In 1930, the bustling little plantation town of Honokaa was the biggest and most happening town on the island outside of Hilo. Honokaa was the recreational and commercial center for the plantation workers, ranchers, soldiers, farmers, and the native Hawaiians along the beautiful and rugged Hamakua coast. The lively town was a multicultural melee built in a strategic location as a gateway providing access to the chain of valleys to the North, including the regal Waipio valley, the rolling slopes of Mauna Kea, and the sea.
The western style of the buildings belies Honokaa's heritage as horse town, annual races were held on the main thoroughfare, Mamane Street, and horse drawn carriages were the norm. 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 and still operating B. Ikeuchi's and T. Kaneshiro's. Along with mutliple bakeries, barbers, pool halls and saloons, the town had 3 large theatres, the biggest of which was built in that year of 1930. The grand dame of Honokaa, the Honokaa Peoples Theatre, was built by the Tanimoto family, who owned several theatres throughout the island. The 525 seat movie house was packed regularly, as the height of the silver screen era brought Hollywood glamour as well as international films to entertain the multicultural audience, including regular Japanese , Portuguese, Philipino and Spanish language films.
The theatre operated until 1988, when the jovial and committed Mrs. Tanimoto, who lived in the upstairs apartment above the lobby, was in too poor of health to run the theatre. Dr. Tawn Keeney, a local plantation physician, who made a regular habit of house calls and close friendships, began to help Mrs. Tanimoto with duties around the theatre, leading to him eventually purchasing the theatre, moving in to the dressing rooms behind the screen, and the beginning of his painstaking labor of love restoring the building. He personally painted the entire auditorium, and enlisted friends and family to help him with other repairs, including electrical rewiring, reroofing, painting, installation of new film projection equipment, stage and screen repairs, lighting and video projection installations, and much more. The theatre now boasts the largest screen and state of the art DTS surround sound system on the island, as well as a large stage and dance floor for live events.
During this time in the late 80's, early 90's the theatre struggled to remain afloat as the plantation shut down and community life slowed to a stop. The theatre closed for several years as major renovations were taking place. When it reopened, the theatre served as a gathering plance and source of entertainment in a depressed economy, and kept it's prices low so families could avoid the drive to Hilo to see the popular films. Slowly, the town began to revitalize, and local events such as the Hamakua Music Festival sprang up to inspire and entertain the community. The HMF brought in world class musicians to theatre, playing Jazz, Classical, Rock and Roll, Country and Hawaiian music in a benefit for local music education. After putting Honokaa on the map for world class music for over 13 years, the organizers of the festival , Dave and Sherri Pettus, became increasingly committed to other environmental and social causes, and looked to pass the reins of the festival to new volunteers. The festival faltered for over a year without the Pettus' tireless energy, but recently at the end of 2009, the HMF came back strong with another sold out concert by Kealii Reichel to benefit the music education.
The theatre has hosted many events throughout the years, and has come to see the incredible well of talent in our small community and island as a whole. The Hawaiian people are incredibly gifted musicians, and paired with the mix of culture and bloodlines in our various backgrounds as a result of our plantation and ranching history, Honokaa is a wealth of talent. This is overwhelmingly evident at the regularly sold out Honokaa High School and Alumni Talent Shows, and is boosted by the fact that Honokaa High has one of the strongest music programs in the state, thanks to the the incredibly gifted and dedicated Mr. Gary Washburn, the school music teacher and local Jazz musician. Along with various donations from the HMF and other charitable organizations, Mr. Washburn regulary donates his time, muscle and money to take his students touring across the state, and their Jazz Band has recently been featured on National Public Radio's regular youth music radio program "From the Top." Due to the recent budget cuts and furloughed fridays, the school Jazz Band is forced to vacate the school band room and instead practice here at the theatre on Friday mornings. Along with these rockin serenades, the theatre also enjoys the regular practice sessions of a local Hawaiian dance group, Hula Halau o Aloha, who focus on their local heritage of the Hamakua coast and the valley of the kings, Waipio.
The theatre has become a collaboration of love for more than just the Keeney family, numerous members of our friends and families as well community members have contributed to shape the theatre into what is is now and what it hopes to become. Recently the theatre was put into the international spotlight when a close friend of ours (and previous projectionist), Leo Yoshida, wrote a book about his experiences and friendships n our small town of Honokaa and his time as a projectionist at the theatre. The book became a bestseller in Japan, where he lives, , and after going on several talk shows and deciding to get married in our theatre in April of 2008 he sold the rights to Fuji TV, the largest media distributer in Japan. In October of 2008 an international film crew came to our sleepy town to film the adaptation of the story, "Honokaa Boy." What a great pleasure and honor it was for us to receive such attention, and it was a wonderful film! The story highlights the sweet, zany, humourous and heartfelt characters in our town, centering on our hanai (extended) family who help us here at the theatre, the Speetjens (Buzz and Adeli) as well as some of our other hanai family, in particular the late one woman wonder, the witty and energetic Bea Okamoto, the town seamstress. The film showed at the Hawaii International Film Festival and is currently circulating in film festivals around the world, what a riot! Leo moved back to Tokyo where he now runs a shop, Porter Classic, in the fashionable Ginza district where he makes clothing and handbags out of traditional fabrics influenced by their family heritage, and Leo features his creations using the Hawaiian Palaka fabric he discovered in our paniolo (cowboy) town. His shop features numerous photographs of the Big Island and his time here in Honokaa, and is the recent home of on e of our retired 1930 Simplex Projectors from here at the theatre. What a beast, but so beautiful! It's sister is sitting in our lobby for everyone to enjoy, as well as T -shirts and handbags that feature our theatre imagae and a "Honokaa Boy" ticket logo.
Currently the theatre is working on becoming a non-profit and opening a cafe in the lobby, and the hope is to keep the ball rolling on having live events as well as our regular mainstream and art and independent films. We want to serve the community the best we can as a meeting venue and social center, and would like anyone with ideas and energy to drop us a line anytime!