Inside HONOLULU: The Unexpected Twists of a Night Photo Shoot in Downtown

Taking photos of the Hawai‘i Theatre’s iconic marquee sounded easy until we encountered traffic, tech trouble and a disembodied voice from above.


Photo Gallery of Hawaii Signs Hn2201 Ay Signs Gif 1

Gif: Aaron K. Yoshino


Before we even scheduled the dusk-to-dark photo of the Hawai‘i Theatre marquee, we’d done our homework. I’d coordinated the shoot with the center’s president and CEO Gregory Dunn. Photographer Aaron K. Yoshino researched what time the sun would set, the angle and the weather forecast. Art director Christine Labrador had designed options for the look of the feature story and graphic treatments that we’d sent to the theater. We had a plan.


We met in front of the Hawai‘i Theatre about half an hour before our shoot officially began happy to see each other in person rather than online. We were excited for the creative twist: Our story about the iconic signs of Honolulu would actually begin ON a historic sign—with our headlines splashed across the theater’s dazzling marquee, then printed on a two-page magazine spread.


Usually, pulling together any magazine feature photo shoot easily requires half a dozen more people than we had on our team that evening, and behind-the-scenes logistics that take time and effort for our creative team as well those responsible for the subject of each photo. Dunn, who’s in charge of the century-old center, and theater staffer Ron McDaniel helped us with technical details, planning and even joined us there to help troubleshoot.


When we huddled, Aaron swiftly sized up our first problem: On a weeknight in Downtown Honolulu, cars and trucks filled all the curbside parking spaces across from the marquee, preventing him from getting a clean, wide shot of the entire front of the theater. The vehicles would block or limit the shot if he stayed on the sidewalk behind them, and traffic on Bethel Street prevented him from standing safely in the street for more than a few seconds at a time.


While we mulled that over, we set up a time-lapse video (see above) of our shoot at a corner of Bethel and Pauahi streets. I stuck with the tripod and camera and kept an eye on the video while Aaron and Christine figured out the photos. We stared admiringly up at the lights as the marquee began to scroll our story headlines and our names in lights. And that’s when we saw the next problem—black gaps in the images on the left-side screen: disappointing but workable.


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About the same time, an amplified voice ordered someone to move along, to leave nearby private property. Focused on our work, we weren’t listening too closely to The Voice at first, since it wasn’t aimed at us. But The Voice got louder, and more insistent and more specific: “You need to leave. I see you there. You can’t stay here. This is private property.You must get out now.” We realized it wasn’t a recording but someone using a loudspeaker to chase away trespassers and potential trouble. We’ve interviewed the merchants worn down by frustration and dealing with people sleeping, peeing or pooping in front of their stores. And, sure, most of us have felt unsafe when strangers come too close or emerge from the darkness as we pass by. But the loudspeaker voice was jarring. Aaron aptly described it as dystopian, an unseen authority berating those who don’t belong and prompting everyone within earshot to feel anxious.


As daylight faded, we tried our best to tune out The Voice and returned to fretting about getting the photo we wanted within the hour we had. Then, a bright spot: Two men arriving to work nearby had parked their pickup truck across from the marquee. Seeing what we were doing, they invited Aaron and Christine to hop into the bed of the truck for a better view. And Dunn and McDaniel told us that those gaps on the marquee sometimes disappear as quickly as they show up. Our optimism returned.


Then the marquee screen went blank.


While we gulped, Dunn and McDaniel calmly strolled under the storied marquee and restarted the graphics program, which brought back the images—brighter and clearer than before—WITHOUT any gaps.


Whew! We kept working after thanking the guys with the truck. Some people ignored us or stopped to watch, others strolled back and forth as if they were doing several takes for a street scene in a movie of their lives. Several politely paused to ask us if it was OK to pass before they walked in front of the cameras. After darkness fell on Downtown, we knew we got our photos and began to relax.


See the shot we got on page 46-47 of the February issue of HONOLULU Magazine.


SEE ALSO: Inside HONOLULU: Confessions of a Kailua Resident


Just as we were wrapping up, someone called my name. It was photographer Kim Taylor Reece, who noticed our headlines on the marquee as he headed to dinner. He stopped to find out what was happening. During the pandemic, Reece closed his Hau‘ula gallery, moved his collection online and took on the role of board chairman for the Arts at Marks Garage. He asked us about the shoot, complimented us on the idea and for bringing attention to the 100-year-old theater during a tough time.


While The Voice focused us on troubling social issues that surround us, the cameo appearance by the affable Reece gave us a moment of friendly relief, reminding us of the many good things about our community. We had a chance to admire each other’s work, catch our breath and feel fortunate to live in a town that is both big AND small, where people do help each other and still stop to talk story.



We couldn’t fit all the cool signs we found in the magazine so we created a photo gallery to show you more signs of Honolulu.


Photos by Aaron K. Yoshino