When I was a kid the cinema scene in Wellington was richer than I knew. There was one “multiplex”, the Hoyts Midcity complex, the Regent Theatre which became Hoyts Manners Mall, the Embassy which was something of a ruin, and the Penthouse Cinema in Brooklyn. There were already several other theatres, like the Paramount, the Lighthouse Petone, and the Empire in Island Bay that I’d only come to know later, as an adult. The Penthouse was on my radar at all only because I had several close friends in Brooklyn, and there were basically two geographic features of interest in all of the suburb – “The” Wind Turbine, and the Penthouse Cinema. All of the other small cinemas in Wellington dabble in the mainstream, but that’s never been the Penthouse’s forte. It shows only chique and cool little films, and probably three quarters of the films it shows get shown nowhere else. When you’re 15 that’s a drag, but when you’ve seen your first thousand blockbusters and you’re looking for something a bit refreshing, the Penthouse won’t disappoint.
Not much to look at, is she? To be honest, she never has been a handsome building; she’s a shy gem, hiding her virtues. Like all theatres when I was growing up, it was pretty dire if I’m honest. The sound was patchy, the seats were precarious, and the ambience was consequently not good. About 10 years ago the Penthouse Cinema was picked up by the swell of cinematic renewal that swept through Wellington. They expanded it from its one screen to four, all of which meet my exacting standards for raking, view angle, and sound perception. The biggest of the screens is still pretty small, about 150, and the smallest is an intimate 30 or so seat theatre. When I go into the tiny screening rooms at the BFI or the Empire Leicester Square I always have a fantasy of taking the manager into the Vogue Suite and pointing out that small doesn’t mean inferior viewing in any way.
What the Penthouse understands above all else is that going out to the cinema is an experience in and of itself – regardless of the films. Like the Roxy, it does its utmost to convey cinematic charm, and if that’s more understated in the Penthouse’s movie posters and tasteful decor than in the Roxy’s Art Deco murals, it’s nonetheless palpable that once you’re into the theatre, it’s somewhere to be. When in Wellington I’ve several times found myself going there just for the cafe, and to soak up the forthcoming attraction posters, to catch snippets of film discussion. And as I say, there’s always film on there which just isn’t available anywhere else – even in Wellington, which is well served by cinemas. Where it beats the Roxy is in its viewing experience, which is faultless.