The Jewel Of Waimea
Four decades later, Kahilu Theatre remains a crowning achievement in the island’s performing arts scene.
In the heart of lovely Waimea town lies a community treasure reserved not just for this pretty upcountry village, but for the whole island: Kahilu Theatre. Now, the auditorium is on the cusp of celebrating its 40th year as a world-class performing and visual arts venue not typically seen in rural locations such as the Big Island.
“We are truly built by the community, for the community,” says executive director Deborah Goodwin. “In addition to our presenting season, from August through June, we are open year-round and offer the theater to the community to use for classes, graduations and other events.”
Over the years, top acts from around the world have performed on the intimate stage of this 484-seat space. In any given presenting season, you may see top-name Hawaiian performers including the legendary Robert Cazimero, Makana, John Cruz or Kalani Pe‘a; classical artists such as Stephen Hough, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Trio Rafale or Moore & Maroudas 2; and major dance stars and companies such as Giordano Dance Chicago or L.A. Dance Project. Even Baryshnikov once graced the stage here more than a decade ago. Also expect first-rate jazz performances and captivating storytellers, in addition to beloved musical theater productions. This year, the season opened with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and closes with West Side Story.
To find and book the performers, artistic director Chuck Gessert collaborates with directors on other islands within a small consortium to share the cost of bringing artists to Hawai‘i. Not surprisingly, Kahilu Theatre is a favorite venue for many performers.
“Artists always want to return here,” says Goodwin. “We partner with Mauna Kea Resort and other high-end properties to provide accommodations and the highest level of aloha. Our artists are always well taken care of.”
The theater also supports local artists and community groups such as Waimea Community Chorus, as well as numerous professional and emerging performers and musicians. There is something for everyone here almost every day of the year.
Kahilu Theatre was the brainchild of Richard Smart, the sole heir to Parker Ranch. Born in 1913, Smart eventually left Hawai‘i as a young man seeking the glitz and glamour of Broadway and the spotlights of Hollywood. He performed on the mainland and in Europe for more than three decades, making a name for himself and headlining in many shows, clubs, stages and cabarets. Retiring from show biz, he returned to the islands to take control of the family ranching business. While tending cattle, he daydreamed about building a venue that could offer a way for the Big Island community to see professional stage productions.
So in 1980, construction began on the 20,000-square-foot building complete with an authentic Broadway stage and seats for almost 500 patrons. It was completed at a cost of about $1.5 million, finally opening in 1981. Naming the space after his mother, Thelma Kahilu‘onapua‘api‘ilani Parker, Smart produced and starred in his theater productions for more than 12 years, attracting audiences from as far away as O‘ahu and the mainland. Eventually, when Smart died in 1992, the theater lost much of its financial backing. Although it remained part of Parker Ranch until 2001, a new direction was needed to return the organization to viability.
By the recession of the mid-2000s, the facility was struggling with debt and the board decided to take an intermission in 2012 to reset the mission and work on retiring the accumulated debt. Thanks to strong community support, this was achieved rather easily, and the theater was able to reopen with a new mission and strength of purpose.
Goodwin explains that once they regrouped, they developed a strategic plan, which included a robust sponsorship program, along with a new, stronger commitment to interacting within the community. In addition to producing 50 shows each season, the theater supports 35-40 community events and installed a gallery for visual arts exhibits on their closed-in lānai.
“We’re back, and stronger than ever!” she enthuses.
One of the largest and most intensive goals for the theater is education. According to Goodwin, Kahilu Theatre Foundation is dedicated to creating a place where island families can connect to the arts through numerous outreach, classes, camps, workshops and educational programs.
“We want to make the theater more accessible to individuals and families who have not traditionally come to the theater,” she says.
There’s even a modest internship program, featuring a very popular activity among young people — backstage tech. Young theater aficionados learn how to run lights, spots and sound in professional shows and have a blast doing it. Some continue their interest and love of theater at university, where they have gone on to study theater or dramatic arts.
All in all, it costs money, lots of it, but Goodwin says a strong, supportive community stands behind them. Established as a nonprofit in 1981, it depends on philanthropy to operate.
“Ticket sales only cover a third of the budget,” Goodwin explains.
Kahilu Theatre also receives funding through sources such as Hawai‘i County and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as through the support of Friends of Kahilu Theatre, which holds fundraising events in the winter months.
“There’s also a subscription package series where patrons may choose selected shows in specific genres,” adds Goodwin.
However, she says they are still as fragile as is any arts organization these days.
“We live our mission every day,” Goodwin adds. “To make a place where community, creativity and inspiration thrive. We always have the next generation in mind as we continue to live in the now and support the arts every way possible.”
Or, to quote this year’s simple, but profound, presenting season theme: “Art Matters.”
For more information about Kahilu Theatre, visit kahilutheatre.org.