The Picturedrome Fun Merchant
A New Concept in Entertainment
It was approaching midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just on 1,000 patrons were
dancing and swaying to the strains of the popular saxophone dance band of 12
musicians. It was a ‘big’ night at the Picturedrome, Milford. Most of the
dancers had come from all over the North Shore, but particularly from the
holiday crowds that had rented cottages and baches in the popular seaside resort
area of Milford. Some had come from various East Coast Bays and even as far as
Browns Bay generally regarded as being ‘in the sticks’. Growing numbers had
enjoyed the novel journey from the suburbs on the Auckland side of the harbour
by tram, ferry, steam tram, or bus, as cars were a rarity. Some cottage and home
owners had let out their properties for the summer holiday season to help pay
the mounting rates and other overheads that fell so heavily on many with limited
means. Some had moved to relatives and friends in the country. A few had pitched
tents on the back of their sections. One had even moved into a disused
fowl-house. Every penny counted in those days. The Picturedrome with its
pictures and dancing was just the place for them.
New Year’s Eve was a night to make whoopee at the ‘Drome, as so many had
affectionately nicknamed the theatre. My father L.L. Speedy, who was its
Director, used to say: ‘Having disposed of the worries of the past year, we can
now look forward to the worries of the next year’. And there was plenty to worry
about. Jobs were scarce, wages were low, and unemployment was high. There was
little free spending money about. Yet times were simple and so was
entertainment. Singing around the piano was a popular social past-time. Public
dancing was popular. Theatres, as cinemas were then called, were exciting
outings for people of all ages to look forward to all week. For the young it was
a popular place to take you ‘date’. Before the days of broadcast wireless (let
alone the transistor, radio, and TV) going out to the pictures at the week-end
was a major social activity for many people. A few keen types would be even
brazen enough to go mid-week as well.
Laurie Speedy had first been involved with the cinema business as a staff member
of the Fuller-Hayward group. He became a close friend of Phil, the son of Henry
Hayward, the great theatrical entrepreneur. The Haywards lived at Birkenhead on
a lovely knoll just up from the wharf, while the Speedys lived across the bay at
Chelsea where my grandfather, Havelock Speedy, who was chief engineer of the
Sugar Works. Dad was born at Birkenhead in 1892 and was the second son of the
family of five sons and one daughter. He grew up in the district and went to the
Birkdale Primary School and Northcote College and Seddon Memorial Technical
College to study accountancy. He also took book-keeping lessons at Hemingway’s
Commercial School (later known to generations of New Zealand businessmen as
Hemingway’ Correspondence School). For awhile he worked full time for Hemingway,
but found that type of life dreary. While he was at A & T Burt, electrical
engineering suppliers, Phil Hayward came in to hire a generator for an outside
picture show. The end result was an offer to join his firm in Wellington,
although he eventually returned to Auckland. As the Fuller-Hayward group wanted
a trouble-shooter to make a losing theatre pay, Dad was asked to take over the
Lyric Theatre in Symonds Street.
By sheer drive, imagination, energy, and enthusiasm, plus a flare for publicity,
he turned the Lyric into a very profitable theatre. For instance, when he
presented an Australian outbacks picture (I think it was the Bush Ranger he went
out in his little Calcott two-seater car and piled it high with eucalyptus
branches. These were then displayed in the foyer. To add an even more
‘authentic’ effect he sprinkled the leaves with eucalyptus oil. Such an
enterprising person was not content to be subject to stodgy directions from head
office. When they wanted to cut out his agreed percentage of the share of profit
his fertile mind turned to new opportunities.
Back in 1917 Laurie married his childhood sweetheart, Dossie O’Neill. The
O’Neills lived at O’Neills Point, now known as Bayswater. The old name still
lingers on in O’Neills Point Cemetery. The Speedys and the O’Neills were,
comparatively speaking, near neighbours by dinghy across Shoal Bay.
Great-grandfather Allan O’Neill and his brother, James, had purchased land at
what the O’Neills called the Point in 1849. Allan had come out from County
Tyrone in 1842 as a surveyor. The O’Neills lived a quiet peaceful life at the
Point. Although it was well before the days of electricity and domestic
refrigerators, the corner store, or the telephone, there was never any problem
about having suitable food for any unheralded guests. There was always a flitch
of ham hanging up and eggs for the collecting from the nests made by the chooks
that lived in the long grass.
Grandmother O’Neill’s scones were superb being made of homemade butter. They
lingered in the memory of her family for generations. Fish was readily available
and there were always sacks of flour and sugar. Whenever necessary, provisions
were obtained by rowing across the harbour to the Auckland foreshore near where
Shortland Street is now situated. Alternatively, some provisions could be
obtained by horse and gig from Devonport.
Just after the turn of the 20th century Allan O’Neill Jr bought a beautiful
ten-acre homestead on the waterfront near Takapuna Beach. When the land was
subdivided in 1921 and O’Neill’s Avenue put in, O’Neills Road at Bayswater was
re-named King Edward Avenue. Long before the in-word ‘environment’, Grandmother
and Grandfather O’Neill were practicing environmentalists (even if they didn’t
know it). They fought against the Council rules of the day that required trees
to be cut down to put the road in. They insisted that all the beautiful trees in
the proposed road reserve area be preserved. There was a giant pohutukawa near
the top of the road, two tall Norfolk pines, one plumb in the middle of the
carriageway. Further down was a wonderful magnolia, several cabbage tree, groups
of ngaio and karaka. When Grandmother was told that some of the trees had to
come out, she was horrified. ‘What nonsense’, she declared. ‘Put the road around
Grandmother had her way. Most of the trees are still there to this day, but the
ngaios have gone and so too the original Norfolk pines (Ted Millett has replaced
one of them). If you look carefully you can still see where Grandmother O’Neill
insisted that the kerb and channel be put around a tree rather than have it cut
And so it was that the Laurie Speedys chose one of the sections to make their
home for the next 60 years in the midst of beautiful surroundings of that lovely
street and neighbourhood with fine large specimen trees and views of Rangitoto
Island and Channel. And so it was too, in nearby Milford that the then young
Laurie Speedy set out to establish his new concept of entertainment and later
his land business.
Dad persuaded a group of friends and associates to build the Picturedrome on a
site near the top of Milford Road. The building was estimated to cost 10,786
pounds 10 shillings ($21,573). Professor Thomas (later Sir Algernon), who was
professor of biology at Auckland University College (1883-1913) and also during
his career was well-known as chairman of the Auckland Grammar School Board, was
the chief backer of the project. Dad knew his son, Ackland, who was architect of
the building. Ackland had been wounded in World War One and had lost a leg. It
was while in France that he saw a house that was the inspiration of the
distinctive fireplace and mantle-piece he used in the design of the Speedy home
in O’Neills Avenue. A special feature of the design of the Picturedrome was the
preservation of the two large monkey apple (acmena) trees near the front of the
section by setting the building well back from the road. The trees festooned
with coloured electric lights provided a distinctive trade mark for publicity.
The large forecourt became and open air foyer where patrons congregated.
