The Queen Theater
The Queen Theater has seen better days, like this one in the 1950s.

The anchor of the Kaimukī business district has gone to rust. Can it be saved?

The Queen Theater / For decades, the Queen Theater’s collapsing façade has been branded an eyesore–or worse. But to University of Hawaii theater historian Lowell Angell, it houses a cinematic narrative in and of itself–one waiting for its sequel.

“I’ve always loved theaters because, figuratively, they have ghosts in them,” says Angell, a Hawaii Theatre Center co-founder who’s also writing a book on Hawaii theaters. “Every film, every live performance, they breathe a life into them no other buildings possess. Every community that has a theater has been enlivened by it because of this. What other buildings have that power? ”

Lately, a few concerned citizens have organized themselves around this shared sentiment. Together they’re the nonprofit Friends of Queen Theater. Whether it’s a screening of a Godard film, a staging of Waiting for Godot, or a performance by a Go-Gos cover band, its members want to see the structure as an operating theater again.

“Our mission is to restore the Queen Theater for community use into a working, multi-use venue,” says Nancy Wilcox, a McKinley High School photography teacher and founding member. “Films, live performances, concerts–it could do practically anything and contain modern technology that’ll have no affect on its historical nature.”

The Queen Theater’s run began in the 1930s, when it premiered as an 850-seat, single-screen venue. Through the years, it served as both a first- and second-run theater, a showcase for Broadway stage revivals and midnight vaudeville revues, all easily accommodated by the facility’s spacious dressing and shower rooms, prop and costume storage, a rehearsal space and excellent acoustics.

With the advent of home videos and monster multiplexes in the 1970s, grand old movie houses like the Queen Theater began going extinct; they were anachronistic dinosaurs grazing unfamiliar commercial territory fraught with increasing property values and the movie theater industry economics of the modern times: multiple films on multiple screens shown simultaneously. Already facing decline, the new (and still current) Queen Theater owner, Narciso Yu, found himself in a precarious position, and did what many other freestanding single-screen theater owners at the time did. He turned it into an adult movie house.

“Ironically, XXX films is one of the things that saved many of these movie houses from demolition because they kept them in business, buying valuable time,” Angell says.

The late ’70s and early ’80s saw the theater transition from Disney to Deep Throat and by 1985, ongoing police raids were successful in shutting down this operation. Unsure of its future, Yu closed the doors of the Queen Theater. Twenty-five years later, they remain closed.

Throughout that quarter-century, the theater has occasionally been rented out to a handful of non-entertainment businesses, used mainly for storage. The theater itself remains dark, a desperate fossil of eras past. For many it’s difficult imagining such an enchanting history unfolding on this tiny concrete corner overlooking Waialae Avenue, when the stark reality is a crumbling testament of plaster among a community at a loss as to how to resurrect it.

Historic preservation

Enter Nancy Wilcox, who has a history with preserving history. Most recently she went up against Bank of America to save a historic bank in Southern California. Today she has her sights set on the Queen Theater.

“When the Varsity Theater was torn down, that was a turning point for me. I never want to say that I wish I had done something to save the Queen,” Wilcox says. “If we get involved and we try, then we can’t ever say that.”

Wilcox took it upon herself to initiate a dialogue between residents, business owners and the Queen Theater. She met Angell, Chaminade University professor and interior designer Deborah Lowry, and licensed attorney and Kahala resident Lennie Carlson. Together they founded Friends of Queen Theater, a grassroots community-based effort to restore Queen Theater to a working multi-use theater.

“When it was built, it was a state-of-the-art movie house,” Lowry says. “What many people don’t see is the potential it has to be brought back and still be historic and transcendent today.”

The four held their first official meeting in September 2008–since then the group has grown to 130 members (membership is free) and received incorporated nonprofit status. Currently, they seek the Queen Theater’s placement on the State Historic Register, which exists to quantify buildings deemed important to a community’s history. First, however, the Friends want to gain Yuʻs cooperation, but his hermetic business approach is proving to be a principal roadblock.

“I teach a historic preservation class at Chaminade where students research a building they’d like to save. That building has been featured a few times in my classroom,” Lowry says. She’s tried to contact Yu to see if she could use the space and share her students’s renovation plans with him, but was told by previous renters he’ll never return a phone call.

The group doesn’t attribute his reclusive behavior as intentional resistance, but rather an owner crestfallen from multiple proposals and deals that have fallen through the cracks in years past, now hesitant to continue with just any party.

The group works on raising community awareness and reciprocal outreach. Last November, Friends of Queen Theater appeared with a booth at the Kaimuki Kanikapila Street Fair to bring attention to the relic, share its majestic past and collect oral histories from those passing through. The overall response was positive and supportive to the group’s cause.

“We’re hopeful we can bring Yu on board, show him that this theater has a real potential and can actually be utilized again and benefit the community,” Lowell says.

Like a true Hollywood studio, this is just one of many projects in development. They continue meeting at Coffee Talk the third Wednesday of each month to build alliances with residents, legislators and business entities. Their purpose is to convince each of the commercial benefits a running theater could provide to the immediate Kaimuki district.

Most recently they’ve unveiled a “Save the Queen T-Shirt Design Contest” (further details at []) and are working with the community to celebrate the Queen Theater’s 74th birthday on June 29. “1,000 Friends of the Queen,” their ongoing campaign, is a growing compilation of names signed by those supportive of the cause.

In the meantime, the building continues to deteriorate out of sheer neglect.

“I just want to see the marquee refurbished and the doors open,” Lowry says. “If we can’t even get that to happen, the fear is one day it’ll be gone and see it become a parking lot.”

Not exactly an empty threat considering what happened to Varsity Theater, and the current plan to turn long demolished Waikiki Theater into a two-story Ross Dress for Less. Members don’t want to see either happen to the Queen Theater, but they’ll need more than a flutey Joni Mitchell lyric to save it. Though with no explicit expiration date, convincing people of the urgency to save it falls upon apathetic ears at times.

“The imminent threat is there is no imminent threat,” Wilcox says. “It’s unknown when you’ll drive by and realize it’s gone forever.”

“But as long as it’s still standing…,” Angell adds, his voice trailing off like the second act of a classic film in search of an ending. Or hopefully, in this case, a new beginning.

Email [email: info] for information.