The dematerialization of the Waikiki Theatre & Hawai’i’s first frescoes
In late July 1979, those fighting to preserve the Art Deco landmark known as the Waikiki Theatre lost their final battle to save its soul. The developers wasted no time in starting the first phase of the theater’s destruction. This terrible act merited just one sentence in the August 2, 1979, issue of the Honolulu Advertiser, saying the old Waikiki Theatre had undergone “partial dematerialization.”
The lobby walls lay in ruins. Lying in pieces amongst the rubble was, for many in Hawaii, a work of art as significant as Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park. The art was Hawaii’s first frescoes, and they were painted by Marguerite Blasingame, a friend of Diego Rivera. Discussed later is the herculean effort used to preserve Rivera’s work. Blasingame’s wasn’t even honored with a photograph, and the reason for the destruction would make any that appreciate art disgusted.
The Start Of It All; More Restrictions Please
Let’s step back to the beginning. The initial brainstorming for the Waikiki Theatre began as early as 1930. It would take five years until they broke ground. In between lay many battles with Honolulu planners and regulators. That the theater was built at all is mainly due to one man in particular.
In June 1933, Consolidated Amusement Co., Ltd. representative Esmond I. Parker was about to earn himself a big promotion. He was in front of the Honolulu Public Works Board of Supervisors, making an impassioned case about building code restrictions for new buildings in downtown Honolulu. He wasn’t fighting against the restrictions. Quite the opposite, he wanted them retained. He argued that any relaxation of the rules would create unfair competition for those who had already constructed expensive Class A buildings in the area.
Consolidated Amusement owned twelve of the largest and most expensive theaters on the islands, more than any other company.[i] In his argument, Parker mentioned that Consolidated was contemplating a 1,000-seat, fireproof theater in Waikiki.[ii] This was the first mention on record of what would become Honolulu’s most well-loved landmark.
The following year, Parker became president and managing director, and the zoning battle began.
Land and Parking Battles
Construction of the Waikiki Theatre remained uncertain well into the spring of 1934. Consolidated sought to increase zoning on Kalakaua Avenue to accommodate the large theater. The company pitched grand and lavish ideas to the city planning committee, including a garden and architectural design that would harmonize with the natural surroundings of the Waikiki district. Not surprisingly, there was pushback from the local community.
Nearby landowners and tenants of residential complexes on Seaside Avenue filed protests against the planned theater anticipating the noise and activity it would bring. In May 1934, there were news articles almost daily discussing the concerns of those living in the area. But for the majority of Waikiki residents, there was a growing sense of excitement. The fact that Consolidated Amusement was considering such a large and costly undertaking was a positive sign. Moreover, it indicated the Great Depression was ending and a positive economic future for Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Parker and Consolidated were also lobbying against an amendment that would classify “amusement houses” with under 300 seats as theaters. Those in favor of the amendment accused the company of trying to retain its monopoly on the moving picture market. Consolidated claimed their concerns were about public safety. These smaller theaters, dubbed “midget theaters” by the press, would not be required to be fireproof. However, this argument didn’t hold much weight since many theaters in the United States had less than 300 seats.
In June 1934, the theater classification fight was still ongoing, but Consolidated received some good news. City planners advised they would approve the company’s increased zoning request if they agreed to provide at least 200 parking spaces.
The parking lot would be located behind the theater on land leased from Union Oil Company, which agreed to offer approximately 200 parking spaces at a rate of 10 to 15 cents per car. Owners of nearby property were unhappy about this, pointing out that moviegoers would simply fill up the no-cost street parking around the theater before heading into the paid lot. So, the city planners offered a final compromise solution: Consolidated must provide at least 200 free parking spaces for theater patrons.
By September 1934, things heated up when an investigation of alleged “monopolistic agreements” between film distributors and Consolidated Amusement was filed with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. One of many things mentioned in the complaint was Consolidated’s attempts to block “midget” theaters from receiving remodeling permits. For example, on September 4, 1934, Judge A. M. Cristy issued a restraint preventing the city inspector from issuing a building permit to J. J. Franklin, a “midget movies” promoter, that would allow them to renovate the Von Holt building for theater purposes.[iii] Despite Consolidated representatives publicly denying any knowledge of wrongdoing, it was clear the company was using its strength to bully and prevent increased competition.
