Closed for five years and struggling under the weight of political apathy and financial bureaucracy, the owner of Auckland’s mothballed venue says he may have to pull the plug – this time for good. In the days before lockdown, Chris Schulz visited the much loved Auckland theatre. Photography by Sonya Nagels.
When Eddie Johnston first stepped on stage at Auckland’s St James Theatre, he was nervous. The Wellington musician – who plays under two monikers, the gentle folk singer Lontalius and the moody hip-hop DJ Race Banyon – had been booked to perform at a 2015 festival called A Weird Night In.
It was a night of firsts: the first time the venue’s doors had opened in eight years, the first time Johnston had played there, and the first concert organised by the building’s new owner. By design, it was destined to be a big night for everyone.
Johnston remembers it as a big moment too. He’s 24 now, but back then he was young, just 18. Living in Wellington, he was used to playing house parties and small bars for friends. This was different.
“It was like, ‘This is real shit,’” remembers Johnston, who speaks gently over coffee in the Ponsonby sun. “For me, there’s nothing more that keeps your back up straight than playing in a room like that … It was real stuff with real people and I’m going to get paid real money.”
When he arrived, Johnston was amazed at how big the occasion was. Outside, on a fenced-off Lorne Street, punters drank cocktails served out of a concrete mixer, ate food from food trucks, and, to keep warm on the chilly May night, danced with headphones over their ears at a silent disco.
Inside, up to 2000 fans cheered on performances by The Peacekeepers, DJ Dick Johnson, MC Tali, P-Money and the first live performance from a young singer called Thomston. Mark ‘MC Slave’ Williams hyped the crowd up between acts.
“It was a really good vibe – very jovial, super happy,” remembers Johnston, one of the first acts to play that night. When his set finished, Johnston didn’t want to leave. “I went by myself and I didn’t really know anyone,” he says. “I ended up hovering around and making some friends because I wanted to experience it.”
The night’s only bummer, he remembers, was that a peanut slab he’d been gifted, and had left backstage as a post-show snack, went missing.
Steve Bielby was enjoying himself too. As the venue’s new owner, Bielby spent the day in a mad frenzy trying to get the building ready for its first big gig in years, as well as securing a liquor licence for the event.
Venue staff were hired, brand new fridges were stocked with beer, and an expensive new sound system had been installed.
Bielby, 35, was a ball of stress. “Re-opening an old theatre… when it’s been closed, derelict, for (nearly) 10 years was a nerve-wracking experience,” he admits. “Was the power going to blow? Was the smoke machine going to set off fire alarms? There were so many things that could go wrong.”
To his relief, an alcohol permit landed at the last minute. Aside from Johnston’s missing peanut slab, the festival was flawless. When the doors opened, Bielby smiled as he watched punters walk around the St James, gaze up at the hand-painted ceilings and run their hands over the restored fixtures as they reminisced about previous shows they’d seen there.
The venue’s history dates back to 1928. As an inner-city venue capable of holding 2500, everyone from the Bolshoi Ballet Company to the Black and White Minstrel Show, Laurence Olivier, Miles Davis, Coldplay, Dido and Kanye West have performed on its stage. The Queen has her own VIP box and private staircase allowing her to exit privately onto Lorne Street. Our own rock royalty, Neil Finn, recorded his Seven Worlds Collide concert film there over five nights in 2001. It closed in 2008 after a small fire.
Bielby smiled as he watched fans up front rest their elbows on the wooden stage and test out the floorboards as they danced down the back. He’d bought the St James in 2014 and had been dreaming of this moment. “It’s tactile, it’s here to be touched,” he says of the place. “That’s what makes it stand apart.”
As the evening wore on, he started to relax, so headed outside for one of those concrete mixer cocktails. Then another. He might have over-done it, but it was, after all, a night worth celebrating. “I think I had a few,” Bielby admits.
