Sep 1, 2022
The Story of the Stage
The stage at Kahilu Theatre, like every stage, has a story. But unlike other stages, Kahilu’s story actually begins with a few cows, and includes Hawaiian history, a ranching legacy, Broadway footlights, family drama, and an overarching passion for the arts.
Overlooking green Waimea hills, Kahilu Theatre welcomes symphonies and salsa dancers, student musicals, sweet Hawaiian music and stellar performing artists from all over the world. Inside are two airy Lobby galleries for rotating art and culture exhibits, and in the back, a cabaret space for intimate shows, open mic nights, rehearsals and stage classes.
To begin at the beginning, we have to go all the way back to 1793. English sea captain George Vancouver landed on Hawai‘i Island and presented King Kamehameha I with a string of cows, skinny and stressed from the voyage. The King must have been impressed by the beasts, and released them into the countryside with a kapu (taboo) forbidding anyone to touch them.
By the time young seaman John Palmer Parker sailed in from Massachusetts in 1803, the cattle were already fruitful and multiplying, and would soon overrun farmland and destroy crops. Parker left his ship behind, established the king’s trust, and worked for him for a while. He left to fight in the War of 1812, then returned to the island to stay, bringing something new and interesting, especially to the King, a musket. Kamehameha gave Parker exclusive permission to hunt and shoot the wild pipi (“beef”) and trade the hides and beef with ships in the harbor.
Parker’s business thrived, he married Chiefess Kipikane, was given lands at Mana, and began a small spread that would grow into the historic Parker Ranch. One of the largest privately-owned ranches in the world, Parker Ranch encompassed some 500,000 acres, and 30,000 head of cattle at its peak in the 20th Century.
Sixth generation Parker Ranch heir Richard Smart was born in 1913 to Thelma Kahiluonapua‘api‘ilani Parker and husband Gaillard Smart. Sadly, both parents died when Richard was very young, and he was raised by Thelma’s mother Elizabeth, known fondly as “Aunty Tootsie.”
The two led a colorful, rich life, from Honolulu to San Francisco, Europe, New York, and home to Waimea now and then. And although Richard’s roots remained deep in Parker Ranch soil, he developed a passion for the arts that inspired him to become an actor. He worked hard in Summer Stock, made lasting friendships, and eventually performed on Broadway and across Europe with stars like Carole Channing, Mary Martin, Charlie Chaplin and others.
Richard returned home in 1960, and restored the family estate at Puuopelu, filling it with French paintings and Chinese porcelain, a grand piano, Hawaiian artifacts, antique furniture, and the sounds of elegant parties. He dreamed of building a beautiful theatre in Waimea town, where he could offer concerts, ballet, plays and musicals, but that dream was deferred until 1979, when they finally broke ground.
For the building, he commissioned the esteemed design firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo, and their architect Sid Char, who had also contributed to the venerable Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, where Richard occasionally escaped for a beach retreat. Kahilu’s curtain first raised on February 6, 1981, with a production of “Oh Coward” starring Richard and longtime friend, Honolulu actress Wisa d’Orso.
The musical tribute to playwright Noel Coward ran for three days, launching its premier season. According to Dr. William Bergin and Dexter Keawe‘ehu Vredenberg in Richard Smart of the Legendary Parker Ranch, Kahilu also hosted “the Honolulu Symphony, Little Consort of Amsterdam, well-known Hawaiian entertainers Nalani Olds and Charles K.L. Davis, a Los Angeles company performance of ‘Grease,’ a kyogen play and a Kabuki drama.”
At Kahilu, Richard either performed in or directed modern classics like “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” and “Cactus Flower,” sharing the stage with Broadway colleague Nanette Fabray. For his swansong, a 79-year-old Richard starred in “On Golden Pond” in 1989.
When Richard passed away in 1992, the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust had been established to benefit Queens North Hawai‘i Community Hospital, Parker School, Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy and the Richard Smart Fund of Hawai‘i Community Foundation. Kahilu Theatre, however, became dependent on ticket sales and outside funding sources to meet its $1 million annual budget.
The theatre continued to welcome performing artists from everywhere, filling Waimea with music and laughter, applause and excitement. Kahilu hosted the annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Festival, Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, numerous educational programs and student productions, and highly-anticipated annual concerts by the Brothers Cazimero, and the Honolulu Symphony.
The theatre only went dark for extended periods twice—once to allow the Board of Directors to restructure and reorganize in an effort to overcome financial challenges, and once for COVID-19. However, creative minds and energies began a whole new venue with Kahilu.TV. Anyone who wants to see a performance, but can’t attend in person, can purchase a broadcast ticket online and stream the show from home.
Today, those lucky enough to come to Kahilu Theatre are treated to something remarkable on the makai (ocean-facing) side of the building. Here three brilliantly-colored murals bring the walls to life, telling epic stories of the island’s rains, streams and waters—from the spiritual realm of Manaua (a Hawaiian rain deity) and conclude with a rainbow of imagery over Mauna Kea.
These beautiful murals were created in 2014, by student artists from six difference schools, let by mural/graffiti artists Estria Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina. The work took two weeks to complete, from meditation in nature, sharing the artists’ visualizations, sketches conversations, and finally applying the layers of paint over many long days, rain or shine. On the third panel, yellow streaks run down the wall where the students were, quite literally, painting with the rain itself.
When it’s not raining, the best time to see the murals is at sunset, coincidentally right before curtain time, just long enough to enjoy a glass of wine and say hello to friends.
And the story of the stage continues, as Kahilu Theatre kicked off its 2022-23 season with a concert by slack key master, singer-songwriter, multiple award-winner Keola Beamer with his wife kumu hula Moanalani Beamer.
Tickets are available for many exciting upcoming performances at the Kahilu Theatre website!