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Diamond Head Theatre Celebrates 100 Years of Drama

This year, Diamond Head Theatre celebrates its 100th season. We take a look back on Diamond Head Theatre’s first century... and ahead to the next one.


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Teahouse of the August Moon, 1954.
Photos: Courtesy of Diamond Head Theatre

 

For its 1975 production of The Music Man, Honolulu Community Theatre, now named Diamond Head Theatre, used an actual horse to pull a Wells Fargo wagon onto the stage. During one performance, the horse escaped from its outdoor pen and missed its cue, leaving the job of hauling the wagon to some child actors. The horse was later found at Queen Kapiolani Garden, three-quarters of a mile away, eating roses.

 

“That was the last time we ever used a real horse,” says John Rampage, who had a part in that production of The Music Man and is now the theater’s artistic director.

 

This year marks the beginning of Diamond Head Theatre’s 100th season. And while the organization has changed in many ways since its inception in 1915, one thing has remained constant: It has been a powerful magnet for local audiences and talent alike (with the exception of that horse).

 

In recognition of the centennial, HONOLULU Magazine offers a sweeping look at Diamond Head Theatre’s evolution, the stars who have stood before its footlights, and where it is headed as it enters its second century of drama.

 

The Mikado, 1935.

 

EVOLUTION

Before Honolulu’s oldest community theater was a community theater, it was a private club of 25 well-to-do white women, who called themselves The Footlights. Membership was not open to men until 1920, although from the beginning men were welcomed as actors, stagehands and even directors. The Footlights grew out of an earlier women’s group, the Honolulu Dramatic Club, which formed in the early 1880s. Members of the Dramatic Club, who met to read plays in each other’s homes, showed no interest in entertaining the community. The Footlights aimed to take the dramatic arts out of Honolulu’s private parlors and put them onstage, for audiences to enjoy.

 

Their first production was The Amazons, a romantic farce by the popular British playwright Sir Arthur Pinero. The following year, in honor of the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, they performed The Taming of the Shrew, promoting the show with the sale of kewpie dolls dressed in Shakespearean costume.

 

Shakespeare was an anomaly. The Footlights focused mostly on contemporary works. They were especially fond of farce, satire and the comedy of manners. The members were high-society types, but their tastes were hardly stuffy. One 1917 show comprised three short comedies,  About Women, Eugenically Speaking and The Twelve-Pound Look. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin described them as “Three playlets in which sex discussion plays a large part,” adding they were “given with commendable success.”

 

The Footlights kept up the light-hearted fare through the Great Depression, but despite its well-heeled membership the organization fell deep into debt. In 1934, the private club decided it needed a new model, one with a full-time director and membership open to the entire community. The reorganization brought a new name, the Honolulu Community Theatre.

 

“Originally, they were very high society,” says Mary Calantoc, Diamond Head Theatre’s special projects manager. “In 1934 they went from that, from being in their own circle and pretty much staying there, to being a true community theater.”

 

The first production of Honolulu Community Theatre was Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic comic operetta The Mikado, with auditions open to all. The cast was so large, there weren’t enough copies of the score to go around, and the newspapers asked everyone with copies of The Mikado to please loan them to the theater.

 

The Mikado was a more democratic and a more musical production than the theater had done up to that point. Today, musicals dominate Diamond Head Theatre’s schedule, and “We look to The Mikado as our first musical,” says Rampage. “Although technically it was an operetta.”

 

Unlike most other community theaters, Honolulu Community Theatre did not shut down when the United States entered World War II. Instead, it got busier. Working under the auspices of the U.S.O., the theater did its part to entertain troops, producing 14 plays during four years of war. Cast and crew traveled to performances and rehearsals with Army-issued passes permitting them to be out after the curfew. Nine of the productions toured military bases throughout the Pacific. The theater’s war effort helped it win bragging rights as the third oldest, continuously running community theater in the United States.

