Matinee idols and opera stars

photoDid you ever wonder what our forebears did for amusement? Was early Christchurch a cultural wasteland, bare of entertainment apart from the male preserve of the pub? Surprisingly the answer is no. There was a Theatre Royal in various guises from 1863, which hosted both amateur and professional theatricals.

A quick look through Papers Past reveals visits from such luminaries as English actress Mrs Scott Siddons in 1877 and opera diva Nellie Melba in 1903.

1905 bought something a bit different in the form of the Giantess Abomah known as the Amazon Giantess and the African Giantess, who traveled all over the world as the tallest woman in the world.

Hilda Spong star of screen and stage performed in 1912.

In 1914 a rather dishy matinee idol Julius Knight starred in A Royal Divorce.

There were in addition various Shakespearian plays, as well as musical productions by local opera societies and touring companies. Gilbert and Sullivan musicals were popular, along with choral recitals and the occasional full blown opera. There seem to have been several opera societies on the go – The Christchurch Opera Society was reborn several times, and The Christchurch Amateur Opera Society and Sydenham Opera Society seem to be operating at the same time.

At times the theatre was as heavily booked as we are used to it being, leaving no gaps between different performing groups. Nor did the Theatre Royal have the show all to itself. In 1879 for example, both the Gaiety Theatre and the Oddfellows Hall were also running shows, as this advertisement demonstrates. Even Lyttelton got in on the act, although their entertainments are a little harder to decipher from this distance.

Not too bad for a small town at the bottom of the world.

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