Roxburgh community celebrates New Zealand’s oldest cinema

Next, during 1News’ Small Town series tour, Jared McCulloch visits the idyllic South Island town of Roxburgh.

The City of Central Otago Roxburgh is nestled on the banks of the mighty Clutha River and is known for its stone fruit and Jimmy’s Pies – but that’s not all.

It houses the nation’s longest continuously running movie theater on the same site.

The first cinematographer played at the Roxburgh Athenaeum Hall on December 11, 1897 – now the Roxburgh Entertainment Centre.

With a population of just under 600, the cinema has enough seats to house nearly half the city.

But what makes the complex special is that the entire cinema operation is run by volunteers.

About 30 people at a time intervene to make sure the images get through, at least twice a week.

Norman Dalley works as treasurer for the film group and hasn’t joined for a long time.

“I’m not a movie buff, believe it or not!”

But this year is very special – the city is about to celebrate 125 years of moving image projection.

“We have come to understand that movies have been streaming from this site since 1897.”

Kristen May is a volunteer. She has been researching the history of the complex “for about nine or ten years now.”

They have just discovered their only short of a world record.

“Unfortunately we tried to go for the Guinness World Record but we missed that by seven months at the Washington Iowa State Cinema in America.”

“Damn it!” she laughed.

Then there’s Doug Dance. He started helping out as an assistant projectionist when he was just 13 – in 1954.”

Doug knows the place perfectly.

“[The first operators] had projectors that let you walk through rural areas to show films, no one had fixed projectors.”

Committee member Annie Kennedy was taken aback when she learned that the Lumière Brothers’ first commercial film had just been released in Paris two years earlier.

“Doesn’t it blow your mind how quickly across the world this technology has managed to make its way to Roxburgh!”

The cinema building underwent some improvements when the hall was moved in 1931.

Doug told 1News: “There were four traction motors and they were towed out the back and they’re built into this building in the back…they bought two new searchlights and boom they were back again gone.”

The heyday of cinema came in the 1950s.

“Roxburgh Dam was booming…they used to run the buses here, it was a huge place.”

In the 1970s, commercial operation of the cinema was handed over to the local community, with volunteers running it and preserving it ever since for future generations to enjoy.

Now, it’s a labor of love for those involved.

Norman said, “We run the cinema operation on a weekly basis showing two films a week, every week sometimes we have no one, other times we have a full house.”

Every dollar raised goes back into the complex.

“We’re starting to look at systems, like stage mic systems, a new PA system, new seating in the building, so those are the goals we have in the near future to keep the place alive.”

The locals decided to keep the lights on and the pictures going for at least another century.

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