 

Military themes lingered in many of the plays produced in the years just after the war, including The 49th State Revue, a musical comedy which incorrectly assumed Hawaii would beat Alaska into the Union. As Hawaii settled into the peacetime prosperity of the 1950s, the theater’s ongoing embrace of Broadway musicals began. The first was Brigadoon, in 1952. It starred a young lawyer named William F. Quinn, who later became the state of Hawaii’s first elected governor (and later the first incumbent to not win re-election).

 

Because Hawaii’s remoteness keeps it off the regular circuit of touring Broadway shows, the theater routinely gets the rights to produce plays long before community theaters on the Mainland.

 

In the 1940s and 1950s, the theater’s informal slogan was, “If you’re unable to get a ticket on Broadway, see it at Honolulu Community Theatre!” In 1961, when the theater produced The Sound of Music, the original show was still running on Broadway.

 

The theater’s identity as a musical house solidified through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with Broadway musicals increasingly filling up the seasons and growing in scope and technical complexity. The theater entered the 1990s resolved to step up the quality of its productions. Its professional makeover came with increased emphasis on the acting, voice and dance classes it offered for children. It also came with a new name, Diamond Head Theatre.

 

Diamond Head Theatre proved to be a commercially nimble outfit. In 1996 the national touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat imploded in an embezzlement scandal, canceling a scheduled run at the 2,100-seat Blaisdell Concert Hall. Diamond Head Theatre scrambled to produce the play itself, cashing in on the buzz the show had created. A children’s chorus created specifically for that play morphed into the Shooting Stars, the theater’s advanced children’s performing group, which continues today.

 

In the 21st century, Diamond Head Theatre has become even more of a musical house than ever before, with big Broadway musicals accounting for five of the six shows on its annual calendar.

 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1964, featuring a teenage Bette Midler, top left.
 

 

ALUMNI

While the purpose of the theater isn’t to feed talent to Broadway and Hollywood, more than a few alumni have gone on to distinguished show biz careers. The most famous is probably Bette Midler. She appeared in two Honolulu Community Theatre productions in the 1960s, while she was a student at UH. In Show Boat, Midler had a small part in the chorus, where she angered the director by stealing the scene from the lead actress, Emma Veary. “I hesitate to say she was making faces in the background,” says Rampage, “but she was pulling focus—that’s what we call it. And she was fired.” However, the director quickly rehired her, perhaps after considering the difficulty of replacing a cast member while the show was running. Midler’s second show was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in which she had a featured role, where the focus was on her naturally.

 

Among the theater’s illustrious alumni is Maurice Evans, who headed the productions during World War II, then went on to appear in several movies and TV shows. Among his credits is Bewitched, where he played Samantha’s father, the warlock who embellished his entrances and exits with lines from Shakespeare.

 

Ed Kenney, a Broadway actor best known for playing the role of Wang Ta in the original 1958 production of Flower Drum Song (and father of a well-known local chef who shares his name), appeared in several Honolulu Community Theatre productions while he was in high school and on break from college. In the theater’s 1954 production of Oklahoma, Kenney appeared onstage with Georgia Engel, another local teenager who would find celebrity. Engel, who currently appears in the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, landed her first big TV role as ditzy Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

 

Other notables include the composer and screenwriter Dean Pitchford, who is credited with writing some of the songs in the movie Fame and with writing the screenplay for Footloose. Hanging in the lobby of the theater today is a photo of a very young Pitchford as the Artful Dodger in the 1966 production of Oliver. Kevin McCollum, the Broadway producer whose credits include Rent and most recently Motown the Musical, was one of the children in the town scenes of The Music Man in 1975 (it’s not clear if he was one of the stand-ins for the missing horse).

 

Left: Medea, starring award-winning actress Dame Judith Anderson. Right: Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1971.
 

 

VISITING STARS

In addition to nurturing talent, the theater has a history of importing celebrities, or at least enlisting their services if they’re already in town. This tradition stretches back to 1917, when The Footlights presented a lecture by Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic, dramatist and Nobel laureate. Tagore made a brief stop in Honolulu on a sea voyage to the West Coast from Japan. A few hours after Tagore disembarked at Honolulu Harbor, The Footlights had him in the rooftop garden of the Alexander Young Hotel, speaking to a crowd of 450 people.

