The New House That DHT Built
Who’s getting ready for a brand-new experience at Diamond Head Theatre? None other than executive director Deena Dray and artistic director John Rampage.
Growing old is almost never a lasting issue for buildings. When their designs turn stale, renovation breathes life into them. When their walls, pipes and amenities need to be retrofitted and cleaned, refurbishment brings a sense of renewal. And when complete overhauls are necessary, tearing down and rebuilding become the gateway to fresh beginnings.
So it is with Diamond Head Theatre, the nation’s third oldest community playhouse. Seventy years after taking up residence in a movie house from the Depression era, DHT decided to give its aging structure the old heave-ho, razing most of its former digs and building anew. Gone is the historic Fort Ruger Theatre on Makapu‘u Avenue, and in its place (well, technically, next to where the old facility once stood) is the present-day “Broadway of the Pacific” — a 17,000-square-foot picture of theater modernity that is about to be unveiled to the general public.
It all begins with the family-favorite show Cinderella, which pulls back the curtains for audiences starting on Jan. 20. (See story on page 7.) Executive director Deena Dray, who’s witnessed a number of impressive productions over the course of her nearly three decade-long career at the community theater, marvels at the speed in which the $23 million project was accomplished. In a two-year span that began in late 2020, construction workers have fashioned a state-of-the-art theater on the slopes of Diamond Head, and demolished the old one (completed over a two-day period last November and following the last showing of the Broadway hit Anything Goes), leaving only a portion of the previous structure so that it could house administrative offices, costume shops and education studios.
“This has been a game-changer for us … a big thing,” says Dray of the project that has delivered a captivating and contemporary auditorium for theater lovers. “In my mind, it was done in record time, which is amazing given that we were in the middle of a pandemic when it started.”
Dray credits general contractor Allied Builders System with pushing the project along rapidly — key to ensuring a smooth transition in seating reassignments for thousands of anxious 2022-23 season ticket-holders.
“But everybody has their tickets now, they’re happy and we’re ready to go!” she adds.
That sense of glee is sure to continue in the days ahead. In fact, Dray believes theatergoers will not only be impressed but dazzled by the well-designed facility. She calls the architects’ usage of space “exciting,” thanks in part to the construction of a spacious stage, seats that are properly raked (steeper angles assuring ideal sight lines for audience members) and rows that are perfectly spaced apart.
“I’m fairly tall, but now I can cross my legs!” she says, laughing. “People can also walk in front of me without me necessarily getting up. In the old theater, my knees would hit the seats in front.”
What the new building will not have, however, is more seats. Dray says there were two reasons why it was decided not to “go bigger.”
“One, we like the feel of the old Diamond Head Theatre. It was a good size for us, we consistently filled it and we didn’t want to get out beyond our comfort level and have empty seats or try to keep filling a theater that was bigger. If we need to add seats, we’ll add performances,” she explains.
“Two, our theater seating is determined by the number of parking spaces that we have. We have a parking lot that has to match the number of seats in the theater. We’re allowed a certain number of stalls, about 100, to a certain number of seats, 482, so that’s why the number of seats remains the same.”
Beyond the up-to-date auditorium, theatergoers will also find welcome relief in the expanded restrooms.
“When I was in the old theater, I would stand in the back of the line to the ladies room and would be so sad for the people waiting,” notes Dray. “Now, we have double the number of toilets for the ladies and almost double the number of men’s toilets, so it’s quite different.”
Additionally, the lobby boasts a built-in concession stand filled with snacks and beverages that may be purchased using a contactless credit card system. According to Dray, this was an important feature “so that people can have a nice intermission and enjoy talking about a show and then go back in to see the second act.”
“The old theater certainly had a kind of charm to it that was important to a lot of people. But there’s just going to be such an upgraded experience for everyone compared to what we had before,” she states.
When asked if she sometimes feels like a proud parent who just gave birth following a long pregnancy, Dray answers in the affirmative.
“I do,” she chuckles, “and the labor pains have been significant!”
Talks about building a new theater first began in 2007. At the time, it was just “a germ of an idea,” but theater officials knew something had to be done soon to replace the aging facility, which had enjoyed a good long run despite obvious limitations for a contemporary live theater company.
“It was holding us back as far as progressing into what Broadway is doing now,” she says. “A lot of what Broad-way does we mimic here on a smaller scale. But we wanted to be able to keep up and grow as a community theater.”
To make this project a reality, however, DHT had to overcome its share of challenges. Among the obstacles were ensuring that the new facility would conform to design district requirements and reassuring area residents that the theater would remain a good neighbor.
“The city and state are very protective of the Diamond Head monument and wanted to be sure that the buildings nearby weren’t garishly out of place with the general feeling of the neighborhood,” explains Dray.
“But also, we’re in a residential district, located across from a college (Kapi‘olani Community College) and a block away from a hospital (Lē‘ahi Hospital), so we needed to fit in here,” she continues. “That took a lot of time to secure the architects and have them understand the unique neighborhood we live in and how the design had to conform to the neighborhood and still be unique and attractive that people would feel like celebrating.”
Fortunately for Dray and DHT, the neighbors were receptive to news of the project.
“We have wonderful neighbors and they’ve been very supportive,” she says. “I mean a lot of them come to the theater, which is nice. But we’ve really worked hard at maintaining a good relationship with them and I think we’ve succeeded.”
About the only parts of the project that still need to be completed are landscaping work and the installation of sidewalks on the property. Gray expects those features to be completed soon, probably “sometime in the spring.”
In the meantime, community theater lovers can get ready for a brand-new experience at DHT — which, despite all the modern upgrades, still has that familiar spirit of the old building.
“We’ve been giving early tours to people who supported our fundraising campaign and they’ve said, ‘You know, it still feels like Diamond Head Theatre!’ — which is great, because that’s what we want it to be,” says Dray in conclusion. “And really, it’s the people and the feeling that make a place a home, not a building.”
Cinderella: A Dream COme True
If there ever was an ideal show to introduce the new and improved Diamond Head Theatre, it’s the enduring classic Cinderella.
Slated for a two-week run (Jan. 20 – Feb. 5), the fairy tale romance promises appearances by Prince Charming, Fairy Godmother and the usual cast of characters while also celebrating the overriding theme: that wishes are often granted.
“Cinderella is really the perfect show for us because it’s a classic and everybody knows it,” says Deena Dray, DHT executive director. “Emotionally it’s a story about dreams coming true … and people will walk into the new theater and feel that. This has been a longtime dream for us and we’ve had a few fairy godmothers along the way that actually made this theater happen.
“So it’s very serendipitous that Cinderella is the show we’re opening with.” She adds that audiences have lucked out with “an extraordinarily talented cast, with all the best coming out” to take part in the production.
“These are people who live and work here, so we’re lucky to have such an abundance of talent here in Honolulu. That’s the thing about a community theater — it’s the people who live and work here that are coming out for the show, and not professional artists.”
Following Cinderella, DHT will stage productions for La Cage aux Folles (March 24–April 9), The Bodyguard (May 26–June 11), and Beauty and the Beast (July 21–Aug. 6).
Season subscriptions are available and start at $125. Individual tickets are sold prior to each show at the box office or at diamondheadtheatre.com. For more information, call the box office at 808-733-0274.