Consolidated was pushing full steam ahead, especially with their lobbying efforts. On September 10, 1934, the company filed another petition for increased zoning at Kalakaua and Seaside Ave. Then, on September 25, they made their final and most powerful pitch to the public works committee. First, they presented evidence that 90 percent of property owners within 750 feet of the proposed theater approved of its size and construction. Then, as a final nail in the coffin, they brought in a big gun. Former governor of Hawaii Lawrence M. Judd told the committee that the new theater would be a “show place of which the city would be proud.”[iv]
On Tuesday, October 10, Consolidated Amusement got the big win it had been fighting for. Both the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that plans for the theater had been drawn up, and work would commence soon.
The front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on October 13, 1934 showcased architect Charles William (C.W.) Dickey’s proposed design for the Waikiki Theatre. Two months later, on December 22, the Honolulu Advertiser published the first aerial drawing of the theater and grounds. It was spectacular, and you can imagine this must have been a proud moment for many in Waikiki.
In July 1935, after a number of modifications, C.W. Dickey announced his plans were finished and ready to be submitted to the president and general manager of the theater, Esmond I. Parker. The estimated cost of the theater was $150,000 (which is approximately $3M today). The only significant change from the initial master plan was the elimination of a radio broadcast station. Interestingly, in August 1935, Consolidated purchased an 85 percent share in the Honolulu Broadcasting Company, owners of the KGMB station. They were wisely speculating that television had a glittering future ahead.
In November 1935, Honolulu contractor E. E. Black was awarded the construction contract for the theater. Black’s bid was $115,000 ($2.1M) and did not include air conditioning. The climate control system would be handled by W. A. Ramsay, Ltd., who would install a Carrier system.
In December 1935, Consolidated Amusement finally broke ground on the Waikiki Theatre. It would become Honolulu’s most recognizable landmark and one of the most iconic motion picture theaters in history.
And within its distinctive walls, hiding just inside the entrance doors, was something truly unique.
Waikiki Beach Building Boom
By late February 1936, the outer walls of the theater were well underway and its iconic shape started to appear for all to see.[v]
Later that month, Union Oil Company requested an additional 30 square feet in the business district adjacent to the theater. The request was approved without contest the following month. Consolidated began construction of the parking lot immediately. It was the Start of a Waikiki Beach building boom.
Within a short time, many new residences and apartment buildings were under construction. The May 18, 1936 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser ran an article entitled Waikiki Beach Area Notes Building Boom. In addition to the theater, it mentioned 15 different structures under construction or nearing completion in the area. These included two-story stucco apartments at Royal Hawaiian and Kuhio Streets and two apartment complexes on Aloha Drive. But as with almost every construction project, there were a few unanticipated challenges. One would have been especially costly.
The Electric Organ Misses its Projection
The full-time organist for the Waikiki Theatre was Ed Sawtelle. He was very popular, one of the foremost organists in the country, and a graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music. Sawtelle returned to Hawaii in 1936 to take up his new position at the theater, bringing with him a new organ. Although he had a long relationship with the Robert-Morton Organ Company, Sawtelle had selected something different: the Hammond Electric Model A. Heralded as the latest in organ technology, Sawtelle had provided design input and oversaw the production of this new Organ at the Hammond factory in Chicago.
The August 20 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin featured a lengthy article on the new Organ. In a piece titled Organ Praised by Sawtelle, the organist goes into detail about the Hammond Model A and its many benefits, asserting “it is a far superior instrument of its kind… and the volume can be increased from a barely audible murmur to a might roar….”[vi]
Part of the Hammond’s appeal was probably the price. A Hammond Model A cost under $3,000, whereas a pipe organ could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $75,000 at the time. But, unfortunately, the Hammond did not last long in the theater.
