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Hawaii Theater reconstruction complete

Restored, classic theater just around corner from HPU

by Patrick Parsons, staff writer


Less than two blocks from the modern classrooms and high-tech computer labs of HPU is an antique: one of the state’s most beautiful and ornate venues, the Hawai‘i Theatre. When it opened in 1922, the Hawai‘i Theatre was state-of-the-art and equipped to showcase both live performances and the then-novel phenomenon, at least in Hawai‘i, known as cinema. Now listed on the National Historic Register, the theatre is in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar renovation that has restored the luster and opulence of its original design.


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, but also 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 in 1996.

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 numbers.

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 The box office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.


2004, Kalamalama, the HPU Student Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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