Theaters of Hawaii
A new book takes us to the movies—and back in time.
Honolulu Theatre: A well-dressed crowd waits to get into the Honolulu-za for a Japanese film, probably in the late 1930s or 1940s, while a policeman keeps order. Long before the age of television and videotape, this was the only way one could see such films.
A new picture book, Theatres of Hawaii, celebrates the theaters that have come and gone, with hundreds of photos of theaters on every island, from the time of the monarchy to the 1964 construction of the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall. A few of these theaters still stand, but most are just memories, and the images conjure a time when going to the movies or seeing a show felt glamorous. Here we present just a fraction of the photos and captions on offer. Every page seems to hold a revelation of some kind: This is what our neighborhoods once looked like. This is the kind of show we’d see. This is how we used to dress to go out.
Author Lowell Angell certainly knows his stuff. This Honolulu resident was cofounder and past president of the Hawaii Theatre Center, is secretary of the Theatre Historical Society of America and a director of Honolulu’s Friends of the Queen Theatre. We reached him on the road by email to learn more.
How did this book come about?
I’ve been researching Hawaii’s theaters and collecting material on them since I was a teenager in the 1960s. While I’ve frequently given lectures on theaters, I’ve been encouraged to do a book for a long time and I finally decided to do so in a format that will hopefully appeal to many.
What was the hardest thing about the project?
Selecting the 210 photos and illustrations. I started with more than 500 and, of course, couldn’t include them all. Once I had decided to organize the book chronologically, I decided which theaters I wanted to feature prominently and the rest evolved. There were a great many theaters I had to leave out—Hawaii has had more than 400 theatres since 1847—but hopefully they can be included in a future book.
Why historic theaters? Was there a moment or experience in your life where you realized that this was something that meant a lot to you?
I grew up hearing how my mother and aunts danced on the stages of the Hawaii and Princess theaters as young girls in the mid-1920s and that fired my curiosity. Theaters are unlike any other building. Long before we had radio or TV, they were where people went to be entertained. I believe theaters have ghosts or spirits—although not necessarily literal ones—of all those who’ve performed on the stage or screen or sat in the audience to be entertained, to laugh or cry. Theaters are an important part of our popular culture, our past and how we lived.
You were a co-founder of the Hawaii Theatre Foundation. How did you get involved? What do you think of how things have turned out for that theater?
I first became involved with the Hawaii Theatre in 1969 when a group of us, who were organ buffs, moved the pipe organ there from the Princess Theatre a couple blocks away, just before the Princess was demolished as part of urban renewal. At that time, the Hawaii Theatre was still going strong as a second-run movie venue. My first recollection of being in a theatre, in fact, was at the Hawaii in 1956 for my 9th birthday. The movie was Forbidden Planet and we sat in the balcony. I remember being as interested in the theater as in the film.
I was one of the co-founders and second president of the group formed to save the Hawaii Theatre in 1984. Several of us involved knew Consolidated Amusement’s lease was expiring and we realized we needed to make sure the theatre didn’t get demolished. We formed a nonprofit organization and worked with the owners, Bishop Estate, to “buy some time” until we could get organized. They also wanted to see the theatre saved and were very cooperative. The first major donation was from artist Ramsay and her husband Dr. Norman Goldstein. It took a lot of time and effort—not to mention money—on the part of many people and organizations, but today all can enjoy this 1922 neo-classical gem.
Overall it came out well and is a place we can all take pride in. Many cities have lost all their historic theaters, so we are very fortunate in Honolulu.
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.