 

In 1949, Dame Judith Anderson, one of the most celebrated actresses of her day, appeared in a Honolulu Community Theatre production of the Greek tragedy Medea. Anderson, acclaimed for her portrayal of the title character in Medea’s 1947 Broadway production, arrived just a few days before opening night, having sent her husband in advance to audition and rehearse the other actors.

 

The following year, Joe E. Brown, an actor and comedian who won a Tony Award for his touring production of Harvey, brought the show to the Honolulu Community Theatre. Brown played Elwood Dowd, who introduces everyone he meets to his invisible friend, a 6-foot-tall rabbit. When Brown arrived by cruise liner at Honolulu Harbor, he was greeted with a lei made with fresh carrots, healthy snacks for his imaginary co-star.

 

Richard Smart, scion of the Big Island’s Parker Ranch family, became deeply involved with Honolulu Community Theatre after working as an actor on Broadway for several years. In 1987, he recruited an Emmy Award-winning friend, Nanette Fabray, to do the theater’s production of Cactus Flower. Other notable stars who have tread Honolulu Community Theatre’s boards include Tom Selleck, Carol Burnett, Estelle Parsons and Jo Anne Worley.

 

Beauty and the Beast, 2005.

 

INTO THE FUTURE

For its first 37 years, the theater was an itinerant organization that found temporary performance space in more than 25 different halls and theaters, including McKinley High School’s auditorium, Central Union Church, Hawaii Theatre and various Waikiki hotels. During the Footlights era, performances were sometimes held at the homes of the club’s members. Their 1922 production of Lady of the Weeping Willow, a play based on a Japanese legend, was staged in the Japanese garden of Mrs. Walter Dillingham. When the Dillinghams donated money to build Dillingham Hall at Punahou School, they asked that The Footlights have use of the theater there when it was available.

 

In 1952, Honolulu Community Theatre finally settled into a permanent home at Ruger Theater, the old movie house at Fort Ruger, the Army reservation at the foot of Diamond Head. While the 500-seat theater has served the community well over the decades, the building has its limitations. The major one is the lack of a fly loft, the storage space above a stage that allows for quick scene changes—a feature big, modern Broadway musicals take for granted. On top of that, the 81-year-old building has fallen into disrepair.

 

Deena Dray, Diamond Head Theatre’s executive director, says that refurbishing the building and adding a fly loft would cost more than constructing an entirely new facility. “Our theater has outlived its useful life,” she says. Plans are in the works to begin raising about $15 million for the construction of a new facility, with a goal of groundbreaking in roughly five years. The existing theater would stay in operation until the new theater is ready to move into, Dray says. Then the old theater will be razed, and a garden with a historical interpretive walk will take its place.

 

“Theater’s changing, with all the new technology and special effects, and you have to keep up with it so people don’t think you’re old-fashioned and clunky,” Dray says. “You have to keep up with the times.”

 

The theater’s tradition of keeping up with the times stretches back to its beginning. When The Footlights formed in 1915, they were at the forefront of American theater’s “little theater” trend, which saw the creation of dozens of small, non-professional theater groups between 1915 and 1940.

 

The Footlights’ first production, The Amazons, was humorous but not unprovacative. It centered on three sisters, raised by their eccentric mother as boys. One of the sisters is very masculine, one is very feminine and the third falls in between. They become romantically involved with three men, one macho, one effeminate and one French.

 

The play was staged at the Hawaiian Opera House, across from Iolani Palace, where the downtown post office is today. It was a smash success. As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin put it: “The amateurs worked with a smoothness, a technical perfection and a singleness of effort that entirely removed the ‘amateurish’ tinge … ‘The Footlights,’ as this new dramatic society is known, has shone brilliantly on its first appearance. Honolulu will look forward to another illumination.”

 

A century later Honolulu is still looking forward to that next illumination.


Rendering: Courtesy of Urban Works and WKM

 

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