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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, September 7, 2004

'Iao Theater seen as stage for revitalization

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

WAILUKU, Maui — As a teenager in the 1930s, Kanji Wakamatsu couldn't afford tickets to his favorite cowboy and detective movies, so he got a job as an usher at the 'Iao Theater so he could watch for free.

'Iao Theater in Wailuku opened in 1928 and showcased stars such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.

Photos by Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Darla Palmer is the executive director of Maui OnStage, which currently runs 'Iao Theater in Wailuku.
"In those days, that was the only place to go," recalled Wakamatsu, 83, a retired banker whose family has run a fishmarket down the street from the Wailuku theater for the past 80 years or so. "Saturday night was the big thing. There were two shows, at 6:30 and 8, and the front row was always jam-packed."

But the town and its surviving movie palace fell on hard times when Maui's commercial core shifted to Kahului, and it's been several years since Wakamatsu has had a reason to visit 'Iao Theater. Its dilapidated condition — and some say its current management — has prevented fuller use of the facility.

County and business leaders working to revitalize Wailuku town want to change that. The county Office of Economic Development has put out a plea for ideas on how to use 'Iao Theater to draw residents and tourists into the town as part of a larger vision for the area.

Mayor Alan Arakawa said the theater is a significant part of Wailuku's "cultural soul." The building, with its Spanish mission-style architecture, is listed on the state and national registers of historic places as one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the country.

It opened in 1928 and over the years it is said to have hosted such stars as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, who performed at USO shows for military personnel stationed on Maui. The theater also provided a stage for cultural events, dance recitals, beauty pageants, hula shows, community meetings and church gatherings.

The county saved it from the wrecking ball by buying the one-acre Market Street property in 1993, investing $734,000 in partial refurbishment that left much more work to be done. Notably, there is still no air-conditioning.

"I'm surprised people can actually survive in there for hours without any air," said Lynn Araki-Regan, coordinator of the Office of Economic Development.

Araki-Regan said renovation costs would amount to several million dollars, a burden the county is not particularly eager to assume. Any nonprofit organization seeking grants and donations for theater improvements would require a long-term lease as a show of stability, she said.

'Iao Theater highlights

• December 1927: Manuel Paschoal and H.B. Weller break ground for 'Iao Theater, designed by Edward Walsh.

• Aug. 22, 1928: A $40,000, 750-seat theater opens with showing of "Sporting Goods" starring Richard Dix.

• March 30, 1930: First talking film shown, "Rio Rita," a musical comedy based on a Ziegfeld production.

• 1953: Hosts premiere of "From Here to Eternity," a World War II drama filmed in Hawai'i.

• 1973: Showing of X-rated film "Deep Throat" ends with arrest of theater manager.

• November 1984: Maui Community Theater produces Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore" in 'Iao after losing old Kahului Fairgrounds theater to fire.

• July 1993: Maui County buys the theater and one-acre site from Lyons family trust for $882,000.

• June 1994: 'Iao Theater is placed on State Register of Historic Places as the oldest theater building in Hawai'i.

• February 1995: Placed on National Register of Historic Places.

• March 1996: Blessing held to celebrate completion of $734,000 in renovations.

Maui Community Theater, operating under the name Maui OnStage, has held the lease for 'Iao Theater for the past 10 years. The lease expires Sept. 30, and the county has put out a request for proposals for a one-year lease to allow it time to consider a long-term plan for the facility.

Araki-Regan said the theater group has been a "real active partner" in working with the county on repairs and improvements, but that new ideas are being sought "for preserving the structure and historic qualities of the theater and Wailuku town, and maximizing public use of the facility."

Architect Gerald Hiyakumoto, who heads the Maui Redevelopment Agency, which is charged with overseeing Wailuku's renewal, said he would like to see the theater become "a hub for generating more activity and bringing people into town as an attraction or events venue." Now, it is in use mostly at night, he said, and planners want it to play a bigger role in the town's daytime life.

"It's been too limited to Maui OnStage, and in that sense it's not serving its purpose," he said.

Araki-Regan said there has been some concern that letting a theater production company run the 'Iao is a conflict of interest, and that theater productions have been monopolizing the facility and preventing access by other groups.

Maui OnStage executive director Darla Palmer disagrees, saying the theater is available to outside groups on a first-come, first-served basis, and that the building's deficiencies, in particular its lack of air-conditioning, are limiting activities there.

Even with the deficiencies, she said, the theater has been used on a regular basis by any number of groups, including the Maui Academy of Performing Arts, the Judy's Gang dance troupe and the Hawai'i Film Festival. Palmer noted that Maui OnStage cut back its own productions to only four shows this year to open up more time for other users.

She said Maui OnStage has been working closely with the county over the past two years to tackle a lengthy to-do list of repairs using a $200,000 county grant. Improvements have been made to the roof, stairwells, railings, windows and, most recently, to the familiar "'Iao" sign that hangs outside the theater. The group has used at least $50,000 of its own money for equipment upgrades, she said.

"Once the building is fully realized, the available time should go up by 70 percent," Palmer said.

The organization has completed a five-year strategic plan and estimates it would cost a minimum of $2.5 million to renovate and restore the theater, according to Palmer. She said Maui OnStage is up to the fund-raising challenge if it can secure a long-term lease.

A newly formed group called the 'Iao Arts 'Ohana also is vying for the lease. The group is headed by Tim Wolfe, who has performed at the 'Iao and is a former Maui OnStage board member. Wolfe said the theater is "wildly underutilized" and he is critical of Maui OnStage's management.

"Neither the board of directors nor the current administration have enough experience with management of theater operations and long-term capital campaigns to be able to pull off what the county is seeking," he said. "The theater needs a management company rather than a production company."

Araki-Regan said the county is looking for proposals largely to increase daytime use of the 'Iao Theater, perhaps for meetings, as a mini-museum with historical photos and displays, or a live presentation on the history of Wailuku.

"We need another reason for visitors to visit Wailuku," she said.

Palmer said Maui OnStage already is moving in that direction, and obtained exclusive rights to a visitor-oriented film called "Hawai'i, Islands of the Gods" that used to show at a domed theater on Lahaina's Front Street. The organization is in the process of getting equipment to show the movie, she said, and is also talking with a movie-festival group about doing regular film nights at the 'Iao.

Araki-Regan will be accepting conceptual plans for 'Iao Theater use until Nov. 30. She can be reached at (808) 270-7710.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.