The Embassy Theatre (formally the De Luxe Theatre, NZHPT Register no. 7500, Category I) is a landmark building that occupies and defines the corner of Kent Terrace and Majoribanks Street. Imposing in size and scale, the building creates important vistas at the end of Courtenay Place and along the Terraces. It was designed by Llewellyn Edward Williams, architect and structural engineer A.R.I.B.A, M.I.S.E (London), for the theatre magnate William Robert Kembell (1881-1969).
Williams was Sydney born and trained. He came to New Zealand in 1917 and joined the notable Wellington architect Frederick de Jersey Clere in practice. In 1923 he formed his own practice and went on to design a number of prominent Wellington buildings. He designed or remodelled a number of theatres, including the Regent and Kings Theatres in Wellington (both demolished) and in other cities, such as the Embassy Theatre in Auckland (1936), the Avon Theatre in Christchurch (1934) and Regent Theatre in Greymouth (1935). Many of his theatre designs were art deco in influence but the De Luxe displayed the neo-classical style with Grecian-inspired detailing for the exterior and the interior.
Kembell had already built up a successful company, Kembell Theatres, by the time he began to acquire the Mt Victoria sections for the site of the De Luxe. He planned one of the biggest and grandest theatres yet erected in New Zealand and initially envisaged a four-storey theatre. The theatre was reduced to three storeys and it is unknown whether it was the costs involved or other factors. The Wellington City Council had received a number of complaints from concerned Mount Victoria residents about the projected size of the theatre.
The final cost of the building, including the land, the quality materials utilised and the furnishings, seating, electric lighting and machinery, was nearly £100,000. The theatre was officially opened by the Mayor, B.A. Wright, on the 31 October 1924. The mayoral address was reported in the Evening Post, with an interesting comment about the theatre business:
‘The proprietors in their enterprise had shown their faith in the future of the city of Wellington; and he believed their faith would not be misplaced. The mayor expressed the hope that the erection of picture theatres would not be overdone, and he was inclined to think that we now have enough picture theatres to last us ten years.’
In 1928 Kembell purchased land along Oriental Parade. He had previously lived in Masterton but no doubt, with an expanding theatre empire, a Wellington address was more befitting his status. A permit for the construction of a dwelling at 298 Oriental Parade was granted on the 22 June 1928. The architect was Reginald Thorrold-Jaggard (1889-1960) and the application value was £5,115. Thorrold-Jaggard had immigrated to New Zealand in 1913 and initially worked for a Palmerston North firm before starting his own in 1915. He was responsible for the design of several prominent Palmerston North buildings and a number of houses in the wider Manawatu area and Wellington. The building at 298 Oriental Bay is still extant and is reflective of Thorrold-Jaggard’s architectural signature, the English Cottage Style, which was his idiom for a number of his other domestic designs.
The De Luxe theatre was the flagship in the Kembell business, which expanded to 28 theatres in Wellington, Hawkes Bay, Taranaki and the Wairarapa. In 1930, Kembell Theatres as a company became incorporated. Advertisements appeared in the newspapers offering stock and shares in the highly profitable company. Kembell was bought out by an Australian, Arthur Davis, who took over the company in 1936 and reorganised it as New Zealand Theatres Limited. Kembell and his son continued to run the business until 1939 when the family returned to Melbourne permanently.
The Embassy Theatre remains an iconic heritage building in the inner city and its significance has only increased with the loss of its contemporaries over the decades. The building also serves as a reminder of the business acumen and entrepreneurship of William Kembell who recognised moving pictures as a lucrative business that continues to provide entertainment to New Zealanders today.