Pictures & Promotion
The Picturedrome opened on 22nd December 1922. The show offered silent movies
then dancing which was advertised as ‘jazz’. In fact it was not jazz in the
modern musical sense of the word. It was a saxophone based dance band with a
variety of other instruments. The violinist was Allan Tyson and the drummer, Abe
Green. The first movie screened was Carnival’. Although it was billed as an
English motion picture masterpiece it failed to reach the annals of fame. The
Saturday afternoon sessions specialised in Charlie Chaplin reels. Publicity
urged patrons to ‘cumanavalarf’. During the first summer pictures included ‘Way
Down East’, ‘Three Musketeers’, ‘Disraeli’, ‘Robin Hood’, and several Mary
Pickford productions. Westerns were popular with the youngsters, particularly
the Tom Mix shows ‘Riding Romeo’ and ‘Rough Diamond’. In February 1923 a band
was hired to play background music during the silents instead of a pianist. The
most popular show at that time was ‘Broken Blossoms’ with the leading star
These were the great days of silents and great too was the development of
show–biz publicity ‘Foolish Wifes’ was promoted as a ‘risqué classic of an
erring woman as a man devil’; ‘Pilgrims in the Night’ as a lavish production of
the Paris underworld and London’s upper crust’. Other famous stars of that era
included Douglas Fairbanks and Jackie Coogan (‘The Kid’). One advertisement
purported to be a message to the ‘Kids’ of Takapuna form Jackie Coogan:
‘Betcha I’m tougher than any kid in Takapuna, and I’ll prove it in “Peck’s Bad
Boy”. My folks didn’t like the idea, so I had to make “Peck’s Bad Boy” while
they weren’t looking. If any kid in Takapuna can prove he is tougher than me
there’s a free seat in the Picturedrome for him. Signed Jackie Coogan’
The first 50 kids to buy tickets for the matinee were promised a splendid’ big
coloured photo of Jackie Coogan. Although this show was well before my time,
typically on such occasions the children would wriggle and squirm with
excitement and with anticipation at fever pitch just before a matinee started.
Once the lights dimmed they were in raptures. The adults were attracted to the
evening movie by the exhortation that there were five rocking reels described as
a ‘non-stop laugh, and gee, what a wonderful boy’. Such were the simple,
innocent pleasures of those days.
Energetic promotion, backed up by satisfied and happy patrons, was the key to
the success of the Picturedrome. The advertisements would urge the patrons to
‘Join the merry throng’, or: ‘Bring a party ––they’ll love it’. And they did
too! Another advertisement proclaimed ‘Four hours of fun at absurd prices’. In
1927 the show was promoted as: ‘Takapuna’s colossal joy dispenser’: and enlarged
band as : ‘The finest and largest jazz band in New Zealand’. In 1928 the theatre
was promoted as ‘4,000 square feet of perfect floor with pretty decorations,
hundreds of coloured lights and an air of gaiety such as your wildest
imagination never dreamed existed in Milford’. It was also claimed to be the
largest dance floor in New Zealand.
New Year’s Eve celebrations were described at the time as being of true carnival
spirit. It seemed like a wonderful social club occasion because of the gaiety
and so many people knew each other. Even when they did not at first, it didn’t
matter because the friendly atmosphere provided a catalyst for fun and
enjoyment. There is no doubt that the Picturedrome had caught the imagination of
people and provided an important means of relaxing and as a temporary escape
from the trials and tribulations of the day. Yet it was more than that. It
became a social centre and part of the way of life for many people. When it was
proclaimed to be the greatest night’s entertainment in New Zealand, no one,
certainly not the patrons, would have thought to challenge the statement. And
the result showed up in the box office takings. Not all the popularity of the
‘Drome can be put down to publicity. Many people’s affection for the ‘Drome was
enhanced because it was a place where couples met and romance followed.
Twenty-first birthday parties were held there, and couples celebrated
engagements and wedding anniversaries, The feeling of regular patrons was
expressed in an unsolicited poem published in an advertisement in 1929.
We are here tonight to cheer you,
So when you leave the ‘Drome
Just tell your friends you’ve been repaid
For leaving home sweet home.
So open wide your mirth strings,
Make your sorrows light as foam.
And join the cup of happiness ––
At the magic Picturedrome.
Dad immediately responded by running a competition for poems by patrons. The
winner was the same C.C. who inspired the idea.
Come where the Jazz Band is playing,
Where mirth goes hand in hand;
Where hearts that are full of gladness,
Dance in Fairyland.
Come and join with the Mirth Club,
Leave all your troubles at home:
And dance at the Social Centre,
Known as the Picturedrome.
Milford and the Picturedrome were the subject of a special effort by Takapuna’s
well known lawyer, wit and poet, Bryce Hart. Dad replied suitably. ‘At Milford’
is published with the kind permission of the trustee of the Estate of B.C. Hart,
Now holiday makers desiring a place
Which offers up comforts that nought can efface
Should journey to Milford,
For Milford it seems
Will satisfy even the wildest of dreams,
With its tramways and buses within easy reach
And its large and desirable beach.
A stroll around Milford at night I am told
Is most entertaining for young and for old
The Picturedrome blazes its glory of light,
And hundreds of couples who dance every night.
While –– way in the distance a seagull will screech,
From the large and desirable beach.
Soon out from the pictures the couples will bob,
Speed down the concrete away from the mob,
Down to the seashore in ‘buses and cars,
Sit on the sand and look up at the stars,
She calling him ‘darling’
He says she’s a ‘peach’,
On the large and desirable beach.
And bathing at Milford can ne’er be beat,
To look at the lassies is really a treat,
To peep at the costumes of some of the ‘birds’
Is really to perfectly priceless for words,
Well, once you are there u will stick like a leech
To the large and desirable beach.
And that is why father is saving his ‘quids’
To purchase a shack for the wife and the kids,
Tho’ doubtless he’ll suffer some mild sort of shocks
(They’ll fall in the water or slip on the rocks),
And perhaps little Agnes will get out of hand
And come home to Mum with a mouth full of sand,
But Milford can spare it. (So pardon the breach),
From its large and desirable beach.
AN INVITATION TO ‘B.C.H.’
The Picturedrome with its glory of Light
Shall open it portals to you tonight
A friend you may bring to fill with delight,
To join the hundred of couples
Who’ll be present tonight.
‘High steppers’ you’ll see ––
And on the floor.
If they’re not to your –– liking
We’ll find you some more,
For ‘Picturedrome Peaches’
We have by the score,
For a brilliantly clever Barris-tor
We hope after the close
Of your four hours fun,
You’ll buzz away home ere Sunday’s begun ––
By Tram or Bus or anything in reach,
Avoiding ‘the large and desirable beach’
Athough most patrons came from the local district, high powered publicity (for
those days) was used to attract a growing stream of patrons from the city, but
word of mouth recommendations were the main source of patronage. People loved
the show and told their friends about it. Eventually the demand grew to such an
extent that a special bus, called Laurie’s bus, was put on to meet the Devonport
ferry. The bus ran around the back of the lake to the Picturedrome, and returned
after the dance finished on the dot of midnight.
