The theatre saw its glory days in pre-war Hawai‘i,
and it began to decline in the post-war era, with fewer and
fewer live stage shows and more movies. The decline was hastened
by the parallel degeneration of the neighborhood, the quality
of the films declined, and the theatre was finally closed and
abandoned in the 1980s.
Originally built to hold more than 1,700 people, the theatre
now holds about 1,400 in new seats that have been situated for
optimal viewing of the stage. In the lower section, raised and
tilted floors at the sides mean that getting a seat at the back
lets you see over the row of heads in front of you.
In the great classic theatres, the venue itself was part of
the total package. The building not only hosted the show,
put on a show of its own that audiences were not likely to experience
in many other cities. To save the Hawai‘i Theatre’s
show, the first part of the restoration focused on the interior
and started with fixing the leaky roof that was destroying the
elaborate decorations on the ceiling and around the stage. That
part of the restoration cost close to $30 million and was completed
The recent restorative work has focused on the exterior, and
by mid-semester, students will get to see the outside of the
theatre in a condition that rivals or surpasses its venue when
it opened its doors Sept. 6, 1922.
Entering the theatre, audiences won’t find the usual snack
stand with buckets of popcorn and hotdogs. As with any class
act, all food and drink must be finished prior to entering the
seating area. The lower lobby area and second floor bar are your
first clue that you aren’t at the local 36-plex mega cinerama
waiting to sit through Hollywood’s latest mindless offering,
and a sixth sequel at that. Passing through the heavy, decorated
doors you’ll find friendly ticket takers to direct you
to the correct entrance, where you’ll be met by truely
old school ushers who know just where you’re sitting. If
you’re really late, they’ll shut you out so as not
to disturb the performance, and let you in only during an opportune
break in the show.
If you’re used to the generic movie theater décor
(does that term even apply to the interior of modern movie theaters?)
the Hawai‘i Theatre will be a feast for your eyes and your
ears. It has a grand pneumatic pipe organ that resonates with
the warmth and old-time sound of silent movies. It has a gilded
and elaborately decorated proscenium arch (the structure that
surrounds the stage opening), complete with a mural and rich
red velvet curtains that hide the show to come.
Sitting back in one of the comfortable new chairs, you’ll
be glad you came early, since there’s so much to look at:
gilded and colonnaded walls, hand-painted embellishments, and
a captivating rotunda overhead. A seemingly dimensionless dome
softly lit from below, the rotunda enhances the space’s
already good acoustics and adds just one more classic touch to
the whole interior experience.
If you’ve got some time between classes and want a sneak
preview of the interior, the theatre has guided tours on Tuesdays
at 11 a.m. for $5, which includes the history of the theatre
as well as a demonstration of its impressive organ. The tour
is a great way to pick out seats for upcoming shows. It sure
beats dragging your finger across a flat seating diagram to B3,
I12, N18, G22, O6, and wondering if those are good seats or bingo
The theatre sits on the block bounded by Bethel and Hotel streets,
Nuuanu Avenue, and Pauahi Lane. The entrance and box office are
on Bethel Street, facing the HPU area, and so close that one
can literally pop over and buy tickets between classes.
It is very close to the border between downtown and Chinatown,
which opens up a whole array of pre- and post-show activities
for attendees. Whatever your budget, you’ll find a selection
of Asian, Pacific Rim, and Hawai‘i regional cuisine to
choose from, as well as open spaces where you can just pass the
time before the show begins.
If you’re a real fan of the artists and performers, you
may get a chance to interact with them and see them out-of-costume
at Indigo, the restaurant that abuts the rear of the theatre,
where many post-show parties are held.
Just a block or two away on the ewa side of the theater, you’ll
find a wide range of restaurants, from the excellent Little Village
Noodle House (try their pan-fried beef and you’ll most
likely go back for more the next day) all the way to the cozy,
upscale Duc’s Bistro where food takes center stage. If
plate lunch is more your style, there are eateries peppered throughout
the neighborhood, all eager to serve up your choice with two-
scoop rice and mac or toss.
Parking is always an issue for HPU students, and the Hawai‘i
Theatre’s location helps minimize that as well. For those
who take the bus, it is easy to hop on any route that passes
on King, Hotel, or Beretania, all within a block or two of the
front doors. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, it is
much easier to find parking around show time when the daytime
crush of students, office workers, and downtown visitors has
largely dissipated. Across Pauahi Lane is Mark’s Garage,
and mauka of it is an open-air parking lot.
So, who plays at the Hawai‘i Theatre? That’s the
real reason to go, right?
The theatre is host to many recurring events such as the Jazz
Festival, the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, stage
plays, and touring musical concerts. You’ll find a wide
range of performers on their calendar, from local musical talent
like Makana and his more modern style to the traditional Hawaiian
slack-key artists, to the popular Jack Johnson who recently had
a show there. Experiencing a performance in such an intimate
space imparts a personal quality to the event.
While you may not make Hawai‘i Theatre a monthly date on
your calendar, it is worth it to attend at least one show this
semester. It won’t be as cheap as hanging out at home with
a rented movie and yesterday’s leftovers, and you will
have to trade your bare feet or slippers for a pair of shoes,
but you’ll remember it more, and you’ll tell more
people about the grand experience you had.
For a list of upcoming events, check the Web site at www.hawaiitheatre.com.
The box office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.