The corner section on The Parade and Mersey Street was purchased in 1902 by a Mr Stanley Chisholm but not developed until 1924 when he commissioned the construction of the theatre, shops and billiard hall. The theatre was a two story building with a shop on either side selling cinema icecream and a hair salon and a single story billiard hall on the west side with a separate entrance. When completed the buildings were sold to The Empire Theatre Company whose manager was a well known Wellington personality, Mr Tartakover.
The first film screening on 21 March 1925 was the silent production of The Last of the Duanes starring Tom Mix and Marion Nixon, directed by Lynn Reynolds. Sound effects were provided by a piano. There were no ‘shorts’ cartoons or newsreels available, so additional live stage entertainment was provided. On opening night, Arline Power and Leo Coffey gave a display of ballroom and fancy dancing. The first ‘talkie’ shown on 14 June 1930 was Honey, a Broadway musical, adapted to film, starring Nancy Carroll and Stanley Smith.
The billiard room closed in 1928 with the extension used as an auditorium and for extra seating. Structural damage from the March 1943 earthquake closed the cinema until reopening in October 1943 as the New Empire. The New Empire closed its doors on 1 June 1964, due to falling cinema attendees nationwide. The last film shown was Foxhole in Cairo, starring James Robertson Justice and Nidl McGinnis.
Late 1964 until 1970, Bata Shoe Co used the auditorium as a store and made a loading dock on the Mersey St side. The hairdresser’s salon remained in business until 1975. Over the next few years, ownership changed many times with different proposals for the building. In 1980 the building was taken over by Wellington Decorators and Furnishings as ‘a one stop shop’. After another change of hands in 1990, it became known as Island Bay Hardware until closing in 2004.
The Werry and Hays families took over the building in 2004 and completely renovated it internally into three boutique cinemas and cafe, opening on 1 September 2005 with Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. The cinema was sold in 2013, to Island Bay local Pat Vinaccia. The interior has been completely revamped with three boutique cinemas and eatery for its grand re-opening on May 14th 2015. The first movie screening is Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.
The newly vamped cinema once again promises to be a treasured gem of the community. Each cinema holds between 49 and 65 people, showing mainstream blockbusters, family movies and art house titles. With an A-grade seismic strength and attention to detail in the service areas, it’s friendly and cosy, with plenty of room alongside each sofa for your coffee, wine or a snack. The Empire Cinema & Eatery is a place to meet, connect, unwind and belong.