Four hours of pictures and dancing cost is one penny (1d); children 8d (7c) or
(3s 6d (35c) for the combined ticket. Prices of that era do not convert easily
to modern currency. There is a need to recognise the social, economic, and
cultural gaps that now exist. Prices should initially be related to the wage
level of about 3 pound ($6 to 4 pounds ($8) a week, or the level of rents ten
shillings ($1) to 1 pound ($2) a week. But even those relativities do not
reflect the canny nature of spending in those bygone days when the Protestant
work ethic was strong and economic survival uppermost in peoples minds. It was a
time before much easy credit and high spending expectations brought about by the
spendthrift approach to money matters that was generated by the post-World War
Two affluent society and the modern welfare state. In the twenties and thirties
money was mainly for essentials. Anything left over was usually put aside for a
After one young lass said that she had come from over Remuera and simply loved
the show, Dad ran her story in an advertisement the following week. Miss Wright
(whether it was her real name or not I do not Know) of Market Road Remuera was
reported as having read the previous week’s advertisement, decided to run over
to the Drome. She said that the trip was a delight, no bother, no delay. She
stepped aboard the Makaroa and in ten minutes was at Devonport where yellow
buses were waiting. They departed immediately, arriving, it was claimed, 10
minutes later. I can only say that it must have been a very ‘speedy’ trip! She
saw what was described as a ‘splendid’ picture until ten, then the theatre was
transformed like magic into a ballroom. A false ceiling was lowered and hundreds
of coloured lights and lanterns appeared producing an effect like fairyland.
Miss Wright said that the ‘snappy’ music was a treat. Midnight arrived all too
soon for the young lady. No wonder she said she would come again. She did come,
and so did hundreds more.
On Saturday nights the bylaws ordained that the Sabbath had to be free of public
entertainment, so dancing had to stop by midnight. Buses returned the patrons to
meet the late-night ferry launch which was usually ‘Captained’ by a Salvation
The popularity of the combined ferry, bus, picture, and dance ticket
was such that in its heyday, up to eight packed buses were used to
transport patrons to the ferry and the Bays.
What the newspaper did not tell was the smooth organisation to convert the
cinema into a ballroom. Immediately after the pictures finished, and often
before the last of the stragglers had left, a gang of youths would swing into
action. One group would slide the theatre seats to the sides. About six seats
were attached to base-boards for easy sliding across the well polished floor.
Another group would sprinkle damp sawdust about to keep down the dust when the
floor was swept with a very wide broom. While all this activity was going on the
musicians would be tuning up. While the saxophone players went through their
scales their shrill notes echoed through the empty hall. Meanwhile patrons were
congregating in the foyer and the forecourt, all keen to start dancing. The
sweet and ice cream shop (run by the Duckworths at one time) did a roaring
trade. It was a well entrenched tradition of the day that has kept up by
successive generations of theatre-goers. As soon as the dance floor was ready
(and even beforehand sometimes) the band would start up signalling the
commencement of the dance session.
The dance floor was in excellent condition. In the beginning special steps had
to be taken to polish it. Dad would drive his little Calcott car through the
front doors, through the foyer, and right on to the dance floor. He would drive
around and around towing sacks to polish the surface. Some of the helping hands
would sit on the sacks to add weight. The helpers thought it was great fun.
French chalk and wax were used liberally, but it was the thousands of happy
dancing steps that eventually gave the floor that extra smooth surface.
The dances were surprisingly orderly. In the early days, boys would line up on
one side with girls on the other. Although the ticket collectors would
occasionally have to keep order, this was very rare. Most of the trouble would
come from high spirits and was short lived. On one exceptional occasion a young
drunk started trouble by taking a swing at someone. He was quickly collared and
dragged out the back. In the kerfuffle he lashed out hitting the heavy gauge
corrugated iron wall to the annex making a big dent in it. Somehow he seemed to
do more damage to the building than he did to himself.
On one occasion the hail was decorated with cotton wool to represent snow with a
snowman suitably depicted amidst a pile of snowballs. Streamers and balloons
decorated the ceiling. Patrons were encouraged to bombard each other. With the
band in full swing it was all great fun. Suddenly, there was a shriek as a young
lady dancer received the impact of a wet snowball that splattered her dress.
Someone had soaked a snowball with soft drink.
My mother referred to such badly behaved people as scuts. We weren’t too sure
what exactly was a scut, but from the tone of disgust we guessed it must have
been someone pretty naughty and loathsome!
On hot muggy nights couples would go out to get a bit of fresh air between
dances or at the interval of the pictures. The forecourt was a great boon for
smokers because there was always a fire officer to see that the no-smoking ban
was always a fire officer to see that the no-smoking ban was strictly enforced
in the building.
No form of liquor was officially allowed in the theatre so some of the ‘boys’
used to hide their supplies outside. The favourite places were in the nearby
hedges. The neighbours opposite strongly objected to their hedge being used for
such improper purpose coupled with the bad behaviour that went with it. The
neighbour on the beach side took a different view. That property was occupied by
a lay-about. The section was unkempt with the front hedge thickly overgrown. It
seemed an ideal place to hide bottles of beer. Paddy thought so too. The hedge
provided him with his weekend supply. The boys never found out who was pinching
their brown bottles.
As a very young lad I knew little of these shenanigans, but illicit boozing has
been a traditional problem with dancing. Drinking was (and still is) a part of
the holiday atmosphere of seaside holiday resorts. Milford helped keep up that
dubious tradition. After the summer season young Hick Chester used to sneak
under the vacant holiday baches to gather up the large quantities of empties
that merrymaking tenants had chucked there to hide them from view.
Inside the ‘Drome’ all was merriment. In the holiday season, and particularly on
New Year’s Eve, there was simply not enough room for everyone to dance. This
problem was overcome by the inspired idea of having two bands. When one stopped,
the other would start. Dad used to love to see the couples trying to keep going
indefinitely. Then out of sheer exhaustion, they would finally flop out. Others
would take their place.
Over the years most of the local musicians played at the Picturedrome. They were
usually part-time players who had another job. One young fellow was Les Ryan who
later went on to become the manager of the National Bank at Takapuna. Another
was Alex Ridgway who became a manufacturer of cordials. There were lots of
others. Bands and players would come and go. Dad used to insist on high
standards and always wanted bright tuneful music. Dressed in cream trousers,
blue blazer and well polished tan shoes, he would always be about keeping an eye
on things. Occasionally he would go to the back of the theatre, ostensibly to
check on the gas-powered electric generator, but also, to see that no one had
jumped over the back fence. Every now and then he would catch some young fellow
red-handed. As often as not the culprit would come from a ‘good’ family, and was
doing it just for fun, devilment, or the challenge; or all three. I never knew
of a prosecution, but I was glad I didn’t hear the ‘ticking off’ Dad gave any
culprit, judging from his versions of the particular episodes.
Each year the Picturedrome issued a programme of pictures and dancing for the
summer season (under the printed signature of L.L.Speedy). It was necessary to
deliver the 10,000 circulars, or what Dad called ‘dodgers’, a term used in the
American film industry. It was appropriate, because we too had to ‘dodge’ around
to deliver them. It was part of the job of we speedy children, Josephine,
Bobbie, Lloyd and me, to fold them in half, then in half again. When eventually
this was done, Lloyd and I and several other boys, would crowd into Dad’s open
tourer. Two of us would be dropped off at the top of each street. Later we would
be picked up at the bottom.
In this way the whole of the district from Takapuna out to the East Coast Bays
was speedily covered. Sometimes we would just hop on the running board and hang
on. Our family dog, Bonnie, a cross between a bulldog and a fox terrier (and
maybe a few other mixtures thrown in), would come along to join in the fun. He
loved to run along behind when we were on the running board, but his short legs,
fat body, and lack of condition from being over-fed, meant that he couldn’t keep
up for too long. The spirit was willing, but not willing enough to overcome the
weak flesh. After a suitable time Dad would stop the car. With a tremendous
burst of energy Bonnie would catch up and hurl himself into the back, soon
poking his head out into the wind as dogs are want to do.
