Story: Kerridge, Robert James
Kerridge, Robert James
Businessman, cinema proprietor, film distributor, tourism promoter, entrepreneur
This biography was written by L. R. Shelton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
Robert James Kerridge was born in Christchurch on 30 October 1901, the son of Frederick Thomas Kerridge, a tram driver, and his wife, Ellen Maude Bell. At the age of five his parents gave him a magic lantern, with which he staged a show for local children, charging a penny each. He left Christchurch West District High School at 15 and started work in the mailroom of Booth, Macdonald and Company, but after two days was transferred to the buying and shipping departments. Studying accountancy part time, he became a junior accountant with Kincaid's grocers when he was about 17, but resigned to move to Gisborne, where his father became an orchardist. There Robert worked as a real estate agent and opened the Commercial College of Poverty Bay. In 1923 he became manager, and then owner, of Wilkinson's Motor Company; renamed De Luxe Motor Service, it ran limousines between Gisborne and Napier.
Kerridge was still in the motor business when he saw a box office report from a Gisborne cinema suggesting there was money to be made from exhibiting films. In 1926 he started to buy theatres, with H. B. Williams, of the pioneering missionary and farming family, as his partner and adviser; Williams also became a partner in De Luxe Motor Service. Kerridge's first cinema was in Gisborne – the Palace Picture Theatre – which he renovated and renamed the Regent. He acquired a second within a year, and soon controlled cinemas in Wairoa, Opotiki, Tauranga and Whakatane. By the time talking pictures arrived in 1929 he had sold his motor business and was operating 16 cinemas. A decade later, profiting from the failure of other cinema owners during the depression, he controlled 26, including two in Auckland. The fastest expansion came in the 1940s: he took over New Zealand Theatres in 1943, the Fuller–Hayward theatre chain in 1945, and the J. C. Williamson Picture Corporation in 1947. By that time Kerridge and his Williams family associates owned or controlled 133 cinemas, the biggest exhibition chain in New Zealand or Australia. Virtually every sizeable town and city in New Zealand had at least one Kerridge cinema, many of them bearing the name Regent.
In 1946 Robert Kerridge travelled to London and sold 50 per cent of his cinema chain to the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, just as Rank (who controlled 1,000 cinemas) was expanding his British production company. The deal netted the vendors almost £1 million, plus the gift of a Rolls Royce car for Kerridge. It also provided the renamed Kerridge Odeon circuit with a guaranteed flow of British movies, to add to agreements with American studios (including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who already guaranteed their first-release films to the Kerridge chain.
At this time cinema attendances were increasing every year; they peaked in 1960, the year television arrived in New Zealand, when there were 40 million ticket sales, representing 17 visits each year by every New Zealander. At the outset of his relationship with Rank, Kerridge talked of producing films in New Zealand, but only one local film resulted, The seekers (1954). Apart from National Film Unit newsreels, film-going for New Zealanders continued to offer images and heroes almost exclusively from other places, predominantly the United States and Britain.
Kerridge had a wide range of other entrepreneurial interests. He organised concert tours by overseas stars such as the Beatles, the Bolshoi Ballet and the pianist Julius Katchen. He vigorously promoted New Zealand's tourism industry: Kerridge Odeon Hotels built the White Heron Lodge in Parnell and the Pakatoa Island resort in the Hauraki Gulf, while Kerridge Odeon Tourist Services introduced the first hydrofoil on the Waitemata Harbour. He also financed retail developments such as the 246 Shopping Centre in Queen Street, which opened in July 1964. In addition, he was a generous benefactor to various causes, including the Auckland City Mission's Selwyn Village for the elderly and King's College.
Robert Kerridge married three times. His first wife was Emslie Marie Malpart, the daughter of a French manufacturer, whom he married in the Holy Trinity Church, Gisborne, on 14 July 1925; they had no children, and were divorced in 1935. Two months later, on 3 January 1936, he married Meryl Moye Jones in Palmerston North; they had a daughter and a son, and were divorced in 1955. On 7 June 1956, at St Luke's Presbyterian Church, Remuera, he married Phyllis Elizabeth Calhoun (née Roland), a divorcee with three young children. Born in Te Aroha and educated in Vienna, she had played in a family musical sextet that toured New Zealand in the 1930s.
Kerridge was admitted to the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1958, for fostering closer cultural relations between the two countries, and was knighted in 1962. He retired as Kerridge Odeon's managing director in 1976, aged 75, but retained the title of chairman and kept going to work as usual; there was 'not the slightest switch in the source of power,' commented the New Zealand Herald.
Sir Robert Kerridge died at his Remuera home on 26 April 1979, survived by his wife and children. His funeral service was held in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Parnell. For more than 50 years the Kerridge name had been synonymous with motion picture exhibition in New Zealand, and Kerridge had become one of the country's wealthiest entrepreneurs. In 1987 the Kerridge and Williams family interests were acquired by Pacer Kerridge Corporation, which went into receivership in 1992, by which time less than 20 Kerridge cinemas remained.