Adapted from the forthcoming book, Theatres of Hawai‘i, by Lowell Angell.
The Queen Theater sits near the top of Waialae Avenue, as it has for almost 75 years. Although vacant and unused for many years and slowly decaying, it was once a lively presence and an important part of the Kaimuki community.
Honolulu in the early 1930s was mad about the movies. Attendance had increased dramatically after modern sound films were first shown downtown at the States Theater in 1928. To meet the growing demand, the leading theater operators, Consolidated Amusement, built more than two dozen neighborhood and rural theaters on O‘ahu and elsewhere during the decade. Every neighborhood had one.
These neighborhood theaters didn’t have the biggest screens or fancy décor (with a few exceptions) but they had devoted audiences who attended regularly. Most managers knew their patrons by name. The theaters were conveniently located and patrons knew the latest films would be shown there eventually, and at cheaper prices than at the major theaters downtown.
Before long, Consolidated had a competitor on O‘ahu. Franklin Theatrical Enterprises was a small circuit begun in 1934, which later became Royal Amusement/Royal Theaters. Franklin opened its first theater downtown, the King, in 1935. The following year they built their first neighborhood theater in Kaimuki. The 850-seat Queen, designed by local architect Lyman Bigelow, opened on June 29, 1936 with the film, "Loves of a Dictator," starring Clive Brook and Madeleine Carroll, and a stage play by the Hollywood Players, "The Milky Way."
Franklin’s theaters were aimed at the whole family, with films and stage shows at low admission prices – just 10 and 15 cents in the early years. They didn’t have the major Hollywood studios’ pictures, but they did offer something unique in Honolulu, live stage shows, including touring companies of famed mainland producers Fanchon & Marco, at both the King and Queen Theaters. Like most neighborhood theaters in those pre-TV days, the Queen also had a special kid’s club and Saturday matinee shows for them, featuring Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and other adventure heroes.
After Franklin was acquired by Royal Theaters, the Queen’s art moderne facade was remodeled in the later 1940s into a more modern one and a second floor of offices was added along Waialae Avenue. The theater operated successfully through the 1950s and into the 1960s with a mix of mostly second-run and art films, but competition from television took its toll. Many neighborhood theaters closed and were put up for sale or demolished.
The Queen was sold in the early 1970s and its new owner began showing adult films, which upset many in the community. Eventually, police raided the theater and confiscated the films, effectively putting an end to this enterprise. Various uses followed, including the Rocky Horror Picture Show and other stage shows. In the early 1980s, the Queen hosted many rock concerts, with rows of seats removed to accommodate the standing crowds and “mosh pit.”
For a few years, the theater housed pipes instead of productions when it was rented to a local plumbing company for warehouse space. Following their departure, it has been vacant and unused, subject to the ravages of time and neglect, and its façade an inviting canvas for graffiti artists.
The Queen has been “dark” now for almost two decades. Many longtime residents and merchants fondly recall its glory days and hope for its return. But many others who pass by the building each day are oblivious to it and unaware of the active role it once played in the life of Kaimuki, and could do again.
As the Queen nears its 75th anniversary in 2011, a growing number of people from all over Honolulu recognize its potential and are confident that it could again become a vital, operating theatrical venue, ideally showcasing performing arts of all types. It is one of the very few free-standing theaters left in the city and has the best potential for revitalization. An operating theater in Kaimuki would enliven and bring more business to the community, just as the Hawai‘i Theatre has done in downtown Honolulu. As a historic structure, tax credits and other incentives are available for its rehabilitation.
A non-profit Friends of the Queen Theater organization was established in 2008 to raise public awareness of this tarnished jewel and its potential for renovation and reuse.
We invite you to join us in this effort!