The significance of opening a theatre in 1915 in rural New Zealand must have been huge. At the end of World War 1 and with a population of around 7,000 the Mayor of the time, William Hart said “Hastings is passed by the leading theatrical companies because we have not got a theatre in which they can stage their plays and the result is that Hastings people go to Napier by the hundreds and money which should be spent in Hastings is spent in Napier.”

This prompted a brave and courageous response by many to embark on building the municipal offices, shops and theatre. Mayor Hart went on a tour of theatres in Christchurch, Oamaru, Timaru and Wellington while two other councillors went to Whanganui to see His Majesty’s Theatre designed by Henry Eli White. Theatres of that period were designed with many support columns for the upper floor(s) but these also obstructed views. Henry White’s design (including Whanganui) had just one column, which was based on the cantilever design principle of the counter-balancing weight. This led to the Mayor and fellow councilors engaging White to design the theatre and muncipal buildings.

On the 18 October, 1915 the theatre was opened for the community. As is tradition Henry White’s representative, Mr L Williams, presented the Mayoress, Mrs William Hart, with a gold key. It had been advertised that the theatre door was to be officially opened at 7pm. However, this did not occur – much to the dismay of the large crowd who waited outside, thinking the ceremony was to be performed from the doorstep. Instead, the doors of the theatre were opened at 7.30pm and just before the inaugural performance at 8pm Mayor William Hart popped through the curtain and declared the theatre open.

On November 15, 1913 The Hastings Operatic Society performed “San Toy” to much success. The Herald Tribune described the first performance as ‘packed from floor to ceiling’ (click here to read the article). This show was to be resurrected by the company to open the theatre due to its huge success.

To view the original programme for the opening performance click here. The knowledge bank at the Hawke’s Bay Digital Archival Trust have a number of great documents and photographs for you to view and read in relation to the municipal buildings and theatre. Also, don’t forget to donate a small contribution to ensure more of Hawke’s Bay’s history continues to be captured.

San Toy, or The Emperor’s Own is a “Chinese” musical comedy in two acts. The book was written by Edward Morton, and the musical score was written by Sidney Jones with lyrics by Harry Greenbank and Adrian Ross.

The piece enjoyed international success. In America, San Toy opened at the Daly’s Theatre on Broadway on 10 October 1900. It was revived at the same theatre in 1901, 1902 and 1905, playing for a total of more than 200 performances in these productions. The piece was regularly performed by amateur theatre groups, particularly in Britain, from 1910 through the 1930s, but it has been produced only rarely since then.

Some of the language and stereotyping in the show reflect the period in which it was written and would not now be considered politically correct. However, a close inspection to the lyrics of such songs as Samee Gamee display a gentle mocking of the pretension of western superiority.

Do you have a family member who was in the original production of San Toy that opened the theatre in 1915? If so, we would love to talk to you and share this story and any photographs with the broader community. To do so, email Daniel Betty on [email protected]