That night, concert-goers in Auckland realised what they were missing. A vital part of the central city’s entertainment scene had returned with a bang. The mothballing was over and the St James was back in action.
Over the following months, more shows were organised, with packed crowds appearing for gigs by Kurt Vile, Diplo, Leon Bridges and Courtney Barnett. When a full house showed up for an electric appearance by sun-kissed Seattle duo Odesza, I wrote, “If the St James can stand up to this, it can surely stand up to anything,” in a review for NZ Herald.
Johnston went on to play there four times over this period. He suffered technical difficulties as Lontalius when a laptop died while opening for Death Cab For Cutie, disappointed fashion models who kept requesting Travis Scott bangers during a backstage DJ set as Race Banyon for a Stolen Girlfriends Club afterparty, and was forced to learn how to use Jamie xx’s mixer on the fly when opening for the British producer and DJ.
He lists that show – held the same night David Bowie died – as the best he’s played, and credits the venue for helping him get to where he is today. “Being on a proper stage in a big space is super important,” he says. “It’s the most confidence-building thing that can happen.”
If the St James was still open, Johnston says he’d play there whenever he could.
Few knew it at the time, but on that opening night the St James’ days were already numbered. Bielby had re-opened the venue knowing full well he was going to have to close it again. The Auckland Council permit was only temporary. Only the ground floor had opened. Long term, it needed renovations, refurbishments and earthquake restrengthening, work that would cost millions of dollars, involve multiple stakeholders, and take several years.
“We did this strategically to show people that the building’s not dead,” explains Bielby. ”We had to do that politically to get the support. Otherwise it’s too easy for politicians to say, ‘It’s derelict. Let’s just knock it down.’”
So, 10 months after that opening night party, the St James closed again. The last performance was by Milwaukee rock act Violent Femmes, who opened the night with their biggest song, ‘Blister in the Sun’. Once again, Bielby was there, standing side-of-stage, trying to enjoy the show, but worrying, like he does, about things going wrong.
Afterwards, when the band left the venue and punters headed off into the night, he thanked his tired staff and locked up. That was on May 2, 2016. Since then, the stage has been ripped out. The floorboards are gone. Renovations have started, then stalled. Millions of dollars have already been spent.
And it might all be for nothing. The St James’ doors haven’t opened to the public since. Bielby gets calls every week from promoters and politicians asking when that might happen. He doesn’t know the answer. “I don’t have the ability to click my fingers and resolve it,” he says. “The theatre’s not on my journey. I’m kind of on the theatre’s journey. It’s in control.”
One thing he does know: he’s getting desperate.
When the St James closed, the upgrade work had already started. During the day, builders and machinery would come in, then be cleared away for concerts at night. When the venue’s doors closed in 2016, the work continued. Bielby set up an office on the second floor, threw his plans up on the wall and set about making the St James whole again.
This is what Bielby does. An heir to the Target Furniture empire, his hobby is buying historic buildings, restoring, preserving and protecting them, making sure they don’t get bulldozed. “I’m … a developer of last resort,” he says. “I find the properties that no one else will buy or touch and I’m silly enough to give them a go.”
His hobby doesn’t make him money, but it doesn’t need to. “There’s no financial incentive, no profit,” he says. His most recent project was the restoration of two cottages sitting between multi-level apartment blocks on Airedale Street in the central city. Bielby’s reward is the knowledge that he saved them from demolition. He smiles proudly when he says: “When people walk past they won’t remember those apartment buildings. They’ll remember these two cool little cottages.”
The St James is the biggest restoration project he’s handled, but, to Bielby and his backers at the Auckland Notable Properties Trust, it stacks up. The plans are grand: they’ve ripped out the Queen Street-facing theatres where the West End and Odeon once stood, and just need funding to construct a 30-storey tower housing 300 apartments and commercial spaces in their place.
That expensive project is separate to the St James, but the two are intricately intertwined: the apartment tower includes the toilets, elevators, kitchens, offices and Queen Street access the St James desperately needs to re-open. Without the apartment tower going up, restoring the St James is pointless.
