Downtown Hilo's Theatres
1.The Gaiety Theater
by Michel Tanouye
2.The Mamo Theater
3. Yamatoza Theater
4. Empire Theater
5. Hilo Theater
6. Palace Theater
7. Kress Cinemas
There have been seven movie theaters in the history of the Downtown Hilo area: the Gaiety, Mamo, Yamatoza (later known as Mooheau), Empire, Hilo, and Palace Theaters and the Kress Cinemas. In the days when there were no televisions, movie theaters were the main source of entertainment. The first movies that came out were silent. Raymond Tanouye, my Dad, remembers paying 5 cents for soda and candy, and 10 cents for popcorn. Mr. Robert Chow remembers that Mickey Mouse shows cost 10 cents at the Palace Theater and matinees cost 15 cents at the Palace and Empire Theaters.
The Gaiety Theater, Hilo's first theater, opened in the early 1900's for the entertainment pleasure of the people of Hilo. It was owned by Adam Baker, the son of the last remaining Royal Governor of the Island of Hawaii. The Gaiety Theater ran mostly American movies. It was located at the present location of the Caravan Town store. The Gaiety Theater closed in 1925.
Mamo Theater started in the 1920's and closed in 1989. It was located on the Puna side of Mamo Street across from the entrance to Downtown KTA. Mamo Theater was owned by Mr. William H. Hill and used to run English, Japanese, and Filipino movies. Between the time the theater closed to the time the building in which it was located was torn down, the Hilo Community Players acquired the property and was planning to renovate the theater. Unfortunately, termite damage took its toll and the roof caved in.
Mrs. Catherine Diama Campainha photographed the razing of the theater on July 9, 1995. Because she grew up in that area and her father's pool hall was located in the same building to the right of the theater, Mamo Theater was special to her. Immediately to the right of the theater was Haraga Store which had a soda fountain, followed by an alley, then Miyao Store, which later became Mrs. Campainha's father's Mamo Pool Hall. To the left of the theater was Martin Barber Shop. Mr. Martin was a Filipino barber who continued to barber until the building was torn down. His shop and the pool hall were favorite hangouts for local Filipino men. To the left of the barber shop was an alley. The businesses that followed in the makai direction were Victory Cafe, Drop Inn, Tokunaga Fish Supply and Ogi Noodle. There was an alley, then Gabriel Barber Shop, Kurohara Tailor, then the entrance to the Yamatoza Theater.
In the old days Mamo Theater used to be called Yura-Kwan, Yura-Kan, or Yukon Theater depending on what nationality you were. The Chinese remember it as Yura-Kwan, the Japanese as Yura-Kan, and those of other nationalities as Yukon. At one time, kabuki actors performed live shows, too, before the movies came out. The actors lived in rooms located on the side of the entrance to the nearby Yamatoza Theater while they were in town.
The Yamatoza Theater was owned by Mr. Abe. It showed only Japanese movies. People who are now in in their sixties remember going to the Yamatoza Theater to watch movies. It was located to the left of the Mamo Theater on Mamo Street. During World War II, the name was changed to Mooheau Theater.
The Empire Theater opened in 1920. The Empire Cafe now occupies the space of the theater entrance. Above the cafe you can see the year 1920 engraved in the front of the building. The owner
was Mr. Miyamoto. Cowboy movies was the Empire Theater's specialty. It closed around 1940 before World War II and the building was used as a 6 lane bowling alley, the first bowling alley on the island. It was a popular hangout during and after the war.
Five years after the Empire Theater opened, the Palace Theater, a huge, beautifully designed theater with a seating capacity of 800, opened its doors at 38 Haili Street. Original features included chandeliers and cane back seats. It was built of redwood and had a stucco facade. Adam Baker was the owner of the Palace Theater. He opened the Palace after the closing of the Gaiety Theater.
The box office was located on left of the three front entrances to the large theater lobby. The snack bar was located on the right. Inside the theater there were choices of three levels of seating. The entrance to the projection room was through the balcony section inside the theater. One of the original projectors is still in working condition and plans are to once again show movies using that projector.
