For faithful film buffs, a movie theater is like an old friend, a place with lingering memories that go beyond a night of cinematic escape and popcorn consumption. Despite the always rising popularity of home entertainment and the increase of streaming options, movie theaters remain a place to experience pop and world culture with an audience of film lovers, a weekend destination for a first or 3,000th date and in a theater that offers nostalgia for the films, our friends and the good times they gave us.
Maui just recently lost two of its oldest movie theaters, the Kukui Mall Theatres in Kihei and the Front Street Theater in Lahaina, reliable film destinations since the 1990s whose loss is felt for its longtime patrons. The closing of these two standbys in the same season is a shocker, especially since both were approaching two decades of operation.
I was there when both of these theaters opened and, like any longtime Maui movie buff, have a flood of great memories attached to both of these wonderful movie houses.
The Kukui Mall Theatres was the first movie multiplex on Maui’s Southside (the first ever multi-screen movie theater on Maui is Lahaina’s Wharf Cinema, which opened in 1989). Among its opening roster in 1992 was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Few Good Men and the forgotten Eddie Murphy vehicle The Distinguished Gentlemen, which was the first movie I ever saw there.
The following year, I stood in line for two hours in front of the Kukui theater so I could attend a free, packed screening of Robert Altman’s three hour epic, Short Cuts. I also took my mom with me to their opening night screening of Jurassic Park, which caused her to nearly crush my arm from the fright it gave her.
The Front Street Theater had a memorable opening night in the fall of 1994: I was there with a cluster of high school buddies and attended a showing of the Kevin Costner drama, The War. In the middle of the showing, the sound cut out for five minutes and, to tell you the truth, I’m still not sure the ending made total sense to me, due to the temporary sound loss. But it was the night my buddy Shea introduced me to Mochi Crunch, which is now my movie theater snack of choice.
Front Street and Kukui Mall often had screenings of alternative fare and art films that, prior to the First Light film fest, rarely played on Maui. I remember seeing Woody Allen films and the locally made Picture Bride in those theaters, which catered to art movie lovers as often as they entertained summer movie audiences.
Now, with only four theaters remaining, the choices seem smaller, particularly for Kihei audiences, who have the Maui Film Festival in June but now have to travel to Lahaina or Kahului to see first-run attractions.
I spoke with the manager of another Maui movie theater, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s always sad when a theater closes,” said the manager. “It’s sad for a community when a theater closes down, especially in places like Kihei and Lahaina, where it’s not readily accessible to get to a theater. The nice thing is, we’ll have more guests in Kahului. I didn’t see any of this coming at all. This was a surprise for both theaters, for sure.”
When I asked what the recent closings will mean for Maui’s filmgoers, he was generally optimistic. “I think it means there is now a greater opportunity for locals to go to a theater that is catered to them, which is a plus for anybody,” he said. “The opportunity for people in Kihei to experience a bigger theater, a different theater, is always nice. I will say the opportunity for more Maui residents to experience a top quality theater like, for example, the Maui Mall Megaplex, will be beneficial for filmgoers. For those that don’t travel beyond Kihei or Lahaina, it will be nice for them to come see what a theater in Kahului is like.”
The regional manager of Consolidated Theaters (the company that oversaw the Kukui Mall and Front Street theaters) never returned my calls requesting a comment.
Richard Crawford offered a unique perspective. He was co-manager of the Holiday Theatres (a movie house formerly in the Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center) for 20 years and also managed the Maui Theatre (which closed in 1996), both formerly in Kahului. At one point, these two were Maui’s only movie theaters.
“With the island having limited access to entertainment, aside from the beach, Mai Tais and so on, it’s something Maui residents needed and it’s unfortunate that they closed them,” Crawford said. “It’s something that is a part of our culture. Whether it’s on our island or Massachusetts, it’s unfortunate.”
What about the fierce competition theaters have been facing with Netflix and at-home streaming options? Still, Crawford wasn’t concerned.
“Film is a form of entertainment that people enjoy,” he said. “It’s an entertainment that will be around for my children’s children children. A form of entertainment that Hawaiians enjoy. Entertainment is a part of the culture. Though it’s pricey, it will be around a long time.”
Crawford has a point. Film has proven so durable that even threats during the early years of cinema, particularly television, haven’t taken away the lure of the social experience of going out to the movies.
Maui currently has four movie theaters remaining. The oldest, the Wharf Cinemas in Lahaina, has three screens, is going on 23 years and remains a durable class act. Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center’s 18-year old theater (where, in full disclosure, I used to work as an usher) has six screens and is ideally located in one of the island’s finest shopping centers. So is the Maui Mall Theater, which has more screens than a spider has legs and offers the latest in digital projection.
What’s more, Oahu is no longer the only Hawaiian island that gets all the good art movies, Oscar contenders and movies not starring Vin Diesel. The First Light Film Festival, taking place right now at the Castle/Maui Arts and Cultural Center, gives Maui audiences a look at the biggest movies of the season, many of which are weeks, even months, away from their nationwide release.
Then there’s the Maui Film Festival, which annually offers an eclectic mix of art films, studio fare, local discoveries and unbeatable outdoor seating for many of the selections. It’s unfortunate that we’re two theaters short, but Maui still has a cluster of great theaters and the variety of movie choices is broader than it once was.
Still, both the Kukui Mall and the Front Street theaters will be missed. They were long appreciated island mainstays that were host to countless patrons and thousands of movies.
I always enjoyed strolling down to the end of the Front Street boardwalk to see what was playing at the Theater and can’t imagine the curving stretch in front of the Kukui Mall Theater not being a gallery of movie posters. And I’m grateful for the workers who faithfully staffed both theaters over the years and gave me and so many of the island’s film fans many a night to remember.
Despite the loss of two longstanding Maui movie houses, locals, tourists and everyone else should be encouraged that going to the movies is still one of the best sources of entertainment and a communal experience like no other. Maui has some of the best theaters in Hawaii. The ushers are standing by, ready to tear your ticket and hand you your box of Mochi Crunch.