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Hawaii Theatre at 99: The historic landmark has proven (again and again) it has a knack for survival

Published: Nov. 15, 2021 at 10:39 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2021 at 12:18 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After nearly two years of shutdowns and restrictions that left Hawaii Theatre sitting in a state of purgatory, the historic building is on the verge of turning 100 years old with something to really celebrate.

For the first time since March 2020, the theatre in early November marked a huge milestone: its first concert with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra performing in front of an actual live audience — a long-awaited and hopeful turning point for the theatre.

“It’s a real chicken skin moment to be able to sit in the seat, have the live music coming out at us this direction, and hearing the musicians rehearsing, preparing to give people their first experience of live music indoors in a large venue in 20 months,” said Gregory Dunn, president and CEO of Hawaii Theatre.

The pandemic, Dunn said, was undoubtedly one of the toughest periods to date in its nearly century-long history. But it’s also a mere “moment in time” as it marks its centennial the way it marked its birth. From the Spanish flu of 1918 to a painstaking effort to save the structure from demolition to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s all part of the story that keeps Hawaii Theatre alive.

“With a historic structure like this, a historic building, particularly a theater, it really comes down to the community,” Dunn said. “Does the community want this to exist?”

Hawaii Theatre’s storied past dates back to 1915, when the owners of Consolidated Amusement, the islands’ largest theater chain, sought to build a large-scale venue for vaudevilles, plays, musicals, silent films and other forms of entertainment.

“They had conceptualized a ‘Pride of the Pacific,’ the grand show palace that Hawaii was lacking at the time, and so they set out in hiring a team of people to find out how they could bring the greatest Broadway show palaces to Hawaii,” Dunn said.

Drawing inspiration from trips to New York City, architects developed a 1,800-seat theater in Chinatown modeled after a much larger, 8,000-seat theater in Manhattan.

In September 1922, the Hawaii Theatre officially opened.

But it wasn’t an easy process. In an ironic twist, construction had actually been pushed back a few years due to the Spanish Flu of 1918, the deadliest pandemic in American history at the time.

Dunn compares that situation to what happened with the coronavirus pandemic — which has now surpassed the Spanish Flu as the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history — and being stalled for a few years.

“Knowing that the theater survived at its inception through as challenging of a period really gives us hope that we will continue to survive, and we’ll continue to be here for the people of the state of Hawaii,” Dunn said.

Initially, the theater was more about vaudeville performances and a movie show house, Dunn said, but it slowly transitioned to primarily a movie theater for the next few decades — while also operating throughout major societal events in history, including World War II and the subsequent economic toll.

It also entered a darker period in the 1960s and 1980s, when the seedy nature of Chinatown — replete with prostitution and drug trafficking — and an overall shift in entertainment consumption habits drove people away.

The building, too, began to physically fall into disrepair. In the 1970s and 80s, as the roof started to give way, severe weather dealt another blow, damaging a large mural and proscenium arch inside the theater. It was in such bad shape that Consolidated Amusement decided not to renew its lease, allowing the theater to close in 1984.

The land itself was leased fee from Kamehameha Schools, who had intended to demolish the theater and put up a parking lot or construct a larger building, according to Dunn. At the same time, other theaters around the state were being torn down and repurposed.

“A group of community activists and volunteers had gotten together and said, ‘we want to save the Hawaii Theatre,’” Dunn said, adding that the volunteers raised the initial sum of money, secured an agreement with Kamehameha Schools to purchase the theater and underlying fee interest. They then began a massive campaign, raising $32 million to save the theater.

The theater is now owned and run by the nonprofit Hawaii Theatre Center. As part of the conversion, it was designated as a national historic property, preserving many of the historically significant features of the architecture — from the fine detail of the tiny maile leaves (reminiscent of Greek-style headdresses) adorning the proscenium arch to a large canvas mural of dancing figures overlooking the audience to the theater’s 1921 Robert Morton pipe organ.

That’s not to say the theater hadn’t changed over time.

In 1996, the newly renovated theater reopened with 1,450 seats. While the original layout could fit 1,800 seats, people were much smaller back then, Dunn says.

Nearly a decade later, Hawaii Theatre underwent another restoration project, with improvements to the facade and installation of newly created replicas of an art deco-style neon marquee, computerized LED signage and the iconic “HAWAII” vertical neon sign — all while maintaining the historic character of the building and reflecting the culture and community of Hawaii.

Dunn said being run by a nonprofit comes with its challenges, particularly financial. The Hawaii Theatre relies on grants, donations and revenue from ticketing, concessions and other fees to operate.

“We don’t receive large amounts of capital funding from the City and County of Honolulu to maintain the venue like you see with Blaisdell,” Dunn said. “What you see here is truly a result of the community coming together and saying, ‘we feel it’s important to have a historic showplace that is of Hawaii and brings people back to the culture and arts of the community.’”

Construction of the Hawaii Theatre was delayed due to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
Construction of the Hawaii Theatre was delayed due to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.(Hawaii News Now)

In the days leading up to the pandemic, Hawaii Theatre had a staff of 53 employees. But after the first shutdown, the theater had to eventually lay off all but three people. Those employees were tasked with maintaining the theater, keeping accounting and the box office running, and rescheduling the dozens of shows it had planned for the rest of the year.

“On the flip side of the coin then, we have the financial reality that this is a very expensive facility to just exist,” Dunn said.

He estimates the monthly budget for electrical — to keep the air conditioning running to keep the mold growth and mildew out — is $30 to $40,000 alone and then an additional $100,000 to maintain the theater.

Before COVID, the theater was on track for a $6 million year in revenue for 2020, embarking on an aggressive program to bring in larger headliner acts. Instead, it ended the fiscal year at around $1.9 million.

Dunn projects just $1.2 million for this fiscal year.

Like many other venues, Hawaii Theatre pivoted to producing live stream content, partnering with dozens of artists and vendors — like Makaha Sons and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra — and providing more than 250 broadcasts.

Though it was less than ideal, one silver lining of live streams: being able to showcase content with millions of people watching led to contributions pouring in from all over the globe.

“The way we’ve been able to survive over the last 18 months is through the generosity of the community, people providing generous donations to us, regularly supporting our live stream content because as we recognize that the only way the theater would survive, our artists and musicians survive as well.”

The mayor’s latest order easing restrictions for indoor seated entertainment is welcome news for the theater. But it’s still a long road ahead, Dunn said.

With six employees now, it will take some time to staff up to handle full capacity audiences. And without being able to sell food or beverages (except for water), Dunn said that would eliminate some of the surplus revenue that’s normally needed to subsidize operations. But he sees this “incremental” reopening as a step closer to normalcy.

And the move to full capacity audiences will happen soon — in time for Ronny Chieng’s comedy show on Nov. 27. With a sold-out show, the theater already announced a second night.

There’s nothing quite like having a live audience, Dunn said. And that’s something the theater is looking forward to as it begins in-person performances again.

“The analog nature of the sound, the vibrations, the sense of communication between the artist and the audience is something that’s very special and is something you can’t replicate in a live stream or a broadcast,” Dunn said. “So for us, being able to welcome people into the theater, being transported back in time, it’s magical.”

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