Hastings had NZ’s first cinema WEEKEND MAGAZINE
Gilbert Lloyd (left) looks at the Sorenson saga, which began with an enterprising coachbuilder and was associated with cinema, tobacco-growing and roller skating.
In 1896 the first moving pictures were exhibited in New York and this novel form of entertainment swept throughout the world like a bush fire, with portable screens being erected in halls and theatres so that they could be stored away for when the stage was required for live performances.
In haste or ignorance, the construction of the projection room often crowded the operator near the exposed light and the celluloid film. Many lives were lost in these “death chambers.”
Hastings’ only theatre at that time was the Princess built in the early 1890s by a company chaired by Sir William Russell and located near the corner of King and Heretaunga Streets.
But the first cinema in New Zealand – specifically designed for the purpose – was the Kings, located between where the Hastings Cultural Centre and the Women’s Restroom rooms now stand in Eastbourne street.
Built about 1910 by Mr. R.F. Sorenson, a Hastings coach builder, it contained a full-width screen, fire-safe projection box and all the advances known to the industry at that time.
This cinema had the pick of the programs and the finest instrumentalists available. And, although Hastings’ population was only 6500 then, 1500 adults and children a week would patronize the Kings and the Hastings Borough Council allowed movies on Christmas night.
The cinema gave good service for many years and was then moved to the Hastings Boys’ High School for use as their assembly hall. It continued its useful life until replacement in 1967.
Mr Sorenson was a very enterprising citizen with many interests.
His coach shop was at the corner of Karamu and Eastbourne streets, where a service station now stands.
A two-storey building had the blacksmithing and bodywork department on the ground floor. The vehicles were then hauled up through a hole in the upper floor to the paint and trim department.
Several well-known men served their apprenticeship there. Bill Ross, the coach painter and Andy Dysart, the blacksmith, later took over the business, moving over the road to be later joined by McLean, a coach builder, to form Ross Dysart and McLean which took its first car franchise in 1915 and is still in business in this city, although now owned by the listed Aurora group.
About 1910, we saw possibly the biggest frost in history.
Ralph Paynter’s 10-acre orchard on the Havelock Road harvested only two mis-shapen apples and the Frimley cannery production was so restricted that it started towards its decline and ultimate demise.
Gerhard Husheer, a small farmer at Pakipaki and a customer of Sorenson’s, went into a coach shop moaning that his first big crop of tobacco was ruined and what could he do?
Sorenson said: “If tobacco is subject to frost, you shouldn’t be growing it at Pakipaki but in a frost-free area near the coast.”
Sorenson and Husheer joined with several others to form the New Zealand Tobacco Company – with Sorenson as chairman and Husheer as manager. Their 60 acre plantation was at Te Awanga and the factory was at Port Ahuriri.
I remember Mr Husheer having a small stand at the Hawke’s Bay Show, where he gave away samples in yellow calico bags branded “Gold Pouch.”
My father tried some in his pipe and said it was only fit for smoking out bees.
However, once it was blended with imported leaf, it became a marketable product.
The First World War limiting the availability of tobacco tins and causing other troubles, saw the company fold.
Gerhard Husheer, after this conflict, bought the manufacturing assets from the liquidators and set up factory again at the port, buying his leaf, possibly from Riverhead, Auckland, and calling the product Riverhead Gold.
The new tobacco certainly made gold for Mr Husheer and, by 1929, he was being driven around Hawke’s Bay in his big seven-passenger Pierce Arrow, sitting in the rear seat playing tunes on the musical horn, while his chaffeur [chauffeur] retained the normal horn for urgent occasions.
The National Tobacco Company was taken over by the multinational Rothmans in 1957 and still manufactures at Ahuriri.
Roller skating was all the rage in 1909 and Mr Sorenson erected the largest indoor skating rink in New Zealand on the property opposite de Pelichet McLeod’s office and close to his Kings theatre site.
This Olympia rink had a special wooden floor built of 4 x 2s on edge and his wheelwrights steamed the timber so that it continued end-on in a continuous flow around the perimeter, making it perfect for speed skating.
