sweeping staircases with art deco globe lights, like the beacons on mini- lighthouses, lead patrons upstairs to one of the cinema’s auditoriums.
But don’t mistake the Capitol for some small-scale, boutique affair – it boasts one of the largest screens in New Zealand at 14 metres wide, by 6 metres high (‘Megascreen – the largest screen in the Bay!’) . And beneath its elegant façade as a cinematic museum piece, the Capitol is surprisingly well equipped with all the trappings of an ultra-modern cinema. The theatre is fitted with Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS) that Ross Trebilco insists is a higher quality that certain other local cinemas. The auditorium has climate controlled air conditioning and conference lights and theatre lighting are installed.
The Trebilcos run the cinema on a day-to-day basis showing the normal range of blockbuster-type movies in a total of four auditoriums. They screen somewhat artier movies in smaller ‘luxury lounge’ auditoriums, one of which seats just 21 patrons.
Small towns are taking back the night, according to some media reports that speak of a ‘renaissance’ of provincial cinemas. If the resurgence reaches the Bay of Plenty no one is better placed than the Trebilcos. It’s a trend that’s already happening overseas says Ross.
“They tell me that Europe is going back to old movie theatres,” he says of the retro trends, “because people just don’t see them anymore. They’ve been stripped out to make way for multiplexes. ”
You can have a taste of what going to the movies was all about in the 1920’s for $13 adults (super-Tuesdays $8, and before 5pm weekdays, only $10) and children $8. The Capitol Cinema Info Line is 573 8055.