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Honokaa landmark faces challenging times


There’s a line in the 1939 classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

But Tawn Keeney is determined that the Honokaa People’s Theater will not follow so many others of its kind into the twilight.

Keeney has kept this cornerstone of the town alive over the past several decades even as movie theaters have vanished from the American landscape — on the idea that the facility offers something irreplaceable, regardless of technology’s relentless march. As the owner of the aging building, he’s shouldered the labor of plumbing, painting and other renovations and upgrades, and given intravenous support through his income as a physician.

But time has caught up with the theater.

In order to continue showing the new releases that Honokaa residents have become accustomed to, Keeney must buy a digital projector. Other theaters around the country have had to make similar technology investments as Hollywood phases out 35 mm movie rolls. It’s a $60,000 cost, and the theater still needs to raise another $30,000 toward that goal.

Lacking the new technology, the venue was unable to show the recent “Transformers” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” movies, said Phaethon Keeney, who manages the theater.

“Some studios are already fully digital and the others are telling us we have only a few months to convert,” she said.

Without the new technology, the Honokaa People’s Theater will go dark, Tawn Keeney said. He could dip into his own savings for the projector, but he needs that money for termite treatment, gutters and other upgrades to the facility.

Never mind that you can watch a movie on your smartphone or stream the latest offering from Hollywood through a giant plasma TV in the living room. Since 1930, the theater has been a cultural center and gathering place where people can experience community in a way they’ll never get from a phone screen.

With 525 seats and a 50-foot screen, the venue has hosted high school band performances, a hula halau, candidate forums, fashion shows and a long lineup of touring bands, musicians and dance performers. In 2008, the theater, a former projectionist and the numerous community members who are involved with the facility became the subjects of the film “Honokaa Boy,” which has been showing at the theater in the afternoons this month.

Honokaa has noticeably distinct communities dating back to the different groups and nationalities of people who came to work the cane fields in the plantation days, said Dave Pettus, co-founder of the Hamakua Music Festival. At the theater, those distinctions melt away.

“It’s where everyone mixes and talks and gets acquainted,” said Pettus.

Without free use of the theater, the Hamakua Music Festival probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, Pettus said.

Gary Washburn, a Grammy Award-winning musician and music director at Honokaa High and Intermediate School, used to hold concerts at a drive-in, the school cafeteria or the armory. The set-up was tricky and lacked the feel of a real concert venue. Since the ’90s, though, as Washburn worked to raise the profile of the school’s jazz band, students and even some of his alumni have been holding concerts and practices at the theater. The owner simply asked him to pay what he could.

“It would take a big bite out of my program to not be able to use the facility,” Washburn said.

Decades ago, as a practicing doctor, Keeney would eye the old theater and dream of buying the place and saving it, Washburn remembered.

“He never asked for much from the community, ever,” Pettus said. “He always spent his own money to fix the leaks in the roof. He wanted the theater to be a place that served the community.”

“I’m glad he’s reaching out, because he’s up against a big one.”

Keeney, who retired from medicine recently, said he’s mulled the option of creating a nonprofit organization to help boost the theater. He’s held back from that in the past because movie companies won’t distribute first-run films to nonprofit entities, which end up having to wait three months, he said. Keeney believes the theater should continue to offer newly released movies on a competitive timeline.

Creating a nonprofit arm of the business and infusing the theater with new energy and effort is a vital next step, but outreach is a new thing for the family, Phaethon Keeney said.

“We never reached out further than my family,” she said. “My dad roped me in, and I roped my sister in. We’re not business people; we’re not really good at this. We just do what we can.”

The Keeneys opened a coffee shop on the premises last year hoping the revenue would help balance out the cost of an operation that has never broken even, partly because the beautiful old building, like many old buildings, is needy.

“We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re pretty close,” Tawn Keeney said. “It’s a marvelous structure. I really think it’s going to make it.”

To make a tax-deductible donation, call Tawn Keeney at 937-7674, or visit honokaapeople.com.