There is a collection of the circulars in the family archives that tell the
story of the shows that were screened. Some stand out in my memory and some have
been hailed as classics. We youngsters didn’t realise that history was being
made or that the shows would stand the test of time and the critics (whoever
they were). We simply enjoyed then. And that’s what movies are all about.
Of special historic interest was the screening on 15th January 1925 of New
Zealand’s first full length movie, ‘Rewi’s Last Stand’ produced by Rudall
Hayward, Rudall Hayward lived in Killarney Street where his property ran through
to a small cul-de-sac that provided a side entrance to Takapuna Primary School.
Some years later we primers used to peek in wonderment through the Hayward
garage doors that housed his mysterious equipment.
Most of the pictures have faded from the movie scene, such as Harold Lloyd in a
movie called ‘Speedy’. Yet some stories keep cropping up. For instance, in
January 1929 ‘Sorrell and Son’ was screened, a TV mini series version of the
classic was presented in 1986. Other leading actors and actresses screened in
the early years included Douglas Fairbanks, Roman Novarro, Adolphe Menjou, Norma
Talmadge, Clara Bow, and Wallace Beery.
At first the picture theatre had no recorded sound. George type phonograph with
the open trumpet type of loudspeaker, and playing cylinder records in the foyer.
It was an improved model with a diamond speaker. Records were played form a
collection of favourites of the days such as George Formby, Fritz Krisler, Peter
Dawson, and Enrico Caruso. Young George Ion was given the princely sum of
half-crown (25c) plus free admission to the pictures for his efforts.
In the twenties only silents were screened. Background music was provided by a
pianist who seemed pretty remarkable. Even as a young lad I appreciated how she
could play suitable music in the dark. Her art was to have a good repertoire of
mood music. A few years later when three bands were hired, one was used to
provide background music instead. But this was only on very special occasions.
Usually it was just a pianist. Every now and then something would go wrong. I
can recall watching a silent cowboy and Indian show. The cowboys were in hot
pursuit. We knew the likely scene. Men on horses would race through some canyon,
up a narrow pathway with overhanging trees from which the cowboys (or Indians
according to the particular story) would jump the enemy. Usually the skirmish
would end with horses disappearing behind a waterfall. The pianist always raised
our excitement by playing, what I now recognise as, the William Tell Overture.
Trum, trum, trum trum turn ... Kiddies stomped their feet and shouted. They
loved it. They had a great time and let off a lot of steam.
The only problem was that as the pianist couldn’t always watch the film she
sometimes missed the change of scene. The result could be quite ludicrous when
the mood suddenly changed. Even we kiddies appreciated the situation and would
break into fits of hysterical laughter. Love scenes also caused trouble. The
kiddies would play-up with their usual childish pranks. Bits of paper would be
thrown about. One boy would bash another. The other boy would hit back. Someone
from management would stalk down the aisle to hush them up. Although there might
be a bit of cheek, such as: ‘Sezz you or ‘Oh yearrr’, they always settled down.
I never knew of any youngster being sent out. Children in those days knuckled
down to the authority of grown-ups, or what is more likely, they did not want to
risk missing the show.
One day, while hanging around the foyer, I noticed that some youths would go
straight up to the door-keeper without first going to the ticket seller, a lady
called Stella Whitbread.
‘Hey, that man hasn’t bought a ticket’, I cried out in innocence. The alert was
sounded and a regular swindle was uncovered. One of the door-keepers was letting
in his friends at a private cut-rate. On another occasion I stumbled over a
schoolboy racket. Dad used to publish his printed signature on publicity. It was
a practice from the Lyric days, and the same printing block was used. His
signature was very distinctive. So much so that when he visited a bank in a
country town to cash a cheque, the teller said: ‘I would know that signature
anywhere, I used to go to the ‘Drome’.
Dad made the practice of handing out free passes for week nights and matinees.
Some were personally signed. One Saturday afternoon, when I was standing in as
doorkeeper, a group of schoolboys arrived, some of whom I knew. The first handed
me his free pass. When I looked at it there was something odd about it. The
signature was perfect! Too perfect. It was a perfect copy of the printed
version. By this time Dad’s real signature had changed. All the other boys had
similar tickets. Dad had been watching. The boys were not prosecuted, but a
stern warning was issued. They were then invited to be the guests of the
management on the promise they wouldn’t try it again. Dad had admired their
keenness to see the show, but not their method or deed.
Right from the start the Picturedrome had to face stiff competition. A few
months ahead of the commencement of the building operations of the Picturedrome.
‘Putty’ Browne began to build a theatre near the bridge at the foot of Sheriff’s
Hill appropriately named the Bridgeway. One idea he had was to harness the water
flow of the Wairau Stream to generate electricity by means of a water-wheel.
Although it did not produce enough power to run the projector or the lights, the
idea was not as crazy as it seems viewed decades later. In those days the Wairau
valley had not been developed, except for some dairy farms, so the run-off of
water was mainly slow and steady except in storm conditions. What was a natural
ponding area is now land developed for the motorway, factories, and other paved
areas that produce a fast run-off of rain water.
At the time there was no electric power reticulation in the district, but
electricity was necessary to run the arc carbon lamps of the film projectors as
well as being required for the general lighting in the theatre. The existing gas
lighting system was undesirable. It was a pity that Putty’s idea didn’t work as
it had interesting, but ill-fated, possibilities. It was just one of the risks
of a pioneering, private enterprise, business entrepreneur.
The Picturedrome solved the problem of finding a supply of electricity by using
a gas powered generator. As a very small boy, I was fascinated by the huge
caste-iron flywheel that Fred Mollard, the projectionist, would swing by hand to
get the engine going. He would turn the flywheel in reverse to compress the
piston, then as quickly as possible the other way. After a push and a heave and
appropriate adjustments to the controls, it would spring into life with a huff
and a chuff. The brass balls of the governor would soon rise to their
On the whole, the gas engine and generator worked well, but on a couple of
occasions the fabric drive belt that connected the engine to the generator flew
apart plunging the theatre into complete darkness. Horror of horrors. Fred
Mollard would rush to the back of the theatre to fix the problem. He would have
to make temporary repairs by re-joining the belt in a make-shift manner, yet
good enough to keep the generator going. Much to the relief of the audience, to
say nothing about my parents.
The Bridgeway had a tough time against the competition of the picturedrome, with
its razzle dazzle publicity and general ballyhoo. For awhile the Green Mi]l was
used mid-week and on Saturday afternoons as a roller skating rink. Jim Poore, a
sign-writer who regularly did the promotion posters and signs for the
Picturedrome, ran the rink as a sideline, Skating was at first very popular, but
like so many fads, patronage gradually dropped off.
Putty struggled on for six or seven years, but eventually sold out to the
picturedrome interests. It then came under the direction of my father (with his
L.L. Speedy printed signature and all). On 17 December 1927 it re-opened under
the new name the Green Mill. It was run along similar lies to the Picturedrome
with pictures and dancing under the slogan of the ‘little sister of the
Picturedrome’. At one time it was used as a gymnasium by Vic Lee, with boxing as
a special attraction. Dad used to take my brother Lloyd, and me to watch the
sparring. We were encouraged to learn the art of self defence. The acrid stench
of well-used boxing gloves completely put me off the so-called sport, although
the training later proved to be most useful, particularly during the war.
