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Theaters of Hawaii

A new book takes us to the movies—and back in time.


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You’re also trying to save Queen Theatre. HONOLULU Magazine and Historic Hawaii Foundation once named that one of Hawaii’s most endangered historic places. Where do things stand with Queen Theatre now?

The Queen Theatre is one of the very few surviving, freestanding neighborhood theaters on Oahu and is in an excellent location, with parking and restaurants nearby. Although closed for many years, it has a great potential for a variety of uses, from films to concerts, plays, community meetings and more.

The owner wants to see it be a gathering place again and we are in the early stages of working to make it happen.

Any thoughts on the current generation of neighborhood movie theaters? They are numerous, showing more movies than ever, with better technology. At the same time, architecturally, they don’t seem as substantial as the grand movie palaces we used to build. Will people ever be nostalgic for, say, the Ward Stadium 16?

Once upon a time, the lobby and auditorium décor was all part of the theater-going experience. A famous theater architect of the 1920s and 30s once said, “The show starts on the sidewalk,” meaning the fantasy experience began as the patron walked in the door. Today it’s all about the technical presentation—superb digital images and incredible sound. The architectural décor is secondary and most people don’t miss it or probably even care. I think most people won’t care when the present megaplexes are replaced with whatever will come next. But there may be some nostalgia for them, just as there is today for drive-ins.

Many of the theaters in your book are long lost. Are there any in particular that you personally miss?

Four come to mind. The theater I miss the most is the Waikiki Theatre, which opened in 1936 on Kalakaua Avenue. It was a tropical Deco masterpiece designed by C.W. Dickey. Although greatly altered in recent decades, it was the most beautiful theater we ever had, with its open landscaped courtyard and fountain, and tropical atmospheric interior, complete with a rainbow-shaped proscenium, flanked by artificial coconut palms and foliage along the walls, and a wonderful pipe organ. It was also unique—nothing like it was ever built anywhere else in the country.

Another I miss is the Toyo, which opened in 1938 on College Walk near Aala Park, also designed by C.W. Dickey. It had a Japanese garden in front, and inside every surface was incredibly, richly decorated in a variety of Asian motifs. It fit so well in the Chinatown area and had so much potential for reuse by many local theater and dance organizations.

I loved the Princess Cinerama on South King Street near Punahou because it had a very large curved screen, comfortable seats and good sightlines. I started going there when it was still the Pawaa, opened in the 1920s. It’s now an auto parts store.

Finally, I miss the 1939 Varsity Theatre on University Avenue, coincidentally also designed by Dickey, and the most recently demolished. It wasn’t particularly beautiful inside or out, although it did have a wonderful neon marquee which was a nighttime beacon in the neighborhood.

What’s next for you?

There is a lot more research still to be done on theaters on all Islands. Hopefully, my book has encouraged more interest in them. I am working on a much more comprehensive history. So much had to be left out of Theatres of Hawaii because of space limitations.

I also want to keep working on the reopening of the Queen Theatre. There’s no question that it will enrich the Kaimuki community.

An important part of the rich history of theaters in Hawaii are the recollections of those who worked in them or attended them. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who’d like to share their memories, stories or memorabilia, including photos. I can be reached at angell@hawaii.edu or theatresofhawaii@mail.com.

Related Links:
Theaters of Hawaii Photography


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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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