HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Hilo’s Palace Theater


By Kelly Moran

Hilo’s Palace Theater

Back in the 1920s, going to the movies was a big occasion. People dressed up to see and be seen; they chatted in the lobby, about the latest films, and enjoyed a sense of being guests in a fabulously decorated . . .
well, palace.

The Palace Theater in downtown Hilo, which opened in 1925, is one of only two “picture-palaces” still open in Hawaii. (Honolulu lost its exotic Waikiki Theater to demolition, leaving only the grand Hawaii Theater near Chinatown.) As with other surviving picture-palaces around the country, nowadays, a not-for-profit organization – the Friends of the Palace Theater – is responsible for upkeep and restoration. And like those other theaters, too, the Palace hosts film-festivals and classic movies: on Halloween night, it will screen the 1920 silent “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with live theater-organ accompaniment.

But Hilo’s Palace does much more than just show films: with 450 seats, it’s an important local venue for theatrical presentations, a variety of performing artists, and even community meetings.

Take musicals. For the seventh year in a row, the Palace is presenting a full-scale Broadway-style musical (last year, it was “The Wizard of Oz”), with a huge cast of local actors, including children and teenagers. If you can get to Hilo in the next two weeks, you’ll be able to see “Once Upon One Nodda Time.” It’s a pidgin-inflected musical of fractured fairy-tales, wherein the Three Little Pigs are chased by a huffing-and-puffing mongoose; Snow White gets both a poisoned apple from “The” Wicked Queen and a poisoned papaya from “Da” Wicked Queen; and there’s a croaking chorus of (what else?) cane-toad bufos and coqui frogs.

Performers who make concert appearances on the Palace stage range from Honolulu slack-key stars to internationally renowned classical violinists to world-music percussionists. Every Wednesday at 11 a.m. there’s a 45-minute program of Hawaiiana that’s free for kids. And one evening last month, the Palace hosted a town-meeting on the subject of downtown improvement projects, with real-time opinion polling by electronic touch-pads. (FYI: most people want to see new housing built downtown, and a naturalistic park along the Wailuku River.)

In short, there’s no place in town like the historic Palace Theater. And Hilo is darned lucky to have it.

One Reply to “HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Hilo’s Palace Theater”

  1. Nice blog on Hilo’s classic Palace Theater!
    Back in the early 90’s when I was still single and a junkie for the stage with the Hilo Community Players, I helped to oversee and do a lot of the initial remodeling to get the Palace back in service, after several decades of abandonment. I had worked on repairing the stage, the dressing rooms back stage, and the hand rails in the auditorium. Somewhere I have a momento of the work – a square, handmade nail that I pulled from the stage.
    We (The Players) had a long term lease for the Mamo Theater across the street; but realized that the Mamo wouldn’t like the Phoenix, rise from its ashes; so we took the seats from it, and installed them in the Palace. It was just a year or two later that the Mamo fell to the ground in a windstorm. I then oversaw the creation of the Mamo Farmer’s Market with the big circus tent, and managed it for about a year. But that’s another story.
    I also had Directed one of the first productions in the Palace after it reopened, with a children’s play – “Once Upon a Christmas”.
    The Palace Theater is truely just that – a palace! The interior, with its copius trim and early art deco style, reflect a time when craftsmanship was king, and deserves its place in the national historic register!

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