The Green Mill was sometimes used for public meetings. On one such occasion in
February 1926 the Harbour Bridge Association held a meeting, presided over by
the mayor, Julius Williamson, to hear about a proposal for a harbour bridge. My
parents were very interested because back in 1860, my great-grandfather Allan
O’Neill had thought a bridge would be a good idea if only to cut out the need to
row across the harbour. More latterly, with the gradual increase in population
on the Shore, a bridge would be needed to make it go ahead. About a hundred
residents turned up to hear the details of a proposal for a bridge from the
Western Reclamation to the centre of Shoal Bay with its causeways linking
Northcote, Bayswater, and Devonport. Mr Blampied estimated that 3,000 vehicles
would use it each day Tolls could be set at 6d (5c) for cars and ld (2c) per
passenger. The scheme was killed, amongst other reasons, by the onset of the
Early one morning, Ted Cooper, Who ran the garage opposite the Green Mill,
sounded the alarm. The Green Mill was on fire. The building had been very
lightly built and soon went up like kindling wood. The exploding asbestos sheets
could be heard a mile of so away. All that was left were twisted burnt-out
sheets of roofing, -the concrete foundations, the pile of debris, and memories.
The Coming of Talkies
In 1929 the first talkie to come to New Zealand was ‘The Street Angel’. A critic
writing in the ‘Exhibitor’s Bulletin’ said that talkies were here to stay, but
that they would not oust the silent films. So much for critics. The event put
the silent movie operators in quite a dither. Would talkies really catch on?
Should they risk going over to talkies? Would they cover their costs? Could they
afford the cost? Could they afford not to go to talkies? The industry tried to
argue that as the first movie, ‘The Jazz Singer’ with Al Jolson, was a musical
it was not correct to call it a ‘talkie’. But the term stuck until it was
replaced by movie.
Initially the non-synchronisation of sound was the serious problem. Sound was
separately recorded on very large discs. The operator had the fearsome task of
trying to match the sound with the film. Problems arose whenever there was a cut
in the film. The highly flammable celluloid film would break easily. After it
was cut and re-joined the sound would be out of sychronisation. Unfortunately
there was only a limited degree of manual control.
I can recall seeing a singer opening her mouth . . . with nothing happening.
When it was closed, out would come the sound. This was absolutely ridiculous. A
serious performance would be turned into a farce. The projector had to be
stopped and re-adjusted. All this took time. While Fred Mollard was sorting out
the problems the audience would kick up a fuss. Some patrons would whistle or
make cat-calls, others might stamp their feet. All this had a nerve-wracking
effect on my parents.
Great difficulties were sometimes experienced with the cuts made by the censor
or by the American Hay’s Office which was then the arbiter of Hollywood movie
morals. By today’s standard they were very Victorian. For example, married
couples could be shown only in single beds, never double ones. One parson’s wife
caused quite a stir by complaining that a Bing Crosby movie was quite indecent.
Apparently what she objected to was a scene of a woman walking over a golf
course where her skirt blew up and showed her knee. Although this may sound
incredible, it must be remembered that in the late twenties and early thirties
single piece bathing suits with deep backs were considered risque, and the
Takapuna Borough by-laws still prescribed neck-to-knees bathing suits even
though they had been out of fashion for many years.
The introduction of the photo-electric cell that detected a sound track printed
on the side of the film meant that talkies had come of age. The audiences loved
the new system. Pictures improved and audiences became more discerning. The bare
concrete walls and high plaster ceilings of the Picturedrome were not conducive
to high-quality sound. In fact with nulls and reverberations the acoustics were
terrible. The result was such that regardless of the volume, it was difficult to
hear spoken words clearly. Something had to be done. Frenzied efforts were made
to solve yet another problem. It was decided to take a risky and expensive
recommended solution of artificially lowering the ceiling with a sound absorbing
material. Woollen felt was strung over wires and the walls were draped with
crepe de chine. I did not object when my parents sternly warned me not to climb
the towering mobile trestle especially built for the job. The desperate gamble
had paid off.
In the winter of 1936 the theatre was publicised as the ‘New Picturedrome’ . The
new sound was advertised as being as clear as a bell and that it was possible to
hear even the scratch of a pen. This was true. Every word was crisp and clear.
It was also claimed that it was the best sound on the North Shore. The new sound
was completed in July 1936, well in time for the screening of ‘The Broadway
Melody of 1936’ with Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor. All big stars
of the day.
Correct levels of sound were, nevertheless, an on-going operating problem that
had to be regularly monitored because there was no automatic volume control.
Whenever members of the family were at the show we vied to do the job. I loved
to press the button that warned the projectionist: one for up, two for down.
As youngsters we had all sorts of interesting jobs. Best of all was the
privilege of playing the records before the show and at interval. Although we
thought we were playing our favourites, in fact the records were carefully
selected for their suitability. Yet within that selection we had a free choice.
There was not much time between records to change the needles for each playing
of the 78s and to sort our a new record. I suspect that Fred Mollard kept a
careful eyes on things. As youngsters we had an early training to develop the
skill of playing records because Dad had at home and HMV gramophone (with its
trademark of a dog listening to his master’s voice) with a good supply of
redundant Picturedrome records for us to practice on. One job I had, which
caused some anguish, was to turn off the stage lights when the show started. The
switch had been placed behind the stage as an economy measure. I had to walk
down the side aisle and up the side steps to the stage in full view of the
audience, then slip in behind the side of the screen. I would carefully listen
to the overture and wait for the last bar, then quickly flick off the lights.
Coming down was no trouble because by now the audience’s attention was on the
show, except on one occasion when I slipped down the steps in the dark.
The Great Depression
It is hard to express in words the magical and exciting effect of the weekly
outing to the movies and dancing. Not only was it fashionable to go to movies,
but also, it provided hope and expectation that has been lost with the easy
availability of radio, television, and money. As Putty Brown’s daughter, Mrs
Jean Bursell, put it: ‘Pictures were a highlight in our lives’. The bleak days
of the Great Depression hit the Picturedrome like other businesses, but it was
able to stay in business. This was because pictures gave people a brief chance
to escape from their worries and cares of the day. These were times when many
people were out of work. It was sad to see talented and qualified men from the
professions and trades doing labouring work promoted by the government and
council schemes. I remember a very large group of such men clearing the rocks
from the beach below where we lived. People used to call around the house
seeking to do odd jobs or trying to sell garden produce and fish. When Mother
proffered a ten shilling note to a Maori selling fish, he said: ‘When I get ten
bob, I go home!’ Grandmother O’Neill later remarked: ‘An empty belly sharpens
Despite all publicity efforts, takings fell terribly low. In desperation, the
Directors ordered the ending of the free list. Dad had often given out the free
passes and allowed regulars to occupy special seats at the cheaper prices. Now
all that was to change. It was an early lesson in life for me not to take way
anyone’s privilege without expecting a reaction. Some patrons and free-Jisters
went off in a huff. Only two ladies, the Misses Gladys and Beryl Gudgeon, went
to Dad to thank him for past privileges. They said they would be happy to help
out in his plight by continuing to come and pay in full. Dad appreciated this
isolated gracious gesture. He broke the rule by letting them continue as before.
One cost-cutting idea was to share a film with the Gaiety in Takapuna (later
re-named the Tudor). With only one copy of a film being screened at both
theatres on the same night it was a tricky business to get the spools from one
theatre so as not to miss a beat, bearing in mind that the film had to be
rewound and carefully fed into the various sprockets of the projector.
