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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 23, 2003

Curtain closes on theater relics

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

In its heyday, the Waikiki Theatre was the state's top entertainment destination, and a historic pipe organ was its centerpiece.

To comment

To comment on the Robertson Properties draft environmental assessment to put up a new retail building on the site of the former Waikiki Theatre III, write to: Robertson Properties Group, 120 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048, ATTN.: Tim Kolvoord.

Include three copies for the city, the consultant PlanPacific Inc., and the Office of Environmental Quality Control.

The deadline for comments is Dec. 8.

Now that the building's owner, Consolidated Amusement Co., has announced plans to tear down the structure and replace it with a three-story retail and restaurant center, residents wonder what, if anything, from the 1936 showplace can be saved.

For decades residents and tourists were treated to pre-show and intermission organ concerts and even an accompanying chorus of usherettes dressed in white slacks and blouses wearing red sashes and feather lei at the theater.

"The Waikiki was the most beautiful theater in Hawai'i," said theater historian Lowell Angell. "There was nothing else like it in the U.S. as it was a tropical themed, art deco and art moderne theater."

Tonia Moy, architect historian with the state Historic Preservation Division, said the building was never listed as a historic site even through an application was once filed. The building was renovated in the early 1980s before it turned 50 years old and became eligible for historic status. Many of the original features including the water fountain and lanai in front and the imitation palm and banana trees inside were removed and retail shops were added onto the landmark building fronting Kalakaua Avenue.

It's clear that the famed pipe organ will not survive intact, but will be used to help other organs play on.

The pipe organ was built by Robert-Morton Pipe Organ Co. and moved from the Hawai'i Theatre downtown where it was installed to the Waikiki Theatre in 1938.

The organ has four keyboards and more than 1,000 pipes ranging in length from several inches to 16 feet.

The hope had been to save it by either sending it to the Palace Theatre in Hilo or returning it to the Hawai'i Theatre, but the organ ended up being split between the two.

After Consolidated's Waikiki I, II, and III theaters on Kalakaua and Seaside avenues closed last year, the organ console was shipped off to the Palace Theatre. The pipes were expected to follow, but the deal fell through. The pipes were then removed from the building and are now stored in a warehouse.

The organ from the Princess Theatre, which was torn down in 1969, was moved to the Hawai'i Theatre by Angell and a group of friends to make sure it was saved. Ryan Sueoka, assistant to the Hawai'i Theatre manager, said the Waikiki Theatre pipes will now be use for replacement parts as needed.

"The pipes are kind of a white elephant," Angell said. "The Hawai'i Theatre was offered it and decided to use parts of it to augment what they have already."

An original lobby mural depicting transportation in Hawai'i from outrigger canoes to China clippers could not be saved because it was painted on an asbestos-backed material. Five art deco metal grills from the front of the building and the faux leather doors leading into the theater from the lobby were salvaged, but little else.

The Robertson Properties Group filed a draft environmental assessment this month with the state Office of Environmental Quality Control detailing plans for its Waikiki properties.

Robertson Properties is an offshoot of Consolidated's California-based parent Pacific Theatres Corp. devoted to redeveloping the company's aging movie theaters.

The company plans to renovate and lease the vacant Waikiki I and II theaters on Seaside Avenue to a large retailer. The new building will be on the Waikiki III site, with construction expected to begin next spring for a late 2004 or early 2005 opening.

The 435-stall parking structure will remain available for employee and customer parking for all three parcels.

The city granted a demolition permit for the theater in March, according to the environmental assessment.

Mark Bratton, vice president with local real-estate firm Colliers Monroe Friedlander, said agreements are already in place for a majority of the space in the new building, which will target a west-bound customer mix rather than the high-end Japanese market.

The construction cost is estimated at $6.7 million for the new building.

Waikiki resident and area neighborhood board member Jeff Apaka said the demolition came as a surprise to him, and he considers it a mistake.

"It belongs to the people of Hawai'i," said Apaka, who was raised in Waikiki. "This historic theater provided an important cultural and entertainment venue. It was where we all went to see the films from the Mainland."

Apaka acknowledged that with the interior already gutted and much of the historic items gone, saving the building is next to impossible.

"They should at least keep the facade of the original theater house," he said. "We need to leave the few remaining historic things in Waikiki in place."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.