The Sunny Side of the Street
When looking at a book of photographs of Auckland in the 1950s and 1960s, an older friend commented: “This is how I remember it – when there was sunshine on Queen Street”. The tall buildings have obliterated the direct sunlight that once reached the pavement, and much of the character of the shops at street level.
There aren’t many buildings left on Queen Street with the character and history of 436-438, currently occupied by Real Groovy Records, but not for much longer. The building is about to be demolished for – guess – a huge apartment block, with some nasty looking little shops at its base. Rather than a warehouse full of vinyl, CDs, t-shirts and other ephemera of popular culture – some of it treasure, much of it landfill – the shops will now sell phone cards, heat-up meals, and the poison known as RTDs.
The building was originally Auckland’s first large-scale cabaret, the Dixieland. It was built with extravagance and style by an extraordinary entrepreneur, Dr Frederick Rayner. With his wife Edith, an heiress, Rayner emigrated from Canada in 1900. He was a dentist, who made a fortune in Auckland with specialising in high-turnover “painless” tooth extraction, then supplying dentures. He was involved in early cinemas, milled vast tracts of kauri on the West Coast, and sub-divided Piha. His shingled mansion on the slopes of Mt Eden – visible from the motorway – is now owned by another entrepreneur and arts patron.
Rayner was keen to bring to Auckland the entertainment venues he had witnessed during his overseas travels with Edith. For the Dixieland’s opening night, on 11 April 1922, he imported an Australian group, the Southern Dixieland Band. Each afternoon, the band performed for tea dances; at night, the smart set gathered in tuxes and ballgowns to enjoy the 3000 square foot dance floor, and the illegal shots of hard liquor. Tuition classes in the new styles of dance were also available.
The Dixieland popularised jazz in Auckland, said Vern Wilson, a local musician who joined the Southern Dixieland Band aged 18 when they arrived without a trumpeter. “The liquor brought a lot of people in, carrying sacks full of booze into their cubicles. It didn’t cause any problems with the police, and it helped make jazz popular.” Well, it did cause problems, and Rayner ended up in court.
You can read more about the Dixieland – and its ill-fated successor, in Point Chevalier – in Blue Smoke and in Georgina White’s charming Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand (HarperCollins, 2007).
But the departure of Real Groovy from its site pulls down the curtain on what was a vibrant musical precinct in Auckland. With the original Peter Pan on one boundary (on the corner of Rutland and Lorne, now a carpark) and its successor in the block before K Road (which later became Mainstreet), the area is rich in musical associations. For 40 years from the First World War, Walter Smith – the composer of ‘Beneath the Maori Moon’ – taught thousands of pupils the guitar, lap steel, mandolin, banjo and other stringed instruments from his home at 16 Turner Street. (Among his last pupils were Peter Posa and Bob Paris.) In the late 1970s, Rip It Up had one of its earliest offices on Airedale Street – followed in the late 1990s by NZ Musician – and across the road was Charley Gray’s club the Island of Real.
Further up Queen Street were more clubs from the heyday of jazz and swing. The locations of these are often confused. For the record, The Trocadero Supper Lounge, which opened in August 1943 with Pat McMinn singing, was at 380-390 Queen Street. The Metropole was further up, at 506 Queen Street. Walking between the two you would pass Geddes denture company at 492 – a location rented by Real Groovy in the mid 1980s. The Geddes denture jingle ran on radio for even longer than Real Groovy has been on Queen Street, yet the musicians were only paid once.
Real estate has finally caught up with Real Groovy, and it’s amazing it has taken so long. And so a stretch of Auckland’s inner city that was once like walking through sunshine, even at night, will now be shadowed by another anonymous tower block. As Bill Withers sings on a record that might have been 50 cents during the great vinyl dump of the 1990s, and is probably $39.95 in the current fad for 180gm reissues, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”.