Sawtelle and the theater audience soon realized although the new Model A was the latest in electronic organ technology, it could not project sound far enough for such a large theater.
Although Hammond claimed their new “Model A” electric Organ could produce the same timbre as a pipe organ, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and customers begged to differ. In 1936, these claims would ultimately result in a cease-and-desist order from the FTC. The FTC admitted the Organ was a fine and beautiful instrument. However, it was unable to live up to its claims of performing as well as a pipe organ.[vii]
A Robert-Morton pipe organ was removed from the Hawaii Theatre and retrofitted into the Waikiki Theatre to resolve the problem. Its chambers were hidden behind the large plaster palm trees. Nothing was reported on what must have been a significant unplanned expense for the theater.
If there was any embarrassment, it quickly faded as Sawtelle and the Robert-Morton pipe-organ became a feature, with daily performances and weekly radio broadcasts. You can still find recordings of them today.
Fountain of Stars
On June 19, 1936, another attraction for the theater was announced. The “Fountain of the Stars” in the forecourt would display, cast in brass, the signatures of more than 200 stars from Hollywood. The signatures were sent to Hawaii and then cast in brass there. It was destined to be a big attraction as many were from stars who typically did not show their signatures publicly.
Emergence and Frescoes
“Like a beautiful butterfly emerging from the chrysalis…” declared the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in July 1936 as the new theater’s final pieces were put into place. Described as being designed in Tropical Moderne style, nothing like it had been seen before.[viii]
Some aspects were provoking complaints from local citizens. For example, in Letters from Readers in the July 25edition of the Star-Bulletin, Mrs. Archibald Baird writes: “Sir: Can nothing be done to prevent the glaring signs being placed on our lovely new Waikiki theater? …Neon lights…in such a manner…is tragic…” 7
For the most part, the theater thrilled those who put their eyes upon it. A giant gold mirror was placed in the foyer. It reflected murals by Emerson Andelin. These murals depicted the advancement of Hawaiian life from ancient transportation in canoes to the luxurious clipper planes used by affluent tourists from the mainland. There is a line drawing of this image on page 96 of Lowell Angell’s book Theatres of Hawaii.
Emerson Andelin was born in Utah, one of seven children who all became artists. His daughter Pamela carried on the artistic gene, becoming a painter as well. Andelin studied art in California and went to Honolulu in the late 1920s. Consolidated Amusement used him to decorate many of their theaters. He also served on the board of the Honolulu Art Academy. He later moved to Hollywood and was an artist on films such as Tora Tora Tora and Devil at 4 O’Clock. After he retired, he returned to the islands where he died in an automobile accident on Haleakala Highway in March 1979, at the age of 76. Although not a first and remaining in place for another 30 years, Andelin’s murals were also not preserved.
Marguerite Louis Blasingame, one of Hawaii’s leading artists at the time, was commissioned by C. W. Dickey to paint two large frescoes in the theater lobby. Blasingame was born in Hawaii to Portuguese emigrant parents. In 1928 she graduated from the University of Hawaii, having studied language arts and theater. Blasingame then went on to the California School of Fine Arts (San Francisco Art Institute) and ultimately received her master’s in graphic arts from Stanford University in 1932. She married fellow artist Frank Blasingame in 1929.
C. W. Dickey possibly became aware of Marguerite and her work during a series of lectures on architecture at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1935. By this time, Marguerite and her husband Frank Blasingame had created several carvings on the island, including the four blue-stone panels on the Kawananakoa School fountain, a teakwood screen in the C. Brewer building, and the incredible carvings still gracing the Church of the Crossroads. The frescoes were to be interpretive expressions of ancient Hawaiian life.
The press described them as, “Daring in theme, these murals are unlike any ever painted with a Hawaiian motif.”[ix] They were considered the first “true” frescoes ever painted in Hawaii. They are frescoes instead of murals because they were painted directly onto the wall while the plaster was still wet, rather than a dry or easily movable object or surface. These frescoes would have more eyes on them in 43 years than most museum pieces have in a lifetime.