Up until the end of 2016, those plans were going swimmingly. Ninety per cent of the apartments had been sold. Auckland Council stepped up and committed $15 million in funding, with another $1.5 million from the government. The St James restoration was going to plan. Bielby was just weeks away from locking in construction contracts. Funding was all there.
Then things soured. “It was a slow awareness, a snowballing effect,” he says, of the bad news that started landing in his inbox.
The crucial blow came when an Australian bank pulled its funding. By then, construction costs had ballooned. Apartment deposits were refunded and everything was put on hold. Those working on renovations were told to go home. In early 2017, Bielby packed up his office and moved on to other projects that weren’t tied up in red tape.
The St James, the grand old dame, or the “lady in waiting” as some have come to call it, has sat there, in limbo, quietly deteriorating, ever since.
You don’t have to look far to find fans of the St James. A Facebook group posts regular updates to 10,000 followers, and recently posted a letter received from the Queen. She wrote that she was “pleased to be reminded of attending events” at the venue, but, when asked for help with the building’s stalled restoration, said she was “unable to intervene” in such matters.
George Farrant, the recently retired Auckland Council heritage advisor, is another supporter. He’s taken small tour groups through the building, warning of trip hazards on the ground floor, and showing off the upper level nicknamed “the Gods”. He wasn’t able to be contacted for this story, but in the past, Farrant told me: “I just hope it happens before I retire.” He also told me: “It’s like a body lying on an operating table.”
Veteran promoter Mark Kneebone has used the venue as both a fan and for booking artists. Many of the artists who played when it re-opened in 2015 and 2016, including Father John Misty and Jose Gonzalez, came because of him. Kneebone, the managing director of Live Nation New Zealand, is well aware of the building’s heritage value, and knows how much it’s worth to the city.
“It’s a venue that has so much history and artists naturally gravitate to that,” he says. “When you tell an artist, ‘Miles Davis has played there,’ your job’s done. Everyone wants to play somewhere that their heroes have played and be a part of that club.” He compares it to iconic venues overseas like New York’s CBGB or the Bataclan in Paris. “The St James has that in spades.”
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick also wants it back in action. She was inspired to enter politics when she saw the Kings Arms, another iconic Auckland venue, replaced by apartments. “It’s gutting,” says the Central Auckland MP about her regular Queen Street walks past the St James site. “We’ve got a gaping hole in the live music sector when it comes to those medium-sized venues.”
Despite the setbacks, Swarbrick remains optimistic. “The pathway forward has to be bringing everyone around a table. We need to get a team of people who are willing to champion this,” she says. “There’s a lot of different ways this could come to fruition.”
She also admits: “The challenge is there are always a million competing priorities.” Another level four lockdown in Auckland surely isn’t helping.
Last year, Bielby came up with another plan. He won’t call it a “last-ditch” effort, but he doesn’t deny it isn’t one either. He applied for funding as part of the government’s post-Covid-19 “shovel-ready” programme, requesting a funding loan of $300 million to build the neighbouring apartments. “The whole thing comes at no cost,” he says. “A restored theatre comes for free.”
He had high hopes – he often does – that it would be accepted. It wasn’t. “We’ve never given up on the building but there are days when you get bad news,” admits Bielby. “When you get bad news, it affects you.”
Bielby is still doing everything he can to make this happen. He just needs someone to fund the $300 million apartment construction costs. He’s lobbied the government, Auckland Council, and anyone who’ll listen, for commitments. Someone, it seems, needs to take that first big step forward.
“If we can bring in some council funding, some government funding, and some private funding, ultimately we get this theatre saved,” he says. Getting all those parties to talk and agree on a course of action is the problem. “You end up in this no man’s land of circular arguments.”
