Behind the Velvet Curtain

Around for more than 80 years, ‘Iao Theater is one of Maui’s hidden gems.

Text by Sarah Ruppenthal, images courtesy of ‘Iao Theater

It may be a tired cliché, but there are certain places where you’ll find yourself transported back in time.  Maui’s ‘Iao Theater is one of those places.  Located at the mouth of the lush ‘Iao Valley, in the heart of downtown Wailuku, the 390-seat historic theatre is reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour, from its opulent interior treatments to its distinctive Spanish Mission-style façade and marquee.

Built in 1928 for $40,000, the ’Iao Theater first opened its doors to a capacity crowd for the premiere of the silent film, Sporting Goods, and overnight, it became the entertainment centerpiece of the community.  The popular venue was not just a movie house; it also featured live stage acts and vaudeville, as well as guest appearances by legendary performers such as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Donald O’Conner and Mickey Rooney.

The theater took center stage and made headlines when it hosted the Hawaiian premiere of From Here to Eternity in 1953, and once again in 1973, when the debut of the X-rated film Deep Throat landed the theatre manager in “deep” trouble – he was escorted from the theater in a pair of handcuffs.  But, much like other turn-of-the-century movie palaces (including Honolulu’s Varsity Theater, which was razed in 2008), the aging ‘Iao Theater fell into disrepair during the 1980s.

Iao Theater in 1940
Iao Theater in 1940

When word got out that it had been targeted for demolition, residents rallied to prevent the final curtain from falling, and their determination paid off in more ways than one.  In 1993, the County of Maui purchased the building (for a price tag that far exceeded $40,000), and after a multi-million dollar restoration, the iconic theater once again took its place in the limelight.

Soon after, the theater earned a spot on the State Register of Historic Places, where it is noted as the oldest theater building in Hawai’i, and it was landmarked by the U.S. Department of the Interior and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the ‘Iao Theater is not only a reincarnation of Hollywood’s Gilded Age, but also a center of performing arts outfitted with modern accoutrements.  Maui OnStage (MOS), a community-based theatrical organization, has taken up residence in the theater. It is also rumored that MOS shares the space with two active theater ghosts–paranormal investigators paid a visit to the venue in 2012 for an episode of Haunted Collector, which aired on the SyFy Channel. But the best way to find out is see for yourself!

MOS’s 2014-2015 season productions include Wait Until Dark (September 26-October 5), The Trial of Goldilocks (October 18, 19, 25, 26), Elf (November 28-December 14), Annie Get Your Gun (March 6-22), Brighton Beach Memoirs (April 24-May 10), and The Adams Family (July 10-August 2).  There are other events as well, such as free events held every second Monday of every month, a Good Morning Vietnam tribute and film screening by the Mental Health Kokua (September 12), a Fall Inaugural Concern of “Outdoor” Music by the Maui Chamber Orchestra (October 10, 12), and the fifth annual Maui Fringe Theater Festival (January 23-25).

MOS says in intends to further rehabilitate the ‘Iao Theater so that its legacy will carry on for generations to come.  And that’s a good thing, because as they say, the show must go on.

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