A tough act to follow

Photo by Anthony Consillio

How do you celebrate 10 decades of excellence at Hawai‘i Theatre Center? Well, if you’re president and CEO Gregory Dunn, you do so by guaranteeing yet another year of blockbuster acts and events.

Hawai‘i Theatre Center president and CEO Gregory Dunn knows firsthand how easy it is to get lost in the grandeur of the 100-year-old auditorium.

“I remember performing at one of the first Jim Nabors Christmas specials at the theater, standing on stage looking at this grand place,” he recalls.

Hawai‘i Theatre has been entertaining guests for 100 years from its historic Chinatown building. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

In the years since that performance, Dunn found himself back at Hawai‘i Theatre again and again, but this time, as a spectator. He remembers attending numerous shows and participating in fundraising efforts like the Sarah McLachlan benefit concert and community events, such as the notable favorite high-energy Chinatown Chase. So, when the opportunity came about to lead Hawai‘i Theatre, well, there’s no business like show business. His background with the Better Business Bureau equipped him to lead the nonprofit through an earned income strategy to make the organization more self-sufficient.

Thanks to that shrewd financial plan, Hawai‘i Theatre’s program budget kept growing — that is, until the pandemic hit. Questions swirled about how to flow with the shifting tides of stay-at-home streaming and the desire to fly the coop to faraway destinations once restrictions were lifted. The answer, according to Dunn, was simple: offer a wider variety of programming. In fact, it’s something the theater has always done and still does.

Hawai‘i Theatre has been entertaining guests for 100 years from its historic Chinatown building. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

Exciting shows coming up this month are a Napoleon Dynamite film panel on Sept. 16, featuring not only a screening of the cult movie classic, but also a Q&A with two of the film’s stars. Then, Augie T takes the stage Sept. 17 for a comedy showcase, followed by a children’s education program partnership with Pacific Academy of the Performing Arts to debut The Wizard of Oz Sept. 21-25. Finally, rock band Hot Tuna performs acoustic hits Sept. 30.

After that, Dunn guarantees a year’s worth of blockbuster programming that covers genres fit for the family.

He recalls past performances by Stars of American Ballet, rock band Jefferson Star Ship, The Beach Boys and hip-hop artist Jay Park as some of his favorites, and the hope, he adds, is to reach entertainment lovers of all ages, styles and preferences who will then build long-lasting relationships with the theater.

Art deco in the orchestra lobby PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

“We adjust to the community’s changing needs,” he shares. “Our future is solidifying the diversity or programming and giving everyone a good taste of entertainment in the genres they would most like to see.”

Amazing acts have performed within the walls of Hawai‘i Theatre for 10 decades, and Dunn includes in that assembly the local hula hālau, dance groups and nonprofits who stage productions at the Chinatown playhouse year after year. The theater — on both the state and National Register of Historic Places — is a monumental gathering place for friends and family to create lifetime memories, and it’s always looking for help to continue that legacy.

People working behind the scenes back in the day. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

“We’re thankful to those who recognize the value of our nonprofit venue and help support through donors, memberships, contributions and volunteering,” he says, adding that the theater receives no government funding.

The giving hearts behind Hawai‘i Theatre who love the arts have propelled the historic site through the first 100 years, and it’s what will get it through the next century.

The iconic sign fronting the theater remains in place PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

“We survived one of the darkest times that the theater has ever faced and came out the other side,” he says.

Now, Dunn and the rest of the Hawai‘i Theatre staff are working on solidifying the Pride of the Pacific’s next century of service. For inspiration and a bit of encouragement, he looks to those who have come before him, like Sarah Richards, who served at the helm of the nonprofit for 25 years as president. Richards led the charge that secured more than $32 million to restore Hawai‘i Theatre to its current glory, and as the facility enters a new century in Honolulu, Dunn is poised to ensure it remains on center stage for generations to come.

The former stage’s mural and organ. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

“Through their leadership and dedication, we have this amazing community treasure still with us today, and it’s up to us now to continue supporting the theater so it’ll be here for the next 100 years,” he says.