A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the Hawaiian landscape. A shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
Starting in the 1850s, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. There were three big waves of workforce immigration: Chinese 1852; Japanese 1885 and Filipinos 1905.
Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred: Portuguese 1877; Norwegians 1880; Germans 1881; Puerto Ricans 1900; Koreans 1902 and Spanish 1907.
Plantation labor contracts were usually of three to five year lengths, after which the laborer could return to the homeland, continue to work for the plantations (much desired by the plantation management,) or remain in Hawaiʻi and look for improved employment opportunities off the plantation (least desired by plantation management.)
Individuals found in the towns by 1900 were generally of four employment backgrounds: a small merchant class, skilled works (such as carpenters, blacksmiths, livery personnel) who had performed these functions on the plantations, those with previous homeland farming experience and unskilled laborers.
At Honokaʻa, the original village had developed along a portion of the coastal Government Road above the Haina sugar mill, near the fork between the Waimea and Kukuihaele Roads, and close to the Rickard residence (plantation manager’s house.)
By 1914, the town had a significant Japanese retail contingent, mostly on the Waipiʻo side of town. The increase in population, ingress into town, combined with the advent of Prohibition in 1920, set the stage for new forms of recreation.
Previously, entertainment in the town had been geared toward single men, drummers (traveling salesmen) and plantation workers in the form of the Hotel Honokaʻa Club, other ethnic clubs, bars, and pool and billiard halls.
Family entertainment consisted of shibai and bon dances at the local Hongwanji Buddhist temple, as well as movies screened in open-air venues by traveling “movie men.” The word shibai was introduced into the common local vocabulary of Hawaiʻi by way of Japanese immigrants and literally translates as “a play” or “a dramatic performance.”
The initial venues consisted of live entertainment rather than films. Live entertainment consisted of troupes of acrobats, kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama), shibai, singing and storytelling.
The late 1920s through the 1930s marked a period of growth in the construction of indoor theater venues. Between the 1840s and 1970, over 400 theaters were constructed in the Hawaiian Islands.
Literally every town on Hawaiʻi Island, large and small, had at least one theater. They were built primarily by Japanese and Euro-American entrepreneurs, and others financed by the plantations. The first documented theater was erected at Pāhoa in Puna in 1917.
The first Honokaʻa Theatre (now known as the “Old Tanimoto Theater”) opened in 1921 on the mauka side of Government Road (Māmane Street). This theater was operated by Manki Harunaga and his partner J. Fujino in a warehouse-like structure.
Hatsuzo Tanimoto was born about 1864 in Japan and immigrated to Honomū, Hawaiʻi in 1887. He and his wife, Momi Yamamoto, arrived in the Islands on the SS Belgic in 1891.
The family then resided in Honomū, where Hatsuzo was the “proprietor” of a department store. Hatsuzo spoke English though Momi did not. The Tanimoto’s had 8 children; two daughters and six sons. In birth order they were Yoshio (son), Zenichi (son), Shizuno (daughter), Jitsusaburo (son), Yoshimi (son), Teruo (son), Takaichi (son), and Yoshino (daughter) (all born in Hawaiʻi.)
In 1929, Hatsuzo Tanimoto purchased the lot of the present People’s Theatre from the estate of former Hawai’i Island Royal Governor John T Bake.
In 1932 Hatsuzo Tanimoto purchased three lots, including the lot with the Honokaʻa Theatre. The $700 sale included “all machinery, equipment, furniture and fixtures…in the said Honokaʻa Theatre.” He continued the lease until 1934. Hatsuzo eventually closed this theater and leased the space to other businesses.
Tanimoto followed the fashion of the day by constructing a building specifically designed to show films as well as present live entertainment. The lot is located on the makai side of Māmane Street extending just Waipi’o side of the Bank of Hawaii lot.
In 1938, Hatsuzo Tanimoto purchased another lot on the makai side of the road, Waipi’o side of the People’s Theatre Unlike the People’s Theatre, Hatsuzo placed this property under his Hilo Theatres, Ltd., company.
This second Honokaʻa Theatre was constructed in 1939. Although it sported a neon “Honokaʻa Theatre” sign, it was best known as the “Doc Hill Theater”, named after an influential local politician who had arrived in Hawaiʻi years before as a spectacles salesmen who adopted the moniker “Doc”.
The “Doc Hill Theatre” was also informally called the “Republican Theatre,” as opposed to the People’s Theatre (which served as the “Democratic Theatre.”)
By 1939 Tanimoto had opened five theatres along the Hāmākua Coast, including Honomū, Hāmākua (at Paʻauilo) and Papaʻaloa.
Their presence was a testament to the rise of alternative entertainment during the Prohibition era, when bars, restaurants and other watering holes were forced to close or go underground.
Japanese films were shown on Mondays (average attendance 30 people), with Filipino films shown on Tuesdays (average attendance 15-20 people), and X-rated films shown on Wednesdays (average attendance 15 to 20). Thursday and the weekends were reserved for family entertainment (average attendance 50 to 60 people per night).
The 650-seat People’s Theatre is one of the largest buildings in Honokaʻa, and its only operating theater. Built in 1930 by Hatsuzo Tanimoto, its Neo-Classical Revival style architecture is typical of theaters built during the 1920s and ‘30s in Hawaii.
In 1943, William “Doc” Hill bought Hilo Theaters Ltd., with the exception of the People’s Theatre. The rest of these theaters have been either torn down, closed, or repurposed, making the People’s Theatre the only one left between Waimea and Hilo, and the largest outside Hilo.
Today, stage entertainment includes local musical groups, yoga and tai chi, the annual Hāmākua Music Festival, and a fashion show on 1st Fridays (a community street fair held the first Friday of every month).
The Tanimoto family ran the theater until 1990. Today, the theater is owned and run by retired doctor Tawn Keeney and his daughter Phaeton.
The theater lobby sports a café serving healthy breakfasts, sandwiches and sweets along with locally grown, artisanal Hāmākua coffee, and these days new-releases are shown with a modern digital projection system. Wi-Fi equipped, the lobby and café is still a meeting place for the town’s 3,000 residents and visitors to Honokaʻa. (Lots of information here is from NPS and Honokaʻa Historical Project)