This is the third in a series of vignettes by local historian Michael Fowler, detailing events and characters that have shaped the Hawke’s Bay Opera House story.

Henry Eli White was, in the 1910s, well on the way to becoming Australasia’s foremost theatre designer. His rival, Australian William Pitt, had designed the 1912 Napier Municipal Theatre.

Napier newspapers were condescending about a New Zealander’s ability to design a theatre. In response, a letter to the editor pointed out that the theatre designed by the New Zealander in Hastings had one solitary cantilever pillar, which allowed much better views of the stage, whereas the theatre in Napier designed by an Australian had eight.

The Opera House’s three levels contained seating for 644 in the stalls, 232 in the dress circle and 400 in the family circle. An orchestra pit of 9.5m by 2.5m could hold fifteen to twenty instrumentalists.

Fire was the enemy of early theatres, and Henry had designed the Opera House so it could be emptied in an emergency via numerous fire escapes, in just a few minutes. The projectionist box was fireproof, as the film used in those days was highly flammable and a spark from the projector could ignite the film very easily.

The Opera House was not reinforced with any steel, as Henry had done in Wellington’s St James Theatre in 1912, but likely the budget did not allow for any kind of strengthening.

Clear vision, actors’ comfort (with seventeen dressing rooms provided), adequate ventilation and perfect acoustics were Henry White’s mantras for theatre design, and all were achieved with his 1915 Opera House.

Photo: The inside of the Hastings Municipal Theatre showing the stalls, dress circle and family gallery. Note the cantilever pillar which allowed clear views to the stage, and the biograph box opening at the top.