Wailuku’s ‘Grand Dame’ theater hails 90 years of entertainment fun

Historic Iao Theater’s beauty and community activity still going strong

Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku when it opened in 1928. Photo courtesy Maui OnStage

In the summer of 2008, I was asked by former Maui OnStage Executive Director Alexis Dascoulias to assist with the 80th anniversary celebrations of the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. Though a decade has now passed, the Grand Dame of Wailuku is not only still going strong, but its beauty and community event activity has only grown in the 21st-century.

On Wednesday, Aug. 22, 1928, the Iao opened its doors to such fanfare and demand that the gala opening night needed to be divided into two performances in order to accommodate the large crowds.

Believe it or not, the capacity of the theater was 700 people at the time, and both events sold out. Today the Iao’s capacity is 415 — so where did the extra seats go?

On Saturday night Aug. 25, 1928, when the first play, A.A. Milne’s farce, “The Dover Road,” was performed, the Iao stage was set approximately 20 feet back from where it is currently. Just in front of that original stage is a small concrete orchestra pit (which now serves as costume storage), light sockets from the 1920s for footlights and the original red Spanish tile that can only be seen when crawling underneath the current stage.

That additional tiled, open space would have accommodated at least eight extra rows of 30 seats. In addition, seating once extended to the highest level of the mezzanine, now used for set and technical equipment storage.

The lobby card of the first “talkie” shown at the theater, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s musical comedy “Rio Rita.” A restored 1932 version of the movie will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7 in the theater. Admission is free. Photo courtesy Maui OnStage

Next month, the Historic Iao Theater will host two free public events celebrating its roaring ’20s beginnings and 90th birthday.

Though construction began in the winter of 1927, developers Manuel G. Paschoal, H.B. “Sam” Weller and T.B. Lyons passed on installing sound equipment for “talkies,” which debuted that same year. Once the novelty of talking pictures became the standard, Paschoal, who was also Wailuku’s representative in the Territorial House of Representatives from 1917 to 1956, financed the installation of a “talkie” projector in March of 1930.

Maui’s first talking and color picture debuted with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s musical comedy, “Rio Rita.” Though nearly a third of the original 15 reels of celluloid film have never been recovered, Turner Entertainment restored a 1932 edited print several years ago. The re-mastered version, which is missing more than 40 minutes from the original musical, will be screened at the theater at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, as part of the Wailuku First Friday festivities.

In celebration of the Iao’s silent beginnings, on the following Monday, Sept. 10, Maui OnStage resumes its ONO! (One Night Only) series with a staged reading of “The Cat’s Meow” by Steven Peros.

The mystery-comedy play examines the true unsolved and court-dismissed possible murder of silent film producer Thomas Ince (Jason Wulf) while on board William Randolph Hearst’s (Robert E. Wills) yacht, The Oneida, over the weekend of Nov. 15, 1924. The cruise served as a 42nd birthday party for Ince and the true-life guests included his mistress, the actress Margaret Livingston (Felicia Chernicki-Wulf), Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Sara Jelley), author Elinor Gyn (Lin McEwan), Charlie Chaplin (Ricky Jones) and gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Brett Wulfson).

Frank Kane’s portrayal of the immortal Mariner in Oh Boy Productions’ “Albatross” last weekend was beyond mesmerizing. Jack Grace photo

Peros’ script speculates on the untimely death of Ince, believed by many to have been accidently shot by Hearst.

In the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 16, Ince was carried off the yacht by stretcher, and Chaplin’s personal assistant, Toraichi Kono (who was also a UCLA law student), waited at the docks on San Diego’s Harbor Island to drive Chaplin back to Los Angeles. Kono claimed that Ince was unconscious and his head was wrapped in a bloody bandage.

After a brief investigation by the San Diego district attorney’s office, the case was passed on to the Los Angeles district attorney’s office on Monday, which immediately dismissed the case. Ince died on Tuesday, was cremated without an autopsy the same day and his funeral was held on Wednesday.

Parsons, shortly thereafter, received a lifetime contract with Hearst. Peros imagines the lavish goings on of a Hollywood Prohibition Era party at sea, formulating a murder scenario based on a combination of Hollywood legend and the most widely surmised theory.

* Doors open at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7 at the Historic Iao Theater for a free history presentation, immediately followed by the screening of “Rio Rita.” The ONO! series staged reading of “The Cat’s Meow” will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10. The free ONO! performances are held every second Monday of the month. For more information, visit www.mauionstage.com.

Mini review

Although there is no second week of performances for “Albatross” by Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett, the Oh Boy Production presented at the McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Kahului last weekend was too exemplary not to acknowledge the artistic achievement. Spangler and Evett’s script is, in a word, brilliant, and when combined with the bravura performance by Frank Kane as the Mariner, “Albatross” was beyond mesmerizing.

Not unlike the Mariner, this play falls in limbo between two “official” theater seasons, but in my opinion the bar has been set for all non-musicals in 2018-19 as “Albatross” is one of the finest pieces of significant theater that I have witnessed on Maui, and deserving of an encore performance.

Every element of this production would make one think it was on tour from the Mainland. Caro Walker’s clean-lined set achieved a simplistic beauty that made it just as striking as her complex musical sets. Joe Spangler’s lighting design perfectly aided the ever-changing moods of the Mariner, and Ally Shore’s projections, upon the sails of the ship that framed the play, supplemented the profound richness of the production. Specialist rope rigging by Daniel Vicars allowed for Kane to swing across the stage and hoist the sails, which only added to the deeply-rooted and spot-on performance by Kane.

If Kane had a singularly perfect moment, and there were many, it came as he demonstrated, and marvelously narrated, the initiation of a green sailor dropped into the sea by rope, retrieved and dropped again, while tossing the rigged rope into the McCoy crowd.

Though un-credited, another superb touch was the use of a frayed length of rope as a prop to imply the deceased “Albatross,” hung as penance around the neck of the sinful Mariner like a cilice, or hairshirt. Skillfully Kane and the playwrights also weave familiar passages from the play’s source, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with modern, adult language to firmly connect with its present day audience.

Director Jennifer Rose has purveyed and exhibited an ideal production, and within just one year, producer Vinnie Linares is successfully cultivating an audience for essential theater on Maui.


MAPA Live presents “Into the Woods,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by David C. Johnston, under the musical direction of Gary W. Leavitt.

In the shadows of trees, curses reverse and wishes come true. Something fanciful and peculiar happens — MAGIC! Edgy, whimsical and wickedly funny, “Into the Woods” is an adventure that goes beyond “happily ever after,” because “anything can happen in the woods.”

This cerebral fantasy musical intertwines the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault examining the consequences of the stories of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella.”

* Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 24 through Sept. 2 in Castle Theater at the MACC. Tickets range from $22 to $66 (plus applicable fees). Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children under 10. To purchase tickets, visit the box office, call 242-7469 or order online at www.mauiarts.org.


The Maui Fringe Theater Festival 2019 is now accepting submissions through Friday, Oct. 5. Fringe productions should be simplistic short plays with minimal set and technical needs. If accepted, the entry fee for three performances is $500. The ninth annual Maui Fringe Theater Festival will take place from Friday, Jan. 18 through Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 at the Historic Iao Theater. To be considered, email your sixty-minutes-or-less original one-act play to fringe@mauionstage.com. For complete rules, additional guidelines and an application, visit www.mauionstage.com.