The Theatre Royal in Nelson is over 130 years old, making it one of the oldest wooden theatres in New Zealand. Before the theatre closed in 2005, around 22,000 visitors a year enjoyed the theatre and dance performed by countless numbers of groups.
Originally the Theatre Royal was built in 1878 by C.W. Moore (who also built St Marys Convent and the first wooden buildings of Nelson College) on land owned by market gardener Samuel Bolton. The theatre was designed by Mr Bethwaite, of Bethwaite & Robertson and the Oddfellows, who had their club next door, financed the construction. The Theatre was built to seat 800, but opened on 18 July 1878 with an audience of 1000.
In 1884, at the height of its popularity and with special trains running from Foxhill to Nelson on theatre nights, ownership of the theatre shifted to The Loyal Howard and Loyal Nelson Oddfellows Lodges who held onto it for 20 or so years before they sold the theatre onto Harry Saunders in 1904. Saunders carried out major alterations, replacing seating, covering the mud floor and installing a projection box for moving pictures. Unfortunately, the creation of the Majestic Theatre and the 1930's global depression brought about a major decline in attendance. In 1944, Saunders decided that he could not hold onto it for any longer and the theatre was bought by the Nelson Repertory Club.
In 1945, the Repertory undertook to repair the Theatre, which continued to struggle, with drainage problems and low attendance. The Theatre's Centenary Celebrations in 1978 saw a large fundraising appeal and continued attempts to save the building. In 2005, the theatre passed hands to the Nelson Historic Theatre Trust, and the real task of saving the theatre began.
Since its opening night on 18 July 1878, the Theatre Royal has housed a huge number of amateur and professional performances by local, national and international groups. In addition, the theatre was Nelson’s very first cinema and was used as a "picture house" from 1908 to 1936, when the Majestic Theatre was built. In the early days, when it had mud floors, the Theatre doubled as a boxing venue. It was not until the mid 1940’s that the Theatre Royal reverted back to its original function, after being bought by the Nelson Repertory Club.
The purchase of the Theatre Royal by the Trust in 2005 was, according to Trust Chairman Greg Shaw, a natural progression: “Nelson Repertory owned the theatre; a huge conservation planwas done and the Trust was formed from that. Ownership was then transferred from the Repertory to the Trust, which then set up a management structure.” Shaw also said that he was driven to take on the role of Chairman by a desire to help retain some of Nelson’s history, because he felt Nelson had lost touch with a lot of it.
On the 26 March 2008, restoration work on the Theatre Royal began with $4 million raised to fund it, including significant contributions from Nelson City Council and Tasman District Council. Over the past six to seven decades the theatre had been continuously repaired to help with stability, however never to the degree of the work done between 2008 and 2010. The aim was to create an internationally-renowned facility for patrons and performers alike, while preserving the heritage values of the Theatre. As such, original hand-painted wallpaper has been uncovered and new paper, hand-made to match has been used, while the colour palette has returned to the original Victorian style. The seats in the dress circle have been restored and four period chandeliers have been installed.
On June 18, 2010, the Theatre Royal officially reopened with the building returned to its full glory.
The Theatre Royal is now believed to be the oldest surviving operating wooden theatre in Australasia, and possibly in the southern hemisphere. The auditorium has a Historic Places Trust B classification. The theatre makes a significant contribution to New Zealand’s heritage of timber architecture and will hopefully be available for public use for many more years to come.