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90 Years of Opening Nights

Diamond Head Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary season, a milestone for the oldest continuously operating theater in the Islands


Diana Poteet remembers attending her first Diamond Head Theatre production in the mid-'50s. She was a 15-year-old junior at Punahou, who'd just moved to the Islands from San Francisco. Of course, the theatrical troupe went by another name at the time, Honolulu Community Theatre. And the Makapu'u Avenue locale where the group performed was known only as Fort Ruger Theater.

DHT’s production of Chicago, 2002. Photo Jessica Dickinson.

"When I came to Hawai'i, there was nothing else-no Mänoa Valley Theatre, no Blaisdell-so when you went out, you went to Diamond Head," Poteet says. "On opening night, the ladies hauled out their furs and the men wore suits. It was the event, the place to go and be seen.

Since then, DHT has become a family affair for Poteet, who's now 64. Her mother, Vernice Dalen, volunteered there soon after the family relocated to Hawai'i. Now 92 year old, Dalen still attends shows each season. Poteet sells drinks and snacks at the concession stand during intermissions. Her daughter, Kathy Waracka, served as an usher while in high school. Poteet's granddaughters-Jessica, Esmay and Brittany Waracka, ages 21, 17 and 15, respectively-now volunteer, as well.

How has DHT managed to keep four generations coming back season after season?

"Its productions are just wonderful, for all ages," Poteet says. "Diamond Head Theatre is a part of Hawai'i that has not changed since the first time I walked through the door. It still has that old Hawaiiana charm. I think people still go back there today for that same special feeling."

Left: Bette Midler (left) in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Right: Wonderful Town, 1958.Photos Courtesy Diamond Head Theatre

This fall, Diamond Head Theatre kicked off its 90th-anniversary season, a milestone for Hawai'i's oldest continuously operating community theater. DHT is known for its quality productions, winning more Po'okela Awards (Hawai'i's version of the Tony's) in the past 10 years than any other theater troupe.

DHT doesn't do experimental theater. The 2004 to 2005 season brings a mix of productions to Diamond Head, all aimed at the greatest possible audience. There are comedies-Twentieth Century and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum-as well as classics, such as Seussical, filled with characters from Dr. Seuss stories, and The Fantasticks, the world's longest running musical. Beauty and the Beast caps off the season, making DHT one of the first community theaters in the country to obtain the rights to this Disney production.
Left: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 2003. Right: Follies, 2003 Photo: Brad Goda

Diamond Head's 90-year history is as diverse as the season's offerings. The organization started in 1915 as a theatrical group called The Footlights, which included some of Honolulu's most prominent residents-Will Lewers, Gerrit Wilder and Mrs. Walter F. Dillingham. The Footlights' first show was The Amazons. The group formalized into Honolulu Community Theatre in 1934.

For its first 37 years of operation, the group was nomadic, staging performances at more than a dozen venues-among them, the Honolulu Opera House, Hawai'i Theatre and Central Union Church-before finding a home at Fort Ruger Theater in 1952. Even during World War II, the group continued to entertain Islanders and military troops alike.

Hedwig Trapp, center, of the original Trapp Family Singers, consulted with the young cast of The Sound of Music, 1961

"Many community theaters shut down during World War II, and that's why Diamond Head is the third-oldest continuously operating community theater in the country," says managing director Deena Dray. "Our success is because of our size and our history."

The Honolulu Police Department issued night passes like these during World War II, allowing residents to stay out past curfew to attend DHT productions.

While Hawai'i residents have long enjoyed the entertainment they've seen onstage, few realize that there's another, even more frenetic show going on behind the scenes. Plans for each production start about two years before its opening night. That's when artistic director John Rampage consults with DHT's artistic committee, composed of members of the board, and figures out the season's schedule. They select six theatrical productions, including five musicals, usually with proven box-office appeal. When securing rights to these productions, DHT must promise royalty houses that it will not alter their scripts, even if a joke falls flat or a certain line has become archaic.

The theater stayed open during World War II, even when many American theaters shut down. One wartime production was aptly named the Blackout Revue.

Once the script is in hand, Rampage assembles a team of artists and technicians to bring the production to life-a director, a choreographer and set designers. In-house technical director Patrick Kelly, lighting designer Dawn Oshima and costume manager Karen Wolfe work their magic. Props (everything from weapons to plates of food) and sound effects (ringing doorbells, train whistles, you name it) are created, with attention to the time and setting of the production.

"It's an amazing thing," Dray says. "Most people in the audience don't realize that all of these elements are thought through and worked on. The crew is really meticulous about taking you to the place by the lighting, the set, the sound, that you almost become part of the production. You just get sucked in."

Six weeks before opening night, DHT holds open auditions. The theater welcomes new talent. After all, some talents who have gone to Hollywood and on Broadway were once amateurs themselves, performing in their first Diamond Head production-Bette Midler, Northern Exposure's Rob Morrow, Footloose screenwriter Dean Pitchford, Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum and Georgia Engel of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

But it's not only wannabe-stars who try out, Dray says. "The door's open to everyone. This is not a theater of professionals, it's a community theater. A lot of people who sing in the shower, sing karaoke, think, 'I could never do that.' But some people can. And it's exciting to be on stage."

Newcomers register for tryouts at the Honolulu Community Theatre, the former name for DHT, 1950s.

The cast is mainly made up of folks with day jobs-doctors, school administrators, students-who love to sing and dance. Cast members rehearse six days a week, all culminating in what they call Hell Week, the days leading up to opening night.

Of course, that's when the rest of us get to sit back in our chairs and simply enjoy the show.


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Honolulu Magazine June 2019
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