People came from far and wide to skate at this famous rink.
Madame Reeve and Percy Athos, famous figure skaters, in the course of a world tour, arrived with a supporting cast to give a week-long exhibition of figure skating at the Olympia and Sorensen’s six-year old son, who had been skating ever since Dad built the rink, watched intently as these experts performed each evening.
On Friday afternoon, Junior, as usual, rushed across from Central School to put on his skates. When Percy Athos entered the rink, he was amazed to see this little boy doing all his tricks and rushed into Sorenson’s office saying: “Who is that little boy who has stolen all my fancy turns out on that floor?’’
“That’s my boy, Wilfred, who has been practising all your items ever since you arrived.”
Athos said: “He’s phenomenal and would cause a riot on stage as we travel around the capitals of Europe. I will give you £30 a week for his services and guarantee his schooling if you will allow him to join my troup.”
A wage of £30 a week in 1910 was equal to $2000 a week today. But father said: “No, I’m not going to have him gallivanting around the world, even for that money. He can stay here at the Central School and grow up a normal New Zealand citizen.”
But Wilfred Sorenson was bitten with the skating bug and from 11 years to 18, travelled around New Zealand giving exhibitions and winning many championships for speed and trick skating.
In New Plymouth, Sir Ernest Rutherford saw him giving an exhibition and booked 14 seats for the next evening’s performance, returning with friends visiting from the United States and Britain.
Several had seen the world champion perform at the Hippodrome and in the U.S. and all agreed this 18-year-old’s performance was equal to any they had seen and smoother than the world champion’s.
The Olympia rink became the Olympia cabaret in later years and, with its perfect floor, was very popular for this purpose.
Hastings lost it in a fire about 1929.
The old coach shop became an auction mart, called the Father’s Rest – with the Women’s (Mother’s) Rest nearly opposite.
In 1926, I was skating on the top floor when the steel wheels of the 80 skaters on that wooden floor must have drowned the bids in the auction below.
Mr Sorenson sold the coach shop to J. E. Peach, the Ford dealer, and the building, chocked full of used cars, was destroyed in an “unfortunate’’ fire in the “‘depressive 1930s.”
Wilfred Sorenson gave up competitive skating when he started his career as a commercial traveller for a Hawke’s Bay firm, but a few years later his father had leased the stage of the Napier Municipal Theatre, which then had the largest stage in Australasia.
He used it as a skating rink and Wilfred took his girlfriend (now his wife) through to Napier to see the skating.
While watching, his girl said: “Have you ever done any skating, Wilf?”
“A bit,” was his modest reply. And when he went behind the screen to see his father, he came out to give the star performance of the evening.
By then, his hobby was music, which he pursued just as keenly as he followed skating in earlier days.
He taught himself to read music and play piano, wind instruments and the saxophone and joined and formed numerous orchestras.
Today, approaching 80 years of age, the sight of a piano gives him the urge to play and his light touch gives a real lilt to his music, just as his light-footed actions delighted audiences in those far-off skating days.
As we sat in his attractive home in a quiet surburban [suburban] street, with Wilf softly playing one of his own compositions on his piano organ, I said to his wife, Dot, whom I have known since childhood days, “I wonder where Wilf would have ended if his father had accepted that £30-a-week so his six year-old son could travel the capitals of the world?”
His practical Scottish-born wife replied, “Well, he would certainly have made a lot of money, but I doubt if he would have been any happier with his fortune in a capital of Europe than he is today among his children and grandchildren in his home town of Hastings.”
Photo captions –
Mr Wilf Sorenson plays one of his own compositions at his home in Hastings this week as Mrs Sorenson listens. Sir Ernest Rutherford was impressed by Mr Sorenson’s roller-skating ability.
The family of Mr R.F. Sorenson in their patented gig. The passenger seat adjusted back to equalise the weight on the horse. Mr Wilf Sorenson is in front of his father.
A 1920 Austin 20 chassis with a custom-built RDM ‘‘colonial’’ body outside Ross, Dysart and McLean’s coach and motor body shop.