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‘Movie Man’ recreates the golden days of cinema

Flagstaff Team

Reel experience… Murray Thompson’s film club members get to enjoy all sorts of movie genres, and plenty of classic releases

Former projectionist Murray Thompson has a fully equipped mini cinema in his Devonport villa. He tells Helen Vause about his lifelong passion for old-style movie houses.

On a November evening in 2015, a little group of movie buffs settled into their comfortable red-plush seats. Over the sound system, a soundtrack began.Velour curtains twitched, the lights went down and the first screening of many began in timeless style.

Outside, Guy Fawkes celebrations were beginning, but the lucky few enjoying opening night at Murray Thompson’s tiny

‘State’ cinema in his Devonport villa were oblivious as they enjoyed the frolicks of Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon in the Hollywood classic Some like it Hot.

Their experience was what many of Thompson’s generation would remember from Auckland cinemas in their heyday – when the spectacle of the magical buildings and the presentation was half the fun of going to the movies. But here there were just a dozen seats.

For long-time cinema projectionist Thompson, that evening was a reveal of a dream he’d been nurturing for years: having his own theatre with a fabulous standard of presentation to be enjoyed by select groups who would appreciate it all like he did.

Five years on, there have been many evenings just as he envisaged, as gatherings with those who joined his film club have grown.

“Quite simply, I have the best of everything here,” Thompson says, with obvious pride.

He talks to the Flagstaff in the elegant living room that leads to his theatre room, past lights and authentic cinema touches. “I’d always wanted my own cinema but it wasn’t easy to make it happen,” he says.

The charm of movie houses touched Thompson as a toddler in Paeroa, when his mother began wheeling him down to the Regent in the early 50s.

The little boy loved the Saturday matinees, though for him it wasn’t so much about the movie as the spectacle of it all – waterfall curtains rising and lowering, music, lighting, changing colours, and people standing up for God Save the Queen.

When his family moved north to Devonport, the five-year-old was a regular at The Vic and the big old State Theatre, which was in its heyday on the other side of Victoria Rd.

Having an eye for fine buildings and the details that make them what they are, ran in the family. Thompson’s great-grandfather Edward Bartley was a prominent architect, who made his mark with handsome buildings on both sides of the harbour and built a big home in Devonport.

In the late 50s, Thompson was often taken by ferry to the many cinemas that thrived in and around Queen St. He was enchanted by it all.

The family left Devonport when his father bought a butcher’s shop in Kelston, and it was decades before he returned.

He grew up going to matinees at the somewhat faded Delta Theatre in New Lynn, the “fleahouse” for local kids who would flock in on Saturdays.

When the screams and excitement reached fever pitch at cartoon time, Thompson can remember the manager halting the screening to tell the kids to cut the noise. The worst offenders would often be tossed out. In all, a great afternoon’s entertainment at the cinema.

He couldn’t get enough of it. At home, he had a puppet theatre. Then he turned the family garage into a cinema that, as an eight-year-old, he operated with an 8mm projector, with lights and an overture and curtains, of course. Footage of his mother smoking a cigarette provided the advertising segment in his carefully orchestrated build-up to the main film.

Determined he would one day make his career as a projectionist, in his early teens Thompson had a meeting with the staff at the Cameo Theatre in New Lynn. He was 14 when he started changing reels in the projection room, staying until he was16andoldenoughtoseekajobasa projectionist.

He took an apprenticeship at Kerridge Odeon’s St James theatre, which was considered the best place to learn his craft.

It was quite a step up. The St James seated more than 2000 people and had gleaming floors, uniformed usherettes, black-suited doormen with bow ties, and resident cats to keep any mice away.

Reels had to be changed several times during a screening, and assistant projectionist Thompson learned the job from an ageing professional who had brought the first ‘talkie’ to life in Auckland decades earlier.

After the evening session, the young apprentice caught the late bus home to New Lynn.

With his projectionist’s licence secured at 18, Thompson was ready to move on. In the course of his career, he moved around the projection rooms of the city – working in cinemas such as the Regent, the Odeon and the Embassy.

“It was my dream job and I just loved being part of those cinemas and all their wonderful stories.”

“What I wanted to create was that old cinema experience.

There’s nothing else like it.”

But times changed in the cinema world, and life took Thompson to Sydney for more than a decade.

There, his work was still creative and he turned his hand to design and interiors. But the idea of having his own cinema one day stayed with him.

“At one stage, I looked at getting the old Crystal Palace in Mt Eden and doing that up. But it would have cost a fortune,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t have wanted anything less than fabulous.”

Maybe there could be a cinema of his own, still fabulous, just smaller-scale and right in his own backyard.

When that concept fired his imagination, Thompson and his partner Domenico found a villa in Devonport with a back garden that was perfect for their unique addition.

At first it was a very private cinema for Thompson and friends, but he was soon persuaded to share it with others and his film club took shape.

These days, there are more than 100 members and regular screenings.

Thompson screens all genres, with plenty of classics along with the new titles he thinks will appeal.

With more than 2000 movies on offer, he isn’t lost for choice.

“But I never run anything that’s currently screening elsewhere. I have no intention of stepping on anyone’s toes,” he says.

“I am all about presentation. What I wanted to create was that old cinema experience. There’s nothing else like it.”

Those very comfy seats in his ‘State’ came from France; the sound, lighting and projection systems – and the curved screen – are top notch. Last year, twinkling lights on the ceiling were added.

And Thompson found the little exit signs on Trade Me that once glowed in the namesake theatre, and restored them.

“When we first came here we didn’t know a soul. Well, that has certainly changed. So many of the people we have welcomed through the door have become real friends to us now.

“I never did this as a job. It is my passion and it has been really wonderful to invite people in to share it.

“Now everyone around here knows me as the Movie Man.”

This article originally appeared in the 14 August 2020 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.

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