Happy 89th birthday to a ‘Grand Old Dame’

The Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku dramatically lit at night as it currently looks. Photo courtesy Maui Historical Society

“Three guys went into a bar . . .” That may sound like the setup of a joke, but that is exactly how the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku, which celebrates its 89th birthday this month, got started.

Manuel G. Paschoal, H. B. “Sam” Weller and T. B. Lyons were all members of the Knights of Pythias, a Wailuku fraternal organization. The members would meet weekly at the private Aloha Lounge located above the Ah Chee Saloon at the corner of North Market and Mill streets.

Sometime in 1916, the three men gathered for a few drinks after a lodge meeting and discussed the idea of founding a company that would bring modern entertainment to Maui. That idea became the Maui Amusement Co., and its first endeavor was to build a movie theater on Market Street.

Lyons was a descendant of Reverend Lorenzo Lyons, one of the original Hawaiian missionaries. By 1916, he owned most of the buildings in Wailuku from High Street and the old Wailuku train station (now One Main Plaza) to Central Avenue. Paschoal was born in Portugal and recently elected Wailuku’s representative in the Territorial House of Representatives. Weller was born in Scotland and was an executive with the Kahului Railroad.

The Wailuku Hippodrome, nicknamed the Hip, opened in May of 1917 and featured films and traveling vaudeville troupes. In a 1919 issue of The Maui News, manager “Dick” P. Harris placed his name above the film titles and its stars, which included Lillian Gish and Fatty Arbuckle, among others. Admission as listed in the ad was “General 50c, Reserved 75c, Balcony $1.00.”

Iao Theater circa 1940 with servicemen and locals lining up to see “My Friend Flicka.” Photo courtesy Maui Historical Society

Not long after the Hip opened, Paschoal began shipping films to Mother Marianne Cope at the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai providing free entertainment to the patients.

Paschoal funded the building of Kalaupapa’s Social Hall in 1917, which had a stage, movie screen and seating for 350 people.

An early advocate of statehood, Paschoal would go on to serve in the Territorial House until 1956, and in 1958 the hall at Kalaupapa was renamed Paschoal Hall.

Before long the Hip was outgrown by Wailuku’s desire for all things modern. By the 1920s Market and Main streets were bursting with boutiques, appliance stores and Maui Motors, which advertised a “free tank of gas with every purchase” and offered a large selection of new cars and tractors ranging from $560 to $790.

Lyons, Paschoal and Weller then decided to build a California-style movie palace and hired Edward Walsh to design and supervise the new theater’s construction. Advantageously, five buildings directly across the street from the Hip burned to the ground in December of 1926, prompting Lyons to purchase the five-lot fire-razed parcel, eliminating the expense of tearing down the Hip and enabling Maui Amusement Co. to keep one theater open while building a new one.

Iao Theatre in 1928 with real plants in the planter boxes from the second-floor windows. Photo courtesy Maui Historical Society

Construction began in December of 1927 at a total cost of $42,000 paid primarily by Lyons, who owned the building and which remained in the Lyons family for 65 years.

In April 1928, a promotional contest was held to name the theater offering a prize of $25. Some of the entries included the New Maui Theater, the New Hippodrome, the Paradise Theater, the Aloha Theater, the Valley Isle Theater, the Gaiety, the Happy Isle Orpheum, the Maui Grande and the Valley View Theater.

Paschoal, Weller and new manager William Ledward of Lahaina selected a duplicate entry submitted by two contestants. The prize money was divided between Mrs. Foster Robinson of Kula and Wentworth Kinney of Makawao. In the July 11, 1928 issue of The Maui News the new theater name was revealed — the Iao Theatre (as it was originally spelled).

On August 22, 1928, the Iao opened its doors.

“This afternoon the public will have the opportunity to inspect the new Iao Theater and tonight it will be put to use for the first time as a place of entertainment and amusement. Of its coming popularity there can be no question,” reported The Maui News.

