HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The People’s Theater – a Hamakua gem


By Kelly Moran

The People’s Theater – a Hamakua gem

Quick – what’s the biggest historic theater on the Big Island?  There are several, after all: The Aloha in Kainaliu (built in 1932), with 298 seats?  Downtown Hilo’s Palace (from 1925), with 485 seats?  Getting warmer.  Believe it or not, it’s the 525-seat People’s Theater in Honoka’a.


When it opened in 1930, it was the largest of three(!) movie houses on Mamane St., the main artery of Honoka’a, which was then the booming center of sugar production on the Hamakua Coast.  (Hilo, about an hour’s drive away, and Kea’au, further away in Puna, were the cane-capitals to the south.)

The People’s Theater was built by the Tanimoto family, which owned several other theaters on the Big Island; and like many theaters in that era, one of the owners lived in an apartment upstairs.  (The Palace and Aloha had similar apartments, which are now their offices).  By 1988, however, the matriarch of the Tanimoto family was too ill to manage the family business, and she sold it to her physician, Dr. Tawn Keeney, who undertook a massive renovation project.

Besides making necessary repairs, painting and restoring historic details, he installed a 50-foot movie screen and a modern sound-system, and encouraged producers to bring in musical and dramatic acts.  The theater also became the home venue and practice-hall for the national-award-winning Honoka’a High School Jazz Band.  The current manager is Dr. Keeny’s daughter Phaethon; and the lobby now boasts a café with locally-made refreshments.

It’s on the “circuit” for many touring musicians, such as Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian, who are well-known to the Big Island’s sizable population of baby-boomers.  On April 3, for example, the theater will feature bluegrass dobro-guitar virtuoso Jerry Douglas, playing with Hawaiian slack-key guitar giants Ledward Ka’apana and Mike Ka’awa.  One-night-only acts like these can command top ticket prices of $40 or more.  But regular first-run movie tickets at the People’s are only . . . (wait for it) . . . $6.

Visit for schedules and more info.

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