On 29 March 1959 American Christian evangelist Billy Graham arrived for an 11-day crusade. His meetings attracted huge crowds which only sports stadiums with grandstands were large enough to accommodate: Carlaw Park in Auckland, Athletic Park in Wellington and Lancaster Park in Christchurch. A songbook distributed during his visit featured a large silver fern on the cover as if to suggest this was the nation’s crusade. It is claimed that Graham preached to more than 300,000 people while here; more than 16,000 publicly committed themselves to follow Jesus.
Concerns that New Zealand was becoming less God-fearing appeared ill-founded if the 1956 census was anything to go by. Fewer than 1% of New Zealanders claimed to have no religious belief. Fast-forward 50 years and Graham might have had more cause for concern. Nearly a third of those who responded to the 2006 census professed no religious belief.
Motor racing attracted huge crowds in the 1950s. The New Zealand Grand Prix regularly attracted the world’s top Formula One drivers. The 1959 race at Ardmore, South Auckland, was no exception. An estimated 80,000 fans turned up to watch two of the greats of Formula One, Briton Stirling Moss and the defending champion, Australian Jack Brabham, fight it out for the chequered flag. Moss won in record time with Brabham in second place. The real hero for local fans that day was the up-and-coming Kiwi driver Bruce McLaren, who finished third with a hand torn and bleeding from the threads on his gear lever. Later that year the 22-year-old McLaren became the youngest Grand Prix winner to date when he won the United States GP in Florida. He held this distinction until 2003.
The Auckland Harbour Bridge, which spans the narrowest part of the Waitematā Harbour between St Marys Bay on the city side and Northcote Point on the North Shore, was opened on 30 May, four years after construction began. The 1002-m-long bridge – the longest in the North Island – rises 43 m above the sea to allow ships access to the port at the Chelsea Sugar Refinery to the west.
The original bridge carried four lanes of traffic. Earlier plans had included a pedestrian walkway and a fifth traffic lane, but these were dropped to cut costs. It was soon clear that the bridge was inadequate for the amount of traffic it was attracting. A Japanese company won the tender to add two lanes on either side, which became known as the ‘Nippon clip-ons’. This project, which included expansion of the approach roads, took three years. The enlarged bridge was opened on 23 September 1969.
The first performance of Bruce Mason’s one-man play, The end of the golden weather, was said to represent the birth of ‘authentic, New Zealand based drama’. Described as a ‘funny, warm and poignant story’ about the changing world of the imaginative 12-year-old Geoff Crome, the play was set on Auckland’s Takapuna Beach during a perfect 1930s New Zealand summer. Crome is a daydreamer with a burning ambition to be a famous writer. In his magical world, anything can happen and miracles seem possible. When Geoff meets Firpo, ‘a battle between fantasy and reality, magic and science, the eternal optimism of the child and the harsh certainty of age takes over’.
Mason would eventually perform the play more than 1000 times.