Those were the days, the days of the matinee
It was the immediate post war years and Saturday matinees were all the rage with our generation of kids. Whether it was Chums Club, Young New Zealanders Club, local competitions society, Seddon Shield rugby matches at Trafalgar Park, Norton Cup hockey matches at the Botanics, a visiting circus or touring show at the Theatre Royal, there was always something for us kids to look forward to at the weekend. It was the days before television and computer games, and the Nelson scene was probably the same as any other town in New Zealand.
The highlight as far as I was concerned was the Chums Club on a Saturday morning, when up to eight hundred kids would pack the State Theatre. Admission was sixpence and membership of the Chums Club was free. Membership entitled you to a free Chums Club badge, an attendance card which gave the bearer a free admission after receiving twelve attendance clips, and on your birthday, members were invited up onto the stage where they each received a chocolate fish from compere Uncle Tom and we all sang happy birthday.
The programme usually consisted of an episode of a twelve part western serial (eg Tom Mix, Bill Maynard and Hopalong Cassidy were firm favourites), followed by a couple of Disney cartoons and a short comedy feature. The main feature was usually a western, a pirate or adventure movie, Tarzan, or a classic, such as Snow White - all good stuff. Along the road at the rival Majestic Theatre, the Young New Zealanders Club provided a similar fare on a Saturday afternoon. It struggled and the Chums Club always enjoyed the greater patronage in Nelson.
One of the activities that was possibly unique to Nelson was the Wednesday after school movie programme conducted by Rev, Ray Blampied at the Rutherford St Church of Christ. Admission was free and consequently it was immensely popular, drawing kids from all the primary schools in Nelson. It was a scene of considerable bedlam with over five hundred kids crammed into the small church hail, roaring their heads off at the crazy antics of comics like the Keystone Cops, Fatty Arbuckie, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. Some of the movies were old silent comedies, but that didn't matter, it was a great show. One thing was standard, the baddie was always identified by the fact that he had a big black moustache.
Perhaps my most vivid memory was the visit of country and western star, Tex Morton with hypnotist the Great Franquin at the Theatre Royal. It was 1949 and since Nelson was Tex Morton's home town, the price of admission had been specially reduced from one shilling to sixpence. Of course what we didn't know was that the Great Franquin was nothing more than a protege of Tex Morton, that his name was Frank Quinn and that he came from Picton. What you don't know does not hurt you and as it turned out, it did not matter anyhow. As we queued to get in, word came down the line that the Great Franquin was sick and that Tex Morton was going to do the whole show by himself. As a result the admission had been further reduced to only three pence. The whole show was a one-man performance. It was an afternoon of sheer enjoyment. Tex Morton went on to become the world's greatest hypnotist and the world's greatest entertainer, breaking all box office records in the United States and Canada.
By the mid 1950's television was beginning to take hold and the matinee era was in decline. I have often wondered what happened to the matinees that we all enjoyed so much. Where did they go? Why did they disappear?
This article first appeared in the Nelson Weekly, Tuesday 30 November 2010, p 16
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Further sources - Nelson Matinee
Brittenden, W.(2008) Celluloid circus: the heyday of the New Zealand picture theatre, 1925-1970. Auckland: Godwit
- Lees, J. (1997) Franquin: master showman. Sydney : Currency.
- Peters, Carol. (2006, March 18). The very best seats in the house. Nelson Mail, p. 16.
- Wood, Val & Hickman, Hugh. (2005, Jun/Jul). The Saturday matinee. New Zealand Memories, 54, 32-33.
- Tex Morton. Retrieved from Te Papa Online, 28 March, 2011: