Wellington Scoop

Saving, and creating, theatres

bill sheat
Bill Sheat (1930 – 2021)

by Lindsay Shelton
“We’ve got to save the Embassy,” said Bill Sheat, when he phoned me in 1996. “We don’t want it to become a used car yard.”

None of us had noticed that the Embassy Theatre, a heritage building which had opened in 1924, was in danger of being lost. None of us had realised that nobody wanted it. Only Bill. And he amazed us all by taking the initiative in deciding that something had to be done to save it.

Within a few weeks he had gathered together a group of of us, and the Embassy Theatre Trust was formed in September 1996, with the aim of buying and restoring the building, and keeping it in daily use as a cinema. Peter Jackson was one of the original trust members.

At that time the Embassy was owned by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, which wanted to convert it into a national dance centre. But the plans came to nothing and the ballet company wanted to get rid of it, though there were no takers. The theatre was rundown, with torn carpets and peeling paint. The stalls were no longer being used. But even in its decrepit state, the cinema had become the main venue for the annual Wellington Film Festival (later renamed as the NZ International Film Festival) where audiences were accustomed to the murky ambiance.

embassy by night

It took almost two years for the new trust to find a bank loan (after getting an underwrite from the Wellington City Council) with which to buy the cinema. Restoration of the exterior began in 1998, at an initial cost of half a million dollars. Next, restoration of the first floor public areas was completed. Alongside the two original curved staircases made of Sicilian marble, the walls were lined with mauve tiles recreated to the original design. The original high ceilings in the first floor public areas were restored, along with Doric columns, repeating the design from the ground floor.

A new Dolby DTS/Digital stereo sound system, including 21 new speakers, and a new projector were installed. And after a lengthy fund-raising campaign, the building was seismically strengthened, and finally the interior of the auditorium was restored, at a cost of $4.66 million. As part of the strengthening, a concrete floor was laid between the circle and the stalls, and two new small cinemas were built in the former stalls space.

The building has a category 1 heritage listing and all of the refurbishments were consistent with the original design of the theatre.

As all this work was being carried out, film distributors suddenly changed their minds and became belatedly interested in the Embassy as a prime venue. Producers too. Peter Jackson organised New Zealand premieres of his first two Lord of the Rings movies in the Embassy. When he decided to have the world premiere of the third film in the Embassy, the city council offered more money to the Trust so that restoration and strengthening would be completed for the premiere. But in return for its money, the council insisted that it would take over ownership of the building from the Trust that Bill Sheat had formed. In December 2003, with new owners, the Embassy hosted the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King. The Embassy Theatre Trust held its final meeting in 2006.

Amazingly, this was the second heritage theatre in Wellington that Bill Sheat helped to save.

opera house interior

In 1977, the Opera House – built in 1914 – was put up for sale and there was a real prospect that it would be demolished by developers. Bill, with Ray Philpott​, came up with the idea of getting the Government-owned State Insurance company to buy it. The move was successful, after getting support from Cabinet, and the heritage theatre was saved and became known as the State Opera House.

Bill Sheat, who died this week, had an extraordinary seventy years of involvement with the performing arts in Wellington including the establishment of professional theatre. In 1964, he was one of the management committee that established the Downstage Theatre company. He was its president from 1965 to 1968 and was a committee member for ten years. In 1968 he was instrumental in forming the Hannah Playhouse Trust that successfully raised funds to build the theatre in Courtenay Place. In recent years he remained angry that the Arts Council (which by then had renamed itself as Creative New Zealand) had stopped supporting the Downstage Company, leading to its collapse and closure in 2013 after almost fifty years of distinguished productions.

I wish I had known Bill Sheat in the 1960s. When I arrived in Wellington, he was producing and directing the enormously popular university extravaganzas, with sold-out seasons every year in the Opera House. They were spectacular shows, with huge casts and all-original local material. I once asked him whether he had ever thought of a career in the theatre, rather than the law. But the law won out, and he became a partner in Gibson Sheat in 1957, retiring in 1997 but continuing as a consultant till 2013 – after sixty years in the profession.

He had an authoritative knowledge of theatre, not only in New Zealand and Australia, but also in the United States and England. Plays and players and writers and producers and directors – he knew them all. In his last public lecture, he spoke about Wellington’s first theatre. His audience was fascinated.

A few years ago he described how he was getting up at four in the morning to write lyrics for the university revues, before starting a day’s work as a lawyer. He said this helped him to realise “it was vital for people in the arts to be able to work full-time at their work… we had to make it possible for New Zealand’s hugely talented people to live and work here to make it an exciting place to be. That involves them being paid to do these things. If I had an underlying philosophy about the arts over the years it was this.”

He had enormous success with this aim, making it possible for talented people to live, and work, and earn, here, and thereby making Wellington and New Zealand an exciting place to be.

A memorial service for Bill Sheat will be held on Thursday (28th) at 1.30pm in the Embassy Theatre.


  1. Helene Ritchie, 22. January 2021, 8:08

    I last talked with Bill just a few weeks ago at an event at the NZ Holocaust Centre.
    He wanted to talk of some family links that he had.
    Bill was a fine man who made a fine contribution-an outstanding contribution, to Wellington, our arts, heritage and architecture.

  2. Felicity Wong, 22. January 2021, 22:51

    Thank you for recalling Bill’s terrific arts and heritage contribution. (I noted with despair WellingtonNZ’s CEO John Allen recently floated the idea that the Council might consider selling our beloved Opera House, something to be firmly rejected in Bill’s memory!)

  3. Grant Robertson, 23. January 2021, 14:47

    Bill was a towering figure in the arts in NZ for more than 60 years. He was never afraid to take on the govt or established ways of doing things. He will be sadly missed but his legacies are huge for Wellington, New Zealand and for generations of artists. [via twitter]

  4. Tony Williams, 23. January 2021, 18:57

    Bill was a dear friend. He did so much to help us all get our projects off the ground. I watched him helping associates in film, theatre, opera, ballet. A man for all seasons. [via Facebook.]

  5. Ian Mune, 23. January 2021, 19:38

    Wellingtonians, you can’t claim him entirely for your own. Bill’s contribution was to all of us – Film Commission, Creative New Zealand, Ballet Company, and always close to the ear of government. A life of service and love for the arts. [via Facebook].

  6. Wendy Slieker, 23. January 2021, 19:40

    New Zealand and the world have lost one of their greats. Bill was a mentor to me and many others in the arts. He was an articulate, generous, intelligent man who gained great pleasure from helping and encouraging people to achieve in whatever field they chose. He was a dear friend who will be missed by many, many people. His legacy will live on. [via Facebook].

  7. J Chris Horne, 30. January 2021, 14:24

    There would be no better way to honour the memory of Bill Sheat’s enormous contributions to the performing arts in Aotearoa than by establishing a museum to showcase our history of theatre, opera, dance and film.

    International travel restrictions imposed by Covid-19, plus the use of webinars, have ended the era of conventions with attendees from overseas. Let us re-purpose the Convention Centre now being built. Re-configure its internal spaces to make it our museum of theatre, opera, dance and film. Located across Cable Street from Te Papa Tongarewa, we’d have two national treasures on the same street.

  8. Lindsay Shelton, 30. January 2021, 15:15

    A museum of the performing arts (theatre, opera, dance as well as film) was always one of the unfulfilled objectives of Bill Sheat’s life. And there is such a great story to be told. At present the council’s blinkered aim is to use the exhibition space in the convention centre for displays from offshore – far better to purpose it as Chris Horne so convincingly describes. And not only the exhibition space. A performing arts museum (which would be the only one in NZ) could also fill the huge space that will be left empty by the absence of conventions.

  9. Pauline, 30. January 2021, 15:38

    I absolutely agree with Chris and Lindsay, We should have a memorial for Bill, not a Convention Centre.

  10. Traveller, 30. January 2021, 18:06

    The creation of a Museum of the Performing Arts would give some purpose to an otherwise purpose-less Convention Centre, or at least for the half of it that is being tagged as an exhibition space. But why not the entire building? There are so many stories to be told and there’s so much that is being forgotten.

  11. Helene Ritchie, 30. January 2021, 18:32

    What an excellent idea from Bill Sheat. I agree with Lindsay, Chris and Pauline. Perhaps it could be extended to be the Museum of Creative arts of Aotearoa – theatre, opera, dance, film – and literature and music.

  12. Toni, 30. January 2021, 21:34

    Just a shame Peter Jackson could not be encouraged to rethink his museum to add to the mix.