Works tell opera house history
Boards give story of past performers
A once in a lifetime opportunity to own a valuable piece of Whanganui’s theatre history has arrived at Expressions Gallery in Guyton St.
Three years ago, when work underneath the stage at the Royal Whanganui Opera House was being carried out, old dressing rooms were found and their walls were covered in graffiti which dated back to the very early days of the theatre.
As plays and musicals were staged, actors, crew and orchestra members wrote their names on the walls, along with the name and date of the production, preserving a history of the old building and its shows.
The walls were photographed before being removed and stored.
From the Opera House they went to the Men’s Shed.
“They chainsawed them into six foot panels,” says the Men’s Shed’s John McGowan, “Jim Ennis [of Friends of the Opera House] asked me if we could do something with them, I said ‘yes, but how many’?”
It was a trailer load delivered in September last year. They were pulled apart and John started grouping them so signatures that belonged together stayed together.
“So I managed to get a ‘one boarder’ and a ‘two boarder’ and it turned out to be a mismatch of sizes. But I wanted to get them into collectable boards before doing any thing with them.”
In consultation with Steve Selfe of Expressions Gallery, they came up with a way to halt further decay of the historic wood.
“Steve suggested Cooper’s Moisturiser,” says John, “It’s all original rimu.”
Finding Expressions Gallery was a happy accident.
“I came in here and knew straight away, this was the right place for them,” says John. “A gallery, but not as you know it. And Steve’s background is in furniture restoration.”
John delivered 64 individual pieces to Steve who, with the help of Christine Haber, arranged them into ways they could be presented as art works.
“Christine collated them on the floor,” says Steve, “And then we put them up on the wall.”
Some are one-sided, but a lot of the pieces have signatures and play information on both sides.
One large piece has been set aside to be presented to the Opera House, but all the rest is now for sale at Expressions.
They will look good hanging on someone’s wall, but they also carry names from Whanganui’s past.
As theatre was all amateur, the people represented in the signatures come from all walks of life. With many dating back more than 100 years, there is genealogical treasure in what came out from under the Opera House stage. Some names I recognised; others will find much more.
“There are plenty of Whanganui names in here,” says John. “And we’ve got things like ‘Miss Brown, Exotic Dancer’. There’s JC Williamson — JCW — the touring company. They came from Aussie.”
As well as signatures and names there are drawings, ancient posters and original stencilled signs like No Smoking.
The pieces and arrangements are for sale and Expressions, open through the week, is also part of Artists Open Studios over the next two weekends.
Steve Selfe, John McGowan and Christine Haber with some of the ready-to-hang relics from the Opera House.
Four pieces arranged as one artwork.