The iconic Harbour Light Cinema at 24 London Street, with its twin towers in Spanish Mission style and its wonderful art nouveau detailing, dominated Lyttelton’s main street from the day it was completed. Designed by J.S. and M.J. Guthrie, built in 1916 and officially opened in March 1917, it became a central focus for entertainment in the port town.
Opening night was an eagerly anticipated and well attended event with entertainment by the Lyttelton Marine Band, speeches, and an intriguing selection of motion pictures: “...the first picture being one of Salisbury’s Wild Life pictures depicting wild birds and animals in their natural state. A humorous study “When in Rome'' also pleased the audience, and the popular film favourite, Clara Kimball Young, appeared in “The Deep Purple”, a drama of great heart interest.”
Initially designed with a 550 seat capacity for the screening of motion pictures by the Lyttelton Picture Company, in 1920 a stage area was developed which provided entertainment companies with a dedicated venue in Lyttelton. Shows included theatrical performances, dance and song troupes, illusionists, hypnotists, vaudeville acts, comedians, public talks; all most welcomed by local residents. In 1920 a record breaking successful attempt to play the piano continuously for 100 hours was completed at midnight, by firm fingered Albert Steele of Auckland.
In 1925 a landslip in the claybank behind the building caused significant damage to the relatively new stage area, though thankfully not to the movie theatre, which was able to continue operating until repair to the stage was completed. ‘Talkies' arrived in 1930 and attendance at the cinema continued to be a popular local pastime. The Kreamy Milk Bar, opened in 1935 across the road on London Street, was a cool place for young lads and lasses to pass the interval during performances. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, ownership and usage changed hands a number of times. In 1965 Masters’ Enterprises bought the building and ran the cinema, in 1970, new owner Leo Quinlivan undertook a major refurbishment and instead ran it as a theatre venue. In 1980 film librarian Frederick E. Read was the last to operate the place as a cinema, until 1983 when the building was again sold. Then owner Peter Harris carried out extensive structural changes and opened a restaurant, complete with stage and a squash court out the back.
Last owners, Tom Jones and Helen Hobson took on the grand old building in 1988 and ran it as a successful and much loved nightclub and performance / event venue. Patrons stepped through the front doors and were welcomed into the rather grand lobby complete with glamorous sweeping staircases, then to be ushered into the cave-like inner sanctum to take part in a wide variety of events. It was also Tom and Helen's home, until the earthquakes caused extensive damage to the building and it underwent a controlled demolition in April 2011. They sold the empty site in 2021.