Cabarets and Clubs: 1930s

The late 1920s dance venues boom in New Zealand was strongly affected by the advent of the Great Depression in late 1929. Dance venues in New Zealand were spread across towns and surrounding suburbs, which meant that New Zealanders rarely attended more than one venue in an evening. With the cost of a night out ‘on the town’ becoming increasingly unaffordable many venues had to close or limit their public hours. These changes naturally affected the dancing scene, which was the base for many dance/jazz musicians, and also affected the continuing development of the local jazz scene.

By 1930 few venues were opened as ‘dedicated jazz venues’ as there had been in the 1920s.[1] However, there were a number of cabarets that opened which would become known among fans and musicians as jazz venues. In 1929, just prior to the Depression, three cabarets opened which would evolve into venues that, by the swing era, were known for the jazz the house bands performed.

Unlike the other venues discussed in this chapter, these three were all integrated parts of the film theatres of the same names. The first theatre to open was the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden, Auckland on January 26 1929, but the dance hall, known originally as the Crystal Winter Garden did not open until April 13 of the same year.[2] The bands that played at the Crystal Palace during the period to 1935 were many and varied, as they were engaged by the various organisations that hired the venue, as well as by theatre management for public nights. While the bands that were engaged were not always jazz bands, there appears to have been enough that it began to be advertised as a jazz venue.[3]

The Majestic Cabaret was the next of the three theatres/cabarets to open on May 13 1929. The cabaret was initially a lounge where refreshments would be served throughout the day and evening, and while they would have informal after theatre supper and dancing (initially two public evenings a week), they were not a cabaret.[4]

The evolution from a Lounge with informal dancing to a cabaret appears to have occurred over the first three or four years of its operation. By the middle of 1931 the Majestic Lounge had a resident band led by Frank Crowther, and by the middle of 1932 the Majestic Lounge/Cabaret was used for cabaret evenings hosted by people or organisations that had hired the venue, but the public evenings run by the theatre management appear to have remained the informal dancing and suppers as originally advertised in 1929.[5]

The beginning of 1933 saw both new management and a new band led by violinist Dennis Collinson, a former member of the Crowther band.[6] The Majestic Lounge and Cabaret as it was now known expanded on the earlier activities by having dancing every afternoon and evening, and by holding regular public cabaret evenings.[7] Over the next two years the Majestic Cabaret would have a number of resident bands. However, little was ever mentioned in the newspapers about these bands, except that they played the latest dance music.

The Civic Theatre and Wintergarden opened on December 20 1929, and unlike the bands at the Crystal Palace and Majestic Theatre, the house band played for both theatre and cabaret, with the cabaret band being a unit within the full theatre orchestra. For the first eighteen months the band was led by Australian based American Ted Henkel, and featured Australian and New Zealand musicians, including Ted ‘Chips’ Healy on saxophone.[8] After Henkel left the Civic, Healy took over the leadership of the Civic band, leading it on and off for nearly twenty years.

Despite the Civic opening at the beginning of the Great Depression the Wintergarden venue quickly became popular with both the casual after–film dancers and the dedicated cabaret goers. Built in the atmospheric style, the Civic Theatre and Wintergarden was luxurious, elegant, sophisticated and incredibly exotic with its mix of Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian decorations. On opening, it was considered the most sophisticated and sumptuous cabaret in Auckland, and would remain the most exotic theatre and cabaret venue in New Zealand through this era and into the modern day.

The Crystal Palace, Civic, and Majestic Theatre/Cabaret complexes can be viewed as a response, not to jazz, but to the global cinema boom of the late 1920s. The fact that these three venues quickly became known as good venues to hear and dance to jazz was due to a coincidence of several smaller decisions by their respective owners/managers. These decisions included having a cabaret/lounge venue as part of the theatre, then further deciding the tone of the venue and whether to have a house band or not. All three managements devised ways of enticing patrons to go down to the cabarets below the theatres rather than leaving directly after the film including having the band perform in the theatre at the close of the film, or designing the foyers to allow patrons to catch a glimpse of the cabaret/lounge. These, and other, decisions all impacted on the prosperity of jazz at the venue, which resulted in jazz playing an important role in these venues, and the venues playing an important role in the jazz scene.

In addition to these venues, there were a number of clubs and cabarets that opened during the Depression years. However the majority of them only operated for a short span of time before closing. There was one venue, however, that would open during the Depression and become one of the most prominent cabarets in New Zealand, and one of the best known jazz venues of the middle twentieth century: The Peter Pan Cabaret.

The Peter Pan Cabaret was opened on August 21 1930 in the Campbell Buildings on the corner of Lorne and Rutland Streets in the Auckland central business district. This would be the first large stand–alone cabaret (unlike the Civic Wintergarden) to be opened in the central city since the Dixieland Cabaret moved from their Queen Street site in 1925. One of the Peter Pan’s unique features was the bandstand, which was originally situated in the middle of the dance floor so that there would be “uniform volume of sound.”[9]

The cabaret quickly became popular on the Auckland scene, and gained a reputation for having excellent dance bands, whose personnel were the best musicians in Auckland. Among musicians this was considered a top job, both in terms of reputation, but also financially as the managers wanted steady bands to play long residencies, and were willing to pay much better than the union rate to get top calibre musicians.[10]

For musicians during a period where many cabarets, clubs and other venues were closing, or at least limiting their hours, these, and other venues provided regular (if small) sources of income. This was important during the Depression, because it could prevent musicians from having to rely on the unemployment benefit and relief work schemes.[11] As a side note, not all musicians were in such fortunate positions as those at the Peter Pan or other cabarets. Bassist Desmond ‘Spike’ Donovan was one jazz musician that was unable to get enough gigs (and was not considered to be a good enough musician for the cabaret bands) to provide for himself (it is unknown if he had, or had lost, a day job), and had to sign up for the relief work scheme, until he was able to find a job at Horotu Freezing Works. This necessary move “punched a hole in [his] musical career” and it was not until after World War Two that he was able to return to music.[12]

The venues that jazz musicians played in during the Depression often had demands that went beyond playing jazz: bands might be called to play for a floor show, to play ‘straight’ for an afternoon tea session, or at the cinemas to play an introduction or entr’acte for a film. Musicians had to be able to switch up styles “at the twitch of their leader’s coat–tails,” but in the difficult years of the Depression versatility was a small price for regular income.[13]

[1] ‘Winter Garden’ CP 3/9/1921, 2.

[2] ‘Crystal Palace Wintergarden’ AS 13/4/1929, 17.

[3] ‘Crystal Palace’ [advertisement] AS 4/5/1929, 24.

[4] ‘Majestic Theatre Opening’ EP 11/5/1929, 14.

[5] ‘Majestic Lounge’ EP 10/10/1931 7;10/9/1932, 6; 22/11/1932, 4; AMM Sept. 1932.

[6] ‘Majestic Lounge’ EP 29/12/1932, 2; 22/2/1933, 2; AMM February 1933.

[7] ‘Majestic Cabaret’ EP 22/4/1933, 2, 1/5/1933, 15, 13/5/1933, 2.

[8] Chris Bourke, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, Auckland: University of Auckland Press, 2010, 47, 52.

[9] ‘Peter Pan’ NZH 19/8/1930, 13.

[10] Bourke, 55.

[11] Mein-Smith, 151-152.

[12] Desmond ‘Spike’ Donovan, compiled by Dennis Huggard, The Thoughts of Musician Desmond ‘Spike’ Donovan, 2009, 15.

[13] Cliff Russell Tempo June 1955, 23.


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