New Zealand closed at 5

Except that it didn’t…

It’s a frequent plaint among wannabe historians that until the late twentieth century that ‘New Zealand closed at 5’. I even heard this recently on a local architectural programme as a reason for why New Zealand housing in the early and mid-twentieth century was not ‘architecturally significant’. The propagation of this myth is not helped by the fact that most popular New Zealand cultural histories (King, Belich, Sinclair) rarely discuss popular culture or entertainments at all- or if they do it was to point out how British we were, or how far away from everything we were. By not including anything in depth about the local entertainment culture or nightlife of New Zealand in the early and mid-twentieth century, it’s understandable why this myth endures and is repeated.

However, my own research has definitively shown that New Zealand did not close at 5!

My research into jazz in New Zealand means that I look at a lot (and I mean a lot!) of newspapers, magazines and ephemera such as theatrical programmes. The first day of my research in residence at Auckland Libraries Sir George Grey Collection was spent looking at folders of photocopied clips of advertisements for cafes, tearooms, restaurants, bars, theatres, skating rinks, cabarets, and other entertainment venues. Interestingly, and contrary to that popular myth, many of these places were open until late at night or even early morning.

When you think about things, it makes sense (and I admit I hadn’t stopped and thought about this in the context of my straight up jazz history work until now since cabarets and dance halls all had suppers or other refreshments). Cabarets, theatres and other evening entertainment venues don’t ever exist in isolation. Think about how you have an evening out: while you might just go to one entertainment, you’ll generally go for a drink or want to get something to eat on the way to, or from, said entertainment- or in the days of long half time intervals (live theatre and film) in the middle of a production. In fact in theatrical programmes you frequently see advertisements for grillrooms, tearooms, bars, confectioners and ice cream parlours such as the famous Rush Munro’s with the specific aim of getting patrons in during the interval as well as after the show for a late night supper/dessert. And I do mean late- most evening film showings, theatrical productions, and cabarets began at 8pm and finished around 11pm-midnight, so late night venues for eating and drinking were usually open until 1am during the week, let alone the late nights of Friday and Saturday when some places were open until 2.30-3am.

Interestingly, from my perspective, many of these places didn’t advertise in newspapers. Until this residency I had mostly used newspapers and magazines as my main resource for interesting jazz/entertainment related information, but now I’ve been looking at metres and metres of theatrical programmes, which have the most fascinating advertising. This is how I’m learning that there were all of these venues catering to after (or during) entertainment dining and drinking- as well as a whole lot of other things that I’ll talk about in other posts.

What I found surprising looking at these programmes is how many venues were also open on Sunday evenings. I had known that social dancing was not considered appropriate entertainment on the Sabbath, but I had mentally extrapolated that to mean that most other forms of popular entertainment (excluding classical music concerts or community singing) were a no-go as well. Turns out I was wrong! Many theatres in Auckland were open on Sunday evenings (and this includes vaudeville entertainment and film as well as ‘serious’ theatre), along with many of the abovementioned tearooms, restaurants, and so on.

This is really interesting! Seeing how the entertainment industry operated with regards to other businesses, and how those businesses used the entertainment industry as a core part of their business structure. It really gives you a sense that Auckland (and likely other large towns in New Zealand) was a vibrant place with a wide variety of entertainments. The theatrical programmes that I’ve looked at so far range from vaudeville to serious drama, opera/operetta, musical comedy, comedic plays, and stand up comics to ballet and ‘fancy dancing’ (this is a mix of ballet, tap, and ‘Grecian’ or Lyrical dancing). Then there’re films, skating rinks (very popular in the 1920s by the looks of things- some nights even had a band playing!) and of course the cabarets and dance halls. All these entertainments were occurring six and seven days/nights a week and surrounding them were all of these places to eat and drink. So much for boring- it seems that Auckland’s entertainment scene was as busy in the 1920s as it is today.

The exclusion of popular culture from broad histories is not new, nor is it confined to New Zealand. However, in other countries there is a greater wealth of popular micro-histories readily available for people to consume (whether that’s reading or watching). The local focus on so-called serious history in New Zealand has led to an imbalance in how we perceive our history. Additionally many of the very few books that deal with popular culture or New Zealander’s leisure time are aimed at the scholarly market rather than a popular one, or have incredibly small print runs because the publishers don’t believe it will sell.

So what does this all mean for the way that New Zealanders perceive their history? Frankly, unless historians begin to include popular culture and entertainment in broad histories- the ones that people end up reading at school- and until the general audience can see facets of New Zealand’s popular culture in the context of our cultural history it’s going to be impossible stop this myth (though I’ll be giving it a good try!).

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