They depicted scenes of hula dancers, perhaps at a luau or other celebration. Using rhythm and repetition, Blasingame created a balanced and lively composition that was sure to engage theatergoers as they entered the lobby. The figures were clearly defined with simple lines and flat colors. While the murals depicted a festive occasion, the figures’ expressions conveyed seriousness and intense focus. The dancers formed precise, diagonal lines as they performed their synchronized movements, while musicians playing the ukulele and other revelers rounded out the foreground and background. Filled with harmonious and energetic movement, the frescoes helped set the mood for the evening as the audience entered the theater.
A Glistening Jewel
The 1,300-seat theatre had a single screen flanked by coconut palm trees with an artificial rainbow curving over the top. The auditorium had a curved midnight blue plaster “sky” on which moving stars were projected.
The grand opening took place on August 20, 1936. The program was Edwin Sawtelle presenting Hawaiian melodies, a Mickey Mouse cartoon ( Mickey’s Grand Opera), Paramount News, and then the main feature, a romantic adventure film, Under Two Flags.
The local press seemed to like it. “The new theater is like a glistening jewel set in soft green velvet,” begins an article in the Honolulu Advertiser. The foyer has “… murals depicting the growth of Hawaii as the islands kept pace with the progress of the world, from ancient times to the present….”
It describes the auditorium as “a revelation in theatrical architecture” and continues in a similar vein: “The ceiling done in soft blue becomes a replica of the heavens through special lighting effects… through this lighting the great rainbow that spans the proscenium becomes a soft, misty, fairy arch rivalling in great loveliness the great rainbows that arch (sic) Hawaii’s skies.”[x]
“The usherettes were beautiful island girls in white slacks and blouses with blazing red sashes over their left shoulders and around their slender waists,” recalled Star-Bulletin columnist Ben Wood. “Flowers over their right ears and leis rounded out the outfits,” he wrote.[xi]
The Hedlund Fresco Restoration
Marguerite Blasingame died at the tragically young age of 41 in 1947. Still, her frescoes continued to be appreciated in Hawaii, at least for a while.
In 1959, artist Roy James Hedlund, an art major at the University of Hawaii, was commissioned to restore her frescoes. As a young teenager, Hedlund had sell-out exhibitions of his work at Tokeo Gima’s gallery. He had grown up around some of Hawaii’s greatest artists, including Jean Charlot, Juliette May Fraser, and Madge Tennant. Hedlund had admired the Blasingame frescoes for many years and was ecstatic about the opportunity to restore them.
Hedlund spent two weeks on the restoration while Juliette May Fraser oversaw the work. He was allowed to work for two hours each day, starting at 5:00 am. He began by using several applications of soap and water to remove years of dirt and grime from the paint, then let it dry overnight.
Fraser gave him tips, recalling how Marguerite had originally painted the frescoes. She advised him to use long-haired sable brushes and watered-down oil paints. He first tested paint colors on stiff white paper. Once dry, he held the paper up to the relevant area of the fresco to make sure the colors matched. Only then would he apply the paint directly to the fresco itself.
Hedlund recalled being paid very little for the restoration, somewhere around $20 for the entire project. However, he didn’t complain because he considered it a labor of love.
Unfortunately, his own work was to suffer the same fate as the frescoes he so lovingly restored. An ugly divorce led to the destruction of photos of his paintings and many of the original artworks themselves. As a result, very few Hedlund originals, if any, survive today.
Frescoes Come Tumbling Down
Thousands of tourists and Hawaiian locals enjoyed the Waikiki Theatre. On a Hawaiian blog about the old theaters, one said, “I distinctly remember seeing Close Encounters Of The Third Kind there and during one of the scenes the palm trees on the upper left side of the theater started to shake. There was a lot of commotion when the ushers discovered someone was hiding up there adding his own special effects. Remember the stars on the ceiling? Or the organist that used to play before the show? They just don’t make theaters like that anymore!”