At that time land sales fell dramatically. There were virtually no buyers
around. Many people who had purchased baches and sections on a low deposit, or
with a big mortgage, got into difficulties. It was not so much the matter of
paying a high rate of interest, in fact, the level by today’s standard was
ridiculously low, it was a matter of paying anything at all. Dad was lucky to be
able to make a living. He was lucky in the Henry Ford sense of the word, who
said: ‘The harder I work the luckier I get’. But in those depressed times more
than luck was needed. Some of Dad’s friends fell on very hard times. He was
greatly concerned to find one close friend literally did not have enough money
left to feed the family. He had even worn out the soles of his shoes walking the
many miles each day to look for work. Shudders went through the cinematic
industry when the newly completed Civic Theatre in the heart of Auckland went
bankrupt in 1930.
The Mayor of Takapuna during the Great Depression was John Guinivan, a rough old
chap with a heart of gold. He knew what tough times were, and quietly helped
families in desperate circumstances by paying for groceries out of his own
pocket. He was kindness itself, yet a tough politician. In the depths of the
depression he went to Sydney to try to raise a loan for Takapuna. To save money
he went steerage. When he got older he could be seen sitting on a seat at Halls
Corner by Hutchinson ‘s grocery shop, a seemingly lonely unkempt fellow, yet in
one sense he was holding court for his many admirers and friends who were
grateful that he had fought to keep rates down during those dark depression
days. His family had come out from Ireland in the 1850’s and settled in the
His was one of the many families my great-grandfather, Major James Speedy, had
helped out in those early pioneering days, when he was Resident Magistrate at
Mauku near Waiuku after retiring from the British Army in India. The soldiers’
pay was due on the Orpheus which was wrecked on 7th February 1863 at the Manukau
Heads with terrible loss of life. Not only that, the gold sovereigns that were
to have been used to pay the soldiers were also lost. After meeting the
guarantee given to the storekeeper for the groceries and supplies to the
soldiers’ families, great-grandfather almost joined their straightened ranks.
The Trevor Hill Era
A new opportunity opened up in 1929 for Laurie Speedy when he was asked by his
old pal, Phil Hayward, to re-join the Fuller -Hayward group and take over the
management of the Tudor at Remuera re-named the Moulin Rouge. Dad was farewelled
from the Picturedrome at a special function attended by hundreds of residents
and other patrons. Mayor Julius Williamson referred to Laurie Speedy’s energy
and tact. He was presented with a black walking stick with suitably engraved
silver band and a wallet. Items were given by Mr Tyso, violin: Birrell OMalley,
and also by the new manager, Trevor Hill.
Trevor Hill was an old friend of my parents. He was a bright little chap with an
impish humour. He had been born on Chamberlain Island (now Ponui). His father
was Collector of Customs in Auckland, and his brother Captain Thomas Hill was a
well known Union Company captain whose career included command of the liners
Tahiti, Marama, Niagara, Monowai and Aorangi. Trevor was a trained electrician
but liked cinematic work. The mayor told the gathering that Trevor had
previously held managerships at Dargaville and Thames where he had earned the
reputation of reliability and having the ability to produce beautiful film
projections (when it was still an art). He also said that he was a pastmaster of
the knack of publicity.
He needed all his ability plus a bit more to keep up the pace set in
pre-depression days of silent movies. Dad maintained a role as advisory-manager.
While at the Moulin Rouge, Dad was also the suburban manager for the
Fuller-Hayward group. He helped in the establishment of the Victoria Theatre,
Devonport, which opened on 2nd October 1929 just at the right time to take
advantage of the new era of talkies.
Late in 1930, Dad returned to the Picturedrome. With the depression deepening
business had been very bad. On top of that he found that crossing the harbour by
ferry late at night on a regular basis was wearing, and he still had an interest
in the land agency business he had established earlier.
Ye Olde Pirate Shippe
A group of businessmen, seeing the popularity of dancing at the Picturedrome,
decided to expand the idea of by building a dance hall right on the beach at
Milford. What better idea than to build it in the shape of a ship, and better
still a pirate ship. A private company Milford Amusements Limited was formed in
October 1928 with a capital of 10,000 pounds ($20,000) to undertake the venture.
Ye Olde Pirate Shippe opened with a flourish of trumpets (or more precisely
saxophones) prophetically in the middle of a howling northeasterly gale.
Unfortunately the patrons were not very impressed, many of whom left to go back
to their old favorite, the Picturedrome. The band itself later followed them.
The syndicate tied desperately to carry on for a while, but they had
insufficient backing to weather the financial storm. After it went into
liquidation, it was taken over by the Devonport Steam Ferry Company, which
guaranteed the mortgage of 5,000 pounds ($10,000).
The Pirate Shippe never proved to be fully successful. In July 1929 regular
public dancing on Saturday nights stopped. Although the Ferry Company built the
swimming pool with subsidised labour in the depression to help generate business
for its transport system as well as for the Pirate Shippe, it still did not make
Many people hold happy memories of dances, cabaret evenings, and social
functions at the Pirate Shippe. Canoes were hired out and there was a sweet shop
and tearooms. There was also a penny-arcade with slot machines. Money was hard
to come by, but in those depressed days for many people to waste any on such
extravagances. Indeed ‘respectable’ people looked on them as forms of dens of
iniquity. Yet on rare occasions we might sneak in. The big attraction for us was
the penny-in-the-slot electric machine. When we hung on to the handles and
turned up the power we would feel electric shocks. At first a tingling
sensation, but this would increase until the shocks were almost too strong to
bear. Only the toughest boys could take the very high power. On one occasion a
group of about a dozen or so of us linked hands in a circle to test the output
of the machine and our ability to hang on. I was not surprised when the electric
power authority banned its dangerous use.
In the thirties the Milford Swimming Pool was tremendously popular with school
children. On weekends people from all over Auckland would flock there. A special
feature was the high slide. We little fellows would watch the big boys climb the
tower and jump or slide down the chute. We simply had to follow suit. With our
hearts in our mouths and pounding in the ears, we would slowly climb it too,
occasionally hesitating while we summoned up our courage to continue. Then off
we would go. Swish, thump, splash. The first time I did it, something went
wrong. No one told me to keep my mouth tightly shut, or my head down. The
pressure forced open my mouth and what seemed like gallons of water went in my
mouth and up my nose. I rose spluttering and coughing to the surface. ‘Gee that
was fun’, I eventually exclaimed, putting on a brave face. Although we were all
sadder and wiser for such experiences, we encouraged other innocents to also
give it a go.
The pool was ideal for distance swimming. Many Takapuna children obtained
long-distance certificates. The One Mile Certificate was a cherished possession
of many a Takapuna youngster. Our generation learned a lot from those happy days
at the pool. Not only how to swim, but also, how through determination there was
great pleasure in reaching a recognised standard of achievement. When the local
health authority ordered the pool to be closed many of us were upset at the loss
of this wonderful aquatic play area.
In the fifties the Pirate Shippe property with the swimming pool and surrounding
land was sold to the Takapuna Borough Council. It hadn’t owned it long when, on
the grounds of financial cost, it had the Pirate Shippe pulled down and the pool
was left to silt up. To our generation this deliberate waste by the City Fathers
seemed wanton and like vandalism.
Play and Work
Although we Speedy boys spent a lot of time working when we were young, we
thought that it was mostly fun, although some of it was regarded merely as
chores. Generally we regarded work as more fun than unorganized fun. How could
we be working when we were liking what we were doing? This seemed better than
some children who were doing what they liked, but did not like what they were
Many of our friends sometimes liked to help us out, but not too often or for too
long. Some enjoyed the family atmosphere, but the less energetic ones would soon
find a lame excuse to slope off.
