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Auckland’s St James Theatre in 2021 (Photo: Sonya Nagels)
Auckland’s St James Theatre in 2021 (Photo: Sonya Nagels)

SocietyJuly 23, 2023

‘This is recycling at a mass scale’: Auckland’s St James Theatre thrown a lifeline

Auckland’s St James Theatre in 2021 (Photo: Sonya Nagels)
Auckland’s St James Theatre in 2021 (Photo: Sonya Nagels)

Work can finally begin on restoring the mothballed central city venue – as long as the mayor keeps his $15 million promise.

“What a great daaay,” trilled Chlöe Swarbrick. The Central Auckland MP sang it again, louder this time, her chirpy voice echoing around the cold, dusty and decimated theatre. “We did it!” she half-yelled, half-giggled, pumping her fist.

Steve Bielby was a little more circumspect. With his back to the wall, he murmured: “I shouldn’t have had two coffees.” He was nervous and jittery, admitting to mixed emotions: “Joy, relief and gratitude – mostly gratitude,” he said. He now has years of tough renovation and restoration work ahead of him.

Before being whisked away for more interviews and photos with media, he said: “We’ve got to do it now.”

The interior of the St James theatre.
The St James theatre has funding for restoration and renovation work to go ahead. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

A man clutching a green hat and pink scooter who’d snuck in behind Ngati Whatua Ōrākei’s welcoming karakia had trouble believing his eyes. “Far out,” he declared, “I haven’t been in here since I was little.” He’d come to the historic central Auckland venue for screenings of Ghostbusters, then Gremlins as a kid, probably around the age of nine or 10. Decades later, the run down venue was inciting the same sort of awe.

On a sunny Saturday when a Fifa Women’s World Cup fixture at Eden Park had left the central city sleepy, the welcome mat was rolled out at Auckland’s mothballed St James Theatre for the first time in seven years. Politicians, city representatives, interested parties, tangata whenua, a dozen journalists and anyone who wanted to duck in for a peek gathered on the venue’s second-storey for what was billed as a “significant announcement”. (Notably, mayor Wayne Brown was not there, but the weekend is known to be his tennis time.)

Carmel Sepuloni under a mouldy vent in the St James theatre.
Minister Carmel Sepuloni pledges $15 million to the restoration of the St James theatre in Auckland under a mouldy air conditioning vent. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Against all the odds, everyone had arrived to hear some good news. “I’m pleased to announce that the government is helping to unlock the doors of the St James Theatre,” said Carmel Sepuloni, the minister for arts, heritage and culture. She pledged $15 million, squirrelled away by former prime minster Jacinda Ardern in a special fund, to match $15 million already pledged by Auckland Council. “I want the Auckland CBD to be safe and accessible,” said Sepuloni. “I want to the arts precinct that sits in the heart of the city to be exciting and vibrant.”

Along with $1.5 million from Manatū Taonga’s Heritage Equip fund, that combined total of $31.5 million means work can finally begin on foundational repairs, earthquake strengthening and structural improvements. Bielby anticipates “shovels in the ground” early next year. In public, he says he wants the venue open in time for its 100th anniversary in 2028. Privately, he believes it can be done much earlier, suggesting he could even beat the opening of the City Rail Link in 2026.

Destroyed furniture at the St James.
Much of the St James theatre is in disarray. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

The St James needs that work – desperately. The last time The Spinoff spoke to Bielby, the building was in disarray. Professional thieves had broken in and spent days taking anything of value: lead flashings, thousands of dollars worth of copper, and a 94-year-old bronze statue. They’d even put their own padlocks on the gate.

Clearly dismayed at the lack of support, and the non-committal funding, Bielby suggested officials were “kicking the can down the road”. He admitted it might be time to give up his dream of restoring the St James to its former glory. His next option? “Let it go.” Today’s announcement gives him a last-minute reprieve.

Opened almost 95 years ago to the day, the St James is a heritage protected building with a legacy many believe is worth preserving. A red board painted in gold leaf lists the acts that have performed there over the years: Eddie Vedder is next to Evanescence, nu-metal act Limp Bizkit is above James Brown, and parody artist ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic is followed by local reggae vets Trinity Roots. Kanye West, Coldplay and The Strokes have all graced the stage. 

A fire forced the St James to close in 2007, and it remained that way until Bielby bought the building in 2014 and set about patching it up for a brief re-opening to show what it’s capable of. Across an 18-month period from 2016-2017, dozens of successful shows were held there before it was again closed for restoration work. That work stopped in 2018 when funding fell through for an adjacent apartment building offering crucial amenities to the St James, including toilets and elevators.

A plinth in the St James is missing its cherub.
A lonely plinth waits for its stolen cherub to be returned. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Ever since, the building has languished, targeted by thieves, vandals and graffiti artists. Once, Bielby arrived to find fans had broken in and set up in the old projection room with drinks, reminiscing about shows that they’d attended there. After last year’s devastating break-in, leaks and floods became an issue. Areas of the roof gave way and the carpet began to rot. Bielby, who calls the mothballing “death by 1000 cuts”, launched a last-ditch fundraising effort by uncoupling the adjacent apartment project and the St James restoration.

That plan seems to have worked, but the deal isn’t a certainty: $31.5 million can only get the restoration so far. “It covers the structural upgrades of the building,” says Bielby. “It’ll mean that we can operate things like the ground and first floor [for] things like concerts, cabaret, comedy … in a limited capacity.” He suggests the steep upper tier known as “The Gods” may have to be dismantled. “There’s a further conversation to be had about what Auckland’s aspirations are for the building … What do they want its capabilities to be?” 

Then there’s the Wayne Brown factor. The government’s contribution is contingent on Council keeping its $15 million promise. Is a flip-flop possible? “Mayor Wayne Brown has provided me with his assurance that the Council’s commitment still stands,” Sepuloni says. 

A gathering at the St James.
Chlöe Swarbrick, Carmel Sepuloni and Steve Bielby at the St James. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Still, as Swarbrick’s singing and shimmying showed, the mood today was buoyant. “I’m elated,” she told a TVNZ reporter. “This is huge. This is immense. And it’s so necessary … This is recycling at a mass scale.” Bielby told reporters he was “over the moon”. He’s already dreaming about the concert that will mark the St James re-opening, a repeat of Neil Finn’s week-long Seven Worlds Collide takeover with his celebrity muso friends in 2001, released as a top-selling album. “That’d be really cool,” he said.

Afterwards, a TVNZ camera operator panned around the venue, taking in the rubble littered across the ground floor where fans like me once stood to watch electric performances by the Arctic Monkeys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He got the rotting, shredded curtains hanging over where the stage should be into view, and the foyer that was, until recently, filled with mould and fungus. As I stepped back to avoid obscuring his view, my foot went straight through the floorboards. Clearly, there’s plenty of work to be done before Finn, his friends, and any fans can be truly welcomed back to the St James for good.

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