The front page story went on to account: “In Wailuku there has been no place where a concert or musical program could be presented satisfactorily to the performers and to the full enjoyment of the public. Similarly there has been no place in Wailuku for the presentation of amateur plays or for the presentation of bills by the higher class of professional dramatic troupes. In contrast with the Hippodrome the Iao Theater is as the palace to a hovel.”

Demand was so high to attend the opening night that Ledward decided to have two galas with showings at 7 and 9 p.m. of the romantic comedy “Sporting Goods,” starring Richard Dix. A live program preceded the movie with a keiki halau, xylophonist Professor Baklig and his string orchestra and Bert Carlson singing his composition “Ma’alaea Bay.”

Additional films screened that first week at the Iao included King Vidor’s classic “Ben Hur” and the French film “Les Miserables.” The following Wednesday night, the Little Theater of Maui presented the first play at the Iao, “The Dover Road” by A.A. Milne.

Little Theater of Maui would eventually become Maui Community Theater, later renamed Maui OnStage, and it would become the caretaker of the landmark building since 1984.

On March 7, 1930, a “talkie” projector was installed and tested, and on March 29 Maui’s first talking picture debuted with four showings of the Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. musical comedy, “Rio Rita.” Sadly, due to the fragile nature of celluloid film, very little of “Sporting Goods” and “Rio Rita” still exist.

The highly flammable film required special precautions. The projection room was encased in concrete and steel with only a few holes to permit the shaft of light to be projected on the screen. In the Iao basement is a storage room once used for celluloid films. It is also encased in concrete and steel and faces an emergency exit leading to what was the fire lane in 1928. Should the celluloid ignite, Walsh’s design intention was to contain the fire.

Walsh’s design details were highlighted and praised in a separate Maui News story that appeared on Aug. 23, 1928: “On either side of the stage there are winding stairs that lead down into a corridor which opens on four large dressing rooms and also provides an entrance to the orchestra pit. Ample provision has also been made for the entrance of fresh air and through a large opening in the ceiling a high-powered fan draws the impure air from the building. A special Orthophonic has been installed in the orchestra pit and this instrument will provide music during the moving picture programs to be shown afternoons and evenings.”

Through the decades, the Iao became the pride and joy of Wailuku. During the war years it was the home of USO revues with performances by Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Betty Hutton, Donald O’Connor and Frank Sinatra, mostly for the thousands of Marines stationed at Giggle Hill who would go on to fight at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

In 1953 the Iao hosted the premiere of the movie “From Here to Eternity,” which was attended by Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Sinatra would return to Maui in 1961 to film “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” with Spencer Tracy. Although most of the film was shot in Lahaina, a portion was filmed in the Iao Valley and its world premiere was also held at the Iao.

By the 1960s and ’70s Wailuku’s population declined as did the Iao’s popularity. A low point came in 1973 with a showing of the X-rated film “Deep Throat.” The film was screened twice, but was closed by the Maui Police Department on its first day and the manager was arrested.

Twenty years later, when it was threatened to be razed, hundreds of Wailuku Elementary School students encircled the building and joined hands to save the Iao from the wrecking ball. Shortly thereafter the County of Maui purchased the theater from T. B. Lyons III. In June 1994 the Iao Theater was officially placed on the State Register of Historic Places and in February 1995 the United States Department of the Interior placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, forever insuring her existence and safeguarding her treasured past.

Theaters are traditionally referred to in the feminine. Though far too many to offer due credit, for five decades and with deepest adoration a litany of devoted theater angels have protected, preserved and restored the “Grand Dame of Wailuku.”


Maui OnStage continues its free, one-night-only theater series, ONO! on Monday with a staged reading of “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” by David Mamet and starring Joel Agnew, Jerry Eiting, William Makozak, Jim Oxborrow, Chris Rose, Robert E. Wills and Jonathan Yudis.

* “Glengarry, Glen Ross” contains graphic adult language and is not appropriate for children. The free ONO! performances are at 6:30 p.m. every second Monday of the month at the Historic Iao Theater. For more information, visit www.mauionstage.com.