Across our three interviews, he remained upbeat and enthusiastic. Sometimes, though, Bielby’s language changes. At one point, he told me: “It’s marginal at best.” At another, he said: “I want to see it through. Obviously I have my moments where I don’t.” At times, he asked his own questions: “It’s like, actually, do we save it? Is it worth saving?”
He also admits the building is “haemorrhaging” money – up to $200,000 a year. “In four or five years, you can go through $1 million pretty quickly,” he says. “People don’t realise [that] even just to pull that scaffolding down over there, that’s the best part of $100,000. It’s a big project with big numbers.” Is he made of money? “No.”
Ask Bielby how close he is to abandoning the project, and he’ll say this: “At some point, there’ll be a catalyst, the decision will be made, ‘Do we save the St James, or do we not?’ That point is approaching. How long can we fend it off for? That’s the honest truth of it. We don’t know.”
He’ll also say: “If we lose the St James, there won’t be another one like it.”
The Spinoff approached Carmel Sepuloni, the minister for arts, culture and heritage, for comment. She deferred to Kiri Allan, the associate minister for arts, culture and heritage. Via email, a spokesperson for Allan said: “The government absolutely values our heritage buildings and has invested heavily to conserve and restore heritage buildings”. The offer of $1.5 million restoration funding remains open.
When asked if the government would commit to saving the St James should Bielby call it quits, Allan’s spokesperson said: “It is not straightforward as it is currently linked to the adjacent apartment complex.”
When Bielby arrives at the St James these days, it’s not for a concrete mixer cocktail, or to prepare the venue for a rowdy concert, or to open the doors for thousands to use it. Instead, it’s just him, and he approaches the building with a mixture of trepidation and sadness. That’s because Bielby doesn’t know what he’s going to find in there.
Once he pulls the wooden Lorne Street barrier open and unlocks the front doors, he picks up a spotlight, switches it on and walks up the same dusty marble staircase used by the Queen. He passes the maintenance office where a red wall hand-painted in gold leaf lists all of the acts that have played over the years. It’s a weird list: Eddie Vedder is next to Evanescence, Limp Bizkit’s above James Brown, and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic is followed by Trinity Roots.
At the top of the stairs, Bielby turns on all of the building’s construction lights, then starts walking a circuit around the building, past the statues, around the dirt floor, and across the upper levels.
What’s he looking for? “I just do a security check to make sure everything’s OK,” he says. People have been breaking into his building, and he’s worried he’ll run into some of them. “Thankfully, they’ve been pretty respectful. They haven’t vandalised the place.” Birds are another problem. “The only thing worse than wanderers is pigeons,” he says.
There’s another thought that keeps Bielby awake at night. “My biggest concern with this building is fire risk,” he says. “When you look at the heritage that’s lost in New Zealand, you look at the threat to this building … if there’s an incident here that caused tens of millions of dollars worth of additional damage, that would be the end of it.”
Breaking into the St James is not easy. A mix of strength, stealth and skill is required, much of it carried out in the dark. Bielby showed The Spinoff how to do it, but we’ve chosen not to repeat those details in case it encourages repeat offenders.
Despite the difficulty, some manage the complex task. Bielby once came across a group of “half a dozen” people who’d not only managed to enter the building, but also turn all the house lights on. “That is not an easy thing to figure out,” says Bielby. “I … take my hat off to them.”
He found them, in the middle of the day, sitting in the projection booth, quietly enjoying a box of beers, soaking in the building’s atmosphere, its history. With all the house lights on, they’d recreated that post-gig vibe. “They were actually really friendly kids,” says Bielby. As they departed, they cleaned up their empty beer bottles.
Bielby understands why they’d gone to all that effort. It’s the same reason he fell in love with the St James, stumped up the money to buy it, and has stayed with it through the highs and the lows of the past seven years.
It’s also the same reason he visits it weekly, walking around in the dark, wondering if all his work, all that money and stress and late-night worry, might finally pay off. Those kids just wanted to use the place. Don’t we all.