Quote Unquote: Hawai‘i Theatre’s Sarah Richards Takes Her Final Bow as President

After 25 years presiding over the Hawai‘i Theatre, Sarah Richards took her final bow as president in June. Here, she looks back at the years she spent rebuilding the historic landmark, her ongoing vision for Chinatown and the friendly ghost who’s been along for the ride.
Sarah Richards

I’M READY TO RETIRE. I love Hawai‘i Theatre and I’ll always want it to prosper. It’s always hard to leave something you love, and I am certainly going to miss it, but it’s time.


I WON’T MISS the relentlessness of fundraising. It’s constant, hard work. You bear the responsibility for a very long time, and now I won’t have to think about it every minute of every day.


BEING SUCCESSFUL in raising $32 million for the restoration of the theater as the historic Hawai‘i Theatre was certainly rewarding. The opening in August 1996 was a big—big—moment. When we opened, we had the color guard, an orchestra, choirs … and the Hawai‘i Opera Chorus sang an excerpt from Puccini’s Turandot. The song says, may the emperor live 10,000 years, but we changed it to say, may the building live 10,000 years. 


WHAT REALLY STANDS OUT to me is the wonderful variety of performances at the theater. Everything from “Stomp!” and “Slava’s Snow Show,” to “A Cazimero Christmas” to David Sedaris to Jack Johnson, Jake Shimabukuro and Eddie Vedder.


I LOVED so many of the performances, but “Merry Christmas with Friends and Nabors,” with Jim Nabors, was always one of my favorites. And any of the Joe Moore productions.


HAWAI‘I THEATRE DOES have a ghost. I haven’t met him, but other people have. He—it’s a he—appears backstage, and we call him Phan-Tom. I’m told he’s a friendly ghost and so far he hasn’t caused any trouble, though people are definitely aware of his presence—he moves things around, he makes noises. It doesn’t happen all the time, but some performers are more sensitive to Mr. Phan-Tom.


AND THEN there was Ophelia. She was our theater cat. She was found in the theater before we started construction, and we kept her in our office. She slept in the well of the printer to keep warm. On the weekends she would sit in the picture window facing the street, and people would come to visit her.


THE THEATRE ACTUALLY used to be the call center for the Chinatown prostitute ring. There was a payphone on the Pauahi side of our building where they would make their calls.


THE HAWAI‘I THEATRE is about more than just restoring a beautiful historic theater, it was about invigorating and improving the whole Downtown-Chinatown district, and I think we’ve done a great deal in that regard.


THE KAKA‘AKO DEVELOPMENT is quite different from what we’re doing in Chinatown. I don’t see it as a threat at all. Chinatown’s cultural history and diversity make it unique and unforgettable. We’re not about condos. We’re about preserving a sense of place.


BEFORE LEAVING, I wish I could have come to an agreement with the city for Hawai‘i Theatre to lease Chinatown Gateway Park next to the theater. We would love to take it over. We could clean it up and maintain it, and they wouldn’t have to worry about it. We’ve already had some early conversations about it with the city, so I hope they pursue that in my absence.