Maui’s first talkie movie, ‘Rio Rita,’ to grace silver screen again at Iao Theater

Film showing celebrates theater’s 90th anniversary

This is a lobby card for the film “Rio Rita,” which screened on Maui in 1930. It was the first talking film shown on Maui. It will be shown again Friday at the Iao Theater.

The first talking movie seen on Maui, which was probably viewed by more than 1,000 residents in 1930, will be shown again at 7 p.m. Friday at the Iao Theater.

“Rio Rita” was screened at Iao the weekend of March 30, 1930. Now, it’s back to help celebrate the theater’s 90th birthday. The free screening also is part of the Wailuku First Friday celebrations, from 6 to 9 p.m., along Market Street. There will be live music and entertainment. For more information, go to

The Iao Theater opened on Aug. 22, 1928. Because of large crowds, the opening night was separated into two performances.

“We chose ‘Rio Rita’ for its rarity and the fact that it was the first talking picture ever seen on Maui. It’s a musical and was the first film with extensive color scenes shown on movies,” said Michael Pulliam, the curator at Iao Theater. He is also part of Maui OnStage at the Iao Theater.

Maui OnStage, formerly Maui Community Theater, has occupied the historical Iao Theater since 1984, and it has since been instrumental in keeping the theater in operation even during times of desperate disrepair, its website said.

Pulliam said the early color process for movies, such as that used in “Rio Rita,” was called two-color Technicolor. But despite its description, the film is full color, he said.

But some silent films such as “The Phantom of the Opera” had hand-painted scenes in the films, which lasted about eight to 10 minutes. So, Maui residents may have seen those types of less colored film at Iao prior to Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s musical comedy “Rio Rita,” Pulliam said.

Pulliam did not know the exact attendance for the film back in 1930 because there are no records, but he said the theater frequently sold out when movies debuted.

Capacity at Iao was 700 people back then. There were four screenings of “Rio Rita.”

Now, the theater’s capacity is 415 because seating that originally stretched to the highest level of the mezzanine now is used for set and technical equipment storage, Pulliam said. And, the original stage was set approximately 20 feet back from where it is now.

The film stars actress Bebe Daniels, a silent movie star who make the transition into “talkies.” Pulliam said she was one of the few actors to make it into the new talking movies. She later went on to star in “42nd Street” and “Rio Rita.”

Daniels began her acting while playing Dorothy in the 1910 version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Although she may be unknown today, she has a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame and was a huge star in the ’20s and ’30s,” Pulliam said.

Most of the rest of the cast came from Broadway. Pulliam said it’s “fascinating” to see Daniels’ exaggerated silent acting opposite Broadway and vaudeville performers.

Actor and singer John Boles plays Daniels’ love interest, an American Texas Ranger who is hunting down a Poncho Villa-inspired character who had been raiding a Texas town and robbing American banks.

The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey add music and humor. Abbott and Costello later played their roles in a remake of the movie in 1942.

Actress Dorothy Lee is the young showgirl who leads many dance numbers, Pulliam added.

Manuel G. Paschoal, Wailuku’s representative in the Territorial House of Representatives from 1917 to 1956, financed the installation of the “talkie” projector at the theater.

Although nearly a third of the film’s original 15 reels of celluloid film have never been recovered, Turner Entertainment restored a 1932 edited print several years ago, Pulliam said.

The remastered version, which is missing more than 40 minutes from the original musical, is the one being shown, Pulliam said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at