Yet it was not all work. Rugby was my winter passion. In summer we all loved to
swim and play down on the beach. Our favourite spot was Thornes Bay. At the age
of five I forced myself to swim so I could keep up with the bigger children.
They would happily swim about accompanied by our dog Bonny. If he could dog
paddle, why not me? I soon learnt to put my finger tips on the sand or rock, and
for a few brief moments paddle furiously. Finally there was the supreme pleasure
of actually swimming. We children would jump and dive off the rocks. ~4hen we
got tired we would lie on the smooth warm black rocks on the southern side of
the beach. Sometimes they got so hot they would almost scald us. After a brief
spell we would be back in the sea again.
When northerly gales arrived in late summer surf would come up. We would use any
old wide piece of timber, including Mother’s old ironing board, for a
surf-board. By today’s sophisticated standards our efforts and equipment were
pretty crude, but we had lots of fun. It was good healthy living and kept some
of us in good stead for our war service that many of us were to take part in. In
those halcyon days, war was the last thing anyone thought about. We had no
enemies (we thought). The last war was to end all wars. Yet within just a few
short years we were to loose some of our childhood friends in that terrible
conflict that was all too soon to engulf the world. Some of us were lucky enough
to survive it. Our days of swimming at Takapuna were good training for
experiences that lay ahead. It had also helped some of us enjoy the monsoon
waves in the Pacific Islands at places like Bougainville or later in more
peaceful affluent times in Hawaii.
Someone thought up the idea of building a ‘tin’ canoe. My bother Lloyd and I
rummaged around and found some old corrugated iron hich had to be flattened out.
A packing case end was suitable for the stern, and an old piece of 3” x 2”
timber (75mm x 50mm) served for the bow. Light battens kept the sides from being
forced in. Getting the canoe water-tight was a problem. What we wanted was
something malleable and waterproof. Eventually we discovered the ideal thing. It
was the hardened pitch that in hot weather had oozed out of the cracks of the
concrete road that ran along Lake, Hurstmere, and Kitchener Roads. The road
would be no more bumpy with the loss of a few bits of surplus pitch. The boys
would keep a look-out for the Council Inspector, Herb Collins while they
chiselled out their needs.
The canoes went well enough, but we had to overcome two more problems. Being
made of iron, the canoes sank quickly. By attaching a piece of board to the bow
with a piece of clothes-line rope, when a canoe sank the piece of board would
float to the surface. At least we could recover the canoe with the help of
someone’s boat. The other problem was speed. By attaching pieces of timber to
our hands we could paddle along without upsetting the balance. And so a ‘tin’
fleet was formed. It included Campbell Craig, Max Mart, Bernie Crossley, Tom
Hanna and Ross Reynolds (who was killed a few years later, at the age of 17, in
a cycling accident, which greatly upset us all). Bernie’s father had helped him
build a very swept-up model with a sloping bow that was greatly admired by us
who in our crude models were much lesser mortals.
Now suitably equipped, we went off to explore the rocks and reefs along the
coast. But one thing was certain, we would not venture too far out, if only
because we might loose our canoes. It never occurred to us that we could
endanger our lives because swimming was so natural and just part of us. Even so
we were pretty cautious. The truth was that we were a bit scared of what was
under the sea; there were no such things as goggles and snorkels or flippers.
The sea and ocean floor was still a deep mystery. This was particularly so when
we saw the kelp swish and swirl at low tide. Then there was always the thought
of a shark or stingray, particularly as I had seen a fin slicing the water just
off the reef where we usually swan.
One day we were approached to see if we would make a canoe for sale. Thus began
the Speedy boys’ first business venture. This time instead of using old scraps
of iron we purchased lovely new sheets of flat iron. Boy, this really was more
fun than fun. It was unfortunate that our first (and only) customer capsized
because he could not keep his balance.
Strangely enough there was a sequel to this youthful canoeing experience. During
the war I was stationed on a small island in the Central Pacific, Emirau, where
I was able to use half and abandoned long-range petrol tank from a fighter plane
as a tin canoe to observe the coral reefs.
Boating along the Takapuna waterfront was not always easy. Eventually we
graduated to a dinghy, but in the tropical cyclone of 1937, when winds rose to
about 70 miles an hour (ll2kms). Waves reached our boat stored on a bank well
above high tide. We searched and searched the beaches. We were never sure that
the pieces of pale green planks were from ours or someone else’s boat. We took
the loss badly. It was of little comfort to know that we were not alone in that
The properties along Milford Beach had been badly scoured out with beach fences
and boat sheds destroyed. We were forcibly reminded of the Biblical advice not
to build your house upon sand. The Takapuna Beach property frontages were
virtually unaffected. This was because there is a good measure of protection
from the worst of the fury of any gale from the reef that juts out at the
northern end of Takapuna Beach. In addition the soil is clay which is far less
prone to erosion than the easily shifted sands of Milford Beach.
When the tide was full we occasionally swam at the mouth of the Wairau Creek
where there was often a crowd of young people at the spot. A foot bridge had
been built by the subdividers of the sections on the Castor Bay side of the
creek to provide easy access to Milford Beach. It had been designed to be high
enough to allow yachts with their tall masts to pass underneath. We would climb
the bridge to look at the view of the beach and sea and also to watch the yachts
as they passed under us. Occasionally some mischievous young fellow, whom we
would call a ‘yahoo’, would bombard a passing yacht. No actual harm appeared to
be intended, rather it was more to provoke bad language and cursing from the
yachties. One day there was a thick school of jellyfish at the entrance. While
watching the creatures drift up the creek with the tide, I was suddenly pushed
in on top of them. I never did find out whether the mouthful I swallowed was
salt water or jellyfish. The bridge was eventually pulled down by Takapuna
Borough Council when allegedly it became unsafe, with a promise to replace it
with something suitable. It turned out to be just a politician’s promise.
Takapuna Beach is a wonderful playground at low tide. From time to time its firm
sand has been an excellent temporary airfield. My first experience with
aeroplanes was when I attended an air pageant of tiny planes held on Takapuna
Beach. I was pretty young at the time so don’t remember much about it, yet the
excitement of the occasion, with the roar of the engines as the planes took off
and banked as they flew around and over, was thrilling. Certainly much better
than watching them on the movies.
The first time I really became infected with the flying bug was in 1932 when the
great Kingsford Smith came to Takapuna Beach with his famous Southern Cross. Dad
shouted my sister, Bobbie, her friend Margaret Cooke, and me to a ride at the
negotiated price of 1 pound ($2) for the three of us. This was the real thing. I
believe that it was Kingsford Smith’s barnstorming up and down the country
selling rides to hundreds (if not thousands) of youngsters that a few years
later lay behind the great wave of enthusiasm that prompted so many young people
to volunteer for the air force. Kingsford smith’s visit to Takapuna Beach
certainly produced its fair share of local airmen who served in the various
theatres of the war.
Down the Lake
Milford and Takapuna beaches were not generally popular in the very early days.
Family tradition tells of Auckland people coming over to the Lake Hotel to go
rowing on the lake well before the beaches had any significant attraction at
all. The hotel was situated in Killarney Street, just above and opposite where
Campbell Road is to day. When I was a youngster the hotel had already been burnt
down. All that was left were the remains of the concrete foundations overgrown
with pink geraniums. We used to explore around imagining we might find some
secret chamber or treasure. When we became tired of playing in the ruins we
would go down the bank that ran to Lake Pupuke and rest amongst the blue
flowering periwinkle creepers that ran wild.