The Palace Theater ran mostly adventure and drama movies. Once a week there were Chinese movies, Japanese movies, and Filipino movies. The Saturday Kids Club and Mickey Mouse Club were also held at the Palace Theater. After leaving the theater on Saturdays, some children walked across the street to Tiny Town to play with the toys.
At the theater ushers dressed in uniform and, carrying dimly lit flashlights, escorted theater goers to their seats. Many of the ushers were of Chinese extraction. Mrs. Alice Lau Estrella, Minnie Aki Mark, and Gladys Chow Cunningham were some of the ushers. When you entered the theater, you were greeted with organ music, which entertained you until the movie started. The first organ player was Alice Blue. The second was Johnny DeMello. Mr. DeMello even invited the audience to sing along. Mr. DeMello taught organ playing, too. His students included Anuhea Brown, Bernice Lum Ho Ah Nee, and Mrs. Ayabe. His students substituted for him when he was unable to do so. After he moved to Honolulu to play organ at the Waikiki Theater, his students, as well as, Rose Kuamoo played the organ. Bernice Lum Ho Ah Nee was the last organ player for the Palace Theater.
Teenaged movie goers in the early 1940's remember watching a movie, then walking down to American Bakery which was located to the right of Kress Store to buy pastries before heading for home.
The Consolidated Amusement Company which had acquired the theater from Mr. Baker decided to close the doors of the Palace Theater in 1981. The Palace Theater has been placed on both the state and national registers of historic places. In 1990 a total restoration of Palace Theater began with the $380,000 that the Hawaii State Legislature provided. The County of Hawaii provided $50,000 to support the restoration efforts. Later, in 1995, the County Council approved an additional $400,000. The restoration is still going on today. When it reopens in Spring, 1997, the theater will be the Big Island's largest theater, providing seating for 700 people. It will be a movie theater as well as a community performing arts center. The Palace Theater is currently owned by the Downtown Improvement Association. It was donated by Consolidated Amusement Company, which owned the theater at the time of its closing. The Historic Palace Theater board of directors are working hard to meet the projected opening date in April. Former state Representative Harvey Tajiri is the chairman of the board and Mrs. Mary Willocks is the Project Manager of the Palace Theater restoration project. Mr. Robert Alder is a volunteer who has put in much time to work on once again providing organ music for theater goers.
Mid-way between the center of Downtown Hilo and the section of Hilo known as Waiakea Town, was a large theater called Hilo Theater. It was located on the makai side of Kamehameha Avenue, across the soccer field which starts on the Hamakua side of the Texaco Service Station. The 1960 tsunami badly damaged the theater and it never reopened its doors. The entire strip of land on which the theater was built as well as the land on the opposite side from Ponahawai Street to Emma Street near the Wailoa River was declared a tsunami zone and no businesses were allowed to be built or rebuilt on the land. This caused businesses including movie theaters to be built on higher ground, away from the threat of another devastating tsunami.
The Consolidated Amusement Company which owned the Hilo Theater then decided to move to the idea of mini-theaters. Because of the movement of businesses away from the Downtown Hilo area, more people began to patronize the mini-theaters located in shopping centers. Slowly, over a twenty year period, this led to smaller and smaller attendance at theaters like the Palace, which eventually let to its closing.
Today, movie goers can once again go to the movies in Downtown Hilo. Between 1989 and the opening of the Kress Cinemas on December 8, 1995, there were no theaters left in the area. Kress Cinemas is a theater complex which follows the same mini-theater idea as the Waiakea and Prince Kuhio Theaters. Movie tickets now cost $4 for adults for matinees to 6 o'clock in the evening and $6 at night. Children's tickets cost $3.50. A soda costs $1.25, candies cost $1.50 each, and popcorn costs $2.00. Hot dogs are sold for $2.25.
I have learned many things while doing research on the theaters. I am grateful to Mr. Robert Chow, Mrs. Catherine Campainha, Mrs. Mary Willocks, and Mr. Robert Alder for the information they shared. I was fortunate to have been taken on a tour of the Palace Theater by Mrs. Willocks and Mr. Alder. My classmates and I appreciate, too, having been able to conduct our project interviews on the stage of the theater. I have learned a lot about our town's heritage and enjoyed researching this part of our class project.