Friday 8 November 2019

There's a Light... in Hamilton, New Zealand

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

As the poet John Whitter famously wrote:  

For all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'

I was thinking of those words as I stood in Embassy Park in the New Zealand city of Hamilton last month. For before it was a park, this rectangular space off the main street contained the Embassy Theatre.

Opened in 1915, the theatre was used for stage productions and other public event for many decades, until the stage was removed and it became purely an ageing cinema.

By chance, this era coincided with the arrival of Richard O'Brien, who would later create the musical The Rocky Horror Show and its movie spinoff, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

O'Brien at that point was cutting hair for a living, in a barber shop housed within the theatre building. As a result, he caught a lot of late-night double feature movie screenings - an experience which acted as inspiration for his gender-bending musical which drew heavily on that B-grade material.

The actor/writer became famous when the musical and movie became international hits in the 1970s. But I don't think the upright burghers of Hamilton were entirely proud of the highly sexualised stage and movie output of their once local lad.

For the Embassy Theatre closed as a cinema in 1989, and then - get this! - was demolished against protest in 1994, when the work it had inspired had already been a phenomenon for two decades.

Imagine if the creaking old cinema had survived, and had been refurbished by the city into a small cinematic arts centre. Nowadays Hamilton could have a wonderful old cultural asset in its heart, perhaps drawing visitors from everywhere for a weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show screening at midnight Saturday.

Belatedly there's been recognition of the one that got away, and the park where the cinema once stood has been transformed into a celebration of the musical and film. It contains a prominent statue of O'Brien as the character Riff Raff, and various other quirky features including sound and lighting.

It's a fun place to visit... but ah, what might have been. As they sang in the musical:

Rose tints my world
Keeps me safe from my trouble and pain.

Embassy Park is at 218 Victoria St, Hamilton, New Zealand. See the live camera feed at

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