The water from the lake had a particular and peculiar flavour. It seemed that
tiny micro-organisms that lived in the lake, burst during the pumping process
spilling out their natural oil. In summer the smell was so strong that we joked
and said that the name of the Lake Pupuke should be changed to Poo-puke. Despite
the health authority’s assurance that the water was perfectly safe to drink,
something had to be done about it. The local residents became used to the smell,
except at the very height of summer, but visitors thought it was terrible. Maybe
that natural insect oil gave North Shoreites something special. Not everyone
enjoyed this dubious benefit because many people preferred to use tank water for
Around the eastern side of the lake are rocky cliffs with pohutukawa sprawled
along the top and hanging over the side. Nearby were outcrops of rocks that
contained fine places to picnic and make camp fires and cook sausages. At the
base of the cliffs were fissures in which some people said held Maori bones. It
was too spooky for us to crawl into the narrow entrances and find out if it was
true. Some sceptics thought that any bones would belong to some animal.
It is said that it is through such cracks that the lake water percolates to the
sea. Now that the lake is no longer a water supply and the level has returned to
normal, fresh water can be readily seen flowing out of the many cracks in the
flat basalt rock at Thornes Bay and also in several other places along the
foreshore towards Takapuna Beach.
In those days the Pumphouse literally was a pump house. We used to scramble
around the edge of the lake often having to climb over masses of willows that
grew in the shallows and steer our way carefully through the tall cutty grass
that had grown up. We were warned against swimming in the lake as someone had
drowned there when they got entangled in the weed. The old quarry site was also
regarded as out of bounds. It is a pity that over the years successive
generations of youngsters have had to learn the lesson the hard way. Every now
and then we still hear of someone drowning there.
During the time when the lake level was very low, trees grew in the fresh
fertile ground that had been revealed. When the lake rose it not only flooded
the teatree and pines, but also it covered our childhood playground of carefree
happy summer days. Unfortunately it has left a trap for some unsuspecting
youngster because some of the flooded trees have not rotted and lie just below
the surface as snares for the unwary.
The Speedy Land Man at Milford
L.L. Speedy’s first experience in real estate was at the age of 12 when he was
deputed to collect rents for an uncle who owned property at Birkenhead, not far
from where his family lived at Chelsea. After he opened the Picturedrome and had
things well organised he found that he had spare time during the normal working
week, so he decided to open a land agency office, describing himself as the
Speedy Land Man at Milford.
In 1924 he built his first land office on the site in Kitchener Road where the
property administration business of L.L. Speedy & Sons is carried on today. The
building was a tiny Tudor style with tile roof. It had a pendulum clock with the
slogan: ‘Now is the time to buy.’
How true that slogan was, yet in those days even though land was cheap, dirt
cheap by our standards, few people had much spare cash. Fewer still could see
the tremendous future that was to come to the North Shore. The ferries presented
a physical and psychological barrier. Before the district was to become one of
the most popular in Auckland lay ahead the Great Depression and the building of
the Harbour Bridge. Just after the Bridge opened in May 1959, an Auckland friend
of yore popped in to see Dad. ‘I just wanted to say that your faith in the North
Shore was fully justified congratulations.’
Dad was touched by the keen observations and kindly gesture of his old friend.
In the twenties and the thirties, the population of Takapuna was relatively
sparse, with comparatively few houses and plenty of vacant quarter-acre
sections. Vacant sections sold at a level of around the 25 to 100 pounds ($50 to
$200) range. Although Devonport and Takapuna were generally well serviced, it
was not until the post-World War Two era that city water supply, proper sewerage
system, and decent tar sealed roads were introduced into the East coast Bays.
Tank water supply from the roof was normal.
One day when I was accompanied Dad when he was inspecting a cottage, the lady of
the house offered us a cup of tea. We thankfully accepted her kind offer. When
it arrived we politely started to drink our tea. Somehow it was not right. It
had a tang that seemed far removed from mother’s fine brew. After downing about
half of it, I casually remarked that it had a distinctive flavour. ‘Yes, I must
say, over the last few days the tea has been tasting very queer.” I climbed up
the tank and discovered a dead blackbird floating in it.
In the early thirties, Dad became the North Shore agent of the State Advances
Corporation, now called the Housing Corporation. Part of his job was to collect
rents from the tenants of houses that had come back on the State’s hands when
owners had to walk out because they could not pay the interest or the principa1
repayments of their mortgages.
It has been said that every successful business man stated his career delivering
newspapers, and it’s probably true. My career started, like Dad’s in collecting
rents. At about the age of nine, on Saturday mornings, I used to help him. Dad
would drive around in his tourer and blow his bugle horn. By the time I could
run to the front door, the well-trained tenant would have the rent money ready.
Well, most of the time. In fact it was a salutary lesson for me to see the
misery of those who were not able to pay. I felt terrible when a tenant hung her
head in shame and confessed she couldn’t pay that week.
‘Me ‘usband’s outa work and the kids are crook. I’ll try ‘nd catch up next
I would walk away knowing full well there was little chance of her ever catching
up. The grip of the depression seared the soul of many in such a position. As
Dad would say:
‘There’s nothing harder than having to pay bills when you haven’t got the money;
and nothing easier when you have. See that you can always pay your bills’.
In the mid to late thirties there were only a few cars on the North Shore. With
a good ferry and bus system the number of cars on the Shore was well below the
average car population of the country. Dad always loved having a car so he was
one of the exceptions. He graduated to a Buick with side curtains. In keeping
with the fashion for cars its colour was rather drab. He and an old friend, Jack
Austin, who owned a theatre chair company, re-painted it. Mother was quite
shocked at the result.
‘Laurie, what have you done, it was supposed to be a pale buttery colour not
Being inexperienced in painting cars, they matched the colour sample in the
shade. Despite the pressure, Dad could not be persuaded to re-do it. It turned
out to be excellent publicity, but more than he bargained for. Even schoolboys
nick-named it the Yellow Peril after the growing concern over the naval might of
the Japanese and their wars of conquest in China. On one occasion he was
mistaken for the AA. Another time a lady rang and asked him to inspect her
‘But don’t bring that car of yours. I don’t neighbours to know I’m thinking of
Running two businesses was not easy. He had perpetual battle with the film
distributing companies to supply only first rate pictures, but they always
wanted to palm off ‘B’ pictures as part of a package deal. He also had the worry
of the weather. There was always a risk when he booked an expensive picture that
if it rained the patrons would stay away. People are very reluctant to go out at
night in bad weather, particularly in the winter months when there are cold
westerly showers. He reckoned that the film distributors had ‘hides tougher than
Urewera boar pigs’. For very special pictures they demanded a high percentage of
the takings and sent over a representative to check up. They also insisted on no
Yet Dad used to say that ninety percent of what he worried about didn’t happen.
It was apparent that all the major problems that were faced and overcome, became
opportunities for better things. Eventually the tie of shows in the evenings,
week-ends, and holidays, plus the time spent on organisation and administration
eventually palled. In 1938 Dad decided once again to look for new opportunities
and freedom. He gave up the Picturedrome to devote his full time and energies to
his growing real estate business. The Picturedrome passed back to the Thomas
family with Ted Harling as the manager.
For my father it ended sixteen happy years (with all its problems and triumphs)
and as a dispenser of fun and entertainment as, what he occasionally called
himself, the Fun Merchant.