In December of 1927, construction began on the new theater building in Wailuku for the Maui Amusement Company. It promised to “meet the needs of Wailuku and give it a place of amusement and entertainment which will be equal to anything furnished in other communities”. In charge of construction was Edward J Walsh. Construction of the Iao Theater cost $40,000. She was designed in the very popular Spanish-Mission Revival style of the time. According to a Maui News article, the exterior was a delicate pink color with copper green trim. Her original California Art Tile Co and Gladding McBean tiles laid in the open lobby are still there today. The interior was a restful grey-green which served as the background for orange-yellow stenciling on the walls. Vellum-shielded wall lighting, luxurious carpeting and wicker arm chairs in the loge areas added to the comfortable feel of the theater. Up at the top of the proscenium, was a red-gold shield with the name “Iao” in gold on it. The Iao Theater was built to be a moviehouse and live performance venue seating 702. Today the Iao Theater seats 413.
In her original orchestra pit was a brand new orthophonic machine built by the Victor Company especially for the Iao Theater. Her movie projector (and theater manager William Pete Ledward) came from the Hippodrome Theater right across the street.
On August 22nd, 1928, the Iao Theater opened its doors for the first time. The movie shown on opening day was “Sporting Goods” with Richard Dix. There were so many people who wanted to attend that theater manager Ledward decided to have 2 showings instead of the original 1 that was planned.
At the time, the Iao Theater was one of 7 theaters in Wailuku town. She was the last built and the only one standing to this day due to the mainly concrete construction. She is the 3rd oldest theater in the state behind big sisters the Hawaii Theater, built in 1922 on Oahu and the Hilo Palace built in 1925 on Hawaii Island. Up until the 1994 building renovations, she was also the last theater with an original working fly-rail (still in place today, but non-functional).
During World War II, the Iao Theater hosted many USO shows featuring Bob Hope, Betty Hutton, Donald O’Connor and Frank Sinatra. In 1953, the Hawaii premiere of the Oscar winning movie “From Here to Eternity” was at the Iao Theater. In attendance was Frank Sinatra and his then-wife Ava Gardner.
Sadly, the theater fell into disrepair over the late 60’s and 70’s, eventually closing in the mid-late 70’s.
NOW… what about Maui OnStage? Or as it was originally called… Maui Community Theater. The origins of Maui Community Theater began in the early 1920’s as an off-shoot drama department of the Maui Women’s Club. In 1931, 2 smaller theater companies joined together and officially became Maui Community Theater. Their 1st production as MCT was the 3-act comedy “Mr Pim Passes By” written by A.A. Milne (who eventually became famous for writing Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner).
Over the decades, MCT did shows here and there including several in Baldwin High School Auditorium in the 1960’s.
In 1972, MCT moves into the Territorial Building in the Old Kahului Fairgrounds. The 1st production there was “Auntie Mame”.
Now HERE is where Maui Community Theater and the Iao Theater finally meet up! But first….
In 1983, a young Maui man named William “Bill” Matthews decided to rent the Iao Theater. He and his girlfriend Sharon Bonner and their friends took it upon themselves to restart renovating the Iao Theater at their own expense. They reopened the theater for movies and live music concerts.
NOW… in September of 1984, Maui Community Theater was looking for a new home as they had just lost their home at the Territorial Building at the Old Kahului Fairgrounds. The Territorial Building had been MCT’s home for over 10 years until an arsonist set fire to the old wooden structure (built in 1920) and it burned to the ground in minutes. MCT lost everything – from sets and costumes to sound and lighting equipment to brand new seats not even fully paid for yet. But the most heart breaking loss were the scrapbooks containing decades of photos, articles and posters of previous productions dating back over 40 years.
MCT’s Board of Trustees worked with Maui County Mayor Hannibal Tavares and eventually Maui Community Theater moved into the Iao Theater. Two months later, we put on our first production at the Iao (which was in rehearsals at the Territorial Building) – the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, HMS Pinafore.
During that time, even with the renovations by Bill Matthews and Sharon Bonner, the physical condition of the theater was in serious decline. In 1993, Maui County purchased the Iao Theater and the one-acre site from the Lyons family trust for $882,000. Plans begin to get drawn up for a major renovation.
In 1994, Maui County embarks on a $734,000 renovation of the Iao Theater.
What began decades ago with a handful of volunteers with deep visionary roots has flourished into an important cornerstone of the cultural landscape of this island. With a mission to provide quality performing arts experiences and stewardship of a historic venue, Maui OnStage is the community’s affordable and accessible place for self-expression, exploration, and enjoyment of the arts.
And the rest as they say…is HISTORY.
In June 1994, the theater is placed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places
In February 1995, the Historic Iao Theater is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2002, Maui Community Theater takes on Maui OnStage as it’s DBA.
In 2006, the installation of new seating begins finally ending in 2013.
In 2007, Maui County supports building renovations and installs air conditioning.
In 2009, new front doors are installed.
In 2009, dressing room bathrooms are renovated with showers installed.
In 2010, MOS installs a new $30,000 sound system.
In 2011, the Iao sign was restored.
In 2012, new carpeting is installed.
In 2013, MOS starts the youth program with “The Story of Orange directed by Ricky Jones.
In 2015, the orchestra pit was restored.
In 2016, new fire doors and windows are installed.
In 2016, MOS opens the OFFstage Studio on Kolu St in Wailuku.
In 2019, the theater was tented and fumigated.
In 2021, thanks to a Hawaii Energy Relief Grant, $25,000 worth of new LED theatrical lighting installed.
…to be continued.