The first feature film presented as a “talking movie’’ was The Jazz Singer, released in the United States in October 1927.
Once again, the story goes, arrival of the talkies to Rarotonga was delayed by sharp practice in Papeete.
According to Stuart Kingan (2001; 228): “In 1927 the first talkie equipment was due in Rarotonga - the talkie projector and associated gear had been purchased in California and duly arrived in Rarotonga – at least that’s what the shipping papers and packing cases said. As quickly as possible the cases were taken from the wharf and opened – only to disclose stones – yes, nothing but stones. Later investigation showed that the projectors were already in use in Papeete.”
Six years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the talkies had still not arrived. In 1933, Mr H. Bickneil of Christchurch, visiting Rarotonga to audit the books of Cook Islands Traders company reported: “There was a picture show twice a week to which both races went. Many of the pictures shown were ‘talkies’ but, as the theatre equipment was of the silent type, the ‘talkies’ did not talk, and the gaps were filled in very cleverly by a native orchestra” (The Press, 8 April, 1933).
With Hollywood focused on producing “talkies”, it became increasingly difficult to source silent movies for Rarotonga.
Pacific Islands Monthly (PIM) reported (18 May 1933) that Rarotongan cinemas were showing “very old topical gazette … featuring such items as the launching of ships which have long since been scrapped, pointing to the difficulty for the proprietor of a ‘silent’ picture house in procuring suitable films. Mr. W. Browne, the owner of the local cinema, has decided to install a talkie plant and the appearance of the first sound picture is being awaited with the greatest interest by the native people.”
A few months later PIM (20 September, 1933) reported that: “After a short trial with a talkie installation, the proprietor of Rarotonga’s picture theatre [Mr. Willie Browne] has decided to augment his installation with new equipment from the United States and to carry out
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improvements generally in connection with his premises.”
Talkies in the outer islands
Another movie entrepreneur of the period was Dick Charles Brown, at one time reputed to be “the wealthiest man in the Pacific”.
He was born Charles Tikivaine Brown on Mangaia, 19 January 1906, the third child of George Brown of Scotland and Rakiki Tipoki (1880 – 1930) of Mangaia. He did his schooling on Mangaia, before coming to Rarotonga at the age of 18 years to work for A.B. Donald Ltd.
Later, Dick Brown established his own small store in Tupapa to market tomatoes from his plantings, and progressively enlarged this into two businesses - Island Merchants and D.C. Brown and Sons.
During the Second World War, Dick Brown became the pupu and hula skirt “king’’ shipping hundreds of thousands of shell necklets and skirts all over the South Pacific – wherever the American forces had bases.
Then copra and pearl shell became his main interests and he obtained the Cook Islands pearl shell agency of John Rie and Company, the second largest buyer in the world.
To ship his shell to Rarotonga a vessel was necessary so he purchased the schooner Tahitienne – the first of his “fleet” which included the Mahurangi, Karoro, Inspire, Rannah, Apanui and recently the Bodmer.” (PIM, 1 January, 1964).
Movies were central to Dick Brown’s business model. This involved sailing around the islands collecting pearl shell and copra and showing movies. It 1949, it was reported that “the Mahurangi is at sea again on a voyage to Manihiki, Penrhyn and Pukapuka ... Mr. Brown says that the inclusion of a 16mm projector in the Mahurangi’s equipment is making his ship a very popular one in the Northern Islands. Among other things he finds it effective in speeding up loading operations. The dictum of “no picture until the work is finished” is producing record-breaking efforts at ship-loading at those atolls where work is usually long-winded” (PIM, 1 June, 1949).
In the Southern Group, Dick Brown’s “portable up-to-the-minute cinema outfit with sound on film” has made a real hit with the islanders and admission is not as high as was expected - 1 shilling 6 pence being charged as compared with the shilling that used to be paid to see our older ‘silent’ show run by Mr. George Crummer …between 1932 and 1935” (PIM, 1 August, 1948).
According to Dick Scott: “Patrons without cash … were sometimes allowed to bring a case of oranges as their admission price; the case serving at the same time as their seat.” (1991: 176). Children were admitted for sixpence or an equivalent number of coconuts, adults for one shilling or a fowl. On Atiu, at one of the Crummer picture shows -– “The chickens came in fast but at the end [Crummer] had only a few. As each chicken was received and a ticket issued it was dropped into a large pen constructed for the purpose. But the Atiuans had organised a way of recovering the chickens from the rear of the pen and handing them back to those in the queue, resulting in many tickets but few chickens.” (Kingan 2001; 228)
From 1942-1945, Aitutaki (pop. 2111) and Tongareva (pop. 600), were able to see the latest American movies courtesy of their wartime US air bases. Judith Bennett notes how American logistics ensured the availability of home comforts for the troops “including magazines, Coca-Cola, beer, ice-cream …” plus radio and the movies. The movies were “screened at bases almost every night” with a preference for cartoons, comedy, light romance and musicals. The recreation hall at Penrhyn could seat 300 but on Aitutaki just 50. On both US bases there were four programmes shown over seven nights. The average weekly attendance on Aitutaki was 125 and on Penrhyn just 35 suggesting there may have been more compelling things to do in the North.
In the late 1940s, on Mangaia, patrons could chose between Dick Brown’s movies, and Willie Browne’s rival talking picture show. The latter took place in an open air theatre run by Punga Kareroa at the upper end of the Oneroa beach. Edwin Gold described the son et lumière that resulted when HMNZS Hawea, stood off Oneroa in June 1949, and entertained the local Girl Guides troop to a talkie show in the ship’s theatre. “The powerful amplifier of the warship was heard ashore, where the two local shows, at opposite ends of the beach, were also running. At the same time, a display of rocket flares, that filled the evening sky with the glory of green and red stars, was fired off from the warship.” (PIM, 1 August, 1949).
