152 Dixon Street, Masterton 5810




These historical notes were compiled by N. McGuire on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the first production in the Harlequin Theatre in 1961 – “Sailor Beware” opened on 29th May (official opening of Theatre on 29th April 1961.) Our secretary, Bill Vinten, has brought this history up to date.

In the 1930s Masterton was fortunate in having two enthusiastic groups of theatre people – Masterton Little Theatre Society and Masterton Playreaders Society – who met on 5th October 1940 to discuss amalgamation. The third AGM of Masterton Little Theatre on 3rd March 1941, resolved to proceed with amalgamation and that the name of the new group would be Masterton Little Theatre Society. An interesting fact. The inaugural meeting which followed, appointed Messrs Low & Cunnlingham as Hon. Auditors. This firm (now Langdon & Falloon) is still serving the Society in this capacity. Major productions were presented in the Opera House, a beautifully appointed theatre, in Lincoln Road – now N.Z. Railways Bus Depot. The 1942 earthquake severely damaged this building. This was a set-back, precluding the staging of major productions for a time. However, fortnightly readings were held in the rehearsal hall in Bannister Street. In 1944, 3-act productions were resumed, using the Savage Club Hall and later St Matthew’s Collegiate School Hall; also fully dramatised readings were presented in the Masonic Hall. 1946 saw the revision of the Society’s Rules because of the application for incorporation and approval of the Common Seal, as designed by Mr H. McKenzie Douglas, the Society’s first President.

In July 1950 negotiations were opened with Masterton Trust Lands Trust to lease a section in Dixon Street and in October a tender of £316 was approved to purchase a woolshed from a Mr Wyeth. The Society was given a 99-year lease of the section in August 1951 and was successful with the tender for the woolshed. There was great enthusiasm during 1952 for the idea of drawing up plans for the erection of a small theatre on the Dixon Street section. The Masterton Borough Council evinced interest but then decided upgrading of the Town Hall (which had been damaged in the earthquake) to provide a large theatre (suitable also for halls and various shows), plus a small theatre upstairs in the Social Hall, was preferable.

All this resulted in a change of venue for the Society’s activities. Readings were held in the Pioneer Lounge and then the Social Hall, with major productions in the main auditorium. The position, although improved, had big disadvantages. The Society badly needed a permanent home to provide rehearsal, set building and storage space and avoid the hassle of being constantly on the move. Also the Town Hall facilities were not ideal in many ways. The AGM of March 1955 approved the proposal to erect on the Dixon Street section a 30′ x 45′ x 16′ corrugated iron building, 6′ in front of the woolshed. This became known as the Rehearsal Hall (not to be called a shed) and although it was bitterly cold in winter and a furnace in summer it was a wonderful acquisition. The Town Hall continued as the venue for readings and productions.

December 1960 brought further progress – the decision to convert the Rehearsal Hall into an intimate theatre to be called “Harlequin Theatre” – a most appropriate choice. The character Harlequin belonged to the earliest days of drama and those of the strolling players. The Theatre was officially opened on 29th April 1961 and the first production – “Sailor Beware” – commenced its season on 29th May.

The AGM’s of 1969 and 1970 were responsible for two more changes – the name of the Society, from Masterton Little Theatre Society to Harlequin Theatre, and the authorisation of the expenditure of $2,000 for the addition at the side of the theatre of an area to provide very badly needed workshop space. We were not yet done! A special meeting had to be called on 7th June 1972 to obtain permission for the expenditure of approximately $3,000 because of tough new regulations brought in by the Fire Board. Our theatre license would be revoked unless these requisitions were carried out. Various fund-raising activities had to be established immediately.

Over the years the lighting of productions had been carried out with great skill and imagination from an unbelievably small platform above the stage. It became increasingly apparent an improvement should be made. Obviously, the ideal position for a lighting box was at the back of the auditorium. Also, an extension to the front of the theatre incorporating a foyer, box office and kitchen would be a big improvement. A subcommittee was set up and all the alternatives investigated, enabling sketch plans and methods of financing the ‘project’ to be put before the AGM on 17th March 1982. Approval for immediate action was given.

The Society was fortunate in obtaining a $10,000 mortgage loan from Eastern & Central Savings Bank, and we were grateful to Masterton Borough Council for acting as Guarantor in this matter. There followed a period of very hard work, involving a number of fund-raising ventures. A number of bodies also supported the project with grants. These good efforts and support resulted in the three stages of the extension plan being completed and the mortgage repaid long before the due date of June 1999.

The Society’s next anniversary was in 1988 – 50 years since the formation of Masterton Little Theatre Society. It was considered that it would be marvellous if the Society’s newest needed projects could be achieved by then – re-carpeting the stage and auditorium, and a further extension to the theatre, at the back this time, to provide much needed wardrobe space and give greatly increased security to the building.

In 1982 the AGM approved immediate action and we also gained a new kitchen as well as a lighting box. This was debt free quite quickly!

This brings our history to the present day, and now we have the latest improvements in the form of the new greenroom, wardrobe, and make-up rooms. The total cost was $110,000 and this was debt free in 1997 thanks to the hard work and devotion of present day members, under the guiding hand of Judy Cundy.

The Committee then considered the next stage of development – doubling the foyer size!!

This was undertaken in 2000 with generous grants and the use of our building fund, with shortfall being met by a mortgage with Wairarapa Building Society. This completion means that our theatre complex is the envy of many of our sister theatres in New Zealand. The improved kitchen and the provision of a bar facilities have made a difference to the enjoyment of our patrons, and also gives us an extra performance space. The foyer is now available for hire.

It is difficult to count the number of productions that have been presented over the 55 years of our history, and it would be good if someone had the time and inclination to make a listing. We began with one or two shows a year, then as Harlequin, it became three a year, and over the last few years it has been four a year. This number has now been expanded to five shows a year with our Junior Harlequin Show now a permanent feature of our Programme. This adds up to about 130 productions as a minimum!

We are very proud of our history, very proud of our building, which is now the envy of many larger societies outside Wairarapa, and we are very proud of the high standard of Theatre we present each year. This is being recognised by the awards that we have won in recent Theatre Federation Full Length Play Competitions.

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