Memories of a few of my most formative milestones begin with a theme song: Boom…PAP…Boom, PAP-PAP! Onscreen, an outrigger canoe cuts through the waters at twilight. With torches ablaze, men in malo and women adorned with maile dance a dramatic hula, conch shell horns blowing and a primordial drum beat pounding all the while.
There was a time in Kailua when there were five different movie theaters. One in ‘Aikahi, one in Kailua Town, one in Enchanted Lakes, and one in Keolu, plus an old drive-in off Dump Road. For a town of 30,000, that’s certainly unsustainable—but also amazing. When I was 8 years old, I rode my bike over to the Kailua Cinemas (the one by Holiday Mart, turned Daiei, turned Don Quijote, soon to be Target) with a friend, and we watched Edward Scissorhands. About halfway through the film, something unsettling bubbled deep in my gut and clutched at my throat. It was empathy, and it was the first time I felt like crying because of the way a film made me feel.
A couple years later, my dad took me to see The Endless Summer 2—30 years after his father took him to see the first one—at the Aikahi Twin Theatres by the Marine Corps base in Kāne‘ohe. In a theater full of buzzing, hollering surfers hooting at exotic dream-waves like Cloudbreak and Witch’s Rock, I experienced a profound milestone that sparked a subsequent lifetime of traveling. And I had a special father-son moment, too, of course.
There was a theater right on Kalakaua Avenue, the Waikiki 2 or something, where I saw Dances With Wolves and the sex scene made me feel awkward and confused. What were they doing? Not long after that, I saw Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. By age 12, my parents had shown me the tricks of the trade: how to properly sneak Red Vines in beneath your belt or Reese’s Pieces in your pockets, how to hide and cradle soft drinks in a sweatshirt just right so they wouldn’t spill as the doorman tore your ticket. There is something equally as sacred in teaching a child to disobey the rules as there is in teaching him to follow them. There was a certain growth in learning how to beat the system.
By freshman year of college, although Ward 16 and its stadium seating was snuffing out the old boys, Restaurant Row 9 had become a full-blown independent art house. I saw City of God there and swore that I’d fight for social justice. Restaurant Row was a place that could breed a raw, unadulterated idealism. You saw a movie there and suddenly wanted to change the world or write your masterpiece.
And then there was the Varsity Twin Cinema. Ohhh, the Varsity! As filthy as its squeaky, gum-ridden seats were, the treasures it screened were wondrous. Documentaries, foreign films, indie flicks, brilliant shorts, quantum physics—the Varsity felt like Paris in the ’30s. But the Varsity finally closed in 2007 and gave its stash to the Kahala 8. Many more went the way of the short-lived “dollar theater.”
What’s the point? The point is that all these theaters are dead, and more are dying. Listen, I know it’s hard; heck, I’m going less, myself. Netflix, right? But these theaters that we’ve loved and lost once raised us. In them, we were captivated; we cried; we laughed till we pissed ourselves. We kissed our first crushes, and even walked out now and then (sorry, Tyler Perry). There is something to be said about a temple like that, a place as personal as your bedroom, where you can share an experience with 100 people, or just two. A place where we choose to leave a bright Hawai‘i day to sit in darkness. A place where our hearts race briefly in anticipation at the sound of that opening song. Where an ancient drum beats and men and women dance hula by firelight, ushering in our perfect and unwavering attention.