Forty-three years after it opened to such great excitement and acclaim, the Waikiki Theatre’s days were numbered. On February 17, 1979, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran the following story:
“The Waikiki Theater now known less grandly as the Waikiki Theater III will be demolished and replaced by four smaller theatres and a shopping complex if its owner, Consolidated Amusement Company has its way. The city Department of Land Utilisation has confirmed that Consolidated plans a development that would add four more movie theatres — a total of six — not far from the corner of Kalakaua and Seaside Avenues.
But the plan is certain to be protested although the structure, which was designed by the world-famous Hawaii and California architect CW Dickey, is not yet on any register of historic buildings.”
The Historic Hawaii Foundation tried to save the theatre and prevent the impending renovation. Although just seven years short of qualifying for the national historic register, the foundation argued the theatre should be made an exception. However, in a 6–2 decision, the state Historic Places Review Board voted with extreme improvidence not to place the building on the register.
Charles R. Sutton, architect and one of the minority board members in the vote, commented, “It has been a significant landmark, a recognizable one, and should have been on the register,” continuing “…I think Waikiki is made more interesting by retaining landmarks.”[xiii]
Board chairman Peter Nelligan commented, “I think while most or all of the board members appreciate Waikiki Theatre for its architectural qualities, there is some doubt over whether they could be called exceptionally significant.”[xiv]
No mention was made of the exceptionally significant frescoes, painted by Marguerite Blasingame, which were now just hours from destruction. They were not thought important enough to try and save; they felt a larger concession area was more important.
Michael Horikawa, currently one of the most prominent collectors of Hawaiiana, was among those that attempted to save Hawaii’s first frescoes. Horikawa was a commercial photographer at the time, and one of his clients was Consolidate Amusement.
As soon as Horikawa heard the frescoes were destined for demolition, he phoned Consolidated’s President, informing him he was willing to foot the bill and save the murals. However, he was told there wasn’t enough time before the demolition was due to start. More importantly, liability insurance would not allow for it.
If only they had been treated with as much respect as the mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park. It was created for the Hotel del Prado in 1947. When the hotel was severely damaged in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake, it was scheduled for demolition. But the authorities recognized the importance of what was painted on its walls. Rivera’s fresco was, miraculously, undamaged by the earthquake.
In a Herculean effort and at great expense, they moved the 77,000-pound work to a safer location. Not only that, but the Mexican government also built a museum around it to preserve it. That’s what happens when you respect your artists and history.
What was left of the once magnificent art deco Waikiki Theatre underwent total destruction in April 2005. There was little reason to fight for its survival again; the theater had already lost its soul. Today, an outdoor strip mall is in its place, along with photographs of the Waikiki Theatre in a stairwell. The photos fail to show the once great art and Hawaii’s first frescoes inside.
[i] “New Theater is Planned at Waikiki Beach,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 3, 1933, 1.
[ii] Lowell Angell, Theaters of Hawaii (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011), 89.
[iii] “Movie Houses Carry War to U.S. Officials,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 3, 1934, 3.
[iv] “Court Orders Block Midget Theater Plan,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1934, 8.
[v] “Theater Nears Completion,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 22, 1936, 10.
[vi] “Edwin Sawtelle Music Director At the Waikiki,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 20 1936, 12.
[vii] “Hammond is Ordered to ‘Cease and Desist’,” The Diapason, August 20 1936, 12.
[viii] “Hawaii’s Waikiki Theatre Demolished,” CinemaTreasures.com, April 27, 2005.
[ix] “Spirit of Islands Captured in New Theater’s Design,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 20 1936, 29.
[xi] “Original Waikiki Theatre to Come Tumbling Down,” Star-Bulletin, November 18, 2003, http://archives.starbulletin.com/2003/11/18/business/story3.html.
[xii] “Do You Remember… Theaters,” https://www.midlifecrisishawaii.com/2010/08/23/do-you-remember-theaters/, August 23, 2010.
[xiii] “Waikiki Theater’s Final Curtain Is Drawing Near,” Star-Bulletin, July 20, 1979, 2.
[xiv] “Waikiki Theater’s Final Curtain Is Drawing Near,” Star-Bulletin, July 20 1979, 2.
Originally published at http://brianloudenslager.com on July 18, 2021.