By the early 1950s a shortage of US dollars (the so-called “dollar gap’’) was making the acquisition of American movies increasingly difficult. Edwin Gold reported from Mangaia: “Feature films are not of the quality we once enjoyed; handsome, half-Tahitian Jon Hall no longer does deeds of derring-do in Glorious Technicolor and “repeats” are dishearteningly frequent – it would appear that the exchanges in NZ have a smaller supply of films and these of a lower grade, than in 1949.” The only compensation was the lower admission charge - sixpence for the fourth repeat of a feature. (PIM, 1 May, 1951)
Some films, such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Hurricane, in both cases based on novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, never grew old and continued to draw good houses despite being screened for the umpteenth time. Hurricane, produced in 1937 was directed by John Ford and starred Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. Hall was the nephew of James Norman Hall and having been raised in Tahiti, was a bright star in Rarotoga’s cinema firmament.
Some films were not popular with the censors. In the early 1950s, after a Zorro movie, which featured a masked vigilante defending the common people against tyrannical officials, a group of youngsters wearing masks and brandishing homemade swords proceeded to turn over rubbish cans and cause havoc in Avarua. The censor, aka Superintendent of Police, immediately banned any movie featuring masked figures. The ban continued for many years. (Takeuchi, 1979).
Up until the early 1960s, the toroka teata remained the main advertising vehicle for movie shows. Willie Browne’s theatre truck was ancient but, as Stuart Kingan remembers, “it was still running fine apart from one problem – a rather large leak in the radiator. A new radiator would have cost a lot of money, so [one of Browne’s workers, a man called] Foxy had to serve instead. Whenever the truck went anywhere Foxy had to sit on the bonnet with a watering can and steadily pour water into the radiator. Whenever his can got empty he would signal the driver to stop at the next tap and refill.”
Sometimes shipping schedules resulted in fuel shortages. Kingan recalls that during one petrol shortage, the movie leaflets distributed by the theatre truck included the following “Due to shortage of petrol today’s drumming will have to serve for next Friday as well.” (Kingan, 2001; 228)
At the end of January 1962, the toroka teata tradition came to an end. With more cars on the road and concerns for the safety of children, the Island Council decided to ban the practice.
‘Kung Fu saves
By 1979, according to one source, there were seven cinemas in Rarotonga, “owned by two families and the feuding and rivalry between the two families is high.” These were -
• The Victory Theatre (formerly the Royal Hall), Avarua (T.J. Browne)
• The Sunset Theatre, Arorangi (T.J. Browne)
• The Sunflower, Titikaveka (T.J. Browne)
• The Empire Cinema, Avarua, (Empire Proprietors – Harry Napa)
• The Arorangi Theatre, Arorangi (Empire Proprietors – Harry Napa)
• The Kent Hall, Titikaveka (Empire Proprietors – Harry Napa)
• The Turangi Theatre, Turangi, (Empire Proprietors – Harry Napa)
The total cinema seating capacity in Rarotonga in 1979 (including other locations such as the Matavera Packing Shed) was 2754, or “141 seats per 1000 people ... This is high by any standards and it is one of the highest in the Pacific”. Five theatres had bench seats, three theatres had individual seats and four theatres had balcony seats on offer (Takeuchi, 1979).
In 1971, Harry Napa bought a controlling interest in the Empire cinema group, in part as sales outlet for his Vai Ora drinks. According to Rachel Reeves: “Harry set about replacing the cinema’s outdated equipment – the sound projector was still being lit with a flint – and hired a projectionist. His family did the rest of the theatre jobs. … And while his family was a huge help, Harry swears that ‘kung fu was what saved the Empire.”
“We were in Auckland and I noticed these two (his kids) couldn’t take their eyes off the corny, dubbed Chinese movies. We brought them in and people would watch the movie, go round the side of the building and buy another ticket and watch it again. Kung Fu saved the Empire.”
“Harry eventually had cinemas around Rarotonga – in Arorangi, Titikaveka, Avarua and Ngatangiia – and scored the Cook Islands a Guinness Book of Records mention for the highest number of cinema seats per capita in the world.” (Reeves, 2011). But this wasn’t to last. In 1981, the video cassette recorder (VCR) became widely available across the Cook Islands and by 1988 more than 40 per cent of all households on Rarotonga owned at least one VCR.
A report by Mel Kernehan, (PIM, 1 December, 1983) noted that on Rarotonga: “The video rental business blossomed almost overnight … some of the larger operations list nearly 1000 video titles for rent, comprising everything from sex, violence, drama, cartoons, musicals to religion with all shades and combinations in between. Families sometimes spend as much as $100 a weekend for use of a video player and a stack of tapes … Many small village shops now have sets running for the entertainment of their customers.”
Then, on Christmas Day, 1989 Cook Islands Television was launched with programmes running from 5pm – 11pm daily.
Video shows also replaced films shows in the outer islands. Almost overnight, cinema had lost its mass audience.
Bennet, Judith, 2009, Natives and Exotics; World War II and Environment in the South Pacific, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
Kingan, Stuart G., 2001, Paradise or Comic Opera? 50 Years in the Tropical Pacific, South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission,
Reeves, Rachel, 2001, The Life and Times of Harry Napa, Escape Magazine, December, Rarotonga
Scott, Dick, 1991, Years of the Pooh Bah; A Cook Islands History, CITC and Hoder and Stoughton, Auckland
Takeuchi, Floyd K., Commercial Cinema in the Pacific Islands, 1979