Honoka'a People's Theatre:
A Historical Landmark
In 1930, the bustling plantation town of Honokaa was the largest town on the island, outside of Hilo. Honokaa was the recreation and commercial center for plantation workers, ranchers, soldiers, farmers, and the native Hawaiians living along the beautiful and rugged Hamakua coast. The lively town was a multicultural melee due to its strategic location. It acted as a gateway, providing access to the chain of valleys in the North, including the regal Waipio valley, the rolling slopes of Mauna Kea, and the sea.
The western style architecture of the buildings emphasize Honokaa's heritage as a horse town. Annual races were held on the main thoroughfare, Mamane Street, and horse drawn carriages were a popular form of transportation. Some of the best cowboys in the nation honed their skills on these mountain slopes, and competed regularly at the frequent rodeos in town. Honokaa boasted several dozen stores, including the legendary B. Ikeuchi, T. Kaneshiro, Hasegawa and Awong Stores. Along with multiple bakeries, barbers, pool halls and saloons, the town had 3 large theaters, the biggest of which was built in 1930.
The grand dame of Honokaa, the Honokaa Peoples Theatre, was built by Hatsuzo Tanimoto. Tanimoto also constructed other beloved island theatres in Papaaloa, Paauilo, Honomu, and Kona’s Aloha Theatre. Operation and eventual ownership of the People’s Theatre was assumed by his son Christian Yoshimi Tanimoto. The 650 seat movie house was packed regularly, as the height of the silver screen era brought Hollywood glamor and international films to entertain the multicultural audience. Programming also included regular Japanese and Filipino language films. This was the heyday of sugar, and eventually, Hamakua Sugar would be king.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, the golden age of cinema a distant memory, the People’s Theatre struggled to remain afloat. In 1985 Jimmy Carvalho, the theatre’s briefly serving manager, retired. Dr Tawn Keeney, a physician for the sugar plantation, known for making house calls and caring relationships, assumed responsibility for its operation. Peggy Tanimoto, the talented and jovial picture bride wife of Christian Tanimoto, then in her 80s, lived in the apartment upstairs. When circumstances required that Dr. Keeney relinquish his rented home, he moved into the theatre dressing room behind the screen where he stayed for several years until Mrs. Tanimoto’s passing in 1990. Dr. Keeney fondly reminisces how Mrs. Tanimoto every morning would holler down from the Balcony across the auditorium, “Dr. Keeney…Breakfast!”
Upon Mys.Tanimoto’s passing, her two sons were reluctant to return to Honokaa to operate the theatre. Instead, they graciously accepted Dr. Keeney’s offer to assume ownership and continue its operation as a movie theatre. Over the course of the next year, the theatre closed for renovations. The electrical circuits were replaced, the lobby renovated and Dr. Keeney, in a true labor of love, personally painted the entire auditorium in his after hours from clinical work. The two magnificent 35mm projectors, one of which still stands in the lobby, stood side by side and continued their service lighting the screen. Honokaa was the last theatre in the Hawaiian islands to abandon 35mm projection and switch to digital. We are forever grateful to our wonderful projectionists, George Santos, Patrick Paiva, ‘Waipio’ Larry and 'Buzz' Speetjens.
Hamakua Sugar closed its operations with a final harvest in 1995. Honokaa and Hamakua slipped into depression. Many local families shifted reliance towards opportunities available at coastal hotels, or participated in the flourishing tourism and development sectors on the western side of the island. Honokaa stagnated. Movie attendance gradually decreased, paving the way for new opportunities. In this setting the theatre’s potential as a performance space burgeoned. The first five rows of seating (125 seats) were removed to make way for a dance floor and portable stage. Local events such as the Hamakua Music Festival sprang up to inspire, revitalize and entertain the community. The music festival brought world class musicians to the theatre, playing Jazz, Classical, Rock & Roll, Country and Hawaiian music in a benefit for local music education. For its life of 13 years, the festival’s organizers, Dave and Sherry Pettus, put Honokaa People’s Theatre on the map of World Class music venues.
Over that period, one of the brightest spots in Honokaa Community Life was the Honokaa High School music program. Four times per year, the People’s Theatre would host sold out performances from the Jazz Band and Ensemble. The program has been led by Gary Washburn for almost 45 years. Drawing from the abundant talent pool of young, local musicians, Mr. Washburn has created an award winning program that shapes the lives of countless students. The Jazz Band takes yearly tours to the various islands, and was once featured on National Public Radio’s youth music program ‘From The Top’. Mr. Washburn received a Grammy Award for his work as an esteemed music educator.
The People’s Theatre, widely recognized as the cultural heart of Honokaa, is a collaboration of love for more than just the Keeney family. Numerous friends and community members have contributed to make the theatre into what it is now and what it hopes to become. Lanakila Mangauil has perpetuated the Hawaiian cultural roots of Hamakua through his many years of cultural classes and creation of a hula halau with residence at the theatre.
Leo Yoshida, born and raised in Tokyo, loved our little town as he passed through on his way back from studying photography in San Francisco. He stayed and became the theatre projectionist for 6 months. On returning home he wrote a book about his experience called “Honokaa Boy” which became a Japanese best seller. The book went on to become a movie sensation in Japan, and put Honokaa prominently on the Japanese visitor map. Every day multiple Japanese tour vans stopped for their passengers to take a picture of the theatre. The movie is a memorial to his fond relationship with Honokaa’s lively and witty octogenarian seamstress Bea Okamoto, and others in our extended theatre family.
In its early days, the theatre lobby held a popular snack bar which its proprietor, Jiro Kawatachi, eventually moved across Mamane St. as the ‘Sweet Shop’. In more recent years, a lively daytime cafe (now closed) operated in the lobby. It is anticipated that in the near future a snack and food service will again be part of the theatre’s operation. Additionally, an outdoor garden seating area has been developed to serve as part of the theatre’s wonderful potential. This is a future that appears bright, filled with limitless opportunities for the imagination.